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Do You Need Splitboard Boots? The Big Question…

Do you need Splitboard Boots? The big Question…

Backcountry Snowboarding Lyngen Alps

I often get equipment questions to do with Splitboarding so as the season approaches I’m going to start to answer a few of the main theme’s here through my blog.

This week I’m answering a question that I get on Splitboard boot choice. I find this an interesting subject as its one of the bits of kit that I feel (and hope) can and will develop the most in years to come and I’m excited to see how things will progress.

This blog will explain how I make my personal choice in choosing a boot that I can use for both general Snowboarding and Splitboarding.

If there are anything useful in here that helps you make your own choice, then that is great… read on!

featured mcnab snowboarding in Japan

Whilst Splitboards and Splitboard bindings will also develop, this development will be mainly on weight and performance, rather than overall design, Splitboard specific boots however can and will, I hope, change massively in years to come and the compromise between the efficiency of the ascent and the feel on the descent will become one day become history.

So why choose a Splitboard specific boot?

Splitboarding traverses through the Slackcountry, the Backcountry and the world of Snowboard Mountaineering and the area in which your interests fall will determine your requirements for what you wear and what you carry.

Whilst Splitboarding, doesn’t necessitate the use of a specific Snowboard boot there are definitely some situations where the features found on a Splitboard specific boot will improve your situation and ability to perform.

The most common problems splitboarders seem to experience are slipping or loosing edge grip whilst traversing or turning on icy slopes, loosing edge on thin firm skinning tracks or slipping backwards on steep icy ground. Trying to Keep up with friends that slide gracefully across difficult terrain on skis or that glide with long exaggerated strides on the easy angled approach track can leave you wondering if its time for more Split efficient equipment.

These factors seems to be the number one reason that Splitboarders start to look at changing from regular snowboard boots to split specific or mountaineering orientated boots, but is a change of Boots the answer you’re looking for and will they help?

The very nature and design of our equipment means that traversing icy slopes will always be more difficult on a splitboard than on skis due to the added width of the board. Likewise, the ride down might feel compromised simply by the flex of a board cut in two down its central axis.

Over recent years our equipment has progressed and the ride down has become much less compromised, splitboards are now comparable to normal boards in terms of ride performance, our bindings are tried and tested and improving every year to the point that they are very similar to the normal bindings that we use everyday and boots, well, yes boots?

Where are we heading with boots and what more can we do?

Firstly do you need a Splitbboard specific boot?

Slackcountry-Freeride-Pyrenees-main

What can we gain from a split board boot over a normal snowboard boot?

Here are a few design features that a splitboard specific boot might have over a normal boot, think crampon compatibility, side hill rigidity, negative stride ability, crampon front point stability, a solid toe box for step kicking, upper boot/lower boot tightness adjustments and lighter weight might be just a few of them?

OK, so all these features already exist in a modern hard shell randonee boot, so should we all simply not just switch to hard boots for touring?

A stiffer boot to ski interface will definitely help with the problem of edging on icy terrain on the way up and supports all the features mentioned above, but what about the ride back down?

Is the compromise of the ride back down balanced out by the ease of the ascent?

Most of the guys that have made the switch will be quick to justify the change and with regards efficiency of movement, lightness of the equipment and boots, ease of change over and basically ease of most things Randonee, their reasoning is difficult to argue against. With regards the ride back down however, I am somewhat less convinced.

Here then, lies the true problem, that of compromise and to move forward we first have to decide which we are most willing to compromise, the way up or the way down?

Personally, my whole reason for riding is the feeling I get from ‘surfing the mountain’. My whole reason for skinning or climbing up something, is to find great untracked snow, exciting terrain and for the flowing feeling of the ride back down.

For me personally the softer feeling and sensitivity underfoot provided by a normal soft boot, binding and board interface on the ride down the mountain is the most important aspect of my day and for this reason, I am prepared to deal with the problems of skinning on icy terrain, the extra effort of the approach and any other compromise that my choice to wear a normal soft boot system on the way up might bring, for the benefits I will certainly feel on the way back down.

There are continuous arguments for both Soft and Hard boots for Splitboarding and whilst the hard shell boot riders will tell you that by cutting their boots down to make them softer there is no compromise, the soft boot riders will also argue that better technique and route planning on the ascent will avoid the aforementioned problems on the ascent, whilst still giving you the beauty of the softer boot ride on the way down.

