Splitboarding 101: Ten backcountry snowboarding lessons from Weston Snowboards
After leading a 75-plus minute course on snowboarding with splitboards in the backcountry, Ben Hilley compared starting out now with when he first took up the sport more than a decade ago.
“I bought a splitboard,” Hilley said. “I paid the exact same price you guys are going to pay today — actually a bunch more back in the day. And I went straight to Canada. I crossed glaciers. I did a bunch of really stupid stuff. So if we can prevent that at all, that’s awesome.”
Hilley is the team and events manager for Minturn-based Weston Snowboards and, along with Weston team riders Zach Husted and Pat Gephart, he shared years-worth of splitboarding knowledge at the REI in Dillon Wednesday evening.
“This is all the dumb silly stuff that we’ve learned by doing stuff wrong for 10 years,” Hilley said.
From safety to comfort to useful gadgets and resources, here are 10 takeaways for those looking to take up backcountry snowboarding this winter season:
What happens when warm weather or crowds prevent you from accessing the resorts during the winter? Or what if you’d like to snowboard some in July? For Hilley, earning one solid run in the backcountry is preferred to some of the headaches and stress you might experience at a resort.
“Most days, I’d rather hike for four hours up a hill, snowboard down in 10 minutes and ride that one line and never see it again in my life than ride Vail Mountain, which I’ve ridden a thousand times before, the same runs. It’s just a whole different experience.”
“When Vail shuts down in April,” he added, “we are going into May, June, July. There is snow in Colorado 12 months out of the year, you can hike up to any glacier and splitboard any month.”
Choose a shape that fits your adventure
Hilley said Weston does make solid boards ideal for learning, but in the backcountry they recommend a large camber, opting against reverse camber boards.
“Really hauling down some big lines, I want some camber under my feet,” Hilley said.
With that, your selection should be based on where you’re headed.
“This (board is for) the guy taking his park tricks to the backcountry,” Hilley said. “This is a guy going to Alaska or going to Silverton. And that’s the guy that’s just having fun ripping trees up at Vail Pass or wherever.”
Don’t cut your resort board in half
Thinking about skimping on the price of a splitboard and taking a circular saw to your favorite board? Weston cautions against it, especially if there is no way to apply a metal edge and full sidewall to what is now bare wood.
“You can find a board on Craigslist for $400, I guarantee it,” Hilley said.
“If you don’t have a metal edge,” he added, “if you have an open piece of wood, your splitboard is just going to fall apart. So make sure you get a splitboard that is designed by a splitboard company and not just cut in some guy’s garage.”
Telescoping poles are worth it
Z-poles or collapsible trekking poles are an option when in the backcountry, but Weston recommends sturdier telescoping poles. Hilley knows from experience, and doesn’t necessarily caution against keeping your poles in hand while shredding downhill.
“Maybe I’ve broken several of those smacking snow off of my splitboard, which you’re not supposed to do,” Hilley said. “And that’s why they sent me some of those pole, because I broke all of the other ones.”
“Izzy, one of our team riders,” he continued, “she always has her poles right in her hand.”
Splitboard crampons are a thing
When added traction is needed for uphills, perhaps in the spring or thanks to warm early midday winter weather, getting off your splitboard to posthole hike isn’t ideal. That’s when splitboard crampons come in handy. The devices slide on and latch onto the middle of the two splitboard pieces.
“So while you are skinning, you actually lock in,” Husted said. “These things are awesome. And I’ve had days where I’ve had to take one off and give one to a friend that didn’t have them. And then we were able to both get up, because we at least had one.”
Consider a SPOT GPS
An annual subscription to a tracking service may sound weird, but Hilley said he wouldn’t venture into the backcountry without his SPOT Satellite GPS messenger. The locater tracks exactly where you are and can send messages and preset messages back home.
“You can say, ‘I’m late, I’m totally fine.’ Or you can call the cavalry,” Hilley said. “You can hit one button and the helicopter is coming to get you. If something did happen, I want to know that I can hit one button and search and rescue knows something has gone down and they are coming for me, not relying on a cellphone, not waiting on someone to go and hike into service.”
Slope angle shading maps
Gephart was adamant that Caltopo.com’s backcountry mapping is one of the best resources for a backcountry snowboarder. When avalanches are always a worry, Caltopo’s shaded maps based on slope angle can make all the difference in preparation and trip planning.
“Basically I find a route that is going to avoid any kind of steep slopes if I am worried about certain aspects or elevation,” Gephart said.
Carry your repair kit
Hilley admitted that he has dropped into more than a couple of lines while his board was secured with zip ties and ski straps. By carrying a repair kit, situations like this can be avoided.
“Because I did not follow that rule,” Hilley said. “But my buddies did. They were like, ‘Uh, yeah, I’ve got 100 zip ties. Here you go. See ya later. I’ll meet you at the bottom.’ And I got down, so a repair kit is critical. I carry one of almost everything I can in the pack.”
Dial your board in at the resort
The Weston crew advised against going straight into the backcountry with a brand-new splitboard.
“They never know it can ride way, way better if they had just ridden it at the resort,” Hilley said.
Practice rescue skills
If too lazy to practice with that avalanche beacon and probe you just purchased, Hilley recommended burying household items to incentivize learning the necessary knowledge to use those tools.
“Bury the remote to the TV out in the backyard,” he said. “Bury your roommate’s IDs. Bury a six pack of whatever. And find them. Have fun. We might have a team day where we go out and practice all these rescue skills, and maybe we hide money or whatever is going to get these guys motivated to practice this stuff.”
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