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Snowkiting 102: What You to Know Before Heading to the Snow
By Brian Schenck
You’ve been riding every chance all summer and your kiteboarding skills have given you the confidence to feel comfortable in most conditions, but now winter is upon us and the water is cold and the mountains are covered with snow. You probably already have most of the gear needed for snowkiting, so why not give it a try?
Snowkiting is not much different than kiteboarding on the water, but a new set of rules needs to be adapted for a different environment. Much of the standard kiteboarding gear can be used and the same skills and techniques directly apply. In addition to cold weather clothing, there is a variety of other gear that a snowkiter can employ, as this winter playground provides a sold surface to kiteboard on with different challenges and dangers.
WHAT SHOULD I WEAR?
Clothing and proper layering are key ingredients to a successful snowkite session. Far too often new riders overdress and quickly overheat. Snowkiting is a high energy sport, so your body maintains a much higher temperature than that of typical downhill boarding. Snowkiters need to dress for a highly aerobic activity while also being prepared for cold weather before and after the session.
A standard outfit while kiting is a single base layer and a shell to keep the wind and snow out. Colder days may require a thicker base layer or an additional mid-layer that can be removed. To stay warm between rides, the most popular item in a snowkiter’s pack is a down parka. Finding an outer shell with good ventilation allows you to regulate your temperature while riding. If you are wearing your harness over your jacket, you’ll want to be sure that zippers and pockets are above the harness, otherwise you will feel every nub against your bones. Some riders choose to wear climbing style harnesses that don’t ride up like a waist harness. An option for riders that love their waist harness is to pick up a snowkite-specific jacket that allows the harness to be worn underneath the shell, keeping snow out and allowing you to wear it like you would on the water, next to your body.
WHAT GEAR DO I NEED?
The topic of gear can become convoluted with opinions, but there are a few basics that belong in every snowkiter’s pack. First is the pack itself. If the wind dies or you experience equipment failure, you need to be prepared for a jaunt back to the car. Having a pack that allows you to carry your kite and other essentials will turn a struggle into a fun walk in the woods. Some of the optional gear that may help in this situation would be snowshoes or skins (for skis). Often times the packs that come with a kite will suffice. A pack will allow you to bring all the comforts along for the adventure, including food, drinks, a camera, and extra clothing. One of the greatest benefits of snowkiting is being able to climb a hill and stop on top to enjoy the view, and a good pack will provide the confidence to go as far as possible.
A few other primary pieces of gear are a helmet, goggles, and gloves. The helmet is not always necessary on powder days, but hard packed snow, rocks, and a million other obstacles that don’t normally appear on the water make it a safe choice. Beyond that, a helmet is the warmest piece of clothing and keeps out wind better than any beanie. Goggles are the next prime ingredient, turning foul weather days into a visual paradise, not to mention keeping the wind and cold off your face. Gloves are a must, and carrying a second pair is paramount. You are always using your hands, and it is highly likely that your first pair will get wet during the day. Many riders carry a light and a heavy pair of gloves, using the thinner pair while setting up kites and connecting lines and wearing the warmer gloves while riding.
There are other items to consider that are not as necessary, but can make your experience much more enjoyable. A snow shovel is an indispensable tool for everything from throwing snow on your kite to hold it down to being used as an anchor or digging an emergency shelter. On frozen lakes it’s wise to carry an ice screw, which can be used as an anchor to secure your kite. I like to carry a sling of webbing and a carabineer which can be used as an anchor almost anywhere. A GPS is also high on the list of must-haves, as it can lead you back to civilization during a white out snow storm.
SHOULD I RIDE A SNOWBOARD OR SKIS?
Before you make any choice on what to ride ask yourself these questions: What equipment am I most comfortable on? What gear do I already have in the garage? If your answer to those questions is skis, then you should consider adapting your kiteboarding skills to skis. With skis, you will be able to move around on the snow while your snowboarding buddies are sitting on their butts.
If you don’t have any experience on skis, focus your energy on snowboarding. Aside from a different feeling of edge pressure, all of the waterborne kite techniques will apply. Board size should be based on rider weight and conditions. Deeper snow and heavier riders will want a longer board. There are a few snowkite-specific snowboards that allow for easier tracking and upwind riding. For skis, old straight skis seem to work best on frozen lakes and icy conditions while fat mountain skis are the preference in deep powder. Everything will work, so start from what you have and develop your own personal preference as you gain experience.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT SNOWKITING?
Most kiteboarding launches happen on shore and the thought of hot launching and being drug down the beach is usually not an option. On snow, we are typically launching kites with our boards already attached to our feet and we launch on the surface we intend to ride on. It’s common to hot launch, especially when self launching, as the worst thing that happens is you slide quickly over the snow as the kite climbs. When executed properly, a hot launch on snow can be very fun and controlled.
