The Surprising History of Skiing (8,000 BC to Now)

by Brandi Allen | Updated On: April 22nd, 2020
skiing history

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Skiing is one of the most popular winter sports worldwide. Millions of people around the world enjoy either Alpine or Cross Country skiing as a form of recreation and competition. Nowadays we pay to ski at a resort or use groomed trails, but skiing didn’t get its start as a fun way to spend the weekend with your kids.

Skiing was initially used as a practical form of transportation. Historically, skiing was a necessity both for hunting and even war during winter months. Over the years, as the technology and infrastructure improved, skiing became more of a hobby than an essential for surviving.

Where Skiing Got Its Start (8,000 BC)

Before there were snowplows and snowmobiles, traveling through the deep snow was exhausting and could be life-threatening. You either had to trudge waste deep, one step at a time sinking into the snow to get where you were going, or you had to lug around heavy, awkward snowshoes.

While snowshoes kept you from sinking and gave you a considerable advantage over walking in the snow with regular boots, they were still slow and tiresome to use. The most efficient way to travel for food or other resources during the winter months was to strap on skis.

Skiing has prehistoric beginnings. Rock paintings along with skis found in ancient bogs show that humans used skiing for hunting and trapping during the winter months as early as 8000-6000 BCE. The oldest pair of skis found were discovered in Russia and date back to 8000-7000 BCE.

vintage skis

However, it is still widely accepted that the first community that used skis were Indigenous people in Scandinavia known as the Sami. It is said that they followed the retreat of the last Ice Age glaciers and considered themselves the inventors of skiing. Roman culture celebrated their successful use of skiing for hunting as no other community is thought to have spent as much time in snow and ice as the Sami people.

Evidence of skiing during the stone ages shows hunters using skis to follow reindeer and elk herds in the Altai region of central Asia, primarily the mountain range that runs through modern-day Mongolia, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan.

History shows that most cultures that had to endure harsh winter environments developed their versions of skis primarily across Europe and Asia.

For example, the Han dynasty left us with the first written references for skiing, describing using the mode of transportation in Northern China during the years 206 BCE- 220 CE. Years later, in the 9th to 11th centuries, Vikings used skis both for transportation and recreation. They even worshiped the god and goddess of skiing, Ullr and Skade.

Modern History of Skiing (1200’s)

Militaries around the world began using skiing for training and fighting. Before the battle of Oslo in the year 1200 CE, Norwegian troops scouted out the area on skis. By 1452, Sweden was also beginning to use ski troops, and by the 18th century, they were training and competing on skis.

During the 15th to 17th century, Finland, Norway, Russia, and Poland joined Sweden in using skis for warfare.

Even during the 20th century, skis were used by the military during wartime in harsh winter conditions. Skiing gave them the advantage in snowy areas to easily explore terrain and scout out enemy lines. They were even able to use skiing as a version of mounted infantry that worked well against small attacks, giving them the first-strike advantage.

Especially during both World War I and World War II, it was very common for troops to fight on skis. Soldiers would even compete amongst themselves and hold races that would result in monetary prizes. Veterans of these wars eventually brought skiing back with them to civilian life and began promoting it as a sport.

Skiing Becomes a Form of Recreation (1900’s)

skier women 920

By the 19th century, skiing was popular among socially elite Norwegians. The sport became a mark of their identity as it set them apart from Sweden. During the final decades of the 19th century, these wealthy skiers took to the Alps slopes in hopes of a way to pass the time during their long winter stays in the Alpine resorts.

At the time, skiers were looked down on by other tourists who preferred ice skating and tobogganing to skiing. They even gave the name “plank-hoppers” to skiers. Because of this, many skiers preferred to ski at night to avoid the biting comments of fellow tourists.

Soon, skiing grew more fashionable, and by the 20th century, the population began to understand the draw skiing had on the public. The thrill of speed combined with the opportunity to be in and appreciate nature pulled more people into the sport.

Still, the average person could not afford to ski for sport. That is because it was only practical to ski if you had the financial means to stay away from home for weeks or months at remote Alpine locations. Thus, it was still a symbol of the luxurious lifestyle that the general population could not afford.

