Powder surfing (or pow surfing) is the sport of riding a bindingless board downhill on snow without the use of bindings or a handle. Powder surfing allows riders to “surf” the snow and provides a feeling that closely resembles leaning into a wave in the ocean, or a deep powder turn on a snowboard (even in shallow snow in the backyard). Because of its connections to other boardsports, pow surfing is often extremely easy to pick up for snowboarders, surfers, skateboarders, and wakeboarders alike. So, whether you enrolled in this class just to learn a bit more about pow surfing or you’re looking for some specific info on getting started, here's a quick guide with all the basics.
Spoiler: You’re going to start surfing pow. And you’ll love it.
A Brief History of Powder Surfing
Of course, any discussion on the history of pow surfing must begin with snurfing. Snurfing remains an original inspiration for snowboarding, and early Burton prototypes (like the Burton Backyard BBII in 1978) were based on snurfer shapes. But as snowboard materials advanced in the 1980s and binding technology improved, strapping in became the primary method of riding sideways.
For the next few decades, many manufacturers (such as Winterstick) experimented with bindingless boards. And then in the 2009, Burton began producing the No Fish powder surfing board.
Today, pow surfing boards are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials from leading snowboard manufacturers like Burton and boutique producers alike. In fact, there is an ideal pow surfing board for every type of terrain, riding style, and snow.
Powder Surfing Gear
One of the appeals of pow surfing is that there is very little specialty gear required to get started. Basically, you really only need a board. However, we generally suggest a few additional items to increase the safety level and ensure maximum fun.
- Board: Select a board or make your own with the Burton DIY Throwback Snowboard. Obviously, this is the most important component of the entire experience so make sure to choose a board that meets your needs based on your riding style and the terrain you plan to ride.
- Leash: Prevent runaway equipment. There are no bindings keeping you connected to the board so make sure to properly leash up. Wipe out without a leash and the best case is you have to walk the rest of the way down the hill and the worst case is that your board rides off into the great beyond to never be seen again.
- Boots: Any pair of reliable winter boots will work for pow surfing, but a looser boot allows maximum ankle mobility. Consider a flat-footed boot with no raised heel and a stiffness that feels good to you.
- Proper Layers: Remember that you’ll spend a lot of time walking around before dropping in so it’s important to manage body temperature. The right base layers will breathe and wick sweat while you hike and then insulate to keep you warm on the way down.
- Outerwear: Being cold and wet is the quickest way to ruin an afternoon outdoors. A warm jacket, snow pants, mittens/gloves, and goggles are key to staying comfortable in winter temperatures.
- Helmet: Burton always recommends wearing a helmet when getting on a board—whether you strap in or not. Invest in a properly fitting helmet and get in the habit of wearing it.
Note: Pow surfing purists commonly agree that a pow surfing board is intended to be ridden without the assistance of a handle. It’s an important distinction, but for the sake of this discussion, we believe that learning to pow surf with a handle is a good way for beginners to ease into the sport.
Types of Pow Surfing Boards
There are essentially two main types of powder surfing boards: solid and foam. Each type is specifically engineered and constructed using different materials, but both are fundamentally used to ride the same terrain.
Solid pow surfing boards are constructed in the same manner as traditional snowboards, with wood cores and metal edges. Solid powder surfing boards are essentially shortened snowboards and will flex and ride in a similar fashion; this is the most common type pow surfing board to find on the mountain, with lots of custom homebrew variations. The Burton Backseat Driver and Burton Throwback are two of the most popular solid pow surfing boards currently available.
Foam pow surfing boards are constructed in the same fashion as surfboards, with a hardened fiberglass exterior layer wrapped around a foam interior. Foam pow surfing boards will usually float better in snow due to the lighter weight and generally provide a responsive flex. Foam pow surfing boards are less common and will almost certainly cost more due to the materials and the complexity of the manufacturing process. Foam boards are the closest you can get to ocean surfing in terms of feel and if that sounds interesting, we recommend checking out the Burton Family Tree Resonator. (It is worth noting that Varial Surf worked exclusively with Burton to produce this never-been-done board.)
