Where Did Snowboarding Come From? An Overview of Snowboarding's History

Published on 03/09/2023 · 10 min readHave you ever found yourself wondering where snowboarding came from? From snurfing to the East vs. West rivalry, this article explains it all.
Alex Dolan, Snowboarding Expert
By Snowboarding Expert Alex Dolan

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 the history of snowboarding and where it came from may just give us a new appreciation for where we’re at today.

For more, check out How Snowboarding Has Changed in the Last 10–15 Years: Technology, Techniques, and Culture.

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 or ski board, 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. At the start, most of these first snowboards were longer boards and directional boards, similar to a sled. The Brunswick Corporation was the first company to start commercially producing the snurfer. But now there are several styles of boards designed for rider weights, heights, and preferences. Size charts are available these days to help you find the perfect board.

Photo by Roger Darnell

Tom Sims vs. Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter, a former stockbroker, bought the Snurfer design from Sherman Poppen and started manufacturing and selling them on the East Coast (Vermont was first to be precise). 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 between these two early pioneers. 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. Nowadays, Burton snowboards and Sims Snowboards are some of the most recognizable brands on the slopes along with more recent brands like Gnu Snowboards and Jones Snowboards.

In the early years, no one was interested in where snowboarding would lead them. 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. During the 1960s through the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Vietnam War was raging, civil rights were being hard fought for, and young people needed an outlet to express themselves, one that wasn’t shaped by mainstream culture. It was easy enough to grab an old sled, attach some footholds, and get lost in the ride when surfing and skateboarding weren't viable retreats in the snowy cold.

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 and kept the equipment from being anything more than a toy. Once made entirely out of wood, materials like aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber were being used to make more modernized versions.

New inventions like 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. Having an effective edge allowed riders to make sharper turns and harder carves. Twin tips, later on, furthered the half pipe, allowing riders to ride switch and doubling the number of tricks they could do. Reverse camber and camber profiles gave freestyle riders more pop allowing them to jump bigger and higher. Wider boards with softer flex allowed riders to surf powder like they were gliding on butter. Snowboard-specific wax was created to reduce traction and increase speed (previously riders were using candle wax).

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 (At the time, snowboarders were often categorized as hooligans who smoked marijuana and drank). 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 snowboarding, like Alta, where the skiers and resort management believe snowboarders are a public safety hazard. During the economic recession in the 1980s, 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. On the flip side, there is clearly still a purity existing today. In places like New Jersey exist indoor snow slopes so riders can continue doing the thing they love even when it's summer and snow is nowhere to be found.

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.

Jibbers

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

Photo by Jan Kopřiva

Modern Era

The 1990s were another important decade of growth for the sport. 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 expressive art that is snowboarding. A few pro-riders actually boycotted the Winter Olympics. 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 delving deep into its roots. Pro riders are going bigger than ever in halfpipe, big air, and slopestyle competitions. The games in Salt Lake City, Utah, Turin, Italy, and Pyeongchang, South Korea were monumental for showing the growing popularity of the sport worldwide and highlighting the new generation of riders such as Shaun White. Later on, the Winter Olympic games in Beijing, China would cement the explosive growth of the sport with riders from Japan, Canada, and Norway taking medals as well as the International Ski Federation and the International Olympic Committee agreeing to allow snowboarders to compete in snowboard cross (again) in addition to adding parallel slalom events like the giant slalom.

Meanwhile, average Joes and weekend warriors were exploring the backcountry and slashing powder turns in places that no one had even thought to ride before. Board shapes are evolving and improving even more these days. While some boards continue resembling older models, directional snowboards with swallow tails and big noses inspired by surfers, other types of snowboards like the splitboard, directional twin, and freestyle board have come to be popular rides and look very different from their predecessors.

Riding different profiles has become a thing of the rider's personal preference. While some seek stability or float, riders looking for a snowboard shape ideal for stomping big, complicated tricks prefer true twins that allow them some versatility for style. Depending on the type of terrain a rider is looking to tackle, even factors such board lengths, board flex, and width are important to account for to improve performance. Soft flex boards for example are great for freestyle riding. Boards with rocker profiles help riders stay afloat in deep powder better especially if they are shorter with a wide waist width. Depending on your riding style, body weight, height, boot size, and anticipated snow conditions, there is a variation and board size available to you now that wasn't available just a couple of decades ago.

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 competitors; winners and losers. In my mind, the guy who is having the most fun in the snow is the best rider on the slopes. 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 snowboarding history? Are there any monumental events that I didn’t cover? There are undoubtedly many. If you're looking for free and personalized gear advice or recommendations for a new snowboard or setup, please feel free to reach out to any Curated Snowboarding Expert. Regardless of whether you have smaller feet or larger feet, prefer a shorter board to a longer board, can't decide on the right snowboard boots, or can't understand why you are having heel drag with your current ride, we will help you find whatever you need. As always, remember to enjoy yourself out there and try to appreciate that snowboarding is all about having fun, letting go, and is not just a "winter sport".

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