Drawings dating back to the 11th-century show images of hunters on skis. Even as far back as then, hunters knew it was a good idea to have raised tips at the front of the skis. Why did they do this? What does it achieve?
Skis have been used by hunters and travelers for thousands of years. When we look at the technological marvels of modern-day skis, they still have many of the adaptations that have been used for generations. The wider, rounded tips on modern-day skis have several benefits including easier cornering and a better ride over powder. Originally ski tips were raised through almost 90° and sharpened to points but this was most likely for style rather than any technical advantage. Now, ski tips have been flattened to a much shallower angle and widened out into a spoon shape.
There are numerous reasons why ski manufacturers design skis with pointed fronts:
1. Ride over obstacles
With a raised front to the ski, it will glide over uneven snow surfaces much easier. Sometimes when skiing over chopped-up snow you will come across a larger chunk of compacted snow. Having raised points on the skis enables the skis to ride over obstacles like this rather than drive straight into them causing loss of balance.
As ski technology has advanced ski tips have become less raised and less pointed. Today the ski tip is raised slightly and spread out into a wide spoon shape. This is the most useful all-around design, which gives better control as the skier stays on top of the snow surface and helps with cornering.
When initiating corners, it is useful to have a raised, rounded profile at the front of the ski. This helps to carry the execution of the corner through and stops the front, inner ski edge digging into the snow. In this way, the design of the front handle changes in gradient better.
2. Freestyle skis have pointed fronts and backs
Most recreational skis have a larger, rounded tip at the front and a small slightly raised tip at the back of the ski. However, freestyle skiers have pointed fronts and backs. They need the raised back section for skiing backwards, after a turn for example. Without this, the flat ends of the skis will easily catch the snow surface and throw the skier off balance.
3. Pointed fronts in powder
When skiing through deep snow or powder you lean back very slightly and the pointed fronts act as levers to continually keep the ski riding up and over the snow surface instead of submarining into it. Without pointed fronts to the skis, the front tips would easily dig into the snow and stop the skier very suddenly, throwing him hard onto his knees and bruising his ribs.
Skis often have plastic tips or covers, which fit over the front edge of the end of the ski. These plastic tips are mainly for protection, for example, if you ski into a piece of concrete or wood it is very easy to damage the ski, especially the metal edges. However, a plastic tip provides protection and is much easier and cheaper to replace. The plastic tips are also useful during storage, where they may stop scratches occurring when the skis are lent against a cement or stone wall.
4. Slalom skiers deflect gates
Some professional skis are manufactured with an asymmetrically shaped ski tip. For a slalom skier, this creates an advantage if he happens to strike a slalom gate square on. The rounded shape of the ski tip helps to deflect the ski away from the gate pole one way or the other. With a conventional ski, such a collision could at best waste time and at worst cause a fall.
Competitive skiing has developed to such a fine degree that even drilling a hole through the front point of a ski creates an advantage for the skier. The tiny saving in wind resistance that a hole such as this creates is enough to slightly improve the skier’s speed down his course.
When winning margins are often measured in hundredths of a second and a simple adaptation such as this can make the difference between winning and losing.
5. Snowboarders change ends
A traditional snowboard is manufactured differently from skis. By its nature, a snowboard is used routinely in both directions as the snowboarder changes direction. The bottom half of the board or tail, and the top half or nose are manufactured in exactly the same way with the flexing ability, shape, and camber of the board the same at both ends as well.
Fashions come and go with ski design and some manufacturers still produce the swallowtail design on the rear of their skis. This is a technical design, which helps keep the ski edge in better contact with the snow surface.
The end of the ski has a V-shaped notch cut out of the center to create two short wings in the shape of a swallowtail. The thinking goes that when turning the turning and torsional forces at the rear of the ski are all fed through the lower wing, whereas without the swallowtail the forces would be thrown through the whole of the rear of the ski. So, with the two rear wings able to move independently, the ski edge stays in better contact with the snow.