Winter is an exciting time for anyone who loves cold weather sports, such as snowboarding, skiing, and hockey. And frankly, none of these sports would exist in current form without plastics.
Innovations in plastics have enabled more lightweight, durable, and responsive equipment, as well as tougher protective gear and better insulated, water resistant clothing—helping athletes achieve high levels of performance while facing winter’s cold and fury.
Here are some of the ways plastics play an important role in snowboarding, skiing, and hockey… and some new innovations
Modern snowboards often are made with a polyurethane foam plastic core that makes the board strong but lightweight. This core is wrapped in high-tech plastic materials, such as glass-reinforced plastics or other tough plastic fibers for added strength and durability. The base of the board is typically made with polyethylene plastic that is slightly porous so it can absorb wax for a smooth glide on the snow.
Snowboarders wear boots made with plastics such as nylon that are chosen for durability and a very favorable strength-to-weight ratio. These lightweight boots can be both insulating and sturdy, keeping feet warm while reducing the energy it takes to hike to the lift. And these boots often are held to the board with plastic bindings.
Many snowboarders depend on plastics to improve safety, from kneepads to wrist guards to hip pads—and, of course, the shock absorbing, cushioning helmets made from hard and soft plastics. Goggles with impact-resistant polycarbonate plastic lenses help protect eyes from snow, wind, debris—even UV rays.
Skis have come a long way, from bone, wood and metal versions to today’s high tech plastics. Modern models often have a core made with lightweight polyurethane plastic. And similar to snowboards, this core often is wrapped with glass-reinforced plastic for strength, and the bottom of the ski is coated with slick polyethylene plastic.
The first plastic ski boots were created in the 1960s to be more water-resistant and supportive than previous ski boots. Inside the hard plastic shell, plastic fabric liners and foam provide cushion and insulation. Technological innovations in plastics and boot construction create a more efficient energy transfer between the athlete and skis, which has allowed skiers to dramatically increase their speed and control.
Skiers also use similar safety gear as snowboarders.
What’s new? Ski bindings made with super-strong, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, are designed to release a skier’s foot laterally during a fall. The manufacturer says that this can reduce the chance of painful ligament injuries that might require surgery, compared to bindings that release only from the heel or toe.
Traditional hockey sticks were made with wood, but today many are made with composite plastics, such as glass- and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, and tough plastic fibers to improve their performance. Early hockey skates were made of leather, but today they’re usually made with a wide variety of plastics to cushion the feet and provide sturdy ankle support for increased stability and agility.
The safety “glass” used at many hockey rinks isn’t glass at all – it’s a transparent acrylic plastic which is installed in a way that helps it be a bit more “impact-friendly” than glass for checked players. The primary safety measure for players, though, is the player’s gear. Hockey helmets are engineered with a crack-resistant outer plastic shell (often vinyl nitrile) and various plastic foam liners to absorb impact and disperse force. The helmet often is equipped with a visor made with transparent, impact-resistant polycarbonate plastic. Other protective gear includes a mouth guard, a neck guard, gloves, elbow pads, shoulder pads, an athletic protector, padded shorts, and shin guards—all made with plastics.
What’s new? Various soft foam and rigid plastics combine to make comfortable yet sturdy foot bed inserts for hockey skates (and numerous other sports shoes and boots). The manufacturer says these inserts help keep a player’s knees from bending inward while skating, which reduces knee pain and foot cramps while providing extra power and control on the ice.
Plastic Innovations Continue …
Chemists, engineers and others continue to develop new innovations in plastics that contribute to winter sports safety and performance. And fortunately you don’t need to be a professional athlete to take advantage of the latest state-of-the-art gear.