7 Steps for the Perfect Backyard Skating Rink

Backyard-skating-rink - quinju.com

Are backyard skating rinks a thing of the past?

With winter temperatures increasing and property sizes decreasing, the Canadian tradition of devoted dad’s spending countless long, cold hours building and maintaining the backyard skating rink is quickly disappearing. How will this impact our children? How will this impact Canada’s hockey dominance?

outdoor skating rinks - effects of mild temperatures - quinju.com

Today, few people question the reality of global warming (except Donald Trump). Research done by McGill University and Concord University shows a significant decrease in the length of the outdoor skating season over the past 50 years. According to the Institute of Physics, winter temperatures in Canada have increased by more than 2.5 degrees Celcius during that same time.

This does not mean that our Canadian winters are not cold enough to make a backyard skating rink; they are just not consistently cold enough to maintain a good ice surface. More often now, our winters consist of cold snaps intertwined with periods of mild temperatures. It is these warm periods that are so devastating to maintaining a good backyard rink.

Even the Rideau Canal in Ottawa--the world's longest outdoor skating rink--has experienced more frequent closures due to warmer than normal winter temperatures over the past decade.​

For many Canadians, the backyard skating rink was an important part of growing up. It provided a place for children to laugh and play, get exercise, develop skills, build friendships, learn to take a hit, and most importantly… dream.

Backyard hockey rinks - Canadian tradition - quinju.com

In South America and Europe, children play soccer (football); in Central American it’s baseball in a vacant lot; in American cities, many kids play hoops on an outdoor court ... but in Canada, winter has always been about hockey. Not in an arena, but on a pond or a backyard rink.

We have all seen the old films of Wayne Gretzky practicing his skating and shooting for hour after hour on the backyard rink his father made. Walter Gretzky was the father all dads wanted to be, and Wayne became the superstar that all Canadian kids dreams of becoming.

Some of our greatest hockey players have honed and perfected their skills on backyard rinks and ponds. It is why Canada tends to dominate in hockey. But, as warmer temperatures make backyard rinks harder to maintain, where will our future hockey greats play? Would Wayne Gretzky have become a superstar if he didn’t have a backyard rink to play on?

It, however, is not just our dominance in hockey that is at risk, it is also the health of our children we need to worry about.

Study after study tells us that our children are not getting enough exercise. Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic. Medical experts are constantly suggesting that children need to be encouraged to put down the electronic games and devices and go outside and play more.

backyard skating rinks - keep kids active and happy - quinju.com

But what outdoor activities can kid’s do during the winter? Snowball fights…someone could get hurt; road hockey…discouraged or banned in some communities; tobogganing…requires a hill; downhill skiing…requires a parent to drive; bumper hitching…well, no! So, what is there for kids to do…snow angels and building snowmen?

I don’t think there is any question about the importance of outdoor skating rinks to our Canadian culture and our children’s health. The question is, how do we make outdoor rinks that can survive the effects of global warming?

Below are 7 steps to building a backyard skating rink plus 2 important steps that will allow your skating rink to survive periods of milder than normal winter temperatures.

7 Steps (+2) for Building a Backyard Skating Rink:

1/ Selecting a location:

Before you start building your skating rink, you will need to determine if your yard is suitable. Start by staking out the four corners of your rink. Next, visually identify the high point of your rink. This will be spot where the ice has the least thickness. Place a stake in the ground at this point and tie a string to this stake 4″ off the ground, as you want your ice to be at least 4" thick. Use the string with a line level to determine your water depth around the entire perimeter of your rink. This information will allow you to determine the height of your boards. 

2/ Install Your Boards and Bracing:

The  boards around the perimeter of your rink can either be homemade or a purchased product specifically designed for skating rinks. Homemade boards are usually made of plywood or two-by lumber, whereas purchased products can be made from a variety of products like thermoplastic pieces.

Which option you choose depends on things like budget, availability, and water height.   The 2× lumber is thick and sturdy, but is heavy and not easily stored in the off-season. The plywood is inexpensive and easy to cut into strips, but tends last the longest.. flex more and won’t last as long. The purchased products tend to be the most expensive but also the longest lasting.

Adequately bracing your boards is critical to the success of your skating rink. The type, size and spacing of your bracing will be determined by the board material you selected, the depth of water required, and the ground (slope and material) you are placing your rink on.

Backyard skating rinks - boards and bracing - quinju.com

Adequately bracing your boards is critical to the success of your skating rink. The type, size and spacing of your bracing will be determined by the board material you selected, the depth of water required, and the ground (slope and material) you are placing your rink on.