Both sides have significant reasoning and at the end of the day its simply a personal choice. If your reason for being out there might be for the beauty of the surroundings, the touring and escape and to travel through the mountains, then the shell boot system makes perfect sense. If your bias falls to the side of climbing up for the sake of the ride back down, then the softer boot option might be more your cup of tea?

As I have already stated, my personal priority falls to the descent and the soft surfy feeling underfoot that a soft boot provides. From here on I’m not going to argue the case for soft boot over hard shell boot, but will simply express my own opinion based on the fact that I choose the soft boot option and just finally, before anyone starts arguing about the benefits of shell boots and that I don’t know what I’m talking about, please note that I’m a ski teacher and ski guide, (I occasionally still ski tour as a guide in randonee boots) and that I raced Snowboard WorldCup full time in shell boots for 6 years.

The compromise of the ascent?

To be honest, I rarely have trouble with skinning on icy terrain in soft boots as I either it either by taking a more Splitboard friendly route rather than following the icy skin track (often set by skiers on thinner equipment), I put on the couteau before the trail gets difficult or, more often the case, if its really firm and steep, I put on my boot crampons, put my board on my back and boot-pack straight up instead.

If in the case I didn’t make one of these three choices and/or find myself on icy terrain on just my edges, I use a technique a delicate edge shuffle technique that I have developed over the years whereby I shorten the stride of the lower foot half a stride (sliding the lower foot just below the upper foot) and then take a longer forward stride with the upper ski, which I find easier to edge and repeat whilst supporting the whole action with my poles as necessary.
This shuffle technique will get you through short sections where it is icy or maybe steeper, but if you’re having to do this for a longer period I suggest one of the 3 options above instead.

Practicing this technique will definitely help for these shorter icier or steeper sections where you are caught out or you don’t feel the need to change tactics yet. (Note here, that skiers or split boarders with hard boots but wide skis will often also struggle through these same sections even if to a lesser degree).

Practice makes perfect here, but the best action is foresight, put on your couteau or crampons before you get in trouble. The slight delay in changing over will be negated by the time saved from faffing about and slipping off the trail.

One last thing worth mentioning that can greatly help your edging ability in a soft boot set up is the Spark Rand D ‘strappy strap’. This simple strap links your boot to the highback of the binding and gives you a more hard boot edging feeling for those tricky sections. Leave them loose for the approach and simply synch them up for the steeps. Edging will still be tricky on ice or steep terrain but it’ll definitely help for those shorter sections where you don’t feel you need to go to a spikes underfoot.

OK, back to boots!

Like I said it’s a personal choice.

splitboard-hiking-in-the-BC

You first going to have to weigh up what it is you’re after and why you go splitting.

I definitely go uphill to search for great snow and for the joy of the untracked ride back down over the ‘going touring to be out there’ approach (for me this is a secondary benefit) and so I personally prefer a lighter softer (normal) Snowboard boot than the shell boot option (again, I’m not knocking it, I know its a touchy subject, but I’m barefoot for 8 months of the year and I simply don’t like the feel of rigid soled shoes or boots so its just not what I’m looking for in my ride).

So I’m running with the soft boot option, so now I’m faced with my next choice…

Regular Soft boot or ‘Splitboard specific’ Soft boot?

Back in the day there obviously wasn’t a choice and to be honest I might still fluctuate between the two. If its a short hike for a great descent, maybe a couple of hours in the saddle and uphill from the get go I’ll maybe just wear my normal boots.

If it’s a bigger hike, multiple hikes, a longer flatter approach/exit or a split board specific trip then I’ll probably go for a more Splitboard specific boot option.

Splitboard hiking chamonix

The main difference I want to get or feel from a Splitboard specific boot is the longer stride from the negative flex stride mode feature and maybe the firmer toe box for kicking steps.

The longer stride is really evident when the terrain isn’t so steep, when its steep my stride will probably shorten anyway and I’ll feel it less.

Lets look at some of the features on offer in the Splitboard specific boots and then you can decide which features are important to you and decide if its worth making the switch.

There are today a dozen or so ‘Soft boot’ split board specific models out on the market today and if you’re going to be a regular splitter then a splitboard specific boot is definitely worth a look.

