One of the more difficult aspects of being Fresh Meat is trying to figure out what exactly is required in terms of gear. You need skates, but if you’re like most FM, you feel like you may as well be rolling around on spaceships. There’s a lot of information online, but it can be difficult to figure out what’s coming from a reputable source and it would be a bit of an understatement to say that opinions are both strong and divergent in the area of gear. So, to help those of us who are new sort it all out, I wrote about it.
Before we're gonna talk about boots, trucks, bearings or wheels, I really want to go over your “expensive parts”: your knees and your head. They break easy and are hard to repair! So, before anything else, get really good knee pads and a certified helmet.
KNEES: You fall on your knees all the time in roller derby, sometimes intentionally other times unexpectedly and often with a lot of force. The cheap recreational-grade kneepads used for inline skating are NOT sufficient for roller derby. Get the best, cushiest pads you can afford and learn to skate with them from the very beginning. You will greatly extend your derby career and minimize the chances of knee injury (one of the most common injuries we see, besides bruises...). Lower-end kneepads with less padding offer sufficient protection for roller derby – but ONLY sufficient protection. These pads are good for: fresh meat on a budget, refs, and very tiny girls. If you are not one of these people (and even if you are), please consider better knee pads with thick, good quality padding.
HELMETS: Next up, your head. Your helmet should fit snugly but not painfully. It should sit low on your forehead near your eyebrows and should not slip around. A good and certified helmet is not necessarily the most expensive helmet. Certified, multi-impact helmets start at €40,-. I strongly advise against buying second hand helmets. There is always the risk something already happened with that helmet even though no damage is visible. And taking risks like that with your head, I feel, is just a really bad plan.
SKATES: When it comes to buying your very first pair of skates for derby, the options can seem about as overwhelming as the price tag. You may be tempted to simply dust off those Mickey Mouse skates from years ago, or go for the cheapest skate you can find, just to see if you like it. But I warn you that very cheap skates can have parts that you cannot remove to replace, like a bolt on toe stop. It’s also far more likely that the plate will crack or the boot will pull away from the plate entirely. And these skates usually give no support or control whatsoever.
If you don’t have a lot to spend, there are some lower-end derby skates that are a good place to start. In the €140,- to €240,- range there is already quite some choice. While they only come in whole sizes, and are mostly made from cheaper, fake-leather, fit is the most important in this range. The shape of the boot needs to match the shape of your foot. A mid-level skate package will run between €250,- and €500,-. Boots will run in half sizes and the (fake-)leather will be of a higher quality. These skates will give you support, control and will last a lot longer. I consider the mid level package to be athletic gear, while the less expensive skates are more recreational in nature, while suitable for your first strides on the derby track.
When you’re trying on skates at the shop, expect that they will feel very different from your sneakers. The break-in process of a skate boot is similar to breaking in combat boots, and you can expect a little pain, beginner and mid-level boot alike. A good fitting boot will feel like an extension of your leg and they should be very snug but not painful when you’re just standing in them. You’ll know that your boot fits properly if you can stand on your toe stops without feeling any gap in your heel. You can expect vinyl boots to be more comfortable right off the bat, but be aware that any cushioning inside the boot will break down over time and give you more space in that area.
WHEELS: All beginner derby skates at TDS come with decent beginner wheels, usually a bit on the softer side. Don't worry about those wheels when you buy your first skates; you will develop a preference for a type of wheels over time. For now your beginner wheels will be fine!
PLATES: When it comes to plates on entry-level, there is not much choice. Most come with the same type of nylon plate, that is light-weight and affordable.
TOE STOPS: What you should pay attention to is the toe stops. Black toe stops leave marks and are not allowed at most venues. Buy a set of good, non-marking toe stops with your first skates so you will be ok skating any floor you encounter.
ELBOW & WRIST: Wrist guards take a lot of abuse in roller derby, they wear fast. Always look for wrist guards that have plastic inserts on the top and bottom of the hand for proper protection of the wrist joint. They need to fit snugly and comfortably. Elbow pads must fit snug too. The amount of padding they offer is secondary to fit. It is unlikely that you will fall on your elbows very often, but if you do, they need to stay in place to cushion the impact.
Both can be bought second hand or cheap, as long as they are not ill fitting.
And last, but certainly not least:
MOUTHGUARDS: There are roughly two options here. For about €6,- you can get a big rubber-like mouthguard at a regular sports store. It will be hard to talk with, drink with, or even breath with. 95% of derby players go for option two: the Sisu mouthguard. For €25,- you get the mouthguard you can put in your mouth and forget about will focusing on your training. And it comes in all colors of the unicorn.
Here is a checklist for your must-have gear: