Where Did Snowboarding Come From?

Have you ever found yourself wondering where snowboarding came from? From snurfing to the East vs. West rivalry, this article explains it all.

A snowboarder in a beige jacket makes their way down the mountain with a cloud of powder behind them
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Have you ever gotten to the top of the chair lift, strapped on your binding, and wondered “how did we get here?” There have been countless pioneers in the industry that developed the technology to help people like you and me get the most out of this thing we call snowboarding. Taking a look back at where it came from may just give us a new appreciation for where we’re at today.

Snurfing

On Christmas Day in 1965, Sherman Poppen’s Michigan home was full of rambunctious children. His pregnant wife urged him to get the kids out of the house for a while. Being the great husband and father that he was, Sherman stuck two skis together and challenged his children to “surf” his contraption down a snowy hill. On that day, the “snurfer” was born. While the invention of the Snurfer in many eyes was the world's first snowboard, the idea of slippy sliding down snow, sideways, on a wide ski can be historically traced back to long before this; and most of us can agree that it doesn't take a revolutionary mind to want to try it. While the first person to do this may not have been American, we can state with a degree of certainty that the snowboard industry, much like jazz music and superhero comic books, exploded from the United States and planted seeds that would grow all over the world.

A little girl in a red jacket pulls a sled along a snowy road

Photo by Roger Darnell

Tom Sims vs. Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter, a former stock broker, bought the Snurfer design from Sherman Poppen and started manufacturing and selling them on the East Coast. They were an instant hit.

On the other side of the country, former skateboard champion Tom Sims was living on a commune growing his own food and slippy sliding down the snow on his own inventions.

In true American fashion, an East Coast versus West Coast feud began.The name Burton quickly became synonymous with the business side of snowboarding. Burton’s riders were more interested in racing, and their uniforms tended to be tight fitting and matching. Sims' snowboarders wore whatever they wanted. They focused on freestyle riding and eventually were pioneers of the snowboard halfpipe.

In the early years, no one was interested in where snowboarding would take them in the world. They were simply interested in having fun, hanging out with their friends in the snow, and trying something new. Much like skateboarders, snowboarders realized they could manipulate their environment as if they were on a surfboard. A snowy hill became a wave to carve down while forgetting about any of life’s problems - and during snowboarding’s explosion, there were a lot of problems. The Vietnam War was raging, civil rights were being fought for hard, and young people needed an outlet to express themselves, one that wasn’t shaped by mainstream culture.

Technology and Admittance Into Resorts

As snowboarding progressed, so did the equipment. Riders were realizing that strips of inner tube for bindings and snow boots made for hiking were limiting what they could do. New inventions like and the first high-back bindings and steel edges provided better control and therefore created new possibilities for tricks, speed, and technical riding. The first board with metal edges was again inspired by surfing and the short boards that were becoming popular, which were allowing riders to make sharper turns and harder carves. Twin tips later on furthered the half pipe, allowing riders to ride switch and doubling the amount of tricks they could do.

Dimitrije Milovich's Snowboard designs were some of the first to resemble modern snowboards. His company, Winterstick, and its technological advances gave snowboarders the foothold they needed to be taken seriously at ski resorts.

It took a lot of effort to convince major ski resorts to allow snowboarding. Ski areas have traditionally been reserved for high-society folk, and snowboarders typically didn’t fit that mold. Resort operators at first claimed their insurance didn't cover snowboarders on the mountain, until Dimitrije Milovich took it upon himself to confirm this excuse for himself, and found out it was total BS.

This wasn’t the only red tape that snowboarders had to break through to get a lift ticket, but it was a big one. Believe it or not, there are still resorts that don’t allow snowboards. During the economic recession in the 1980’s, resorts became much less stingy about whose money they would accept, and with snowboarding’s growing popularity, saying no to boarders seemed more and more like a bad business decision.

Before they were allowed in resorts, riders took to the backcountry and hiked up the hills and features they wanted to ride in order to earn their turns each time. I can’t help but think this was an era of snowboarding that represented the purity of snowboarding at its finest. Convenience creates apathy, and riding a ski lift to the top of the mountain is certainly convenient. The dedication it took for those young riders to hike up the hill for every run took a lot of hard work, and it was certainly more rewarding than sitting on a chair to get to the top.

James Bond Rides a Snowboard

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t a pivotal moment in snowboard history, but I really liked the scene and it was a testament to how much attention snowboarding was getting in the media at the time. Roger Moore wasn’t my favorite 007, but Tom Sims sure does make him look cool, standing in as the stunt double.

A snowboarder makes their way down a rail

Photo by Jan Kopřiva

Jibbers

Jibbing can pretty much be described as riding on anything that isn’t snow. This may be a handrail, a tree, maybe even a parked car.

Taking a lot of inspiration from street skateboarding, jibbers looked at snowy urban environments and said, ‘Yeah, I can ride that.” Jibbing was as much a result of the counterculture attitudes of the riders as it was a natural evolutionary branch. After all, the roots of snowboarding were in skateboarding. Skateboarders were also told that they weren’t allowed to ride in parks and places of recreation set aside for everyday citizens, so they were forced to explore the fringes of society. In doing so they opened themselves to creative ways of riding that otherwise may not have ever existed. Today almost any resort features a full fledged terrain park for jibbers to explore.

Modern Era

In 1998, snowboarding was included in the Olympic Winter games for the first time. For many, calling it an "Olympic Sport" took even more away from the expressionary art that is snowboarding. A few pro riders actually boycotted the event. Others went through with it despite their reservations about the regulations that now ruled over their pastime.

Over the past decade, snowboarding has reached new heights as well as reached deep into its roots. Pro riders are going bigger than ever in halfpipe and slopestyle competitions, while average Joes and weekend warriors are exploring the backcountry and slashing powder turns in places that no one had even thought to ride before. Board shapes are even resembling older models, with swallow tails and big noses.

A snowboarder on a half pipe

Photo by Travis Colbert

Thinking Deep

Throughout this article you may have noticed that I avoided calling snowboarding a “sport” at all costs. While competitions inherently make any recreation a sport, I hold reservations about turning a pastime that is so stylistic and expressive into a game of winners and losers. In my mind, the guy who is having the most fun in the snow is the best rider on the mountain. While you may not agree with this statement, I invite you to give it some thought, it may allow you to have a little bit more fun too. After all, who doesn’t like having fun?

What did you think of this very loose interpretation of the history of snowboarding? Are there any monumental events that I didn’t cover? There undoubtedly are many. Feel free to click on my expert profile to live chat with me personally and let me know. If you're looking for free and personalized gear advice or recommendations, please feel free to reach out to any Curated Snowboard expert. As always, remember to enjoy yourself out there, try to appreciate that snowboarding is all about having fun and letting go.

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Written By
My humble roots as a rental technician at a small ski and snowbaord shop in the hollers of North Carolina in combination with my eventual migration west toward bigger mountains and more snow have shaped me into a master at gearing up any customer, no matter their ability level. I LOVE SNOW! Fortunat...

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