And while skiing brought in more tourists for hotels and restaurants, it was still not a sport that could yet be specifically profited on unless you were an equipment manufacturer. Ski resorts did not even exist. Instead, skiers would search out areas in Alpine towns that served many tourists then headed to the nearby mountains either by themselves or with a guide.

ski history
U.S Airforce 1940

Because the surrounding terrain included steep climbs and sharp inclines, skiers embraced the thrill of speed they experienced. Alpine skiing soon became famous for its downhill speeds and separated itself from more traditional Nordic skiing with incorporated longer, flatter treks with the occasional, slight decent.

Skiing was also becoming popular in North America as early as the mid-19th century. It began as a way that residents living in mining communities high in the mountains (think miners in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado) could quickly move about in the cold snow.

Many Scandinavian immigrants introduced Americans to skiing when they brought their skis with them to the upper Midwest. By the early 20th century, North Americans had also caught on the joys and excitements of leisurely skiing. Still, only those with plenty of free time and money could enjoy the sport. Skiers took to the mountains of the eastern coast, and soon New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire became popular destinations.

old ski cabin

Chairlifts and Resorts

As Alpine skiing became more and more addictive, skiers started to realize that the steep, exhausting climbs up the hill were becoming somewhat of an annoyance to achieving that exhilarating downhill run. Most skiers only had the time and energy to climb a mountain twice during the day and get in two runs for the whole day. No wonder they took ski vacations for weeks and months at a time.

Robert Winkelhalder changed it all when in 1908, the hotel owner in the Schwarzwald region of Germany built the first mechanical ski tow. A watermill powered it.

It wasn’t until 1933 that Alec Foster installed the first ski tow in Shawbridge, Canada. Soon the United States copied the design and Woodstock, Vermont became the first location in the U.S. to have a rope tow eliminating the need for skiers to climb the mountain before skiing down. These rope tows in North America were powered by motor vehicles. In the case of Woodstock, it was a Model T truck.

The number of people who could ski increased dramatically. You no longer had to have the physical capability of climbing a mountain before skiing down. It also made skiing more accessible to people because they could now fit in many more runs during a day, meaning a ski trip was no longer as time-consuming as it was before.

types of skiing

While the rope tow was ideal for shorter hills, it too grew tiresome for those that wanted to reach summits of 2000 feet or more. Then in 1936, Sun Valley, Idaho, became home of the world’s first chairlift. It was a single chair that was designed by James Curran.

Chairlifts rapidly improved after this, and soon, all ski resorts around the world had chairlifts.

Because chairlifts saved considerable time on the mountain and required much less physical exertion, skiing became more commonplace among the general public. It was now something that a family could enjoy for the afternoon, and at the beginning, using lifts was extremely affordable at only $0.50 to $1.00 a day – (although still requiring disposable income and free time.)

historical skiers

For the first time, the exciting sport of skiing was available to those outside of the socially elite. As the number of lifts increased in ski areas around the world, it no longer required a high level of ski and fitness needed to climb uphill for hours or navigate dangerous drops.

Skiing now came into reach for all skill levels as soon hills began color-coding trails so that the whole family could ski together regardless of their skill level. Resorts began to focus on catering to the needs of skiers. They even altered the hillsides with dynamite and machinery to make the spaces safer and smoother for skiers.

As skiing became safer and more commonplace, profits also increased. Resort owners worked hard to ensure the landscape was manipulated in a way that would protect their investment and human lives from avalanches.

With the invention of the “snow cannon” resorts no longer had to rely on the weather to cooperate. Snow machines could get the ski season started early and make it last well into the spring.

New technology like ski lifts and snowmakers increased the profitability of resorts and encouraged further resorts to open.

80s Telemark Skiers
Photo by Peter Stevens. 1980s Telemark Skiers

Competitive Skiing

Although skiing got especially prevalent as a sport after the world wars, skiing competitions around the world were already gaining popularity by the 1800s, especially among military groups.

By the 1940s, however, skiing competitions became popular outside of the military. For example, one of the first cross-country skiing competitions reported took place in 1843 in Tromso, Norway. By the 1860s, tournaments were held in Califonia for downhill skiing. In these courses, participants used 12-foot skis that connected only to the front of the boot while the heel was left loose. The first national skiing competitions were held in Norway’s capital city of Christiania (Oslo) in 1868. By 1879, the matches in Christiania began, including ski jumping events.

Ski competitions were especially popular among miners in Europe and North America that looked for ways to entertain themselves during the winter months. Sir Arnold Lunn organized the first slalom skiing competition in Murren, Switzerland, in 1922.

