Snow capped mountain during the winter in the Canadian Rockies.

Petroleum in Real Life: Ski and snowboard edition

There’s a reason we don’t use 100% wooden skis anymore: materials derived from oil and natural gas make equipment stronger and lighter, while ensuring you can hit the slopes in safety and style.

Ready to hit the slopes this winter? As an outdoor enthusiast, you have various choices to make when it comes to choosing the right ski or snowboarding equipment. Depending on your chosen sport, skill level, and desired functionality, there is a multitude of equipment to choose from. Winter sports gear must be safe, strong while still flexible, and promote optimal performance on the slopes. That’s why no matter what you choose, odds are that vital parts of your equipment are going to made from petroleum.

Wooden skis, leather boots

Even though snowboards, helmets and goggles may be relatively new to the party, skis have been around since prehistoric times – with the first fragments of ski-like objects dating back to 6000 BC. The first modern-day uses of skis were in the 1760s when they were used by Norway’s military during shoot/ski exercises (precursors to today’s biathlon). These early skis were made from solid wood, while ski boots were fashioned from leather. To provide the skis with traction, they were waxed using pine tar or other similar heated natural tars. As the waxes needed to be prepped, heated and applied “just so”, this took skiers quite a lot of time. Further, the wood and wood by-products (i.e., pine tar) required for ski construction and waxing, respectively, was considerable.

In the 1950s, metal and then plastic skis were introduced by ski enthusiast Howard Head; in the 1960s plastic boots. These were favoured because the equipment was lighter, faster and didn’t require the use of wax (for downhill ski use, anyway). Also, plastics enabled the creation of lightweight helmets and high performance goggles which are vital safety additions few skiers today go without.

A graphic of a skier wearing full ski equipment. Text explaining the materials of the ski equipment is written around the skier.

Skis – What are they made of?

Skis are comprised of various parts. Their inner core is considered their main component and can be made from wood, foam core or aluminum. Foam was first introduced as core material in the 1970s and yields a lighter ski than those with wooden cores and is less costly than its wooden counterparts. Foam core is more easily controlled in the manufacturing process and absorbs vibrations better than wood. Most foam cores are made from polyurethane.

The outer part of the ski may be manufactured from a wide array of materials. Most common are fiberglass, carbon fibers, or a type of epoxy. Meanwhile, the bottom part of the ski, or the base is most often made of polyethylene.

Ski Boots – What are they made of?

Ski boots are designed to transfer your movements into your skis, while supporting and protecting your feet, ankles, and lower legs. In order for the boots to transfer forces well, they have to be stiff and restrict the movement in your ankles. Plastic, is therefore, a great choice for ski-boot construction. 

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The outer layer of the ski boot, or its shell (as well as boot buckles) are made of polymer plastics, often polyurethane or polyether. It’s common for the shell to be made of two or more different types or densities of plastic, to optimize strength, stiffness, flex, comfort and ease of putting the boot on and off. The shell is the outer exoskeleton of the ski boot, holding everything together, attaching to the ski binding, and providing the required strength and stiffness that one expects from a ski boot.

Poles – What are they made of?

Ski poles are used to help propel you across flat areas, and for pole planting in intermediate and advanced skiing. Ski poles need to be sturdy, unyielding and supportive for skiers. The shafts of poles are typically made from carbon fibre or aluminum, while the grips (the part of the ski pole that you hold on to) are made of slightly rubbery plastic for comfortable grip and hold.

A graphic of a snowboarder wearing full snowboard equipment. Text explaining the materials of the snowboard equipment is written around the snowboarder.

Snowboards – What are they made of?

While snowboards have various non-plastic components – sidewalls, core, fibreglass, caps and edges… their topsheets and base layers are most often made of plastic.

The top sheet, like its name suggests, is the top part of the snowboard—often where the graphics are placed. It protects the inner parts of the board. Top sheets can be made of many different materials including nylon, wood, fibreglass, plastic and composites. Most snowboard bases, meanwhile, are made of P-Tex, a polyethylene plastic.

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Helmets – What are they made of?

In the early 1990s, ski helmets were virtually unheard of as a consumer product. Between 1995 and 2020, the use of helmets in skiing and snowboarding increased from 5% to 76%. When it was reported that serious head injuries dropped by 65% during that same period, ski helmets became a must-have piece of ski apparel.

By design, the shell and core of a helmet are designed to protect the wearer—it is, therefore, key to a user’s safety that they are made of durable, strong material. The shell is usually polycarbonate plastic, and the core is most often made from expanded polystyrene (both types of plastics). Shells can also be made from fibre glass and carbon fibre. Both the polycarbonate and polystyrene plastics are light weight, and good at absorbing impact, making ski helmets light and comfortable to wear.

Goggles – What are they made of?

In 1965, Dr. Bob Smith, an orthodontist and dedicated skier, created the first pair of anti-fogging, double-lens ski goggles using his dental tools, foam and glue at his kitchen table in Utah. The goggles were very popular with the ski crowd, and in 1969 he manufactured the first commercial goggles.

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Since then, goggles have been a mainstay of ski apparel. To stay safe and warm, skiers and boarders need to see well while whooshing down a mountain. Goggles help reduce glare, increase contrast and protect our eyes from harmful UV rays while on the slopes. Today, the frames of ski goggles are usually made from a from a durable but relatively flexible plastic, most commonly, polyurethane. Ski goggle lenses are made from a polycarbonate material that is shatter resistant and works to prevent fogging or misting, helping to keep your eyes focused on your descent; their straps are made from elastic.

Jackets – What are they made of?

During the advent of skiing, leathers and natural fibers were used to keep skiers warm(ish) and dry(ish). Today, boarders and skiers have the benefits of advanced plastics and fibers to do the job. Four materials are the major components of a snowboard jacket: Polyester, Nylon, Gore-Tex, and Microfiber.

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Polyester is strong, doesn’t shrink and dries quickly. When wound up tightly, polyester becomes resistant against water and even more durable. Nylon absorbs very little moisture, washes easily, and can be dyed into a variety of colors. Gore-Tex is a scientifically developed material that is used from the medical industry all the way to snowboarding. Gore-Tex is applied to nylon or polyester to create a shield on the outer surface of a snowboard jacket. It becomes outstandingly resistant to snow and rain. Microfibers are the finer fibers of nylon and polyester – lightweight and high performing, they’ll keep you nice and toasty on the hill.

A graphic explaining how polyethylene (an oil and gas product) is used in the sport of skiing and snowboarding.