From what I can see (having not tried them all) most of these boots are designed around 2 or 3 specific features that give them an advantage over a normal soft Snowboard boot. These are firstly negative flex for the stride, definitely helpful on long easy angled approaches, secondly a rigid Mountaineering sole that will take a technical semi auto crampon or help on steep Ice and rock and thirdly a rigid toe box for kicking steps. Some have more variable closure systems so that you can customise the inner boot, foot and upper boot for both hiking and for riding using speed laces or boa systems and some have gaitors to keep the water out and protect the boot in aggressive alpine terrain.

Many of the Splitboard specific Snowboard boots have classic Mountaineering boot soles, features and looks, which begs the question, do you need a mountaineering boot for snowboarding?

So far in my 30 years Snowboarding in the mountains I’ve managed to get to where I wanted to be using a regular semi rigid strap-on crampon. I’ve never felt unsafe or struggled with the slightly softer sole of a normal snowboard boot, so a rigid sole and auto crampon compatibility is as yet not an essential feature for me and if anything adds unwanted bulk, weight and rigidity underfoot to the boot.

Fntr_de_seliena_BC_Splitboarding_chamonix

For me one of the beautiful things about Snowboarding is the feeling I get through my feet and the board as I ride and I’m definitely not looking for a thick bulky sole on my boots that numbs this contact but obviously, having lived in the mountains of Chamonix for 25 years, I can understand why some people might want this mountaineering orientated style of boot.

If you’re going to be climbing ridges, front pointing up steep ice or climbing technical faces to get to your ride, then a rigid Vibram sole, a heel welt for a semi automatic crampon and a stiff supportive boot might be something you might want to include in your list of requirements.

You’ll definitely sacrifice riding feel for increased climbing performance with these sole profiles, you’ll stand a little taller in the binding with the raised heel and the feel underfoot will be more aggressive and less forgiving but its a sacrifice in favour of an aggressive climbing tool designed for purpose.

There are a few models that still take semi auto crampon with slightly less aggressive rigid but flatter sole profiles which offer a less aggressive compromise while still offering the high Mountaineering style performance.

We’re performing at the more aggressive/extreme end of the Splitboarding scale here, sacrificing lightness and feel underfoot for stiffer climbing prowess, but if you’re going to be out there, harness on, Ice axe in hand everyday or on multiday expeditions then models with this feature should be on your list.

A rigid toe box on the boot is a good idea for when it comes to kicking steps up steep slopes either with or without crampons on your feet and most of the split board specific boots have this feature.

Personally, I like a low volume in a boot, especially over my toes so I’m not a big fan of the ‘overkill’ bulky rigid toe mountaineering style boots that are in fashion at the climbing end of the scale. I’m not looking to kick holes in hard ice, more to not break my toes or the boot on steep firm bootpacks.

I’m looking for a Soft boot with a low profile but re enforced toe box and there are a couple of models out there fitting this bill. If you’re looking for something more aggressive for front pointing then the bigger toe box at the more aggressive end range might be your thing.

Footprint length?

Another important point for my ride is heel and tow overhang. I’m in the larger range of foot (UK11 or 46) and am not a big fan of toe or heel hang, so I’m also looking for a boot with a low profile outer and sole length. I find the rigid soled boots tend to have a longer foot print (especially if they have fully automatic crampon lips at the front) so again this is something to take into consideration. I’m looking for toe and heel bevel and a low profile shell that comes in short for its relevant foot size.

Negative flex or stride mode?

The negative flex feature or stride mode is one of the features I do like and definitely want to see in a split board boot. The extra length gained in the stride on easy angled approaches feels nice, gains you time and this is something to definitely consider. Some boots have this as an adjustable feature that opens for hiking and which you can lock closed for riding whilst others have softer panelling to do the same job. There are plus and negative points to both.

Open and closable negative flex features offer a greater range of movement but have adjustments that can break over time. Soft flex panels offer less negative flex in the stride but are less complicated, lighter and less likely to fail.

Boa or laces?

I used to be a laces all the way everyday guy, but the past couple of years I’ve been switching between laces and boa systems depending where and what I’m doing and I have to say, I’m becoming a bit of a boa fan.

The big fear with the boa system is obviously the failure of the system whilst you’re out in the middle of knowhere and I’d definitely think twice about taking this system out to somewhere like Greenland for a few weeks of expedition, so its interesting that Jeremy Jones feels confident enough in the system to them on his expedition boot.

