How Snowboarding Works


Shaun White snowboarding
Shaun White of United States competes in the men's Halfpipe Final at Phoenix Snow Park on Feb. 14, 2018 at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. He eventually earned his third gold medal in the event. Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Though it's do­ne on powder like skiing, snowboarding owes more to skateboarding and surfing than to its partner on the slopes. That's why it's been described ­as surfing on snow. The earliest incarnation of the snowboard dates ­back to 1929, when a man named M.L. Burchett tied his feet to a plank of plywood with clothesline, held onto a horse's reigns for support and took a ride through the snow. A decade later, Chicago resident Vern Wicklund got the cr­edit for inventing the first snowboard when he patented what he described as an improved sled.­

However, snowboarding didn't really get moving until the 1960s. In 1965, Sherman Poppen, an engineer from Muskegon, Mich., invented a snow toy for his daughter, Wendy. The device consisted of two skis bolted together side by side, with a rope for steering and steel tracks to hold the rider's feet on the board. Poppen's wife dubbed the invention "Snurfer" -- a combination of "snow" and "surfer." The Snurfer was so hard to control that it was an accident waiting to happen, but Poppen was still able to sell a million over the next decade.

Despite the popularity of the Snurfer, snowboarding in the 1960s was nothing more than a hobby for skateboarders and surfers who wanted a bit of wintertime fun. But in the decades that followed, snowboarding gained popularity and started to make a bid for legitimacy.

Over the past few decades, snowboarding has grown from a fringe movement practiced by a handful of scraggly devotees in the backcountry to a legitimate sport with more than 6 million followers and a spot in the Winter Olympic Games. Ski resorts that once refused to open their trails to snowboarders now realize that the sport is big business. Snowboarders now have their own culture, language and style.

So who were the forefathers of snowboarding? And what's with the rivalry between skiers and snowboarders? Find out in the next section.

Mavericks of Snowboarding

By the 1960s, surfers and skateboarders were starting to get an itch to practice their sports year-round. Three men -- Dimitrije Milovich, Jake Burton Carpenter and Tom Sims -- would make this possible by borrowing technologies from each of their favorite sports.

Dimitrije Milovich was a surfer from the East Coast who used cafeteria trays to slide down snowy hills. In 1970, Milovich used the basic design of a surfboard to create a snowboard with a swallowtail shape (it has a "V" cut out in the back).

Tom Sims was a skateboarder who, in the 1960s, tinkered with his board during shop class at Haddonfield Middle School in New Jersey. He added bindings so that he could strap on his feet, put aluminum sheeting on the bottom and called his contraption the "Skiboard." He went on to found his own company, Sims Snowboards, in the late '70s.

Jake Burton Carpenter was a skier when he bought his first Snurfer and began modifying it. He added strips of rubber to hold his feet to the board, which gave him more freedom of movement. In 1977, he started his own company, Burton Snowboards, which helped lead to the 1979 demise of the Snurfer and the rise of the snowboard.

During the '70s, snowboard manufacturers added a few changes, like adding metal edges and narrowing the center of the board to make turning easier. A group of adventurous snowboarders in Lake Tahoe, Calif., discovered the first halfpipe -- a U-shaped structure that enabled them to catch air and perform tricks. In the 1980s and '90s, the sport began to come into its own and surged in popularity.

What gear do you need before you hit the slopes? How is a snowboard designed? Go to the next section to find out.­

Snowboarding Gear

Ekaterina Tudigescheva of Russia competes in the women's Parallel Giant Slalom portion of the FIS World Cup.
Ekaterina Tudigescheva of Russia competes in the women's Parallel Giant Slalom portion of the FIS World Cup.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

The basic and most fundamental piece of equipment to the snowboarder is, of course, the snowboard. Depending on how fancy you get, a new board can set you back anywhere from $99 for a basic model to $1,000 for professional quality. Higher-end brands are usually called the "Signature Series" because they're designed and signed by professional snowboarders.