In 1936, skiing was included in the Olympics for both men and women. It was a single event that combined downhill and slalom skiing. By 1948 the events were split into two separate categories. Then the giant slalom race was added in 1952, and by 1988 the super giant slalom became a fourth alpine skiing event.

Skiing Olympic events now include several alpine events along with cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, Nordic combined, and ski jumping.

How Ski Design and Techniques Have Changed

Skis used in ancient times were often covered in fur. The fur worked much as modern-day skins work. They allowed the skier to glide downhill and climb uphill without sliding backward.

By the 1700s, Norwegian skiers because experimenting with new styles of turning, making controlling speed easier. Today we know these terms as the Telemark and the Christie.

Speed was becoming much more of the focus by this time, and designs began evolving into lighter and narrower ski styles.

One of the most significant advancements in ski design took place in the early 1800s when the cambered ski was invented. The center of the ski is concave, so the weight of the skier distributes more evenly through the length of the ski. The ski was then less likely to sink underfoot into the snow. With the new design, skis were thinner, lighter, and glided more quickly over the snow. The increased flexibility also made turning easier and improved shock absorption.

By the 1880s, Norway had produced the first every hickory skis. Although hickory is known for its extreme toughness, modern tools made of steel and carbon were now capable of shaping the hardwood. The result was thinner, lighter, more flexible skis. And because the wood was so sturdy, skiers didn’t have to worry about scratches and dings caused by rocks.

Ten years later, the first two-layer skis were created. This time only the base was carved out of hickory while the body was built out of spruce. The skis were thus much lighter and flexible. It also made skis much more affordable because it decreased the amount of expensive hardwood used to make skis. Americans especially benefited from it because of the high cost of importing hardwood from Norway. Unfortunately, the two layers pulled apart quickly because of the lack of waterproof glue.

In 1928 another great leap in craftsmanship was made by Rudolf Lettner of Austria. He invented the steel edge on skis giving them a better grip on the slow without losing the flexibility of the wood. However, skiers often had to carry spare edges as screws tended to fall out, and the edge would be lost. Around the same time, France began experimenting with aluminum as a possible ski material.

old ski bindings
Vintage ski bindings from 1950’s, photo by Ole Husby

For the first time, in 1932, three-layer laminated skis were invented. Thankfully by then, they had discovered a more waterproof glue allowing skis to last much longer than the previous two-ply skis. Then in 1937, the invention of a super strong glue called R.E.D. was made to hold an airplane together. It paved the way for plastic and metal skis to advance further.

The first plastic-based was made in France in 1944 for Dynamic Skis. The following year, the first aluminum ski was manufactured by three aircraft engineers. It had a wood core and was laminated in aluminum. But metal skis weren’t commercially successful until 1949 when Howard Head pressure-bonded an aluminum ski to a plywood core with plastic side-walls and steel edges. It was the first of its kind and only stayed together thanks to the flexible contact cement that moved with the different materials.

The revolution continued in the 1950s as manufacturers starting using polyethylene bases that eliminated the need for wax. By 1959 wood and metal skis were quickly becoming outdated. Plastic fiberglass skis were rapidly taking over the market.

The 1970s brought in further advancements in ski materials with plastics, fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber, and ceramic fibers continually improving. Skis were now more durable, more resilient, more flexible, and faster.

By the 1990s, shape skis became all the rage, and tight turns were more effortless than ever. Since the early 2000s, skis have gotten wider catering to skiers that prefer to ditch the groomed trails and head off into the deep powder.

fresh powder skiing
Fresh powder at Zermatt. Photo by Tucker Sherman

How Has Skiing Changed?

Skiing started as an essential skill used in ancient times for hunting, traveling, and even fighting. The purpose was to get to point A to point B with as little effort as possible. Through the centuries, skiing was used for travel and war even in more modern times. Today, however, we ski primarily for the exercise and the joy of being in nature. Skis themselves have evolved as the purpose of skiing changed over time. Advances in technology and design have made skiing more accessible to everyone, and we’re so glad it is.

Simon Naylor, the founder of New To Ski, started skiing in 2005. He has continued to practice his skills and wanted to share his journey and knowledge with other new skiers. He launched New To Ski in 2018 to help first-time skiers have more fun on the slopes and get out and explore the mountains safely.