Having said this, so far I’ve had no issues with any of the boa systems I’ve used and have a pair that have been going for a couple of years now and so I’m kind of coming around to the idea, if its good enough for the Joneses and all that!

Quite a few boots have a mix of Boa upper and speed lace lower. This is quite a good idea as the upper boot we will loosen for the climb and tighten for the descent where as the lower boot over the foot we might not adjust as much.

Of course, with laces you know where you are at, but I do find I have to constantly re-tighten laced boots a lot through out the day. Speed laces are a good quick easily adjustable option but then even speed lace systems can fail over time and can also be pretty difficult to repair in the wilds. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust its going to work or carry a back up plan with a roll of duck tape?

In the past I’d have gone only for Laces or Speed laces but I have to say the boa is no longer a feature that would put me off.

Gaiter protection?

Do you need a gaiter cover over your boot for protection? Some boots are using these over lace zones, which is probably not a bad idea. The full cover option isn’t a bad thing for a cold climate expedition, punching deep steps uphill or for protecting the boot on long mixed or snowless approaches.

Most Snowboard boots seem well insulated against cold and are already pretty waterproof. I’ve never felt the need for a boot cover and it seems like an unnecessary feature but dry feet are always good, you decide?

Fast and light?

Kit weight is important for me!

There’s no point having super lightweight bindings and a split board made of latest high performance weight saving materials when stuffing a couple of kilo’s on your feet.

In recent years my summer mountaineering boots have developed from being heavy bulky expedition style boots to streamlined, lightweight mountaineering shoes, more akin to a mountain running shoe than their predecessors.

The same can be said for Ski randonée boots that today are so light that you can’t really feel the weight on your foot and yet they still offer the support and performance of an old style boot of twice the weight!

Fast and light is the new approach to climbing mountains and the filter down effect of the technology can be seen everywhere…

Except maybe in Splitboarding or Snowboarding boots, which always seem to be based on the design of years gone by but available in new colours. I mean, you look at the height of the toe box, the bulkiness of a Snowboard boot and then look at the height of your toes, how slim your foot is?

Snowboard boot and specifically Splitboard boot design, could change a lot in years to come as we demand lighter weight, well designed effective features and an even greater level of ride support and feel. At the moment, most (not all) of the boots designed or marketed specifically for Splitboarding seem to be aimed at the rugged Mountaineering end of the scale rather than the fast and light randonée approach and so all carry a bit of extra weight when compared to a normal Snowboard boot.

If you’re looking purely for a fast and light approach, then maybe its time to try a hard shell randonée boot?

If, like me, you’re looking for the soft boot feel of the ride back down, for now, you’ll just have to accept the compromise of the extra weight, get a little stronger and work a little harder for your turns, I’m happy with this!

Flex wise, I’m looking for something that offers the support I need for Big Mountain Freeriding, whilst allowing me the sensitivity and flexion that I want to feel smooth in my turns. Usually I’m looking for something around a 6 to 8 on the 10 is max stiffness scale.

Most Splitboard specific boots are designed to be at the stiffer end of the scale anyway, so here I might look for something a little softer than the norm.

Personally, I tend to go for the more ‘Snowboard boot’ feeling Splitboard boots, such as the Burton Tourist (light and simple, low profile with a supportive sole and simple negative stride flex feature, but comes loose quickly, could do with a velcro top strap) or the Salomon X-lab Trek, (a little heavier, but a nice design with good features and rides with a snowboard boot feel).

As I’ve explained, I’m not looking to climb a big North face in my Splitboard kit, but I do want something that will hold a crampon and get me up and down the mountain efficiently whilst offering me the ‘ride feel’ that makes me want to get out there in the first place.

Try to make yourself a list of requirements and number them in terms of importance and then go try match your requirements to the boots on offer.

There’s a full sliding scale of Splitboard boots out there ranging from the full on aggressive Climbing models like the Fitwell, the Mountaineering styles like the 32’s Jones and Deluxe XV, the generic all rounders like the K2 Aspect and Northwave Domaine CR, through to the less aggressive splitboard specific Salomon S-lab and the simple Freeride boot with negative flex feature of the Burton Tourist which is as close as you’ll get to a normal Snowboard boot for Splitting.

At the end of the day, you can simply Split in your regular Snowboard boots and most people do. It depends on what you’re going to do, how often you’re going to do it and how deep you’re going to go.

Hope this helps!
Neil.

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