Are you intrigued by freestyle snowboarding? Wondering if this spectacular discipline in which riders are constantly throwing big airs and crazy spins, or jibbing over obstacles like skateboarders, is for you?
In this article, we take a deep look at what freestyle snowboarding is, the types of techniques, equipment, and environment involved, and how you can get started with this riding style.
See also: How to overcome terrain park fear
What is freestyle snowboarding?
Freestyle snowboarding involves executing free jumps and tricks off of custom-built snow obstacles (features) like kickers, boxes, rails, and halfpipes. Freestylers ride mainly in dedicated terrain parks inside snow resorts, in the backcountry, or in urban areas.
Freestyle snowboarding has its roots in skateboarding, with many tricks and features (rails, boxes, transitions) shared between the two sports.
The goals of freestyle snowboarding include performance, aesthetics, the rush caused by flying high, and showmanship.
Many people get confused between freeride and freestyle snowboarding. Freeriding involves riding down the mountain on groomed or ungroomed runs, using natural terrain as your playground. Freestyle is more of an extreme sport due to the height and complexity of the tricks.
A special type of freestyle, backcountry freestyle snowboarding, is about doing freestyle tricks on off-piste runs, with extreme jumps from ridges and rocky bars in untouched areas. This type of riding requires strong focus and excellent technique. Challenges include choosing a good path and landing jumps correctly.
There are hundreds of tricks in freestyle snowboarding, I’ll briefly go over the main types of tricks here.
Ollies and nollies
Ollies and nollies are the basis of freestyle snowboarding. An ollie is a jump that involves popping off the lip of an edge (a ramp or an obstacle) and propelling yourself into the air without using your hands.
A nollie (nose ollie) works the same way but with a slight twist – you pop slightly forward instead of straight up. It is used for certain rail tricks.
Grabs involve grabbing your board with your hand during a jump. There are many types of grab depending on the part of the board you grab. Here are some examples:
- Mute: grab the toeside rail of your board between your feet with your front hand
- Sad/Melancholic: grab the heelside rail between your feet with the front hand
- Indy: grab the toeside rail between your feet with your back hand
- Stalefish: grab the heelside rail between your feet with your back hand
- Tail grab: grab your board tail with the back hand
- Nose grab: grab your board nose with the front hand
- Japan: grab your nose on the toe side with your front hand
- Seat belt: grab the tail on the front side with your front hand
- Truck driver: grab both the frontside and heelside rails with each hand (like a car wheel)
The longer the grab, the better the trick is performed. Jumps with more pronounced grabs (“tweaked” grabs) look better as the rider uses more body torsion.
Spins are horizontal rotations performed during a jump (see next section for vertical rotations aka flips). The freestyler can land in either normal or switch (reversed) stance. There are half spins (180s), full spins (360s), and more advanced multiple spins (540, 720, 900, 1080).
A spin may be performed either frontside, that is counterclockwise for a regular footer (left foot in front) or backside (clockwise). Spins can be augmented with a grab, making it harder to land and visually more appealing.
Flips are vertical rotations, either forward (front flip) or backward (back flip). Flips can be chained together and augmented with grabs. Some resorts prohibit flips due to the increased risk of landing on your head or neck.
These are special rotations that start horizontal but the freestyler positions his/her shoulders in such a way as to throw off the axis of the spin.
There are various types of off-axis spins e.g. corkscrew, rodeo, etc) based on how the upper body is being thrust. In some of these spins, the rider ends up upside down. The challenge is obviously to land in a normal vertical position after spinning one or more times.
Slides involve sliding your board on rails and boxes. You can slide with your board either parallel or perpendicular to the rail. You can also slide with the rail in the middle of the board, or do nose or tail slides (with only the nose or tail touching the rail).
Rail slides can be combined with spins before, during, or after the slide. For example, a “270 to rail to 180 to rail to switch” means the rider does a 3/4 spin before getting onto the rail, does a half turn on the rail, then exits with another quarter spin landing him/her in switch stance.
Note that “jibbing” is a subset of freestyle and refers to riding rails and boxes, similar to street skateboarding. Jibbing includes sliding, pressing or spinning on the rail/box before releasing into the air or landing in another position.
Old-school tricks are tricks that were popular in 1980s freestyle snowboarding but have now fallen somewhat out of style and are considered basic. Examples include Japan air, rocket air, stiff body spins, etc. New school tricks focus on range of motion and height.
One foot tricks
One-foot tricks are performed by taking one foot out of the binding and extending the leg to make this visible. These tricks are very risky as they can result in nasty knee injuries in case of a failed landing.
If you want to dig further, you can find a comprehensive list of tricks explained in detail here.
See also: Should you wear back protection for snowboarding?
Where to practice freestyle snowboard?
Many snowboard resorts have terrain parks composed of snow and metal structures for riders to get air and work on freestyle tricks. Parks typically have different zones that are appropriate for different levels.
Here are some common examples of features found in snowboard terrain parks:
- Big Air: a large jump that allows for high air and big tricks.
- Halfpipe: a deep U-shaped feature with two walls in which freestylers can gather speed, perform turns, get air and ride back up the other side to gain more speed.
- Half rolls: similar to halfpipes but they are much shallower (around 3ft deep).
- Boxes and Rails: flat, slippery surfaces for sliding or grinding.
