We set to find the best backcountry snowboards for all conditions. First, we researched 20 top models and then selected six for side-by-side tests. Next, we took to the Tahoe and High Sierra backcountry. We threw these boards into every condition from deep powder to corn and ice. We also rode them at the resorts to give you a send how they perform on hardpack. See also our splitboard bindings and splitboard skins - climbing skins to complete your backcountry set up.
Best Splitboards For Backcountry Snowboarding
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We updated this review in April of 2018. We reviewed the new 2018 Burton Flight Attendant. In addition, both Karakoram and Spark have introduced new splitboard clips and we review these offerings. With more options for active clamping splitboard clips it is important to be aware of these new choices. We discuss changes to how Jones Snowboards installs their clips, which results in a much cleaner base. Spark introduced new pucks and canted pucks, and we cover these. The new clip and puck options provide valuable opportunities for incremental performance improvements.
Our Overall Favorite
The Jones Solution scored well in nearly every category of our review and is certainly deserving of its popularity. If you seek out big lines and steep challenging objectives, this is the board for you. The Solution is light, stiff, and reliable, and our most skilled and experienced riders gave the Solution some of their highest marks. The stiffness and light weight of the Solution helped it score the highest in climbing and firm snow performance. For riders who want to shave every ounce on the uphill, this is the board. The new Boltless Bridge technology makes the Solution base the cleanest in our test.
Read review: Jones Solution
Great Value and The Most Fun
The Jones Explorer caught us by surprise with its lightweight, fun factor, and affordability; that's a tough triple to hit and Jones nailed it. The Explorer has a different ride quality than its more famous sibling the Solution, but it was very well received by our review team. The Explorer occupies a lower profile spot in the Jones lineup, but that didn't stop it from earning our Best Buy Award, as it offers a great all-around value. The Explorer now features the Quick Tension Tail cutouts which work with Jones skins.
Read review: Jones Explorer
Least Expensive and Still Scores Well
The Voile Revelator is easily the least expensive board in the review. But it gets better: the skins and binding are inexpensive as well. Bought as a package, this is the best bang for your buck, especially if you like a firmer ride. While the binding and split system has changed little in years, apparently it doesn't have to. This was one of the most versatile boards in our tests and performed well in all conditions.
While this board is less expensive than the Jones Explorer, we didn't like it quite as much. The Explorer has a more playful feel which more freestyle-oriented riders will appreciate. The softer Explorer is also a little more forgiving to entry-level riders. The Revelator also just feels a little less refined. All that said, it's still one of--if not THE best-- deals out there.
Read review: Voile Revelator
Analysis and Test Results
We reviewed six 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.
The results were pretty clear: the Voile is by far the best value at nearly $300 less than the Solution. We Also gave the Jones Explorer a Best Buy award. It is also much less expensive and has a softer flex that made it may be the most fun board in our test. We would get the Revelator if you want the absolute best deal and the Explorer if you want a great fun to dollar ration.
Selecting the Right Product
Editors; Choice Winning Jones Solution. 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. Additionally, the terrain you most commonly ride should be considered. 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 flotation 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
We've included performance ratings that are important 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 like 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 optionsthat scored well in most categories. 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, K2 Ultrasplit, Voile Revelator and Voile Revelator BC use Voile split hooks (at the midpoints 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 Ultra 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. The Ultra clips are an update to the original Karakorum clip design. These new Ultra clips are simpler, quieter, easier to use, and more effective at pulling the skis tight.
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, is simpler to use and lighter, but doesn't provide active clamping of the board halves.
For the 2018 season, Spark has released Crossbar Clips which provide active clamping. The Crossbar clips have yet to show up stock on any manufactured splitboards, but are available as an upgrade. Installation was straightforward and Spark includes helpful instructions with the Crossbar clips.
The pros and cons of the active clamping clips are discussed in-depth in the binding review. The speed and simplicity of the Voile system is nice, but the extra steps to line up and close the Karakoram split clips, Ultra clips and Crossbar clips were relatively minor.
We would like to note that the new Karakoram Ultra clips are a definite improvement over the earlier version. They have a smaller footprint on the board. Unlike the originals they do not bounce around and rattle noisily. The Ultra clips are also easier to engage, and then to disengage. Overall, we are impressed with Ultra clips. A minor cause of concern is that some corrosion is evident in parts of the Ultra clips. This could just be cosmetic as it has not impacted performance or reliability, but is something we noticed.
