The Best Splitboards For Backcountry Snowboarding
What's the best splitboard? What snowboard performed best in the backcountry in powder, steep lines and big climbs? We purchased seven popular models and put them through the wringer in the Sierra, skinning up deep powder and throwing them over our backs to scamper over rocks; we also side-hilled across steep traverses while searching out fun terrain. On the down, we straightlined couloirs, delicately tip toed through shallow snow and rock gardens, side slipped firm snow, made soul satisfying powder turns, and tagged hidden rocks. We're psyched that splits have dramatically improved in the last decade, with a wide array of options existing out there. Keep reading to see how all models fared in our comparison.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Splitboard For Backcountry Snowboarding
Best Bang for the Buck
Top Pick for Climbing and Steep Lines
2017 Updates to Splitboards
We tested the 2016 models of the award winners above. For the 2017 models, the only changes to the Landlord and Solution were the top sheets and graphics. The Explorer had a more substantial change and now has a new share and metal to protect the tip and tail. Read more in the individual reviews about each board and its changes.
Analysis and Test Results
We reviewed seven splitboards over the span of two months; all were quality rides that functioned well in a wide range of snow conditions and in all types of mountain environments. We rode all competitors in the backcountry and also tested in-bounds to maximize the vertical and increase the opportunities for side-by-side testing. We ranked each model's performance in powder and firm snow, as well as their weight while ascending. We compared each contender on the same scale and created a weight per surface area, tested out the playfulness of each board, ranked the ease and adjustability of the bindings, and calculated a karma score, or any added features that caught our eye.
Selecting the Right Product
Burton Landlord, winner of our Editors' Choice Award, and the Jones Explorer, our Best Buy Award winner, should be high on your list. If tackling the steep couloirs in the big mountains sounds appealing, consider the Top Pick Award winner, the Jones Solution, or the highly regarded Never Summer Prospector. If you love riding everything, any and all of these boards will work well for you.
Recognize that how you experience a board will also depend on how much you weigh and how strong (both physically and in terms of skill) you are. Choosing a board that is smaller for your weight will make it feel softer and increase its freestyle performance, while somewhat compromising its firm snow performance and float in powder. Selecting a larger size will increase the powder floatation and stiffness, although you will be carrying a heavier board up the mountain. These tradeoffs are all a part of your buying decision.
Types of Splits
The seven models that we've compared are popular and widely available. We've included performance ratings that are important to you in deciding which board to choose and we've reviewed all-around type models that could serve as the one splitboard in your quiver. While none of the boards handle bottomless powder to the T or have a powder-specific swallow tail or fish type board, all the boards we reviewed ride powder quite well and will handle any other type of snow you are likely to encounter in the backcountry.
For folks starting out, the Jones Explorer and Voile Revelator are more affordable options that scored well in most categories. Riders looking to shred the whole mountain with a freestyle sensibility will enjoy the Burton Landlord. The Jones Solution is a great choice for experienced snowboarders looking to tackle steeper lines that require a precise and reliable ride.
Our accompanying review of bindings delves more deeply into comparing the Voile Light Rail, Karakoram Prime, the Spark Arc, and the Spark Blaze. For the boards themselves, it is important to note that Burton, Never Summer, K2 Ultrasplit, Voile Revelator and Voile Revelator BC use Voile split hooks (at the mid points between bindings and the board nose and tail) as well as Voile "whale clips" at the nose and tail.
Jones boards use Karakoram "whale clips" at the nose and tail and Karakoram split clips at the midpoint between the bindings and the nose or tail. The Karakoram clips resemble a ski boot buckle and pull the two halves of the board together.
In our testing, there was zero noticeable difference between the Voile and Karakoram "whale" clips at the nose and tail; they look similar and function identically. The critical part of functional whale clips takes place during the manufacture and installation of the whale clips. The distances need to be precise in order to achieve the correct amount of tension to ensure the clips stay closed.
The Voile and Karakoram split clips look and function differently. As is the case with the competing binding systems, the Voile system (also used by Spark), is simpler to use, but doesn't provide active clamping of the board halves.
The pros and cons of these systems are discussed in-depth in the binding review. In our testing we did not find the difference between the clips and hook systems to be significant in either direction. The speed and simplicity of the Voile system is nice, but the extra steps to line up and close the Karakoram split clips were relatively minor. On the other hand, any performance gain from the Karakoram split clips was so minor that testers were not confident they could even notice it. In short, this type of clip or hook is not a significant enough feature to strongly influence our board buying decisions (but if it were, the hole patterns for both systems are identical, making it a fairly simple DIY project to switch them out if so desired).
Up until a few years ago, almost all pucks (for a split) were flat. This has recently changed and more models are coming with canted pucks (or at least providing that option). In our review, the Voile Revelator and Voile Revelator BC arrived with 2.5 degree canted pucks.
