9 minutes reading time (1831 words)

All About Synthetic (a.k.a "Dry") Slopes

How do you live in a city far from the mountains, work a demanding job, and still ski or snowboard more than 100 times a year? No, you don’t need a private jet. Or a lax in-office work policy. Or a summer home in Chile. The answer is much simpler than that, and I’m going to tell you all about it. 

What follows is a story about synthetic ski surfaces and how they will impact the future of the sport. We are going to share with you the details of how you can ski and snowboard year round without the need to travel to the mountains. This will be a three part series.

  • In Part I we learn about the surfaces themselves: What is a synthetic ski surface, why do they exist, and what is the synthetic skiing experience like?
  • In Part II we take a trip across the pond to see what the U.K. dry (i.e. synthetic) slope scene is all about
  • In Part III we discuss how synthetic slopes are changing the future of the sport

Synthetic (dry) slope - Image courtesy of Jack Tompkins

After reading the series you’ll understand the synthetic skiing experience and how it will enable you to ski or snowboard more often, resulting in faster progression, better fitness and more time having fun with your friends.

Part I: Synthetic Ski Surface Details and Types

What is a synthetic slope?

Synthetic slopes are ski hills that operate with no water-based snow, instead relying on a variety of plastic matting surfaces. Because they don’t require natural snow they can operate year round in virtually any location and any weather. The Brits are the biggest users of synthetic slopes (they call them “dry slopes”), and indeed a lot of the innovation today comes out of the U.K.

There are more than 50 active synthetic slopes in the UK today

The synthetic slope scene has become something of a phenomenon in the UK, where there are more than 50 of them in operation, and they can be credited with helping hundreds of thousands of Brits learn to ski. We’ll cover the UK ski scene in Part 2. In this installment we discuss the synthetic skiing materials and the experience.

What are the different materials used on synthetic slopes?

Nearly all synthetic ski surfaces that are available today are based on the same basic idea: The skier or snowboarder slides across thousands of little plastic bristles that respond in a way that is similar to natural snow. However, they differ significantly in design details, which has a big impact on the skiing experience.

1. Dendix is a PVC-based brush arranged in a honeycomb tile, and was the first widely deployed ski surface. Its design dates back to 1961, and for a long time it was the only game in town. It has a reputation as a great surface for racing but not much else, which is not surprising as in our experience it seems to operate in two modes: either you are sliding across the top or you are on a hard edge with little in-between. Takes a lot of getting used to.

A weathered Dendix tile. See those big gaps in the honeycomb? Watch your thumbs

Is Dendix an effective learning and training tool? Of course, it’s had a big impact on helping people learn to ski and still enjoys a significant installed base. Would we like something better? Oh yeah.

There have been a number of new innovations in the past two decades.

2. Snowflex, developed in 1996, marked the first big update in synthetic surfaces in nearly 40 years. It eschewed the PVC brush for a polymer fiber affixed to a pad that looks and feels more like a carpet than a tile. It also includes a layer of padding.

Snowflex marked the first big update in synthetic surfaces in nearly 40 years

Snowflex eliminated many of the safety concerns associated with Dendix and is much more pleasant to fall on and has become very popular for park skiing and snowboarding. However, it does not hold an edge as well as its predecessor making it unpopular among racers.

Snowflex made some critical safety improvements over its predecessor

In our experience the safety improvements are great, but lack of edge control limits its use outside of the park, and even in the park it can be frustrating. The carpet-like flexibility allows it to be easily installed on features of any shape (Sheffield Ski Village, where James “Woodsy” Woods learn to ski, even had a half-pipe), however it can be problematic as it can bunch (like a rug).

 

Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center in Lynchburg, VA

Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center opened in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2010 and is the first of its kind to open in the US. We recently did an interview with Liberty Mountain’s Kevin Hoff.

The Italians Join the Party

3. Nevaplast, developed in Italy in 1998 also addresses many of the safety concerns of Dendix and according to the manufacturer rides notably faster and cooler. It holds an edge better than Snowflex but worse than Dendix. It has nonetheless been adopted as an all-around surface, appearing in terrain parks, main slopes and on some race courses.

 

Skiing on Neveplast (photo by George Klummp)

In the US, Neveplast was installed at Buck Hill in 2016. We recently did an interview with Buck Hill’s David Solner.

