How Plastics Make Today’s Skiing Possible

Plastics in Winter Sports

According to the International Ski Federation, the first primitive skis were found in Russia near Lake Sindor originating sometime between 6300-5000 BC and the early Scandinavians used skis to move quickly over snow while hunting or defending territory. Skiing has been an official Olympic sport since the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France in 1924.

Following are the ways in which plastics have helped modern skiers achieve feats not even imagined in the early 1900s:


Though the first skis were constructed using the long femur bones of animals and attached with crude leather thongs, today’s models rely heavily on plastic materials to achieve the strength, weight and design required by modern racers and enthusiasts. As the sport gained widespread popularity in the 1950s, skis were still constructed of light wood, usually hickory or ash. Metal skis, especially the Dow Metal Air Ski, became common in the mid 1950s. These skis lacked steel edges and often became stuck in wet snow because wax could not be used on their metal undersides. American skier Howard Head tried aluminum next, but the underside froze easily. Head then fashioned a ski made from lightweight and flexible plastic and added steel edges. As with snowboards, skis depend largely on their inner core for weight and strength. Wooden cores can be difficult to match, but plastic foam yields lighter, more easily controlled and manufactured cores. Today’s cores are primarily made from polyurethane. The outer part of a ski is most commonly made of fiberglass, carbon fibers or a type of epoxy. The bottom part of the ski, designed for contact with the snow, is generally polyethylene. Although a ski appears to be a rather simple piece of lightweight synthetic material, the factors involved in its design are based on complex physics, engineering and materials science. The first considerations are weight and strength so as to glide across the snow. The ski must be strong enough to support the skier in the event of a sudden stop. No matter the type of skiing, be it slalom, alpine or cross-country, plastics are flexible enough to help make skis and skiers the best they can be.


The defining feature of Nordic (cross-country) skiing footwear is that it is only bound to the ski at the toe, leaving the back of the boot unfettered. In “classic” cross-country skiing, the boots and toe bindings are flexible and allow the skis to flick and fall in a perfectly straight line. In the early 1960s, American Bob Lange created the first plastic ski boot, which offered greater support and was waterproof. The addition of the adjustable buckle followed in the mid-1960s, making it easier to get in and out of boots. The Italian company Nordica was the first to develop a means of injecting plastic into molds for manufacturing ski boots; this innovation made the mass production of plastic ski boots possible and today they are the industry standard. Comfort is added within the hard shell by applying heat-molded liners that cushion the foot. These and other technological innovations make possible a more efficient transfer of energy between skier and ski. This has allowed skiers to dramatically increase their speed and control.


Knee injuries are most common in skiing, so modern knee braces incorporate molded shells of plastic and foam to offer superior support, comfort and durability. But broken bones and head injuries are also a risk in skiing. Today, many skiers use lightweight ski helmets to provide style, protection and a secure fit. In some countries, such as Italy, they are now mandatory on the slopes. Most helmets have a hard, crack-resistant outer shell, made from injection-molded plastic, such as ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene) or fiberglass, with interiors containing plastic foam pads designed to mitigate impact by spreading the force over a greater area of the head and reducing friction in a slide. For example, the stable polystyrene inner plastic foam withstands great force before crushing and helps provide a proper fit.