Snowboarding for Beginners

The roots of snowboarding can be traced back to the 1920’s, but it didn’t start becoming popular until the late 1970’s thanks to people like Tom Sims, Dimitrije Milovich, Jake Burton Carpenter, and Mike Olsen. What sport do you think snowboarding is most akin to…snow skiing?…skateboarding?… water skiing?…surfing? If you said skateboarding or surfing, I would agree with you. Depending on what style of snowboarding you do it will compare very closely to skateboarding or surfing. More on that later.

As with any of these sports, learning is not difficult, some just require more patience than others. Snowboarding requires a great deal of patience the first 2 or 3 outings, but once you start to get the hang of it, mastery comes quickly. I first snowboarded in December 1998. During the 1998-1999 season I boarded a total of only 8 days and am now accomplished and confident enough to take on some of the toughest slopes in the area. However, it didn’t come without some suffering along the way.

The younger you are, the easier it will be. Most, if not all, of you will pick up the basics of turning and stopping by your 2nd outing. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the hang of it by the end of your 1st day, you’re sure to catch on by day 2. Once you do, you will want to spend as much time as possible practicing your newly acquired skills. The more you ride, the better you get.

I mentioned “suffering”. On your 1st day you will fall a lot. I said A LOT!!! Your wrists, knees and tailbone will hurt the most, not to mention your calves and thighs. Your head may even hurt, depending on whether or not you land on it, too. I’ll discuss protective measures you can take in the section entitled Accessories.

Types of Boarding

There are 3 types of snowboarding: freeride, freestyle, and freecarve. Each is distinct and unique unto itself. Freeriding is where virtually all boarders begin. It is where YOU will begin.

The term freeride means go anywhere and do anything. Freeriding compares most closely to alpine skiing. You start at the top of the slope and chose how you get to the bottom, e.g. straight and fast, slow and deliberate, etc.

Freestyle is what you see on TV a lot. It is the “extreme” style of snowboarding which is normally done in the snowboard park or halfpipe. It includes the jumps, tricks, spins, and grinds.

Freecarving is going FAST and carving HARD and includes race boarding. It uses a unique board, boot and binding system more similar to those used for snow skiing. The freecarving board is wider and has a longer nose and tail than others for powder riding. The racing board is narrower than the others. Both are rounded on one end only. The boots are hard, like ski boots, and the bindings are also similar to ski bindings. Freecarving gear is designed to do 2 things. Go really fast and hold an edge on a hard carve.


Every snowboard has a nose, the front end; a tail, the back end; and a waist, the middle section.

As you may have gathered from the previous section, each type of boarding uses a different type of board and the nose, tail and waist will vary depending on the type.

Freeride boards, the type you will be riding, are designed to ride the whole mountain, from powder to hardpack. They are the SUV of the mountain. The multi-purpose board that can go anywhere: the slopes, the moguls, the park, or the halfpipe. They are basically directional and perform better nose first, but can be ridden “fakie”, or tail first. The shovel, or tip of the nose, is turned up more than the tail and the tail is stiffer than the nose. The waist is usually thinner than other types of boards due to a deep side cut for quick turning and better control.

Freestyle boards are designed to perform best in the halfpipe or snowboard park. They can go anywhere on the mountain, but are especially suited to jumping and spinning. They are “twin tipped”, or completely symmetrical. The tip and tail have the same rise and shape, but are a little smaller than a freeride board. This facilitates quick turns and spins, on the ground and in the air. They are more flexible for improved responsiveness when performing tricks.

I already mentioned that freecarve boards are designed to go really fast and hold an edge on a hard carve. In freecarve boards only the nose has a shovel, the tail is flat and somewhat “squared” and the board is much wider than freeride and freestyle boards.

Boots & Bindings

There are several types of boot and binding “systems” and they vary slightly with the type of boarding you’ll be doing.

As discussed earlier, freecarving uses a hard plastic shelled boot, like a ski boot, and plate bindings, also like those used on skis. This system is best for more carving control and fast edge to edge response, typical of what you would expect for racing.