Plan on have a brace at least every 4’ around the perimeter of your rink. More bracing should be added in areas where the water is deeper. Remember, you can not have too much bracing.

3/ Put Down Your Liner:

A skating rink is like a shallow swimming pool, so it is important that your liner does not leak. There are many liner options available to choose from, including plastic sheets, tarps and liner specifically designed for skating rinks. When selecting your liner, thicker is always safer and try to avoid dark colors as they will attract the sun and effect your ice quality.

Helpful Hints

• Ensure there are no objects (sticks, stones, pine cones, etc.) under the liner that could punch a hole in it.

• Make sure your liner is large enough. The liner should be at least 4 – 6 feet longer and wider than your ice surface, more if you are dealing with slopes.

• Don’t put your liner down until you are ready to fill it with water, which should be just prior to a forecasted cold front bringing freezing temperatures.

• Don’t staple or fasten the liner to the boards until it is filled with water. This allows it to adjust to the water pressure without tearing.

• When Spring arrives and brings an end to the skating season, drain the water and remove the liner before it kills your lawn.

4/ Don’t Forget the Lighting:

Outdoor Skate rink - lighting -quinju.com

​News flash…It gets dark early during the winter. Adding lights to your skating rink will significantly increase the amount your kids will be able to enjoy it.

​Consider how the rink will be used when planning your lighting. If the rink is primarily just for casual skating, less lighting is required. Christmas lights are popular for this application. If your rink will be used for playing hockey or practicing figure skating, more light is required. Installing spot lights in each corner would provide the light required while minimizing shadows.

5/ Add Water and Cold Temperatures:

Fill your rink with water all at once…do not try to freeze your ice in layers. Flooding a thin layer of ice, could cause the ice to float and damage your liner. Instead, add all the water and let it freeze in one shot.

6/ Clearing the Snow:

Try to keep the rink clear of snow…shovel it often. Snow acts as an insulator, causing the snow to bond to the ice if left there too long. Once the snow is bonded, you will need to flooding your rink a couple of times to restore a good skating surface. You can wait until the storm ends, but once it is over try to get the snow off quickly.

To get the best ice surface, think like a Zamboni. The Zamboni sweeps and collects the snow and then applies a thin layer of hot water. Regularly, you will clear the snow using a shovel, broom, snow blower or squeegee and then apply a thin layer of water.

Hot water works best but is not necessary, except during extremely cold temperatures. The thin layer water can be applied using a hose, however for the best ice surface, a simple homemade Zamboni works best. You can find some interest Zamboni concepts on the internet.

2 Steps to Protect Your ice during mild weather:

1/ Insulate Your Ice:

We insulate our homes to protect us from the cold. We put our beer in coolers to prevent the ice from melting in the heat. Why not insulate your outdoor skating rink to protect the ice from mild temperatures?

Insulated Concrete Blankets are used to prevent concrete from freezing while curing. They however could also be used to prevent your ice from melting during short periods of above freezing temperatures.

 Backyard skating rink - insulated concrete blankets - quinju.com

The insulated blankets come in a variety of sizes. They can be quickly rolled up making covering and uncovering your ice surface easy. The rolled-up blankets can then be used as benches for the skaters.

Covering your when not being used will make clearing snow faster, prevent the accumulated snow from damaging your ice surface, and prevent small sticks and leaves from getting frozen in the ice.

2/ To Avoid Melting, Keep Your Ice Refrigerated:

That might sound expensive however this cooling system uses geo-thermal energy which is free. The way this works is, you lay a 4” – 6” non-perforated Big ‘O’ flexible pipe around the perimeter of your rink. The one end will remain uncovered and snorkeled so air can get in but water can’t. The other end will be terminated at the edge of the ice.

As the rink is shovel, the snow will be piled up on top of the big ‘O’ pipe. During periods of above freezing temperatures, an in-line fan can be attached to the pipe. The fan will pull air through the pipe. The air will be cooled by the snow covering the pipe as it passes through. The cold air is expelled under the insulated blankets and you have a refrigerated skating rink.

The in-line fans can be purchased at most box stores and connected when needed. Placing “stands” to hold the insulated blankets up off the ice will help circulate the cool air across the entire ice surface.


Backyard Skating Rink - fire pit - neighbors - quinju.com

An outdoor skating rink is a great way to keep your kids active during the winter, while creating memories that they will treasure for their entire life. But the skating rink is also a great way to bond with neighbors who come out to join in the fun.

One way to enhance everyone’s enjoyment of the skating rink is by building an outdoor fireplace or fire pit to warm cold hands and cheeks.

That might be a good summer project but use quinju.com to start planning that project now.


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