Jones Snowboards has integrated the Ultra clips into their premium splitboards through their Boltless Bridge design. Most splitboards drill bolts entirely through the board to connect the clips (either Voile, Karakoram, or Spark brand clips). Jones has "cracked the code" and developed a method of installing Ultra clips without having to drill completely through their boards. This removes eight small holes in the base of a splitboard which cleans up the look and improves glide while reducing opportunities for water intrusion into the core of the splitboard. Additionally, Jones argues that the quality of the connection is improved. The appearance of a splitboard base without these holes and bolts is dramatically cleaner and looks far more professional. It seems that Jones is on to something with their Boltless Bridge technique and we expect more manufactures to experiment with similar techniques.
The Spark Crossbar clips are a little larger than the Ultra clips, but identical in weight.
While the Ultra clips pull in line (similarly to the original Karakoram clips), the Crossbar clips use a rotational swing to apply pressure and pull the splitboard together. Fine tuning the clamping tension is possible with both systems, but a touch simpler and more precise with the Spark Crossbar clips. The ability to adjust the tension is a welcome addition to these clips. Minor gaps between the skis can be observed shrinking when both clips are closed. We created a demonstration of this tight clamping by placing a light under beneath the clips. When the boards were pushed together but the Ultra clips and Crossbar clips were not fastened, the light is clearly visible. Once the clips are fastened, the two skis are pulled tightly together and the light is no longer visible because the gap essentially disappears.
In our testing we did occasionally observe some rattling noise from the Crossbar clips while touring. The larger part of the Crossbar clip folds away and stays quiet, except for when we either neglected to properly fold it away or perhaps it got jostled out of position by something along the trail.
When this occurs, especially in firm snow, the Crossbar can produce some rattling noise. If you are rocking out listening to tunes, then you wouldn't notice and if the noise disrupts your reverence with nature, rotating the Crossbar back away resolves the issue. This can be done easily with your pole but the noise was noticeable relative to the quiet Karakoram Ultra clips and quiet Voile clips.
These type of active clamping clips are improving in ease of use and are becoming more common. The classic Voile clips are light, simple, and have a solid track record of working well. While a clip upgrade likely does not promise significant performance benefits, the Karakoram Ultra clips and Spark Crossbar clips do not have a large weight penalty. These clips require a few more steps, unlocking and locking each clip, at every transition. If there is a performance gain, then there is also a loss of transition efficiency. We appreciate that these new Ultra clips and Crossbar clips are straightforward to use, but they do require more steps than the traditional Voile pucks. In a totally ideal world, clips would be easier to use and provide higher performance. It is up to splitboarders to decide if they value possibly improved riding performance at the cost of slightly slower transitions. Perhaps in the future, manufactures will develop clips that are higher performance and quicker to transition.
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.
Spark now manufactures their own pucks. These pucks feature an aluminum center disk for additional stiffness. They offer both traditional flat and 3 degree canted pucks. These pucks are stiffer than traditional Voile pucks
Our favorite attribute of these new Spark pucks are their ease of adjustment. Coming from Voile pucks, the improvement is significant and very welcome. Anyone who has changed stances on a splitboard with traditional Voile pucks will appreciate the ease with which the Spark pucks allow alterations to angles and stance width. These new puck options significantly simplify setting up a splitboard or making adjustments to ones stance. Spark has a video featuring really incredible ballroom music that demonstrates how to install their pucks.
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. 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 Jones Explorer. It was 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, it rated high in powder performance. It 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 Explorer was closely followed by the Voile Revelator and Jones Solution.
Performance on Firm Snow
Firm snow was widely available in early season at the resorts and we dodged rocks while testing the ability of our boards to maintain edge grip on steep and firm conditions. While our winter was filled with plenty of soft snow, the backcountry was variable. Strong winds stripped snow and these firm windward slopes present great opportunities to evaluate how well each competitor handled firm conditions.
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 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 Traction Tech all combined to help the Solution grip well when the wind or sun has done damage to soft snow. Other stiff splits, like the Burton Flight Attendant, 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.
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 lightweight 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 Jones Explorer was the clear winner in this category. While no split makes sense for urban jib missions, the Explorer, with its softer flex and turny radius, rode like the freestyle inspired board that it is. Several reviewers found the Explorer's freestyle inclinations more fun than they expected. This model was 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. In testing the Burton Flight Attendant on a powder day, we realized our initial stance location was not far enough back to optimally float the nose. Since this board had the channel system, it was only a few minute adjustment to increase the setback and significantly improve our powder day.
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.
The new Spark pucks do allow for much easier stance adjustment with traditional insert splitboards than the traditional Voile pucks. The adjustability is still much less than a channel system allows, especially when moving towards the tip and tail of the board, but within the range allowed by the inserts adjustability is simple with the Spark pucks.
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.
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 Jones Explorer, Voile Revelator and Jones Solution are strong choices. If big mountain lines dominate your dreams, the Solution, and K2 Ultrasplit make strong choices. If bringing the park to the backcountry is a priority, go with the Explorer. 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 an avalanche beacon. 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 a Level 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