Splitboarding 101: An intro to gear, terrain and growth for Colorado splitboard riders
In an average season, Alex Gelb gets about 85 days on the slopes. Not bad for a mountain town local — but only five of those days are spent jostling through lift lines at a ski resort. The other 80 days are spent nearly alone in the backcountry with nothing but a 172-centimenter Furberg splitboard between him and the goods.
“For most people it’s (about) getting some peace and quiet, getting out into nature,” said Gelb, a Houston native who now works at Wilderness Sports in Dillon and fits the mold of a typical splitboarder. “It’s a more authentic experience, I would say.”
Throughout the past five or six seasons, splitboarding — the snowboard equivalent of human-powered alpine touring on skis made for uphill travel in deep, remote locations — has gone from a garage oddity to one of the newest and hottest segments of the snowsports industry.
In 2011, at the annual SnowSports Industries of America trade show in Denver, a handful of established companies such as K2, Rome and Burton debuted men’s splitboard in response to the insane popularity of AT ski equipment. By 2016, those first big dogs were joined by more than a dozen other companies, from big-name Jones Snowboards to tiny Furberg. Snowboard sales as a whole have slowly declined every season since 2010, but riders (and industry workers) such as Gelb don’t see the splitboard and backcountry touring market dying anytime soon.
“I feel like five years ago, there were fewer manufacturers and more do-it-yourself things, like splitting the board in your garage,” said Gelb, who started splitboarding soon after moving to Colorado seven years back. “Now, there are entry-level boards, stuff you can get into right away, and the second-hand market is growing exponentially. A few years ago, you didn’t see many used ones.”
It seems like now everybody’s got an uphill setup, in one capacity or another, said Chris Shump, general manager at Alpine Quest Sports in Edwards.
“What we’re seeing on the retail side of it is between splitboarding and AT skiing, it’s becoming like a part of the quiver,” Shump said “It’s not just a fringe thing; everybody’s getting into it. I’ve not ever had somebody try this and say, ‘that sucked, it wasn’t for me.’”
Split gear 101
The splitboard market might be growing at a rapid clip, but that doesn’t mean it’s as straightforward as sports like alpine skiing or even its big, bad older brother, freestyle snowboarding.
For starters, the equipment is much different from a run-of-the-mill snowboard made for resort and terrain park riding. Most splitboards are long and wide to float in powder — most men’s models start at 159 centimeters and get bigger from there — and come in a slew of funky shapes, from directional twin-tips to dramatic swallowtails with fat noses. Colorado manufacturers such as Unity Snowboards of Silverthorne and Weston Snowboards of Minturn have experimented with all over the past four or five seasons, and by now, they both press boards made for almost any type of travel.
The two things all splitboards share: a specialized binding system and two ski-like pieces. The two-part thing is intuitive — pull them apart to travel uphill, just like skis, and then clip them together for the snowboard ride down — but the binding system is different from anything else out there. Splitboard bindings from manufacturers such as Voile, Spark R&D and even Union look similar to freeride cousins, but they’re made to slide on and off the board with something known as a puck — an insert that’s screwed to the board and holds the bindings in place, whether you’re in uphill touring mode or downhill riding mode.
The first splitboard binding systems in the ’90s and ’00s were finicky, but Gelb said the industry has evolved to be simpler and sleeker.
“I think it’s gotten a lot more accessible,” Gelb said of modern splitboard equipment. “The gear has come down in price, and it’s now significantly better, and now you have boot companies offering boots that are touring specific. It’s not quite like an AT boot, but it’s getting into that realm, with one mode for touring, one for riding.”
Gelb personally rides a hard-boot setup. He prefers it to traditional soft boots — “It’s a lighter setup (and) makes a big difference for those longer days,” he said — but companies such as Deeluxe and Thirty-Two now make hybrid boots with hard backs and soft uppers. All told, a brand-new splitboard setup ranges from $800 to more than $2,000. Zach Husted, another Summit splitboarder, suggests saving money with a used kit to get started.
“No need to splurge on a brand-new kit right away,” Husted said. “It’s better to start with the necessities and upgrade if you grow to love self-powered winter travel.”
For the ladies
Purpose-built men’s splitboards are still relatively new, but the women’s market has taken even longer to catch on. Until this season, only a few big brands such as Burton and Jones made women’s models. Even then, most brands only offered one option for women.
That all changed when boutique manufacturer’s such as Prior Snowboards and Pallas Snowboards — a tiny, female-owned factory from Utah — launched full splitboard lines made for ladies. They’re lighter, slimmer and more maneuverable than men’s models, and that can make all the difference during a daylong tour.
“Venture is out of Silverton, and they spend a lot of money developing products for ladies that are specific to them,” Shump said.
Next up for the industry: boots and bindings. No major manufacturers make women’s-only splitboard bindings, and the same goes for boot manufacturers.
“I would say with regards to bindings, the binding companies are aknowledging that, as well, but there’s not a lot they’re going to be able to do aside from making the back of the binding shorter and in smaller sizes,” Shump said. “Because otherwise (females) have the same demands as male riders do.”
While splitboarding continues to grow in North America, it’s been slow to catch on across the world. Europe is another natural hotbed, led by pros like big-mountain rider Xavier de le Rue, but Japan and other Asian countries are still locked into freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle riding.
“Backcountry isn’t a huge scene since they don’t have the sizable mountains or terrain compared to the French Alps, (British Columbia) or even Colorado,” Husted said of splitboarding in Japan, where he hopes to become a guide next season.
With any luck, Husted said, that will change soon. Backcountry riders such as Japan’s Kazuhiro Kokubo are making waves in the big-mountain world. The only question for industry movers and shakers is whether or not this next generation will embrace human-powered travel and shy away from snowmobiles and helicopters.
For converts like Gelb, though, nothing beats a day of splitboarding far away from the resorts — even if the powder stashes are few and far between.
“Just embrace it,” Gelb said. “Don’t think that every single turn is going to be waist-deep powder. You’ve just got to keep your head in the game — some days will be tougher than others — but as long as you keep a positive attitude, you’ll have a good time.”