Boards come in three basic styles. The Freeride/All Mountain Board is the most popular type of board. It's soft and maneuverable enough for beginners to handle, yet rigid enough to make quick turns. The ends are slightly turned up for doing freestyle maneuvers. The Freestyle/Technical Board is short, light and flexible. It's built for doing spins and other tricks, but it's not stable enough to make quick or tight turns. The Carving/Alpine Board is long, narrow and stiff. It's built for speed and quick turns (which makes it ideal for racing), but it isn't a good choice for beginning riders because of its lack of stability.

Snowboards are made from a wood core, surrounded by fiberglass with steel edges. The wood core forms the center of the board. The wood is laminated and cut to the correct dimensions. Steel edges are attached around the edges to help the rider turn and control his or her speed. Fiberglass is placed on the top and bottom of the wood core to keep the board stiff, but light. Resin is used to attach all the different pieces of the snowboard together. Bindings, which hold the boots on the snowboard, are secured to stainless steel inserts on top of the board.

There are several terms that help describe a snowboard:

The base is the bottom of the snowboard. There are two types of bases. Sintered bases are faster and more durable, but they're also more expensive. Extruded bases are slower. The front end of the snowboard is called the nose. The higher the nose, the greater the snowboard's speed. The depth or shallowness of the board from nose to middle is the sidecut radius. The smaller the sidecut radius, the tighter the turns.

The camber is the curve between the front tip and the tail, or rear tip, of the snowboard when it lies on a flat surface. A springy camber will help the board turn easily (which is good for freestyle moves). A flat camber may be a sign that the board is worn out. The effective edge is the metal edge that contacts the snow when the board is turning. A longer effective edge makes the board more stable, but a shorter effective edge makes for easier turns. The flex point is the point between the two bindings where the flex begins or ends. A soft flex handles bumps better, but a stiff flex enables the board to get a grip on ice. The waist width is the narrowest part of the board. People with wider feet need a wider board.

Now that you know the basics of the board, find out what tricks you can make it do.

Snowboarding Styles and Tricks

Anne-Sophie Barthet of France competes during the women's Halfpipe portion of the 2008 FIS World Cup.
Anne-Sophie Barthet of France competes during the women's Halfpipe portion of the 2008 FIS World Cup.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

There's more to snowboarding than standing on a curved piece of wood and hurtling yourself down a mountain. There are hundreds of subtle techniques and tricks that separate the novices from the pros on the slopes.

First is the way snowboarders move. Unlike skiers, who shift their weight from side to side, snowboarders shift their weight from heel to toe. The technique is more like surfing or skateboarding than skiing. When they shift their weight forward, the board goes downhill or speeds up. When they shift their weight backward, the board slows down. When they dig their heels down, the edge of the snowboard drags in the snow and stops.

Snowboarders have two different stances. In the regular stance, which is most popular, the left foot goes in front of the right. In the goofy stance, the right foot goes in front of the left.

There are also several main snowboarding styles. In freeride, the snowboarder rides down the mountain, taking advantage of the landscape's natural bumps and curves to catch air and do tricks. Freestyle focuses on tricks, such as spins, jumps, grabbing the board in mid-air, and sliding down rails. Resorts have their own sections -- called snowparks -- for freestyle devotees. Alpine is a style similar to skiing that emphasizes fast speed and hard turns. Halfpipe is a style played out in a U-shaped trench also called a halfpipe. As snowboarders ride down one side and up another, they gather enough momentum to go airborne and do tricks.

The most experienced and agile snowboarders -- the ones who have become legendary in snowboarding circles -- have gotten their reputations because of the incredible jumps, spins, grabs and flips they can do. These are just a few of the mind-bending tricks great snowboarders can pull off:

  • 360: A 360-degree spin in the air.
  • 50/50 grind: A trick done sliding down a rail.
  • 540: One-and-a-half full spins in the air.
  • Alley oop: A trick done in the halfpipe, in which the snowboarder spins 180 degrees while heading uphill.
  • Backside 720: Two full spins in the air
  • Butter: A series of full turns.
  • Grab: Holding into the edge of the board in mid-air.
  • Invert: Turning upside down in mid-air.

