The snowboard’s origin isn’t entirely agreed on. Many credit Jake Carpenter, the founder of Burton Snowboards, as the creator of the modern snowboard, but a decade before he began tinkering with his flexible, binding-equipped design, a man named Sherman Poppen fixed two small skis together for his daughters to ride down the hills of Muskegon, Michigan with. He improved the construction subsequently by using one piece of wood and attaching a rope handle to its nose, and with some branding advice from his wife, dubbed the contraption Snurfer.
Poppen couldn’t have known that his creation would help inspire the inception of a new winter sport to rival skiing — or that villagers in eastern Turkey have been riding similar boards made of steam-bent wood for nearly 300 years. And even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have guessed that over 50 years later, given all of the technological advancements and innovations that have spurred the snowboard industry onward, bindingless boards would again find themselves at the cutting edge.
No-boarding, snow surfing, pow surfing — these are all names assigned to the action of riding down a mountain on a board that doesn’t offer any straps or security. Exactly which term is correct is a matter of debate among some of the small makers attempting to bring this new/old vision of snowboarding to the masses.
Cholo Burns and the late Greg Todd founded their company, Noboard, in 2002 with a kit that includes a rubber pad and rope that connects to any snowboard, turning it into a no-board. Jeremy Jensen, the founder of Grassroots Powdersurfing, defines powdersurfing and the boards that he makes for the sport strictly as “without any form of bindings, straps, bungees, ropes, handles, skyhooks or any other gimmick to hold the board to your feet.” His company creates a range of unique boards with curved, three-dimensional bases — as opposed to the flat bottoms of traditional snowboards — for powdersurfing in all types of terrain and conditions.
Regardless of terms and definitions, all those flocking to this new sport agree on the fact that the object of the effort (and the sacrifice of bindings) is a feeling of freedom on the board akin to that of surfing.
And flocking they are — in addition to Noboard and Grassroots Powdersurfing, Austria-based Äsmo makes high-end powsurfers. Weston snowboards has one in its lineup. Jones Snowboards recently collaborated with San Diego surfboard shaper Chris Christenson on a collection of snowboards that draws on the same principles he uses to craft boards for ocean waves; among the line is the Mountain Surfer, a swallow-tailed board with a 3D base and neither bindings nor edges.
With powsurfing gaining in popularity, it should come as no surprise that Burton has also joined the ranks of those making the boards. The biggest snowboard company in the world tested the waters cautiously at first, teaming up with Noboard to modify a classic powder board called the Fish with its rope-equipped pad. That board was called the No Fish, and Burton kept it in its collection for two seasons. Then Burton took a different tack and created a series of snowboards that had built-in pads for powder surfing but allowed bindings to be mounted on top of them, providing riders with a multi-purpose entry point into this subgenre of the sport. Burton also makes a wooden board with a built-in rope handle called the Throwback, and this year publicly released a powsurfer called the Backseat Driver that it has been producing for a number of years (it sold out within weeks).
“[All these boards] worked pretty well but they felt more like a snowboard than a surfy-style board,” says JG Gerndt, a longtime product testing coordinator at Burton and former team rider. Gerndt grew up surfing in the Northeast from New Jersey and New York up to New Hampshire and Maine, and while replicating that feeling on snow draws him to powsurfing, he recognizes that one doesn’t previously have to be a surfer or a skateboarder to find joy in riding without bindings. “The simplicity of it, the feeling you get from it,” he says, is universal.
Simple, however, is not a word that can be used to describe Burton’s newest board, the Resonator. The board began as one of Gerndt’s side projects after he saw a video of Edison Connor, founder of Varial Surf Technology, standing on a surfboard blank suspended between two sawhorses. A blank is the foam core of a surfboard that’s coated in fiberglass to give it strength and rigidity. Fiberglass hadn’t yet been applied to the blank in Connor’s video, but it didn’t break, it flexed.
Gerndt approached Connor about using his material to create “a surfboard for snow,” and after a few rounds of prototyping grew confident enough to pitch the idea to Burton. Unlike traditional snowboards, which require custom-built presses and tools for each prototype (and each variation of a prototype), the Resonator is shaped from foam like a surfboard, which makes the production process faster, and cheaper. Gerndt says that these factors, along with the board’s unique flex capabilities and that it weighs as much as “a cup of soup” made it a desirable experiment for the company.
“We put a ton of engineering time into the Resonator,” Gerndt says. “More engineering time than any snowboard we’ve ever done.” Connor, it should be noted, previously worked at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, as a composites engineer.
Burton’s entering the space may have irked some of the smaller companies that helped establish pow surfing as a concept, but Gerndt is earnest in that his efforts are to push the sport, to make it better. “It’s just to open people’s eyes that they don’t have to go to the resort; if they see a hill, go hike it, ride down it. It doesn’t have to be bottomless snow out in BC; it could be six inches of snow out on a golf course.”
In a way, powsurfers separate themselves from the industry and bring the sport back to its roots. Gerndt says that many of Burton’s team riders bring the boards along with them on trips for downtime and laps when the cameras aren’t rolling. Skiers are joining in that as well. It’s progression, but it’s also a starting over of sorts because powsurfers are more focused on the spirt that roused the sport in the first place. It’s the same powerful yet fanciful and mysterious yet familiar attraction to finding new ways to glide over water in all its forms that urged Sherman Poppen to make his Snurfer and Jake Carpenter to make his snowboard. Pow surfers are wrapped up in it; it’s age-old. Don’t expect it to go anywhere.