The next major difference between water and snow is the way we perceive moving around on terrain. On the snow we add a third dimension, vertical. If a hill stands in front of you with the wind at your back, there is only one way to get up it, and we accomplish this by mastering going downwind. A steeper hill will require more power to overcome the affects of gravity, and you may find the only way up is to loop your kite directly downwind. Depending on the wind’s angle to the terrain, you may find yourself pointing across the hill or even heading straight up as if you were hanging onto a tow rope.
On the water one is always fighting to stay upwind, but snowkiting may require the use of downwind techniques during every session. This is where the magic happens. Once you are able to ascend terrain, a world of possibilities awaits you. The eager backcountry skier will be stoked to simply pack up the kite and ski down making fresh turns via gravity. The over-stoked kiteboarders may find themselves keeping the kite powered up and repeating the process over and over, taking advantage of the fast runs that combine wind with gravity or the flight possibilities of gliding away from the hill. Once you have gained some elevation, you can now traverse across the wind, creating a triangle route and making easy progress back upwind. The best part is no matter what, it’s always downhill back to your starting point.
One of the most different sensations one will notice is the variety of surface conditions. On the water the pressure against your board is always the same. In one to two feet of fresh snow one will find a very similar pressure when snowkiting, but during a single session a rider might cross a wide variety of snow depths and surfaces. On hard packed snow, one will find they still have good edge control, but the amount of pop and pressure will be less. Adapting to varying conditions becomes second nature soon enough, but it is one of the largest differences between kiting on snow and water.
In general, kite sizes are similar between kiting on snow and water. On snow the surface will be a large factor in determining size. With a few inches of snow, conditions will be similar to water in similar winds. Deeper snow will always require a larger kite to power the rider. Likewise, thinner snow or fast surfaces like frozen lakes will allow a kiter to fly a smaller size in lighter winds. Snow allows a rider to get moving in lighter winds, yet also allows the rider to edge hard and more easily hold a larger kite down in stronger winds. This makes some folks stoked to always ride a big kite and hang on and also empowers riders to get away with a smaller kite. On a 15 mph day, you will see everything from 3m 14m cruising around at different speeds. A 10m is a good one-kite quiver for most snowkiting conditions. A two-kite quiver will cover everything from 6 mph to 40+ mph with a kite in the 6-8m range and a larger one in the 11-12m range.
IS THE WIND DIFFERENT?
We are all aware that wind conditions can change during a session, but snowkiting adds some additional challenges and benefits to be aware of. The biggest benefit is the ability to ride in lighter winds than on water. With the option of terrain, one can also use light wind to propel oneself downwind and uphill and use gravity to assist on the upwind leg. Some of the challenges come from varying wind conditions that are affected by terrain. The windward side of a slope is a snowkiter’s playground, but the leeward side of that hill will be full of rotor and washing machine wind. One may also find lighter wind at the bottom of a hill and stronger wind at the top, where the wind accelerates as it is compressed at the ridgeline. Other areas like valleys, gaps, and steep ridges can create a venturi that can increase the wind. The best way to picture wind is to imagine it as a river of water flowing over the terrain. Picturing what the wind is doing at different spots can help you avoid wind traps and stay in the safest areas.
WHERE CAN I SNOWKITE?
You’ve got the right gear and a set of kiteboarding skills that you are ready to put to use on terrain, so let’s find the right spot. While the beauty of snowkiting is the freedom of riding options, it’s best to stick to an established spot for your first sessions. A good snowkiting location will typically have a large fetch for clean air and receive consistent snow and wind. Many of the easy access snowkite locations have been pioneered already and usually have schools or shops nearby.
If you are not able to reach an established spot, there are a few factors to look for. Make sure there is enough snow to cover any obstacles or dangers. Six inches to a foot of powder is perfect. Any less and the crashes can be brutal, any more and you’ll be worn out just tromping around while setting up your gear. Deep snow is nice to crash in, but harder to learn in as you are constantly getting buried beneath the surface. Avoid light wind or gusty conditions and you will avoid many frustrations. Make sure you launch a safe distance from the road or any vehicles and power lines. There are more obstructions on land than in the ocean. Ideally it is always smart to ride with a partner, especially on your first outings. Having a friend help set up and launch is always the best way to go. Very quickly you will find yourself applying all of your kiteboarding skills to an entirely new and exciting environment.
Essential Gear List
- Base layer and outer shell
- Down jacket for emergency warmth
- Ski or snowboarding boots
- Gloves: Two pair, one thin and one for warmth
- Harness and kite
- Board or skis with fresh wax
- Snow shoes or skins
- Backcountry pack
- Snacks and drinks
- Rub on wax
- Sling with carabineer for use as mobile anchor