- Wall rides: vertical walls up to 7-10 feet high on which a rider can gain air by jumping off the wall.
- Banks or Motoslopes: similar to halfpipes but without any walls and gently slopes sides of the U-shape.
- Quarterpipe: halfpipes without walls and with a wide U-shape.
- Tabletops: small jumps with flat, level tops in the middle.
- Jibs: any kind of object that can be ridden such as trees, rocks, benches, etc.
- Step ups and step downs: jumps from a low level to a higher one, or from a higher level to a lower one.
- Kickers: these are large, shaped jumps used for big air tricks.
An alternative to terrain parks, backcountry snowboarding is the ultimate challenge for advanced freestylers who launch tricks off natural alpine bowls, chutes, and cliff drops. You need to be an experienced freestyler to be able to ride in these areas safely while performing big air tricks like spins, flips, grabs, etc.
Top 5 Snowboard Terrain Parks In Canada
My experience riding at Marmot Basin, Jasper
How to get started in freestyle snowboarding
An important prerequisite before getting into freestyle is that you need be a decent snowboarder capable of riding down a black run.
Before you hit the slopes for freestyle riding, a great tip is to practice jumping on a trampoline or at the pool. You will get familiar with thrusting your body around which will make it easier for you to learn jumps once strapped in.
Now, the first thing you should learn is riding switch. This will build your confidence and familiarize you with riding in both directions which is crucial for freestyle. To start riding switch, shift your body slightly so your upper body won’t rotate too much when you look over your shoulder.
Then, progressively practice switch at higher speeds and on steeper slopes to help improve your switch riding skills. Once you feel comfortable enough, you can attempt doing a 180 spin on flat terrain at low speed.
The next step is to get into the terrain park. Choose features that match your level. Parks are generally organized into 3 to 6 zones, with color codes indicating the level of difficulty:
- Green zone: to get started with simple jumps
- Blue zone: beginner features for practicing basic transitions
- Red zone: for intermediate freestylers
- Black zone: for advanced freestylers
You’ll first need to learn basic straight jumps before attempting tricks like simple grabs, spins, and flips (see earlier section on freestyle tricks). As you continue to practice on a regular basis, you’ll start tackling increasingly complex and impressive flips, spins, and slides.
Note than many snowboard schools offer freestyle lessons, which can help you progress faster.
A few safety tips when practicing freestyle
- Always be aware of the other riders around you
- Warm up before you start riding
- Respect the park’s rules and signs
- Check the landing zone is clear before you drop in
- Get out of the landing zone as soon as you complete a trick
- Wait for your turn
- Wear protection – helmet and back padding
See also: Should You Wear A Helmet Snowboarding?
Gear for freestyle snowboarding
Twintip snowboards with a symmetrical shape and flex and identical nose and tail are generally the best choice for freestyle riding. A twintip allows you to ride in both directions interchangeably and facilitates good balance during spins and flips.
Rocker boards (downward curve shape between the feet) give you better maneuverability and are easy to turn and spin. Note, however, that these boards aren’t great for high-speed riding on hardpack as they have less contact surface with the snow.
Some freestylers choose a cambered snowboard (upward curve) instead as it gives you a springy response when pressing down on the board, resulting in better pop in jumps, better stability at speed, and improved grip on hardpack.
A soft flex makes for a playful and responsive board since the torsion allows your feet to move almost independently of one another, giving it a skateboard-like feel. Flexy freestyle boards are also more forgiving compared to stiffer boards – but less grippy and stable at speed.
Flexy boards will give you good pop at low speeds but not at higher speeds as it will bend instead of popping. More advanced (as well as heavier) freestylers often choose a stiffer board for jibbing and big air for good pop at high speed.
On the flip side, a stiffer board will have little pop at low speed as it will deform very little.
Soft boots are generally the best option for freestyle as they absorb impact much better than stiff ones. Freestyle and jib-specific boots feature shock-absorbing materials around the heel and inner and outer soles.
A more flexy boot also gives you better leverage on your board, which results in easier rail presses, nose and tail butters, and tweak out grabs.
For newbie freestylers, wearing a helmet and back protection is recommended – even though more advanced riders, like skateboarders, often make it a point to ride without any protection.
Top snowboards for the halfpipe
Capita DOA vs Ultrafear for park
Freestyle snowboarding events
Freestyle snowboarding is divided into different disciplines: big air, slopestyle, halfpipe, and boardercross. Each of these disciplines has its own rules, obstacles, and tricks.
- Big air competitions involve riding down a steep slope and performing jumps over large kickers.
- Slopestyle consists of riding through features like rails, boxes, and jumps.
- Halfpipe competitions involve riding up and down a large U-shaped halfpipe and performing air tricks.
- Boardercross is a group race on a course with obstacles like jumps, banks, and berms.
Some of the most popular freestyle events are the X Games, Burton US Open Slopestyle and Big Air, and the FIS Snowboarding World Championships.
Freestylers are often younger and fitter than the average snowboarder and tend to have their own sub-community and subculture, with high-energy music, events, and vibe, often skateboarding-inspired.
If you’re somewhat athletic and not afraid of flying and falling, with the right gear, safety precautions, and practice tips in mind, you can learn to master freestyle tricks like spins, flips, slides, rails presses, and more.