If you want to spot offbeat and unique innovations in snow sports, don't bother searching at an industry trade show or in the pages of some glossy ski magazine. Anything deemed worthy of being slickly marketed is already too close to mainstream to be considered cutting edge.
There are a lot of cool ideas that never evolve into the "next big thing," often because originality doesn't translate into profitability.
The start of a new year can be a good time to take stock of innovative concepts simmering just beneath the surface. Even if these trends or products never catch on, someone else's fresh perspective just might spark your own brainstorm - or at the very least, provide fodder for conversation on that long, chilly ride up the chair lift.
Skwal boarding - Think of it as a hybrid snowboard/monoski, but unlike a monoski, the bindings are inline, not side by side, mounted on a board with a very narrow waist. Quietly lurking on the periphery of European snow sports since their invention in France in 1992, skwals are just starting to pop up here in North America, but they're not widely distributed yet. Tricky balancing and the inability to skid sideways make the learning curve somewhat steep for those transitioning from traditional boards, but the novelty factor is high, and the graceful ability to carve swooping turns is allegedly addictive once the technique is learned.
Mountaineering races - It's the competitive version of backcountry skiing, except the course is established and racers are timed as they trek up and ski down through checkpoints. Quite popular in Europe - where it's known as Randonnée - mountaineering races have been gaining interest in North America over the past several seasons. The United States Ski Mountaineering Association is the nonprofit group that sanctions the 2008 series of races, and the only event in New England is scheduled for Feb. 3, at Mad River Glen in Vermont.
Asymmetric telemark skis - A boutique free-heel ski manufacturer in Colorado just might revolutionize telemark skiing with an asymmetrically cut ski that is reputed to be easier to turn and carve while increasing response with minimal effort. ScottyBob's Handcrafted Skis are designed to pressure each edge directly atop the apex of the sidecut, while at the same time, shorter outside edges are supposed to equalize the inside pressure of the front ski, diminishing the transitional work of turning. A tapered, narrow tail aids in stability, and looks pretty funky, too. The website (scottybob.com) is worth a visit for those who like to check out unorthodox but well-crafted equipment, and amusing tidbits about how the ScottyBob's design evolved from a drunken scrawl on a cocktail napkin are equally entertaining.
Splitboarding - This one is not so much new as under the radar. A splitboard is a two-piece snowboard that breaks down into a pair of skis. The skis, often fitted with climbing skins, are largely used for off-piste ascents, and that's why you don't see too many at lift-serviced resorts. Backwoods enthusiasts trek uphill, reassemble the board into a single unit, then ride down the mountain. Lighter models are generally easier on the way up but don't provide as sturdy a ride on the way down, while heavier splitboards weigh more in ski mode but ride just as well as one-piece traditional units. The splitboard is at its peak of climbing efficiency in deep powder, because the larger surface area of the wider planks provides more flotation than narrower touring skis.
RaxSkis - In 2006, innovators at Mount Rax in the Austrian Alps began experimenting with designs for extreme freeriding in an attempt to marry the superior turning of short skis with something that would track better in deep and steep terrain. The result was the RaxSki, which looks like a traditional ski sawed off behind the bindings and replaced with an outlandish series of metal fins that angle upward and away from the snow. According to the RaxSki website (raxski.com), skiers defy conventional wisdom by leaning backward into the hill, "skating" down the fall line "like a surfboard over the waves, controlled just by rear fins." A RaxSkier in a demo video looked like he was going to fall the entire trip down the hill, but at least the concept has been proven in theory. RaxSkis appear to be a work in progress, as there was no information on the company's website about how to actually purchase a pair.
Bamboo skis - Sustainability meets durability in a ski material - if you can afford it. Although more and more companies are jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon, Kingswood Skis in New Zealand claims to be the pioneer in utilizing bamboo ski cores. Bamboo is extremely hard, lightweight and strong, plus it grows back quickly. Kingswood handcrafts each set of skis and they are available by special order only, with the cheapest models starting at $1,000. For more affordable options closer to home, check out the eclectic list featured on exoticskis.com, a Vermont-based website that lists 177 small-scale manufacturers that don't mass-produce skis and snowboards.