For freeriding and freestyling there are 3 basic systems: strap-in, step-in or a hybrid strap-in/step-in system.

The strap-in system is the most basic and has been around the longest. It used to be the most common, but more and more rentals are moving to step- in systems. The strap-in system consists of a metal or resin base plate mounted to the board; any standard snowboarding boot made of leather or other man-made boot material; and two adjustable straps, one over the toe area of your boot and the other across the bridge of your foot close to the ankle. The straps secure your boots, and the feet they contain, to the board with a ratchet mechanism. The strap-in system is the easiest to get in and out of and provides enough stiffness for freeriding and enough flexibility for freestyling.

Step-in systems were designed to improve on strap-in systems in the areas of convenience, comfort, and retention. They use various forms of latching mechanisms that integrate the boot with the binding and lock you in place. Normally the boot and binding are made by the same manufacturer to go together and there is virtually no “interchangeability” across product lines. There are no straps in a step-in system. Theoretically, the step-in systems provide a stiffer, more secure attachment to the board. Theoretically. Step- in systems are sometimes awkward to get “lined up” and may require frequent brushing away of ice and snow in order to latch in securely. Like strap-in systems, they provide enough stiffness for freeriding and enough flexibility for freestyling.

The hybrid system attempts to combine the best features of the strap-ins and step-ins. They consist of a “top plate” that straps and ratchets over the top of any standard snowboarding boot from the toes to the ankle. Once adjusted for your boot at the beginning of the day you merely slide in and out from the back of the binding. After positioning your boot under the “top plate” you snap up and lock in place the “high back” to secure you in the system. This hybrid system is relatively easy to get in and out of yet provides a nice secure attachment to the board making you feel “one with the board”.

A word about boots and socks. Snowboard boots need to fit snug, but not too tight. There shouldn’t be any pressure points or spots that pinch your feet. Like ski boots, your foot should not move in the boot and there should be no heel lift when you bend your knee and ankle forward. Your toes should not be scrunched up against each other and you need to maintain good circulation in your feet. Good circulation, not thick socks, will keep your feet warm. If you buy anything for your upcoming adventure, let your first purchase be a medium weight or lightweight pair of wool/polyester blend ski or snowboard socks. You should be able to find them for less than $15.00. If not, you may be shopping for something too heavy duty. Again, good circulation is the secret to keeping toes warm. If the socks are too thick they “bunch” at the forward bend of the ankle, on top of the foot and constrict blood flow to the toes.


Other than layered, warm, waterproof clothing, what other gear will you need?

A sturdy pair of gloves or, even better, mittens with a high gauntlet to keep the snow out. In most cases your hands will hit first and often! That being the case, a pair of wrist guards is a really smart thing to wear. Rollerblading wrist guards work fine, but you have to figure a way to be able to use them with gloves/mittens. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the outside or inside as long as they provide the desired protection. Snowboarding gloves with integral wrist guards are available, but they’re pricey. If you are going to purchase some sort of wrist guards, make sure the braces are metal, not plastic. Plastic won’t offer enough protection. The most common injury in snowboarding is a broken wrist and the most common victim of this injury is the beginner snowboarder. Sound like anyone you know?!? Nothing can prevent you from spraining or breaking your wrist, but wrist guards will improve your odds of it happening to the other guy.

Kneepads can be very helpful if available. Again, rollerblading or volleyball kneepads work. In the first several outings you will spend more time on your knees than any other part of your anatomy. Frequently these occurrences will happen just after you’ve caught a toeside edge and find yourself hurtling forward much quicker than you would like. Your knees and hands will hit first and at a high rate of speed. The consolation is that you will then have a much lower center of gravity and be much more stable.

