Synthetic Ice vs True Ice: Which is Better?

In the worlds of hockey and ice skating, there is a large debate that goes on constantly. What is better for skating, true ice or synthetic ice? The two are entirely different on a chemical level, and they do provide different skating experiences. But which one is better for skating? Best for beginners? Best for pros? It’s a debate that has been around nearly as long as synthetic ice, and there is no clear and decisive winner on the subject, especially with how much synthetic ice improves. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both, and at our conclusions about which is better for what task. 

What is “True Ice”?

If you’re new to the world of ice rinks, you may be a little confused by the term “true ice” so let’s start with that. “True ice” is the phrase used in these debates to refer to the regular ice that you’re probably very familiar with. Regular, plain old, frozen water. Water has a freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celcius. What happens on a chemical level is very interesting, once liquid water reaches its freezing point the molecules have slowed down to a point that they’ve practically stopped moving, turning the liquid into a solid. Without this, ice skating would have never been possible.

That brings us to the first drawback of true ice. You need to keep a true ice skating rink very cold, lest the entire rink melt. If that happens, skating is impossible. It’s true that skating on true ice works so well because the friction from your skates melts the ice just a little bit which makes you glide along, but if the ice is too melted you won’t be able to get any grip on the ice and you’ll likely just sink in. 

Keeping a full ice rink refrigerated enough to keep the ice from melting is expensive and the systems that keep things cold can cost a lot of money to buy, have installed, and even upkeep. It requires either an outside contractor to come in or a team of people to simply maintain the rink on a day-to-day basis. 

That being said, true ice is simply better to skate on. It has a 10% higher glide factor than synthetic ice, meaning that it’s a smoother ride for any skater. That lesser amount of effort can translate into much higher performance because you’ll be tired out less quickly. True ice is also usually just water, which means that if you’re worried about skating on chemicals it won’t be a problem. 

What Exactly is Synthetic Ice?

Synthetic ice, in stark contrast to true ice, is ice that was created in a lab specifically to be skated on. It can be made from a variety of materials, but most synthetic ices use high-density polyethylene or ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. It’s not uncommon for rinks that use synthetic ices to also use some kind of lubricant 

There are a lot of very interesting things about synthetic ice that make it a tough match against true ice. While the older high-density polyethylene synthetic ice might not have as high of a glide factor, the newer ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene formula has been shown to have a 10%-15% higher glide factor than true ice.

All though it may look promising for synthetic ice at the moment, that’s, unfortunately, about to change. No matter what formula is used, synthetic ice is still harder to skate on. True ice provides a sort of effortless skating experience, but synthetic ice has a long way to go. The reason why true ice still has the edge here is because of the small amount of melting that occurs when someone is skating. That small amount of water makes your skate a lot easier and provides you with much lower resistance.

Another drawback of synthetic ice is the amount of wear and tear it causes on your blades. Synthetic ice wears down blades a lot more quickly than true ice, on average somewhere between 30 minutes and 120 minutes of skating and you can expect your brand new blades to be worn down. 

Synthetic ice rinks also have a lot of shavings on them that are brought up from use. That means that a synthetic ice rink needs a lot of cleaning in order to make sure that everything is in tip-top shape. The biggest and most glaring issue with synthetic ice is that it has to be installed, and all it takes is one person who doesn’t take their job seriously for the entire rink to be nearly unusable.

The True Value of Synthetic Ice Home Training | by Jim Loughran – PolyGlide  Ice

With all of these drawbacks, it may appear that true ice is the clear winner but synthetic ice isn’t out of the running yet. The biggest and best positive to synthetic ice is that it can be installed in places where true ice would simply melt. So, let’s say you’re somewhere like Pheonix, Arizona. True ice simply wouldn’t last in the heat of the desert, but synthetic ice would still work just fine. 

The Verdict: Is Synthetic or True Ice Better? 

When trying to find the best of anything, you need to keep a lot of factors in mind. Comparisons can take you a long way, but truly deciding which is better is kind of a tricky task. Both have their pros and cons, but which one reigns supreme? Here are the conclusions that we’ve come to after carefully examining the facts.

True ice, while a little finicky, is the best choice for competitions as well as your regular family fun day. It provides an easy skating experience and is a lot easier to learn how to skate on because it doesn’t have as much drag. It might not be as versatile as synthetic ice as far as places that it can be stored, but overall, if you just want a fun skating experience you’re going to want to find a rink that uses true ice. 

Synthetic ice does have a lot of cons, but it is great for training. Resistance training especially benefits from being performed on synthetic ice. Skating on synthetic ice gives the same kind of benefits as running with leg weights on. You might be slower than normal when you first start off, but when you get back to a true ice rink you’ll be faster than you were before. Synthetic ice is also best for home rinks and rinks in hot climates where true ice would just melt. 

As far as maintenance goes, both are neck and neck. True ice requires very cold temperatures so there’s a lot of fancy machinery that needs to be up and running at all times, while synthetic ice needs to be lubricated and cleaned if you want to keep skating on it. Both of these can get dirty, which requires extra cleaning. True ice requires a little bit more maintenance than synthetic ice simply because of the machinery needed to keep it frozen but assuming that machinery keeps working the way it needs to 90% of the time it still levels out as far as required maintenance. 

It All Depends on You

At the end of the day, we can’t tell you which is better. All we can do is provide you with some information and allow you to come to your own conclusions. Personal preference accounts for a lot in conversations like these, so it would probably be best for you to go out and skate both in a true ice rink and a synthetic ice rink so you can decide for yourself after gaining some first-hand experience. 

Fortunately, depending on what part of the world you live in, there is likely to be a skating rink that uses both types of ice. If there isn’t a rink that uses one or the other, you may need to take a trip to find a rink that does if you need to decide for yourself. No matter the rink, there’s a good chance that you’ll have a lot of fun skating around either alone or with your loved ones. 

Unless you’re a professional skater or someone that’s just trying to get into a competitive circuit, the type of ice you skate on probably doesn’t make a difference. Most people just skating for fun might notice a small difference when going from true ice to synthetic ice or vice versa, but regardless you’re still likely to have a wonderful time. 

The World of Ice Skating is an Interesting One

The culture of ice skating worldwide is incredibly interesting. If you’re someone who takes ice skating very seriously, you’re probably aware of that. Whether you prefer the elegant beauty of ice dancing or the high-energy rush of playing hockey, there’s something about skating on the ice that bonds all practitioners all over the world. Next time you’re at a skating rink, it may be worth your while to ask them about what kind of ice they use and how they keep it solid. You may learn a thing or two that you wouldn’t have otherwise.