Splitboarding – Twenty Years of Evolution in Split Tech

Three generations of hardboots

Splitboarding – Twenty Years of Evolution in Split Tech

by Aaron Rose

Aaron Rose skinning up Hidden Valley in the Atomic Backlands

Aaron Rose skinning up Hidden Valley in the Atomic Backlands with Phantom Link Levers

Prior to the 1990’s, splitboarding was more of a concept than a reality with people pushing heavy duty prototypes into the backcountry on a trial and error basis. In the words of split pioneer Brett “Cowboy” Kobernik’s, splitboarding experienced a “slow progression” and took time to catch on as a niche market. The same could be said for the hardboot or “split tech” movement. The original pioneers of splitboarding had ski backgrounds so there already had been adaptations and modifications for alpine ski boots, including the use of alpine bindings designed for snowboard racing.

In the last two decades, multiple companies with snowboarding roots have developed their own line of hardware for skinning uphill and riding down. Voile, Karokoram, and Spark R&D rose to the top as the main players with licenses spilling over to other companies such as Burton, K2, and Nitro. Over the last decade, advancements in splitboard technology have made it possible to go faster, lighter, and move more efficiently through the backcountry. 

Three generations of hardboots

Three generations of hardboots over the past four seasons.

In 2012, Phantom Snow Industries became the first company to develop splitboard products around the lightweight alpine touring experience with the Alpha binding. Three years later, the lightweight Dynafit TLT6 appeared to be the dominant choice for hardbooting, with splitters showing their mods via online forums, particularly www.Splitboard.com. Barrow Worm de Geldern’s reports were quite detailed, if not intimidating for folks who had no prior experience cutting into plastic shells. The crux of the boot issue for many splitters seemed to be the lateral flex, or rather the lack thereof. Modifying ski boots for splitting voided warranties so people would be out of luck if a shell or cuff blew out. 

The variability of options and preferences seemed to make it difficult for people to get started with hardbooting. Prior to getting her hardboot set up in 2022, Sarah Mac described the challenges of making the switch. 

Sarah Mac shredding in the Rocky Mountains - split tech

Sarah Mac shredding in the Rocky Mountains (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mac)

“I feel like with all the mods people have made to their hard boots I don’t know where to start without someone to help who’s done it. I do see a lot of guides switching to hard boots possibly because a lot of those voices are speaking passionately and loudly. My soft boots are stiff enough to not feel like I’m at a disadvantage on the skin track and they also accommodate a cramp on. They are the only boot that exist with these capabilities for women and are less comfortable/heavier than my ski boots however.”

– Sarah Mac, aspirant AMGA split guide 

What other options could splitters consider if they didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of hardbooting?

Technical Softboots Circa 2015-2016 

By 2016, different companies started pushing “technical softboot” options that tended to cater to mountaineering-oriented splitboarders who needed security and durability. In the three boots Engearment tested that year, Burton, Fitwell, and ThirtyTwo approached the boot design in different ways. Yet two out of these three boots would persist as options for the next five years.

Handmade by an Italian company, Fitwell Backcountry boots were advertised as a technical option for softbooters. Despite the media hype, Fitwell continued to struggle with developing a foothold in the splitboard market with a very limited presence in two sales representatives for the entire American market. It seemed that those who wore Fitwells would eventually end up in hardboots.  

Burton also came out with their own version – the Burton Tourist Splitboard Boot, which incorporated speed laces and not really a whole much else for the touring experience, despite the name. Despite the cons, the Tourist came recommended especially for those with larger feet profiles.

The ThirtyTwo MTB Jeremy Jones Splitboard Boots are one of the most recognized mountaineering splitboard boots on the market, yet people have a love/hate relationship with them. At an Outdoor Retailer show, Russell Cunningham formerly of Karakoram bemoaned the lack of a stiff shank and bent the MTB boot in half to make his point. Rigid certainly, but not stiff like a ski boot.

Other companies came up with similar variations of the same boot designs with speedlaces, tongue covers, articulation modes, but never quite hit the mark in terms of technical performance and durability.

The Tipping Point: Atomic Backlands Platform 2016-2019 and The Link Lever Announcement 

The Atomic Backlands made their first appearance at SIA2015 as Atomic’s first foray into the AT market. Skiers had raved over the skinning performance and eventually splitters would start experimenting with the Backlands as well. Between 2017 to 2018, more splitters started pushing the envelope with mods. 

Splitters’ preferences ranged from the stiff high-end carbon shells to the grimalind plastics that provided softer flex. Atomic added options with boa dials while dropping the tongue insert. Some went ahead and cut into the plastics for more flex or ride in tour mode with the tongues in. Others experimented with the link lever, leading to a revelation in split tech. 

On January 11, 2019, seven years after the Alpha Binding came out, Phantom Snow Industries announced a limited production of link levers for their Phantom riders and requested help dialing the specs in. At this point, it was clear that Phantom was going to be around for the long haul. 

The introduction of the Phantom Link Lever may be considered a tipping point for the split tech revolution. Instead of cutting into plastic, splitters could swap out hardware without any boot modifications. Phantom would take it a step further the next year with boot offerings. Split tech was here to stay.

Aaron Rose on his first day of shredding with the Phantom Link Levers

Aaron Rose on his first day of splitboarding with the Phantom Link Levers in 2020 (Photo by Seth Linden)

Phantom Slippers and Key Equipment Disruptive – A New Generation of Split Tech 

When Phantom announced the new Phantom Slipper in June of 2020, it was the culmination of years of experimenting with different boots and figuring out what worked and didn’t work for the majority of splitters, not to mention the energy that Alex Gelb brought to the company as a loyal customer-turned partner with John Keffler. Two years later, Phantom would come with another iteration known as the HD Slipper with a tongue insert and they continue to tinker with split tech across the board, offering their own take on clips with the Hercules clips.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hampus Cederholm and Christophe “Tal” Etallaz created Key Equipment and relied on their existing network to push pre-sales of the Disruptive, which can be described as a blend of softboot features within an alpine ski boot shell. The first production run came out in the late winter of 2022 and early feedback seems to be positive so far, with Krister Kopala giving his full endorsement of the Disruptive.

More Options than Ever – Hardboot Bindings & Tech Toes

Not to forget about the crucial equipment that keeps our feet locked in on the up and down – the bindings and tech toes, Spark R&D and Phantom currently offer a licensed Dynafit binding with three screw mounts instead of four. In addition to Phantom’s new generation of bindings in the M6, Spark R&D and Voile have their own version of puck-based plates.

Karakoram put out a limited run of their first version of the Hb Guide binding only to make some updates to the production process and now are cranking out a new version of Guide bindings to cater to hardbooters for the 2022/2023 season. Available only in the European market, Plum’s Sok hardboot binding comes out as an alternative from a company that also builds ski bindings.

Despite the apparent saturation of the Atomic Backland platform in split tech, there are a few other boots to choose from if you are inclined to go for a stiffer profile. With the 2023 split tech offerings, splitters should have more options than ever to choose from.

One comment

  • Overall a pretty good survey. The Salomon/Arcteryx skimo boot should also be included. As I understand it, they were trying to design an ice-climbing ski boot, and it so happens that ice-climbing and snowboarding have more in common than ice-climbing and skiing, as far as ankle flexion goes. (Although no softboots offer a full-auto crampon-compatible toe in 2022! WTH?) I think the number of people successfully riding that boot with minimal mods helped validate Phantom’s position that a proper splitboarding hardboot was not an oxymoron as they were working with modded TLTs at that time.

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