These cants are angled inwards to help move the knees closer together. Some riders find this more comfortable and those will knee issues may find it a requirement. Other riders prefer a flat attachment to the board. In our testing, the 2.5 degree canted pucks from Voile were pretty minimal and very few reviewers commented on them negatively or positively. Some reviewers only noticed when sliding on or removing their bindings, but couldn't really perceive much influence while riding. Our 40-something-year-old reviewer (with good knees) found he liked the canted pucks for a touch more comfort. One of our 30-something-year-old reviewers (with bad knees) was happy to try anything that eased the strain on his knees. We were generally pleased with the canted puck options, but if you find you don't like them, flat options are readily available as well.
Criteria for Evaluation
We developed multiple criteria to structure our side-by-side tests. We identified questions that we were curious about and then we devised tests to investigate those questions. The results of our hands-on review follow the chart displaying the comparative performance score of each product overall.
Performance on Powder
Every model that we tested was super fun in powder. Our review quiver did not disappoint E.en all-around boards, like what we tested, would be a blast on a powder day. We rode as many as we could during the same resort pow day, managing to get on about half the boards during a single pow day. Over time, we did ride all of the boards on multiple powder days both in-bounds and in the backcountry.
For powder performance, we preferred the Burton Landlord and the Jones Explorer, with the Landlord having a slight edge. Blowing away the competition, the Landlord won our Editors' Choice Award, while the Explorer took home the Best Buy Award for its fun and worthy ride and mid-range price tag. Both the Landlord and the Explorer were a bit softer in overall flex than some of the other boards in the test; while this can be an issue in firm or cruddy conditions, both of these boards rated high in powder performance. The Landlord combines the common powder floatation design features of a decently tall nose, entry rocker to help the nose float, and 17mms of taper to help sink the tail. The Explorer features fairly similar nose and rocker dimensions, but forgoes the taper in favor of twin tip and tail widths. Essentially, the Explorer is trading a smidge of powder performance for switch riding chops. If you ride switch a bunch and know you prefer twin tip boards, you might prefer the Explorer or K2 Ultrasplit over the other splits in our review. In soft snow performance, the Landlord and the Explorer were very closely followed by the Voile Revelator and Jones Solution.
Performance on Firm Snow
Some of the design features that reward powder performance (like a big nose and softer flex), penalize firm snow performance. None of the boards that we tested flail at firm snow riding, but the softer boards, like the Burton Landlord and Jones Explorer, feel more comfortable at slower speeds when edging on truly firm snow. Our pick for riding firm snow was the Jones Solution. The stiffer flex pattern, fairly long effective edge, and magnetraction all combined to help the Solution grip well when the wind or sun has done damage to soft snow. Other stiff splits, like the Never Summer Prospector or the K2 Ultrasplit, also performed admirably on hard snow.
Splitboards spend most of their life ascending; the ratio of skinning to descending is not even close. What about skinning on sidehills? How well did they break trail in powder when skinning? We investigated how all contenders in our review handled these particular conditions and activities and reported on our findings below.
Weight is the single biggest factor in climbing mountains with a splitboard, though some technical features are significant. Our measurements factor in the board as unweighted; the boards' nose heights actually increase a centimeter or two when someone is standing on the middle while skinning or riding. We weighed all the boards (without pucks, but with the standard clips and hooks and slider screws on the channel boards) on the same scale and factored this into the climbing score. We created a rough weight per surface area calculation for all of the boards in order to understand how they measured up, literally. Since some of the boards are slightly longer or shorter than others, comparing only the weight would not entirely be fair. While the weight per surface area measurement is not perfect either, it does complement the weight measurement.
Since splits are tools for climbing mountains, weight does matter. We measured each contender on the same scale and created a weight per surface area measurement; this allowed us to fairly compare boards that might have a couple centimeters difference in overall length and/or have a slightly narrower or wider waist dimension. The weight per surface area information is included in our metrics and the weight was factored into the climbing scores. Overall, the weight range is relatively narrow, but it is interesting to note the outliers.
In the real world, our boards collect powder on their top sheets that we then carry up the mountains with us; this can actually add a nontrivial amount of weight to the board. Many manufacturers try to solve this with some sort of slick topsheet or slick treatment on the surface of the board. White or light colored top sheets can minimize the amount of snow that clings to the top of the board; they are less likely (when compared to darker colors) to heat up and refreeze. None of the boards in our review found the secret to making a slick surface on which snow slides off and in under certain conditions they all carried excess snow. We would like to recognize the Never Summer Prospector for having the lightest colored topsheet. The texture of the Prospector topsheet also helped shed snow easier than the other boards in our review.
Ultimately, the single most important quality that improves climbing ability is minimal board weight. Our winner in this metric is the Jones Solution. It is the lightest board in total weight that we reviewed, and is just slightly behind the Voile Revelator in weight per surface area. The Solution is fairly stiff, which is appreciated when skinning on steep sidehills; this helps maintain both edge and skin grip in these situations. The traditional camber under the bindings (which maintains solid skin grip) adds to the lightness of this model. Based on these metrics, the Voile Revelator and Jones Explorer followed closely behind the Solution in climbing prowess. The Revelator and Explorer boast incredibly light weight measurements, which is highly welcomed when faced with a long ascent.