More Innovation from the UK

4. ProSno, the most recent product to come toin the market, brings the best of the newest safety features without sacrificing edge control, and coming closer than ever to creating an experience that mirrors that of natural snow.

ProSno comes closer than ever to creating an experience that mirrors that of natural snow

ProSno is developed by ProSlope, another UK-based company. The big innovation introduced by ProSlope is a variable bristle height that provides most of the edge control of Dendix while enabling a progressive edging experience. While on Dendix the skier either slides across the top or sets a hard edge, on ProSno you get everything in between and can initiate turns the same way you would on natural snow.

ProSno’s variable bristle height design enables a progressive turn, very much like natural snow.

ProSno, like its contemporaries, eliminates the safety concerns associated with Dendix and also includes an underlayment that works as padding and draining for misting systems. It also eliminates the bunching problem by anchoring the bristles to solid plastic tiles.

In our experience ProSno skis very much like natural snow. We would compare it to spring skiing conditions after things have softened up but before they get too slushy. You don’t get quite as much bite on your edge as you would in January snow.

If you live in San Francisco Bay area and have a passion or newly found interest in skiing or snowboarding, sign up to keep up to date on upcoming Urban Snow events on ProSno synthetic surfaces as well as related news & articles.

 

What kind of Misting Systems are used?

All synthetic surfaces need misting systems. The surface rides better and faster, and it eliminates heat buildup that can otherwise damage certain types of ski and snowboard bases. It also softens the bristles a bit. We’ve heard claims that for slopes shorter than about 300 feet you can get by without water lubrication. But the experience is worse, the friction is higher and we wouldn’t use our own gear on anything without a mister.

The misting systems are typically beneath the surface, like a home sprinkler system.

How fast are synthetic slopes?

The physics of skis and snowboards sliding over natural snow is complicated. The friction created by the ski melts the snow to make a film of water that is repelled by the wax on the base of the ski enabling it to skim across. Sort of. There’s a lot more to it than that. One parameter that impacts the skiing experience is the coefficient of friction between the skis and the surface. But it’s not the only parameter and it’s probably not even the most important one.

Synthetic surfaces have a higher coefficient of friction than the environment created when skis slide over natural snow,  meaning that the surface will feel a little “slow” compared to natural snow. Misting the surface helps. Making the slope a little steeper mitigates. In our experience friction coefficient, after a point, isn’t a big deal.

All of the synthetic surfaces that we’ve tried are decent when it comes to speed. Some feel a little faster than others. But what matters more is how the surface reacts to the different ways in which a ski contacts it. Natural snow has a compressibility and elasticity that in our opinion has a much bigger impact on the quality of the skiing experience, and it’s replication of these characteristics that differentiate one synthetic surface from another.

How safe are they?

While the improvements of the last two decades have done a lot to mitigate the safety concerns of the original Dendix there are still some safety considerations with synthetic slopes.

First, exposed skin should be covered. Synthetic surfaces are made from plastic bristles which can be abrasive on exposed skin. Just as you wouldn’t like falling in short sleeves on natural snow, you won’t like it on synthetic snow. That means long sleeves, long pants and gloves. Yes, wearing jeans on the slope is cool now.

Second, most modern synthetic surfaces have an integrated padding layer which absorbs energy from falls. It’s not like falling in powder, but it’s not a big deal as long as your skin is covered.

Third, as with all action sports wear a helmet. Helmets will always be required for all riders at Urban Snow facilities. No exceptions.

Part I Summary

Synthetic ski surfaces can be credited with teaching hundreds of thousands of people to ski and the most recent innovations make the experience closer than ever to riding on natural snow. This technology makes it possible to ski and snowboard year round, which is a huge benefit for people who want to ski more and improve faster. Prosnow in particular provides a great feel and response, bringing being the most innovative material which brings latest the best of the newest safety features without sacrificing edge control, and coming closer than ever to creating an experience that mirrors that of natural snow.

Beyond the immediate benefits, this level of accessibility can foster its own ski culture. In the next part in the series we’ll take a trip to the U.K. and meet some of the people at the heart of it and learn about the impact synthetic slopes have had on their lives.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area and have a passion or newly found interest in skiing or snowboarding, sign up to keep up to date on upcoming Urban Snow events on ProSno synthetic surfaces as well as related news & articles.

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Monday, 15 July 2019

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Photos by Jack Tompkins
and Harrison Atwood