Snowboarding's History: From Fringe to Mainstream

Snowboard Expert Jason Robinson takes us back to the humble beginnings of snowboarding and explains the progression that made the sport what it is today!

Several generations of snowboards hanging on a wall.

Photo by Mark Mauno 

One of the most fascinating things about the inception of snowboarding is how, unlike many other extreme sports, it was born strictly out of a childish desire to have fun. And by exactly that—children. It’s no wonder that snowboarding makes me feel charged with such a youthful and playful energy.

Skiing, motocross, skydiving, and many other extreme sports initially developed as a by-product of a more utilitarian use for the equipment, and only later was the playfulness in them found. There are few practical uses for a snowboard, as it is a fairly inefficient way to travel—unless, of course, you are already on top of a snow-covered hill or mountain. But even then the snowboard is certainly not the best tool for the job if your main objective is transportation. I view the snowboard as more of a toy than a tool, and as the most fun way to experience a snow-covered mountain.

It would seem obvious that the snowboarding we think of today has drawn inspiration from skateboarding and of course surfing. However, snowboarding's true pioneers were not influenced by other board sports. It is believed that its origins can be traced hundreds of years back, and to a place halfway across the globe.

The First Snowboard

The oldest snowboard-like device is said to date back several hundred years, into the 1700s at the latest. Around a decade ago it was discovered that “Boarder Zero” was from a small village in Turkey called Petran which is in the Kaçkar Mountains—a mountain range that rises from the southern shores of the Black Sea.

The genesis story is shrouded in mystery, but as the tale goes a young boy in this village was tasked with cleaning his father’s prayer mat. Bored with the monotonous and laborious hand work required to scrub the mat clean, one day the boy decided to use his feet. So, a young boy avoids boredom while cleaning a prayer mat in the snow. Standing upright on the wooded mat, the boy began sliding on the snow, and “Petran Boarding” was born.

Although it is a dying art, there are still a few petran boarders keeping the sport and its history alive. They continue to slide down snowy hills for little more than the simple pleasure. Check out the short film “Foothills: The Unlinked Heritage of Snowboarding” by WRKSHRT to find out more and see petran boarding in action.

The Bunker and Others

Another piece of snowboarding’s roots that was largely excluded from the history books until more recently is the story of Vern Wicklund and what he called a “bunker”. In 1917, in the town of Cloquet, Minnesota, the 13-year-old Vern constructed what may have been the very first snowboard on the North American continent. Vern’s “bunker” weighed about 15 pounds and was made from a couple of slightly bent oak planks that were fastened together. For bindings, it had a leather belt-like strap to secure the back foot and a piece of wood on top for keeping the front foot from sliding. There was a rope fixed to the nose of the board and the boys would use a stick to help to maneuver and balance.

Records indicate that on November 28th, 1939, Vern, along with two of his family members (Harvey and Gunnar Burgeson) patented the technology and received US Patent Number 2,181,391. However in 1929, ten years prior to the patenting, M.J. Jack Burchett had already developed a board of his own in his seventh-grade shop class. For better traction, both of his feet were fixed to this board using a clothesline. Another difference is that Burchett also attached horse reins to the board’s nose to help with steering and braking.

Sherman Poppen, the Brunswick Corporation, and the Snurfer

Sherman Poppen holding an original Snurfer Snowboard.

Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History

The most well-known early snowboard designer, and the first recognized adult to dabble in boardmaking, was Sherman Poppen. In 1965, the welder, craftsman, and entrepreneur built his two kids a unique Christmas present by fixing two children’s skis together with a few wooden blocks, making a sort of ski board. An instant neighborhood hit, the sled-like toy allowed the user to essentially surf the snow and thus “the Snurfboard” was born. In recording the progress of his invention in a diary, Sherman Poppen is quoted saying that the “Snurfboard appeared to work effectively on hills where sled and saucers were useless.”

Still, Sherman focused on improving upon, and monetizing, his creation. Shortly after creating the snurfboard, he managed to sign a deal with bowling and billiard giant the Brunswick Corporation, and snurfing hit the market. It gained quick popularity during the late 1960s, and by 1970 this new piece of winter sports equipment had sold over one million boards across the US, Canada, and Europe.

However, it seems possible that Brunswick marketed the Snurfer poorly—at least that’s the opinion of its creator. A newspaper quotes Poppen as saying that there were Brunswick executives who would label the groundbreaking product as the “hula hoop of wintertime”, and that “the Harvard School of Business uses the Snurfer as a case study on how not to merchandise a product.” The Brunswick Corporation stopped production of the Snurfer in 1972, and the company's inability to see the potential of this new industry would open the doors for a group of teenagers to take the reins. The Snurfer exposed a lot of skaters, skiers, and surfers to snowboarding. This new generation laid the foundation of modern snowboarding and began developing more advanced and better-functioning snowboard equipment.

