What the best inline skates have
- Comfortable boots. The boot should fit snugly on your foot and ankle, while still allowing you to flex forward at the ankle for balance. Beginners should look for higher, more supportive ankle cuffs, while advanced skaters usually aim for shorter, more flexible ankles that allow them to take a more aggressive stance.
- Ventilated boots. The best boots -- whether hard or soft -- have ventilation channels to help keep your feet cool and comfortable on hot days or during a hard workout.
- High-quality bearings. The higher a skate's ABEC or ILQ number, the more precisely the bearings are engineered and the faster they'll run. Speed skates typically have ABEC 7 or ABEC 9 bearings; this number isn't particularly important if you're only interested in recreation or fitness skating.
- Appropriate wheels. The exact specs of your wheels will depend on your skating style. In general, larger wheels go faster and smaller wheels are more maneuverable. Typically aggressive skates have the smallest wheels, followed by general fitness skates and then speed skates, which may have wheels of 100 or 110mm.
- Easy to control. Wheels of 100mm or larger are becoming increasingly common on recreational skates, but they may get you going too quickly for a beginner to handle -- so don't be shy about sizing down for the extra control. Frame length (aka wheelbase) is another factor that can affect control. Longer wheelbases make it easier to go faster and tend to feel stable underfoot, but they're not as maneuverable as shorter wheelbases. You can get a short wheelbase in two ways: Either use four small wheels or limit yourself to three large wheels, although the latter is not terribly common.
- Secure closures. Having the closures on your skates come loose is a persistent -- and potentially dangerous -- problem with low-end skates. Whether your closures are laces, snap-down buckles or ratchet buckles, they should feel secure and strong once fastened.
Know before you go
What's your preferred braking method? General-use fitness skates come with heel brakes, but aggressive skates do not, because the brake would get in the way during tricks. A subset of recreational skates called slalom skates -- also good for dancing and tricks like jumps and spins -- are usually used without heel brakes too. If you don't have a heel brake, you'll have to learn to brake by other methods, such as the T-stop: dragging one foot behind you, perpendicular to your line of travel, to create the friction that slows you down. You can see a list of stopping methods -- and tutorials -- at SkateFAQ.com.
Which is more important to you: speed or agility? Larger wheels and a longer wheelbase provide more speed; smaller wheels and a shorter wheelbase are more agile. Some general-purpose fitness skates use midsize wheels that combine the two characteristics. Not long ago it was also popular for recreational and sometimes hockey skates to use a hi-lo setup that tried to achieve the best of both worlds, with two smaller wheels in front for greater maneuverability and two bigger wheels in back for better speed. However, hi-lo skates seem to have all but vanished from popular use.
Did you remember safety gear? Although not every skater opts to wear them, experts recommend wearing wrist guards, elbow pads, kneepads and a helmet while inline skating.
What's to come
The inline skate world has been home to plenty of short-lived trends; it's always interesting to see which advances stick and which ones quickly die out. Hi-lo wheels are an example of a trend that didn't make the cut, but another relatively recent advance -- soft and semi-soft boots -- is obviously here to stay on midrange to high-end skates. Large wheels are becoming increasingly common on recreational skates, too.
Here are two trends we're not sure will last: The first is all-terrain inline skates, with rugged inflatable tires that make for a softer, more stable ride over rough terrain. Any seasoned inline skater who's gone flying after getting a piece of gravel jammed in the wheels or who's longed to depart the pavement will appreciate the inspiration behind these skates -- and they've been around for a while -- but we're still waiting for them to catch on in the mainstream skating community.
The other interesting trend is minimalist skates that don't have a boot at all. Instead, they have a series of straps meant to secure your own everyday footwear into the skate frame, letting you skate in the shoes of your choice. Because there's no boot, these skates are relatively small to tote around, but we think they still make an awkward bundle to carry under your arm or in your hands. Where this concept really shines is with kids' skates; they let small children keep comfortable, familiar footwear as they master the basics of skating, and extend the life of the skates because they, can, to a point, grow with your kids' feet (and shoes).