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How to Choose a Splitboard for Backcountry Snowboarding

The Explorer finding speed and fun turn in spring corn snow
Wednesday October 30, 2019
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A splitboard is a big investment. With so many options, how do you pick the right one? Well, you've found yourself in the right place. After splitboarding for years and testing the best on the market, we've gained some insight that we would love to share with you.

Why Not Just Walk Up


In short, snowshoeing is exhausting, especially in deep snow; thus, this category evolved out of necessity. In the late '80s and early '90s, snowboarding began to branch out of its competition roots. The exploration led to the dawn of freeriding and backcountry snowboarding spearheaded by legend Craig Kelly. Where there are no lifts, the only option to the top becomes human-power or helicopter. As backcountry travel gained popularity, people began looking for solutions beyond snowshoes or approach skis. Skis have always been the most efficient way to access the backcountry, and the solution needed to incorporate the uphill efficiency of skis.

In 1992, the first prototype splitboard was made. This tool was invented out of necessity. Snowshoeing has been tried, it works on shorter days, but it is hard. In powder, your weight is concentrated to a small surface area results in deep postholes. Contrast that with split skis where your weight is dispersed across a larger area, which results in light snow depression. The benefit here is the efficiency of movement, and the latter situation is preferred.

Apprentice Ski Guide Will Sperry enjoying the benefits of glide in lower angle terrain.
Apprentice Ski Guide Will Sperry enjoying the benefits of glide in lower angle terrain.

Do I Need to Buy One


If you snowboard and want to explore the backcountry, you should definitely buy a splitboard. To quote a splitboard propaganda bumper sticker: Splitboarding is the Answer. It's is the best tool for traveling across and up snow-covered terrain, and then shredding back down. It isn't mandatory; the option of snowshoeing exists but isn't conducive to long term backcountry goals. However, snowshoes do have a valuable purpose. If you're unsure if backcountry snowboarding is for you, then do your first season on snowshoes. Even better, borrow a pair for your first few tours. You'll be in great physical shape and ecstatic when you use a splitboard.

Remember, whenever entering the winter backcountry, always carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, and have extensive knowledge of how to use each item.

Related: The Best Avalanche Beacons

Choices/Types


Overall, most splitboards are designed with descending in mind, and most snowboard manufacturers make their splitboards from solid models. Others have differentiated solid and split offerings. We have two main types of splitboards available to us, which include all-mountain or a powder specific style.

All Mountian


This category makes up the vast majority of splitboards on the market. An all-mountain splitboard can stand alone as a quiver of one. Its meant to perform well in powder, on firm snow, and to climb well. These boards can be playful or stiff and fast. Because we can encounter every snow type from blower powder to wind-scoured slopes, we recommend boards that can do it all. Certain boards may look powder specific, like the Prior Slasher Split, but it actually offers an impressively versatile all-mountain ride.

Prior Slasher Split is a nice accent to Lake Tahoe.
Prior Slasher Split is a nice accent to Lake Tahoe.

Powder Specific


This is a niche category in the offerings and usage of the products. A dedicated powder board might be the best call if you are spending a season shredding Japan's backcountry, but not the best choice if you are riding firm snow during a high-pressure spell in your home zone. A powder specific splitboard can be identified by a long length relative to what you normally ride, and often, have a pretty deep swallowtail. The added length makes climbing challenging because of the weight and maneuverability of the board. The longer length also makes the descents harder to control, especially in variable conditions. These boards have a place in a quiver. If you're looking for a one board quiver, then an all-around splitboard will be best for you.

Design Considerations


Every board has specific design features to obtain a top-level performance in a variety of metrics.

Camber Profile


Just like snowboards, splitboards come in camber, rocker, or hybrid profiles. Each has specific benefits to ceratin riding characteristics. The pros and cons of each profile, as they relate to splitboarding, are described below.

Camber

  • Pros: Stability when climbing or side-hilling, stability at speeds, stable through chop, superior edge hold, good pop and powerful
  • Cons: Poor floatation in powder on the up and down, generally less playfull then rocker

Rocker

  • Pros: Good floatation on up and down, playfull, easy to transition edge to edge
  • Cons: Poor stability/ security on up track, especially when side-hilling, soft for harder riding, poor edge hold on firm snow

Hybrid


As you would imagine, hybrids aim to blend the benefits of each profile and manage the trade-off of each other to provide a well-rounded board. Not all hybrids are created equal, and the placement of each profile dictates the benefits exhibited. A board with rocker in the middle and camber in the tip and tail is less stable on the skin track when climbing or side-hilling but maximizes playfulness. In contrast, a board with camber in the middle and rocker on the tip and tail gains the stability benefits of camber while exhibiting better flotation and edge transitions from the rocker. However, this board is likely to be less playful.