Where to Ride
If you’re just getting into pow surfing, a great place to start is on a small hill at a local park; select something that’s not too steep with lots of wide-open space, plenty of runout, and easy uphill access. The local golf course is also a great option. But in general, your local resort should provide plenty of low angle options for getting started. And remember, pow surfers are not meant to be ridden on hardpack or groomers and really won't perform well on anything less than a few inches (10 cm) of soft snow.
We recently sent some of the Burton squad out for some turns on the Backseat Driver at our local mountain; check out the video for some inspiration.
Pro tip: Be a good neighbor. Make sure to check with property owners before dropping in.
If you plan to venture into the backcountry, please review the appropriate resources to make sure you understand the associated dangers and how to mitigate them.
Powder Surfing Basics
Explaining pow surfing is like explaining how to ride a bike: we can write out the instructions 100 different ways but at the end of the day you still need to just get up off those training wheels and figure it out. But to help you get a jump start, we put together a few basic concepts that beginner pow surfers should understand.
Stance is everything.
The ideal pow surfing stance is entirely dependent on the snow, but in general, your stance should be about shoulder width with your back foot about 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) from the tail of the board; most pow surfing boards have indicators marking approximate foot placement. Move your stance forward (towards the nose) for lighter fluffier snow and backward (towards the tail) for denser hard-packed snow.
If you have absolutely no idea what your stance might be, check out our guide on getting that set up first for a complete overview of how to establish your ideal stance.
Imagine you’re skateboarding.
Ready to drop in? Point the board downhill and place it on the ground, digging the tail into the snow at a slight upward angle (so it doesn’t start down the hill without you). Next, place your back foot on the board in roughly the position you like, keeping your front foot on the ground to maintain balance. Then, keep all your weight on your back foot and place your front foot on the board in your desired stance. When you are ready, shift your weight to your front foot and allow the board to point down the hill. It should feel a lot like dropping into a ramp on a skateboard.
Once you have some downhill momentum, adjust your stance position forward or backward on the board to plane out the board and reach ideal float. Also, make sure to maintain a bend in the knees to lower your center of gravity and absorb any variations that may lie beneath the snow.
Slope angle and snow depth matter.
Not enough slope angle and you won’t gain the momentum required to get up on top of the snow; too much slope angle and you risk losing edge hold. Good pow surfing slopes for beginners are between 20%-30%, or about the equivalent of blue runs at ski resorts. Once you are comfortable dropping in, taking some turns, and coming to a stop, try some steeper slope angles for elevated difficulty and fun. But remember, the snow type, depth, and density also contribute to how well a pow surfing board performs. So, while a steep run with deep, dense snow can be amazing, a mellow run with the same conditions won't allow you to pick up speed. All of the factors work together and this is the dynamic that most people can only figure out with experience.
Momentum is key.
If you’ve been paying attention so far, you probably realized that speed is an important factor in powder surfing. Similar to surfing and wakeboarding, it is important to reach the right speed for the conditions, terrain, and experience.
A Final Word on Powder Surfing
For decades people have sought out new ways of standing sideways in the mountains, and powder surfing a perfect example of the progression: it is intuitive, low-cost, and really fun. The lack of bindings means that the mountain is right beneath your feet and the float of the board allows you to feel every feature of the terrain. And because it is so accessible, it is also a great option for most beginners, even those who are entirely new to board sports. So, while participation in pow surfing has been relatively low it is likely to grow in popularity as new generations fall in with love surfing snow.
And finally, the best thing about pow surfing is that you can get your fix of deep, floaty turns wherever there's just a few inches (10 cm) of snow. That small hill in your back yard? Feels like an all-time line in Alaska. Three good turns? All you need for the day. A whole top-to-bottom run of deep turns on a pow surfer? Life changing.