Perhaps we should have called this metric "freestyle" since the boards that scored highest were definitely the ones with the most freestyle DNA in their design. The Burton Landlord was the clear winner in this category. While no split makes sense for urban jib missions, the Landlord, with its softer flex and turny radius, rode like the freestyle inspired board that it is. Several reviewers found the Landlord's freestyle inclinations more fun than they expected. The Jones Explorer had ride characteristics that were similar to the Landlord, ranking closely behind it in this particular category. Both models were softer in terms of flex (when compared to the rest of the review quiver) and this was the primary quality that generated the higher scores in the playfulness category.
Up until the last few seasons, manufactured splits basically shared the same insert hole pattern (it works with both Voile, Spark, and Karakoram systems). In the past couple of seasons, they have started to adopt channel systems for attaching the bindings. Single channel designs have been used on some solid snowboards for a number of years, with splits having two separate channels on each ski. In our review, Voile, Burton, and K2 (half of our review fleet) all used channel systems.
Previously, none of our reviewers had used a channel system on a splitboard; since reviewing means constantly changing over stances, we quickly became experienced. The channel systems varied a bit between manufacturers (and K2 was the only channel board not to arrive with pucks), but they all function similarly. Flex patterns felt normal and no reviewers singled out the channels as influencing the ride quality of a board.
We were pleasantly surprised by the ease of setup and adjustment that channel systems provide. Dialing in the exact stance you want is much simpler than using the old standard insert pattern. If the heavens part and dump multiple feet of champagne pow on your local mountains, sliding your bindings further back to increase nose flotation is quick and easy with this system. Attempting these changes in the field would be easier with a channel versus traditional inserts, but are probably best tackled in the garage or driveway. Since one of our tester boards didn't come with channel pucks (ahem, K2), we did have to switch channel pucks between boards and thus had the opportunity to notice that without pucks, it is possible to lose the special screws that fit in the channels. Luckily for us, we always found them; if you keep pucks on the board, this won't be a problem, but it is something to be aware of and perhaps something to address by the manufacturers in the future. Channels were present on the lightest boards that we tested and did not add any additional weight when compared to the traditional insert pattern.
Our review period was not long enough to make reliable pronouncements about the long term durability of the channel system, but all channels performed as they should for the duration of our review. We found that all of the channel systems were functionally very similar; while the ease of switching over might not matter to some users, we did end up rewarding the boards that featured channel systems with a higher score for binding adjustability (although this category was not weighted very highly).
We half jokingly labeled the last part of the narrative description the Karma score. Here we described some interesting tidbits about the board that didn't fit into the scored part of the review, but still had some merit. This element did not influence the overall score of the board itself, but did highlight something about the board or company that caught our eye. For several of the boards in our review (like the Jones Solution and Explorer) we mentioned environmental efforts by the company. In other cases we focused on some that stood out, like the handwritten note on the Never Summer Prospector as shown in the photo below.
Best for Specific Applications
Voile Revelator BC is the only niche board, while the regular Revelator remains a great all-around option. As with any category, certain models have different strengths. For a more powder focused rider, the Burton Landlord, Jones Explorer, Voile Revelator and Jones Solution are strong choices. If big mountain lines dominate your dreams, the Solution, Never Summer Prospector, and K2 Ultrasplit make strong choices. If bringing the park to the backcountry is a priority, the Landlord and Explorer should be considered. Sizing up or down for your size and weight will subtly alter these generalizations, so do keep that in mind when making a purchase.
Know Before You Go
Splitboards are awesome tools to explore the backcountry with - when used properly. To use them properly, you need to know more about the winter mountain environment than can be learned busting out laps at the resort. The best untracked terrain lies outside the ropes, but venturing out can be incredibly dangerous. In addition to purchasing a board, you'll need to invest in a beacon. We like the Mammut Pulse Barryvox, an avalanche beacon that wins our Editors' Choice Award; if you're in search of a cheaper option, check out the Backcountry Access Tracker 2, which is a Best Buy winner. It is also a must to invest in an avalanche probe - something like the Backcountry Access Stealth Avalanche Probe, as well as an avalanche shovel - an affordable option is the Backcountry Access B-1 Shovel.
These are the essentials that everyone travelling in the backcountry needs to carry on their bodies. Since you are going to need a pack to carry this stuff, consider an airbag pack; we've got you covered with our Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review. Just like the airbags in your car probably won't save you if you barrel into a tractor trailer, an airbag pack can't save you in every avalanche, though they have been shown to improve your chances in avalanches. Once you've gotten all the gear together, make sure you receive training for such conditions. Seek out an AIARE 1 avalanche course and start learning about terrain from the avalanche's perspective. Follow that up by becoming a daily reader of your local avalanche center's avalanche advisory, paying particular attention to the specific avalanche problems of the day. The character of avalanches change throughout the season and we need to know where to expect each kind, so we can avoid them. With practice you should be able to get the picture of what is happening in the backcountry and learn how to get out of harm's way, while also knowing how to search out the goods.
Need a helmet? Check out our Best Ski and Snowboard Helmet Review to find one to fit your dome.
— David Reichel
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