The rocker in the middle of the Never Summer Swift lifts the board's contact points up and limits surface area when climbing of side-hilling.
The rocker in the middle of the Never Summer Swift lifts the board's contact points up and limits surface area when climbing of side-hilling.

Topsheet


The top sheet is responsible for a lot of the weight and stiffness of a snowboard; there are many top sheet options out there. In broad categories, it boils down to carbon or fiberglass. Fiberglass is the standard. It is more affordable but heavy and less stiff than carbon. Carbon is often found on premium or custom splitboards, and provides more stiffness, torsional rigidity, and dampness at a lighter weight than its fiberglass counterpart. A carbon board is substantially more expensive but can save around one pound in a splitboard; these boards are often too stiff for the average rider and the terrain we ride most often. If you're looking to make long approaches to a steep line you're planning to charge, carbon could be for you. If not, should find plenty of stability in a regular fiberglass board that might be a little heavier.

Sidewalls


The backcountry isn't always smooth, soft snow, and sometimes we gotta get through the junk to get to the goods. Sidewalls are another component that can add dampening properties to a snowboard and are typically either ABS or polyurethane. Polyurethane offers more dampening ability then ABS sidewalls. Both are fossil fuel-based plastics, so the recycled option of either is a more environmentally-friendly choice.

Attachment System


When we are finished ascending, we need to be able to connect our two board halves together. The tighter the connection, the better downhill performance our board will exhibit. The most common attachment systems found on today's splitboards are manufactured by Karakoram, Phantom, and Voile.

Karakoram Standard clips.
Karakoram Standard clips.

Karakoram has an active system that holds the boards together through captured tension, and they offer standard clips and Ultra clips. While both offer strong and active connections, the Ultraclip uses additional leverage to provide a stronger connection.

Karakoram Ultra Clips is a favorite amongst our review team
Karakoram Ultra Clips is a favorite amongst our review team

Phantom uses a passive system that has an adjustable and tight tolerance that provides an impressively secure connection.

Phantom clips work passively to hold the board together.
Phantom clips work passively to hold the board together.

Voile has an entirely passive system that is a calculated and nonadjustable connection that relies on a tight tolerance. It provides a good connection.

Voile clips.
Voile clips.

How to Select What's Best for You



Terrain


A great way to start is to look at what type of riding you wish to do now and next year. Picking a board that can handle some of your more demanding objectives is a good place to start. At the same time, be realistic about these goals. If you want to have one board that you can yo yo fun backcountry powder laps and then go ski potentially icy couloirs with, then you want an all-around splitboard. One that has camber underfoot and edge disruption to provide additional traction. An example of this is the Jone Solution.

If you want one board to thrive in powder and provide a fun ride on your favorite corn zone, a directional board that has camber underfoot and more rocker in the tip like might fit your needs; one example is the Venture Storm. Understanding your objectives is key to selecting a one board quiver that can do everything you want to do. After that has been outlined, you can look at our reviews to see which one fits the mold best.

Size


Basing your splitboard size on your resort snowboard is an appropriate starting point. An exception to this would be if your resort ride is a park board. In this case, you will likely want to add a couple of centimeters to your prospective splitboard. Additionally, remember that in the backcountry, you will be carrying 10-20 lbs of extra weight. You have a shovel, beacon, probe, right? Water and whatever other essentials you bring with you will increase your weight and thus warrant a larger board that will float all of this in the backcountry.

There is no definitive answer on how much to size up (if at all); this depends on the type of resort board and the type of splitboard. For the sake of argument, let's say you ride a 161cm Jones Flagship solid snowboard in bounds (the solid Flagship is essentially the same as the splitboard Solution). If your primary backcountry terrain mirrors your resort terrain, the 161 Jones Solution will likely be fine, but you could also jump up to the next size (164 in this case). The 164 Solution would provide more float, but be a little heavier and less nimble than the 161. If you've never had issues sinking the nose on the 161, then you would likely be content on the 161 Flagship in the backcountry.

Suit to Your Objective


Most people are looking for one splitboard that can do it all. Before getting bogged down in design considerations, take a look at your usage ideas and frequencies. If you understand this, you can match the design considerations to suit your objective. Our best in class and individual reviews will highlight the applications and characters of each model to help you choose the best board for your next adventure.


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