Snowboards . . . they are short, flat and fat, and on a crowded ski slope stick out like a bus in an import lot. Yet, they are the hottest thing to hit skiing since step-in bindings and buckle boots.

They resemble a ski, act like a ski and can do most everything a ski can, but aren't skied like a ski. And not everyone likes them and not every resort allows them. Still, they are popular.Snowboards are not new to snow, just suddenly very visible. Early wooden boards have been around for years. One early board-maker laminated plywood, then used paint cans as weights to help turn up the tip, like a ski.

About four years ago, a wave of skateboarders, looking to perpetuate their summertime hobby, the story goes, discovered similarities in snowboards . . . same stance, same technique, same body language, same excitement from linking quick S-like turns.

Suddenly, youngsters with the flat boards were hiking and turning wherever they could find a hill, snow and no ski patrol to usher them off ski-area terrain. Two years ago, ski areas started opening runs to boarders.

Today, there's some integration between skiers and boarders. Not much, but it's a start. Before long, every resort in the country will likely open its slopes to snowboarders.

As one marketing director points out, "Areas can't help but accept snowboarders. Do you realize there are over 40 million skateboarders out there, and every one a potential snowboarder?"

In an industry that has peaked in recent years, snowboarders represent potential for a sharp rise in ticket sales. New money. For the most part, snowboarders aren't skiers, but skaters and surfers turned on to snow. A recent ski industry survey found that 80 percent of the snowboarders interviewed had never visited a ski area before they took up a board.

In Utah, about half the ski areas allow boards on some lifts and runs. Those allowing snowboards in some way are ParkWest, Powder Mountain, Snowbird, Beaver Mountain, Blue Mountain, Brian Head, Brighton, Elk Meadows and Snowbasin.

Two areas - ParkWest and Powder Mountain - have taken it seriously enough to build "half-pipes" for snowboards, which is nothing more than a trench where snowboarders can shoot up the sides and do jumps, twists and turns.

According to Sue Zenger, snowboard supervisor and instructor at ParkWest, the "pipe" is extremely popular, "even with the young kids, the beginners. It's neat to say they've been in the `pipe.' "

She also said that snowboard interest is spreading, in numbers and age. No longer is it a sport for young skateboarders and surfers.

"I'm getting some skiers crossing over," she said. "Most have seen boarders on the slopes and just want to try it. Some won't go back. Also, I'm seeing older people getting into it. My oldest student was a 63-year-old man who came here with his own board."

She admitted that it looks easy, but says it's not - at first.

"Even good skateboarders and surfers have trouble at first. You progress faster, though. That's why a lot like it. There are only two turns, frontside, backside. Right and left. That's all," she explained.

Unlike skiing, where the two skis are side-by-side and each works independent of the other, a boarder stands sideways, one foot trailing the other, and pushes the board forward and backward to turn.

On a skateboard, the weight is kept back; on a snowboard, on packed surfaces, the weight is forward . . . "And that's where the skateboarders have difficulty at first," Zenger said.

Like skiers, boarders are required to buy passes, abide by all the rules and use straps or brakes to eliminate chances of a runaway board.

And like skiing, Zenger recommends newcomers seriously consider taking a lesson . . . "It can save a lot of bumps and bruises, and make for a very positive experience," she added.

The boards are also being looked on positively by retailers.

Pete Taylor, manager of Jans' in Park City, said, "Snowboards are not distracting from alpine skiing, but is a whole new market off by itself. Over the last four years, it has been getting stronger and stronger.

"What we're seeing is a lot of family involvement . . . One day the kids go snowboarding, the next the parents go skiing. We're not selling a lot of boards right now, but we are renting an awful lot. We do expect sales to pick up."

Even the Professional Ski Instructors of American recognize that the boards are here to stay. Max Lundberg, head of PSIA's educational programs, said that a snowboard teaching manual has been written and that before next year instructors will be certified by the organization.

The top two board makers are Burton and Sims. K2, one of the world's top ski makers, entered the market last year and is now No. 3 in sales. In developing its board, K2 applied successful ski-making technology with obvious success.

According to K2 representative Wayne Eggum, snowboards have a lot of the same features as skis - sidecut, camber, sidewall - and must be taken care of like skis - filed, waxed and tuned.

Boards come in several sizes, according to Eggum, the most popular the 135 (centimeter) for juniors, the 152 for all-purpose use, the 165 for higher performance and the 177 for high speeds and long runs. Prices range from $350 to $425. The high-back, soft bindings, with overlapping straps, are standard on boards. The more expensive ones have plate bindings.

For boots, most riders simply use a heavy rubber boot. Some are finding that the inner ski boot put inside the rubber boots offers good support and movement. Another option is a hard-shell boot, thinner but similar to a ski boot, with the plate bindings.

As Zenger pointed out, snowboard equipment has come a long way in the past few years. Anyone who has been to one of the snowboard-hosting ski areas can also see that snowboarding has come a long way . . . and promises to reach even higher peaks in coming years.