Many of these moves are included in snowboarding competitions. Read on to learn more about these competitions.

Snowboarding Competitions

Lindsey Jacobellis, Sandra Frei, Olivia Nobs and Tanja Frieden fly through the air in the 2008 FIS World Cup.
Lindsey Jacobellis, Sandra Frei, Olivia Nobs and Tanja Frieden fly through the air in the 2008 FIS World Cup.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

The very first competitive snowboarding event was a small contest called King of the Mountain, which was held in Leadville, Colo. back in 1981. The next year, the first National Snowboarding Championships were held at Suicide Six near Woodstock, Vt. The event was so small that the organizers had to use an upturned kitchen table as the starting gate. In 1983, snowboarders from around the world converged for the first U.S. Open Snowboarding Championship, founded by Jake Burton Carpenter.

Snowboarding got its own governing organization in 1989, when the International Snowboard Association (ISA) was founded. The ISA changed its name to the International Snowboard Federation (ISF) in 1991, and two years later, the ISF held its first World Championships. In 1994, The Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) took snowboarding under its wing and started its own World Cup Tour.

Competitive snowboarding involves several different events:

  • Alpine: The snowboarder speeds down a hill while navigating a series of gates. The racer with the fastest time wins.
  • Halfpipe: Snowboarders perform tricks on the halfpipe and are judged based on height, difficulty and other criteria.
  • Giant slalom: Two snowboarders race down a hill while navigating their way through a series of gates.
  • Boardercross: This event combines techniques from snowboarding and motorcross biking. Groups of four to six snowboard through a slalom course with various jumps and turns. The first two or three snowboarders to finish the course move on to the next round until there's one winner.
  • Slopestyle: This event is similar to the halfpipe, with the exception that the stunts are performed on obstacles in the terrain park.

There are also "big-air" competitions like ESPN's X Games and the World Extreme Snowboarding Championships, in which snowboarders perform more extreme stunts.

Next, meet some of the snowboarders who've taken gold at the world's top events.

Famous Snowboarders

This boy is catching some air in Sun Valley, Idaho.
This boy is catching some air in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Laurie and Charles/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Though snowboarding is only a few decades old, it already has its share of legends. Here are a few of the notable names who've made their mark in the sport:

Shannon Dunn -- She may be small (5'2" to be exact), but Shannon Dunn is a force to be reckoned with on the slopes. She's been snowboarding since 1979 and was the first American to win a snowboarding medal at the 1998 Olympics, where she took the bronze medal in the halfpipe competition.

Terje Haakenson -- He's been alternately called the "Michael Jordan" and "the god" of snowboarding for his unbelievable tricks. Haakenson has won countless competitions and the ultimate respect of many snowboarding fans.

Craig Kelly -- He was one of the most successful snowboarders in the world, with four World Championship and three U.S. Open championship titles under his belt, when retiring from the sport to work as a backcountry guide. In 2003, at age 36, Kelly was killed during an avalanche while guiding a heliskiing trip in British Columbia.

Leslie McKenna -- Though she started out on skis, this Brit has evolved into one of the top snowboarders in the world. She's won many world snowboarding competitions and was founder of the British Women's Snowboarding Team.

Todd Richards -- He has been riding professionally for 17 years and is known as one of the best freestyle riders around. His skills earned Richards a spot in the very first Olympic snowboarding events. Snowboarding isn't his only talent; Richards also starred in the 2001 movie, "Out Cold."

Shaun White -- His flaming red hair and airborne moves have earned Shaun White the nickname the "flying tomato." By the time White was seven, he already had his first sponsor. Since then, he's become one of the most popular snowboarders in the country. He has his own video game and clothing line, and he's even been featured (wearing his Olympic gold medal and draped in an American flag) on the cover of "Rolling Stone."

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More Great Links

Sources

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