Splitboarding has seen wild growth over the last ten years as riders seek out remote lines, the crowds at resorts grow, and technology makes the sport more approachable. A microcosm within the realm of splitboarding is the world of “hardbooting”, or using a soft-flexing ski touring boot instead of the standard snowboard boot and binding. Companies have been investing more resources into the space of hardbooting as consumer demand has steadily increased. But is it worth giving up the soft leather snowboard boot, a signature comfort of sliding sideways? After spending years on both set ups, here is my take on how hardbooting stacks up against the traditional softboot, sorting each into a winner and loser in different categories.
Uphill Travel Winner: Hardboot
For myself and most folks who have spent time in hardboots, the biggest benefit to hanging up the softboots is on the uphill. The assets of hardboots can be summed up in three areas: lateral stability, range of motion, and the use of a tech toe.
Hardboots offer a rigid lateral support that makes nearly all travel uphill more supportive and secure. The lateral stability makes sidehilling, or travel that traverses across a slope, far easier by transferring more power into the edge of your ski. In softboots, you will have to put far more energy into balancing on an edge and might even need to use an extra attachment to get close to the performance of a hardboot.
I still remember the day I got my Backland boots and tried them on in my living room for the first time. My partner is a skier and when I put the boots on and pointed my foot for the first time I enviously asked her, “Have you been doing this the whole time?!” The most popular hardboot is the Atomic Backland, which has a ridiculous 74 degree range of motion. Spark R&D’s Arc softboot binding, arguably the most popular binding on the splitboard market, has a mere 13 degree range of motion. The range of motion of your boot/binding combination is important for uphill travel because it dictates how easy it is to stride as you are skinning. The more freedom you have to move, the more efficient you can be on each step.
An unexpectedly valuable aspect of uphill travel for my hardboots has been the use of a ski-style tech toe. I have found the tech toe uphill attachment to be far more reliable than any of the toe pieces offered on softboot bindings. The style of attachment used in softboot bindings tends to be more prone to snow build up, involve more parts, and fail more often than the tech toe. The tech toe has been industry standard in the ski world for years, with simplicity and reliability being the main drivers for universal adoption. It’s hard to see why splitboarders would need to reinvent the wheel for this tried and true technology.
Downhill Performance Winner: Softboot
Few other activities evoke the same euphoric descriptors that snowboarders use: surfy, flow, mind expanding, artful, glide. These feelings originate in the experience one has of putting their board on edge to make a turn or floating through soft snow. Many riders, rightfully so, believe there is an inexorable link between the boots worn and this experience. Softboots offer a sense of natural mobility that hardboots seem to revoke. Plus, if you are a proficient resort rider, you have probably spent season upon season getting in tune with moving your board using standard snowboard boots. These barriers make the mental leap to wearing a ski boot difficult. Wearing a hardboot is an objectively different riding experience and if the main reason you slide sideways is for the downhill feeling to which you’re accustomed, softboots are the clear winner for downhill experience.
Mountaineering Winner: Softboot
First, let’s define what I intend by saying mountaineering: pushing into bigger, more committing terrain where you are likely to end up with your board strapped to your pack as you move across a mix of firm snow, ice, and rock to get on top of a line. The benefits of hardboots can be summed up in two words: crampon compatibility. One of the scariest moments of my life came when I was climbing Mount Hood via the Pearly Gates in softboots. I had a hard time finding a crampon that was wide enough to accommodate my softboot, and the boots didn’t have the requisite toe and heel bail needed for use with automatic crampons. I was using universal strap-on crampons, but the toe of my boot was too large to stay put. French/flat foot technique was insecure because the toe of my boot kept popping out of the side of the crampon. Climbing the twenty feet of semi-technical steep ice through the Pearly Gates was sketchy to say the least, as the boot wasn’t stiff enough to use for front pointing. Since then, my hardboots have allowed me to climb near vertical ice and march all over icy glaciers in the Pacific Northwest. Even in my local terrain around the Lake Tahoe Basin, the fully rigid soles and hard outer shell of hardboots allows me to kick steps into firm, icy snow where my softboots would collapse.
If you have any intention of pursuing ski mountaineering objectives, you will most likely be looking toward a mountaineering focus softboot, like the Jones MTB anyway, which weighs in at 1.5 kg, compared to a Backland Pro that weighs just under 1.2 kg. Even the dedicated mountaineering softboots lack the same range of features as a standard ski boot. The features and weight make this an easy win for hardboots.
Cost Winner: Softboots (kind of)
If you’re looking to get into splitboarding for the first time, the cost of gear is a huge barrier to entry. You need a board, bindings, skins, boots, avalanche safety gear, a pack, and probably a few new layers just to get out on your first tour. Softboots can take a big item off that costly list if you already have a resort setup, as softboot bindings allow you to use your resort boots for touring.
Durability Winner: Hardboots
Durability differences between hard and softboots makes the true cost “winner” harder to determine. The initial investment in softboots is less, but the highly leather and plastic construction means that the parts wear out faster. The hardboot bindings I have used, the Spark R&D Dyno and Karakoram Guide HB, both have fewer parts and less plastic than softboot bindings. I have had just about every component of a softboot binding fail, especially the plastic components such as the ratchet buckets and toe/heel straps. Binding failures can range from frustrating to dangerous and the minimal, mostly metal components of a hardboot binding make me feel much more confident, especially on multi-day missions, as compared to a softboot binding. Further, if you spend a substantial amount of time touring in softboot bindings, the imperfect connection of a leather boot in the binding while touring will eventually lead to wear in the outer shell of the boot. The plastic shell of the hardboot means that the boot will last for many seasons to come. Finally, if you do need to replace a component of your boots, the first thing to wear out, both in soft and hardboots, is typically the boot liner. Because so much of the world are skiers, there is extensive aftermarket liner availability.
While the upfront cost of hardbooting is greater than softbooting, over the long term I feel that the durability and modularity that comes with hardboots ends up costing less. For folks who are just dipping their toe into our sport or plan to tour for only a handful of days a year, the cost of a hardboot setup won’t provide the long term benefits. However, if touring is your main winter hobby and you have aspirations to get out in bigger terrain, the investment can be more than worth the cost. My hardboot setup is my daily go to and with enough time in the saddle, you will get in tune with the downhill differences and find any number of small modifications you can make to get your experience to be nearly the same as a softboot. Finally, while touring we spend nearly 90% of our time traveling uphill. The increased efficiency on the uphill makes nearly all the downhill trade offs worth the cost.