© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2002
A new "universal ski," a soft Alpine boot, an unusual double-decker snowboard and a move toward helmets that are required for children in ski school are among the trends in snow sports gear this season.
The sale of snow sports equipment is estimated to be an $800-million annual business. The marketplace changes most years to encourage consumers to buy the newest models of Alpine skis and boots, snowboards, snowshoes and safety helmets.
Here are the hot products and trends for 2002-03:
A major transformation started in downhill gear last season. The straight, or traditional, skis started disappearing. According to a national survey by the Leisure Trends Group, 790 pairs of straight skis were sold in the United States last season.
But also experiencing a decline were sales of shaped skis -- said to radically improve performance -- ending a five-year reign of domination.
The new item is "a universal ski" shape, the trade organization SnowSports Industries America says. The ski is said to be suitable on almost any kind of snow surface, from New England hardpack and ice to the soft, fluffy, powder of the Rocky Mountains.
Marketing universal models are major firms Atomic, Dynastar, Rossignol, Salomon, Volant and Volkl.
For women, the universal models are lighter and softer in the flexibility. That is in keeping with the trend of engineering more female-specific equipment, including boots, snowboards and snowshoes.
Trend No. 2 is a greater variety of twin-tip skis for younger athletes who are determined to get "big air" -- that is, to leave the ground. Twin-tips began catching on last season with downhill skiers who found it exciting to land jumps while facing backward.
Nearly every manufacturer is featuring a "soft boot," said to increase comfort by making the footwear warmer and easier to put on and take off.
The SnowSports trade group describes the model this way: "The hard plastic (of typical boots) has been sliced off the top of the boot shell and replaced with soft, fabric-like flaps of waterproof artificial leather or plastic."
Some ski equipment testers, however, think that advanced and expert skiers, who enjoy high speeds and less-than-smooth surfaces, should stick to the more rigid boot styles.
The new soft boots designed for women accommodate a wider calf, slimmer foot and narrower sole, heel and ankle. These features are intended to eliminate the discomfort that has to be tolerated in boots in which the cuff can dig into the back of a woman's leg because of a narrower, rigid opening at the boot's top.
(I have a higher instep and sometimes find it difficult to get the right fit in a rental boot. I was delighted to discover the comfort of the Dalbello brand last season.)
There are an estimated 5.3-million snowboarders, an increase of about 1-million from last season, the National Sporting Goods Association says. The trend for manufacturers is to create boards that are more durable and can better take the stress of the tougher surfaces in terrain parks created for snowboarders.
The new gear has stronger materials, designed to make a board last at least one winter season.
Toughest on equipment are boarders in their 20s: The SnowSports trade group reports that these rough-and-tumble riders "grind (slide) their boards on steel rails, slap them down on (hard) landing ramps and, at the end of the day, they toss them in the back of the pickup for a trip home through a fine mist of road salt."
A radical new model called the "trout snout" is geared to float like a surfboard through deep powder.
For female boarders, the new models have shorter lengths, narrower widths in the middle and better flexibility.
The Snowdeck, by Burton, is a combination snowboard/skateboard. Its top deck is similar to a skateboard, but instead of wheels, the connected subdeck resembles a minisnowboard. No bindings or special boots are needed to ride the Snowdeck.
Resorts including Telluride, Colo., and Kirkwood, Calif., are installing Snowdeck parks.
With an estimated 5.1-million participants, snowshoeing has become a fast-growing activity. Equipment sales are zooming at about 25 percent annually.
The trends in this category are:
Equipment that is lighter, easier to use and less expensive.
An emphasis on more female-specific shoes, because women represent 51 percent of the marketplace.
An increased production of snowshoes for children as the activity's growth spreads to families.
-- Walter Roessing is a freelance writer who specializes in winter sports topics.