While broken wrists are the most common injury to snowboarders, the second most common injury is a concussion. This injury, however, is shared by beginners as well as more advanced riders. A concussion is the result of your brain slamming into your skull. A mild concussion may cause dizziness, nausea, headaches and memory loss. More severe consequences could include hemorrhaging, coma or, the ever popular, death. Snow on the slopes you will ride is not soft. The soft stuff is only in TV commercials. Most of the snow we will ride is man made or hardpack, particularly in the snowboard park where it’s all ice! Hardpack is merely a whiter version of concrete. Don’t be fooled! Helmets are gaining wider and wider acceptance on the slopes for both skiers and boarders. Not too long ago any snowboarder caught wearing a helmet would be laughed all the way back to the parking lot. That is no longer the case. The up side of helmets is that they provide a measure of additional protection you wouldn’t otherwise have by going without. The downside is that snowboarding helmets are pricey and there aren’t many other commonly used helmets that provide the appropriate protection. A snowboarding helmet provides protection around the whole head, but primarily to the back of the head. Most bicycle helmets are shaped (pointed in the rear) to preclude their use as a snowboarding helmet. Certain rollerblading helmets may work. If you have something you think might work, I recommend you wear it. You only have one head. Use it. With all my falls, and I’ve had plenty, I only hit my head once. It was a backwards fall and my head snapped back and hit the hardpack dead center. It was VERY painful and I actually considered calling it quits right then and there.

Your rental board will come with a leash to attach your board to your front foot or boot. This is a safety feature required at most slopes to prevent the extremely rare runaway board from becoming a projectile on the slopes.

A word about layering. It is absolutely critical to layer smartly. Don’t over do it. You will be working hard and your body will heat up quickly. Your fingers, toes and ears will get the coldest. Keep fingers warmer by using mittens instead of gloves. It’s also easier to wear wrist guards with mittens. Keep toes warm by wearing appropriate socks, as discussed earlier. Keep ears warm by keeping them covered. If you’re not wearing a helmet, wear a hat…and be sure it’s a cool one!!

To summarize accessories, if you’re going to spend some money on equipment, spend it wisely. First purchase a decent pair of socks (less than $15). Next, get a pair of wrist guards (less than $20). If you still have some bucks decide between a decent pair of gloves or some kneepads. Finally, if you feel rich, get a helmet. It’s very unfortunate that they are so expensive. The fact is, as they become more common, the cost of helmets will become more reasonable. Helmet rentals may be available from the Ski Center, located in Washington, D.C., off of 49th and Massachusetts Ave, N.W., next to the Crate & Barrel, near American University (as their ad says in the yellow pages). They can be reached at (202) 966-4474 or at In early 2001, their helmets rented for $5/day. (Picking the helmet up the day before and returning it the day after was still only $5.) In order to reserve a helmet, though, you had to go to the store beforehand to be fitted and to fill-out a reservation form.

Regular or Goofy

Soooo? Are you regular or goofy? If you are regular, you ride with your left foot forward. If you are goofy, your right foot will be forward. It’s fairly easy to determine which you are. Wearing socks, get a running start and slide across a linoleum or tile floor in a standing position. Instinctively, you will thrust one leg forward for balance, while the stronger leg drags behind for support. This simulates the appropriate snowboarding stance for you.

Board Length

Board length is measured in centimeters (cm). The proper length board for a beginner is one that comes to chin height when stood on end. Longer boards go faster. Shorter boards are more maneuverable. Body weight affects speed, too. Heavier snowboarders can favor longer boards. Lighter snowboarders should favor shorter boards. A handy formula to calculate an approximate board length is:

Your height (in inches) X 2.54(cm/in) X 0.9 = Recommended board length (in cm)

Safety Tips

Here’s a short list of some helpful tips

1. Always stay in control to be able to avoid other people or objects.
2. People ahead of you have the right of way. YOU avoid THEM.
3. When going downhill, keep your eyes down slope. YOU are responsible for avoiding EVERYTHING ahead of you.
4. Do not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from up slope.
5. When starting downhill or merging, look up slope and yield to others.
6. Observe ALL signs and warnings. Keep out of closed trails and areas.

– “Danger” Rick, ASM, Troop 111

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