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Winters were tough for early Americans. When settlers aboard the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, winter was just getting started. By the spring, more than half of the ship’s crew and passengers were dead. By the 1700s, however, plenty of wooden homes equipped with fireplaces had been built across the colonies, making the winter months more comfortable and reducing the number of weather-related fatalities.

Across the Atlantic, where permanent settlements had been established for centuries, getting around in the snow and surviving cold temperatures was nothing new. During the 1700s, in fact, winter recreational activities were gaining popularity. The 18th century saw several innovations in the realms of skiing and ice skating, including the first organized speed skating competition, held in England in 1763, and the invention of cambered skis.

Winter Survival Skills

Today, winter survival typically involves little more than flipping a switch on a furnace and making sure our cars are properly winterized. But in the 1700s, it took months of preparation in order to survive through the season. Firewood collection began as early as the summer months, as it’s much easier to chop wood in pleasant weather. Food was also stockpiled in cellars starting in the summer, especially root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and radishes, which keep for a long period without spoilage.


Preparation was only one part of the 18th century winter survival equation, however, and it wasn’t always enough. In Europe, the winter of 1709 shook the entire continent — lingering for months, the coldest winter in 500 years caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Even the upper class weren’t immune to the effects of the “Great Frost.” Of the winter, the Duchess of Orleans wrote: “Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one, which freezes the wine in bottles.”

The Evolution of Winter Sports

During that record-breaking winter of 1709, many citizens traversed the snowy countryside using skis. Yet the history of skiing, especially among farmers, hunters, and warriors, stretches back to ancient times. The world’s oldest known set of skis was found in a peat bog near Lake Sindor in Russia and dates to around 6300 B.C. Skiing likely originated in Scandinavia, however, which is also where skis were first used in combat during the Great Northern War of 1716.


Recreational skiing is also rooted in Scandinavia, specifically the Telemark region of Norway. Sometime before 1840, Telemark woodcarvers developed the cambered ski, which arches toward the center so that a skier’s weight is more evenly distributed. Prior to the invention of the cambered ski, skis were essentially “plank style,” which typically bowed downward and sunk under a skier’s weight. Cambered skis allow for more agility and control on the snow.


The introduction of cambered skis helped give rise to skiing as a sport and recreational activity rather than strictly as a cold-weather necessity. Today, ski trips are a popular activity among families and amateur competitors alike. When planning for a ski trip, modern skiers have many more options than winter sports enthusiasts of the past. Modern ski equipment and gear is much more versatile and can even be rented or borrowed at a ski lodge or resort. 18th-century skiers typically didn’t have the luxury of choice when it came to gear.

Modern Winter Activities and Safety

For those traversing the harsh winter landscape in the 1700s, inadequate gear choice wasn’t the only potential problem they faced. If one was injured on the trail or mountainside while skiing, options were limited. Medicine in the 18th century was rudimentary at best, with many practitioners turning to herbal medicine and “bleeding” with leeches to cure common ailments. Something as serious as a broken bone could result in loss of limb or even death, especially since handwashing wasn’t a common practice at the time, even among medical professionals.


Just as in the past, modern skiing involves inherent risks, and the possibility of injury is a reality for everyone hitting the slopes, no matter their level of experience. However, injury or death caused by the inherent risks of skiing are a much different matter than incidents caused by negligence or faulty gear. By definition, inherent risk of skiing statutes are designed to protect ski resorts and facilities from being frivolously sued. Despite having assumed risk statutes in place, however, major ski resorts must adhere to a strict set of safety standards and are required to carry liability insurance.


While insurance is part of 18th century history, ski resorts are a modern invention, and injured skiers in the 1700s had few options. Modern professional skiers recommend that those who are new to the sport take lessons before venturing on to the mountain on their own, which can reduce their chances of injury. Early skiers didn’t have the luxury of lessons, often simply strapping on skis and learning the fundamentals via practice and experience.


Winter recreational activities have evolved quite a bit since the 18th century and are more popular than ever. Early settlers and those living in harsh winter conditions did what they could to survive, from stockpiling firewood to traversing snowy landscapes on plank-style skis. Those skiing for survival and necessity in the 1700s likely had no idea that their descendants would one day use the same skills to do jumps and tricks on the sides of mountains as a recreational activity.