The Modern Snowboard

An engineering student by the name of Dimitrije Milovich was introduced to snurfing in 1970. Within a couple of years, he had dropped out of college and moved to Salt Lake City to begin testing his prototype boards. There, he started the very first snowboard company, Winterstick. The snowboarding phenomenon quite didn’t take off fast enough for Winterstick, and the original company went out of business before snowboarding really began to rise in popularity.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, three iconic snowboard brands moved to the forefront of the modern snowboard revolution. These were Burton Snowboards in Vermont, Sims Snowboards in California, and the manufacturers of GNU Snowboards, Mervin Manufacturing, which operated out of Washington State. At this point, snowboarding wasn’t typically allowed at ski resorts, which made boarding inherently a bit edgier than the more mainstream skiing. Snowboarding was fairly underground and practiced by very few people who, usually shying away from the resorts, took to either the backyard or the backcountry. These were avid boarders with a deep passion for the sport.

Mervin founders Pete Saari and Mike Olson had already started making surfboards, and Tom Sims of Sims Snowboards was making his own skateboards. Both of them made their first snowboards in a high school shop class similar to one of the earliest known to slide sideways on snow, M.J. Jack Burchett.

In the early 1980s snowboarding hadn’t quite gained acceptance, but between 1984 and 1990, snowboarding had grown from being allowed on a mere 40 ski areas to around 500 of the over 600 ski areas in the United States at the time. A quick jump to the present shows that there are only three resorts left that discriminate against snowboarders by refusing access to their “skier-only” slopes. With the exception of Alta, I’m not really interested in those places so we’re not missing much!

As snowboarding became more accepted and accessible in ski areas, its growth rapidly continued because more people discovered how much fun it was. Skiers began converting to snowboarders, then skaters and even surfers started getting on the snow. Snowboard contests, the birth of snowboard magazines and, a little later on, snowboard videos, all helped expand the spread of the sport and the culture.

Soon enough snowboarding became so popular that there was some pretty serious money coming in, and there were two major players that were going for ultimate snowboard brand supremacy—Jake Burton Carpenter and Tom Sims. Burton emerged the victor, yet their rivalry helped fuel the progression of equipment and brought a lot of attention to snowboarding. Snowboarding contests expanded to match the sport’s popularity, and companies built teams of athletes to help not only with marketing their individual brands but to continue promoting snowboarding overall.

The 90s Explosion

This is the decade where snowboarding absolutely exploded! This ultra-underground activity with a core community rooted in skateboard and surf culture became fully adopted by the 90s alternative generation the world over. It was still plenty edgy but it became easily accessible, and snowboarding became the fastest-growing winter sport.

Those fairly dull giant slalom races were out and catching air was in. Halfpipe, Slopestyle, and Big Air Contests were the new spectator events. At times it seemed that the line between “music festival” and “snowboard event” had gotten a little blurry and that a Woodstock 99’-type situation could break out at any moment.

The industry was in a frenzy and everyone wanted a piece of the rapidly growing sport. Companies from outside snowboarding came in hoping to capitalize on the hype and it was like X-Games mode had been engaged, literally. In 1994, Ride Snowboards became the first publicly-traded snowboard-exclusive stock and the stock price skyrocketed. Snowboarding then became an Olympic sport when it was included in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. The number of snowboarders worldwide was nearly doubling each year at one point and continued to grow into the mid-2000s with peak participation surpassing six million globally.

Today

The snowboard industry saw its peak sales in 2007 and since then has settled in and found its groove. The boards, the tricks, and snowboard culture have continued to evolve and attract some of the greatest people (and athletes) around.

Today the diverse options available for someone in the market for a snowboard would leave some of the early adopters with their heads spinning. Snowboards have come a long way since the early days and the gear is much more comfortable, reliable, and functional than ever before. And although once excluded from mainstream resort access, snowboarding remains inclusive. Regardless of size, age, or experience level, there is the perfect board for you and any possible terrain or snow conditions. There are also plenty of Curated resources to help you get paired with the board that is right for you.

The way snowboards are sold has changed a lot over the years too. Now you can have your own Snowboard Expert to talk with and together find the best board available for your needs.

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Written By
I've spent over thirty years on snow and a decade as a professional rider. Snowboard career highlights include standout video parts with Absinthe Films, 2016 Big Mountain Rider of the Year and two Snowboarder Mag covers. I pretty much grew up on the slopes in Whitefish, Montana and snowboarding has...

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