It’s about that time when when days off mean more time shredding the slopes — or at least trying to mitigate arse-bruising. But before you go, take a look at the thing that will carry you down the hill. That simple board has 45 years of engineering and optimisation built into it — all so we can do crazy things with piles of snow.
But before any of that — before the snowboard was its own thing with its own set of dedicated riders — it was actually a pair of skis. On a snow-covered Christmas morning in Michigan in 1965, Sherman Poppen was playing around in his garage, attempting to make something to amuse his daughters. Poppen was an engineer by trade, and he thought that by binding two Kmart skis together, he could make a toy that would allow his kids to “surf” on snow. (Little did his daughters know, they were the beta testers that would kick off an entire industry). The DIY effort was a family hit, so Poppen continued to tweak his design. His wife named it “Snurfer” (snow + surfer; crazy how that didn’t stick). He added a leash to his impromptu invention, which made it easier to steer. It also let users hold onto the board should they bail — and oh would they bail. Without anything to secure yourself to the board, there were clear limits to its manoeuvrability.
Over the next 15 years, the Poppens sold more than 750,000 Snurfers, making this off-hours project the best selling invention of the 1960s. But perhaps most importantly, the toy’s success planted the seed for others to turn this bit of fun into a serious business (and come up with a better name).
Dimitrije Milovich did just that when he dropped out of Cornell in 1972 and moved to Utah. He had taken up snowboarding two years earlier and decided to relocate to test out his own prototypes. His “snow surfboard” patent and a little shop in Salt Lake City turned into the first modern snowboard company.
His patent described a board with a pointed front bent skyward and a thick midsection — the silhouette was much like that of the board’s ocean cousin.
While Milovich brought snowboarding a lot of interest, the sport didn’t take off. Problem was, for every person that wanted to ride one, there was a handful more who didn’t want the thing on the slopes. In the 1984-1985 snow season, there were only 40 spots in the US that allowed people using the radical invention access to the mountain.
But snowboarders — and the companies dedicated to making them — persisted. By 1990, that number of ski resorts had grown tenfold.
Part of the increased acceptance happened because snowboarders got better at navigating the the snow. Where Milovich’s design was really made for tightly packed slopes, snowboards are now built to plough through powder, perform high impact tricks and offer a cushy ride along the slope.
Many of the board’s current abilities are credited to its shape. Rounded upturned ends help the board fly over bumps without catching, and a slim profile makes it easier to take down the hill. If you started snowboarding more than five years ago, you probably began by using a board with an arched middle — what’s called a camber. When a rider steps on, the arch is flattened and the structure stretches out so its entire length (save for its upturned ends) is in contact with the ground. While the contact is good for precision and speed, it requires quite a bit of energy from the rider.
Enter the rocker board. It’s a design that requires less effort from the rider. Instead of looking like a lazy M that straightens out under foot, the rocker’s contact with the snow is mostly in the middle. The board has gradually upturned edges, even when in use. It’s not quite as precise, but the shape allows the rider more ease. At the end of the day, when the course is all cut up, your calves will thank you. Paul McGinty, a senior design engineer for snowboards at Ride Snowboards says the energy gap allows riders to keep shredding 20 per cent longer.
Precision and ease are at odds in snowboard design and, naturally, engineers stepped up to try to blend the M and the U shape. Each company has their own approach, but typically the U shape takes the front, and an arched camber design takes the back. The result allows more speed and stability than a rocker but doesn’t require the energy input of a camber.
Materials matter too of course — and it’s not just about making the board lighter. “You can make something light and sacrifice performance,” says McGinty. “We can make snowboards half the weight they are now, but the materials needed to do that don’t react as well under the rider’s foot. If the material doesn’t feel natural, the riders wont like it.” Some of that is certainly psychological. Snowboarders have a history with a board that feels a certain way. But it’s also about the board’s ability to respond to the most aggressive riders. Other materials might be lighter, but they aren’t flexible enough or they don’t absorb enough of the shock.
Wood has been the standard core for a long time for that very reason. “Wood is material of choice because it has natural matrix of fibres. It takes energy in and dissipates energy smoothly,” says McGinty. The performance is something other materials can’t match.
But even wooden boards are layered with other materials, usually fibreglass for strength, explains Kelly Maggs, REI’s product manager for snowboards. “They’re made like a pannini,” she says.
Even that fibreglass has been fine-tuned. To pump up the strength and rigidity even more, fibreglass with a 3-way grid pattern is layered in, which helps the board suck up the rider’s energy faster. The result is better precision.
It’s a lot of serious engineering. And aren’t you glad you don’t have to tell people you’re going Snurfing?