Been away from skiing or snowboarding for some years, or thinking about giving downhill snow sports a try for the first time?
Unless you read the ski magazines or surf ski websites, you likely are unaware of a major new design change in skis and boards that makes these winter sports much easier to master and enjoy.
Skis are shorter and wider, and many of them now incorporate a fundamental design change that helps keep ski and board tips above the snow — important — and makes it far easier to turn without falling.
Beginner, intermediate and expert skiers discover that something called rocker technology is not a sales gimmick, but something that makes a day on the mountain that much more fun. Baby boomers who haven't skied in a decade or two find that the new equipment suddenly makes the sport accessible again.
"It is like power steering. It just makes it easier, more comfortable. It can raise your performance on the hill," said David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industries America, a Washington-area trade group for equipment manufacturers.
"I ski better at age 40 than I did at 25," said Scott Vennum, rental manager at Mohawk Mountain ski area in Cornwall. "Once this new technology hit, it is like it snapped. It got to be easy to ski in all conditions."
Rocker technology involves a fundamental engineering shift in ski and snowboard design. Traditional skis or snowboards were designed with camber; that is, when a ski or board was placed on the ground without any weight on it, the tip and tail of the ski or board touched the ground while the mid-section was slightly arched above the ground. Rocker technology is just the opposite; the middle of the ski or board touches the ground while the tip and tail rise up. It also is called reverse camber.
Rocker technology is comparatively new and still evolving as ski and snowboard manufacturers experiment and offer new designs each season.
Manufacturers are now producing hybrid skis and boards that tweak camber in different ways to provide ideal performance in many kinds of ski conditions, from hard-packed icy slopes to deep dry powder.
"There are 1,500-plus models of skis available at retail; you really need to go to a specialty shop to make sure you get the ones right for you," Ingemie said.
John Cwikla, a sales associate at the West Hartford REI, the recreational equipment cooperative, said a good ski or snowboard salesperson should ask many questions when a skier is shopping for new equipment. For example, what is the customer's skill level? Where will the customer be skiing and in what conditions? Will the skier take lessons, and does the skier expect to become more skilled over time? All can affect which choice is best.
Rocker technology is rapidly coming to dominate the ski and board market. Rocker ski sales were up 94 percent last year, according to Ingemie's organization. They now represent 38 percent of all the skis on the market. Rocker snowboards are now 75 percent of the snowboard market, up from 52 percent in the 2009-2010 season.
A big advantage of rocker technology is that in powdery snow the uplifted tips help keep the ski on top of the snow. Because skiers and snowboarders find the new equipment far more maneuverable, they also are less likely to catch an edge and take a spill.
"If you have been away from it for 20 years, even 10 years, you will not believe how much easier this is," Cwikla said.
Vennum, the rental manager at Mohawk Mountain, said customers rave about the new ski designs. "People love them," he said. "Honestly, right now you don't need perfect technique. The skis, the boots, the equipment simply make it easier to make your skis turn."
Ski technology has been evolving for many decades, from the early wooden skis to metal skis to the last big breakthrough in the 1990s, shaped skis, in which the mid-section of the ski was narrower than the tips and tails. Now, rocker technology is incorporated into the shaped ski design.
Ingemie said the rocker technology is so popular and such an improvement that it already is affecting design of related gear such as boots.
"It is changing how boots are designed, changing the boots to be more comfortable because they don't have to be as stiff," he said.