Many would argue that boots are the most essential part of a kit. They’re a medium between body and board, and how a board responds to body signals is more affected by boots than bindings. In the backcountry, far from medical aide, there is less room for error than inbounds at a resort. Therefore, it is important to lace up the right boots before leaving the trailhead. Our team of over a dozen dedicated testers spent a full week last spring putting numerous styles of splitboarding boots through the paces around Crested Butte, Colorado, to determine which were the best going into winter 2017. The following four models were the test favorites.
K2 Aspect – $480
This boot absolutely rips. With help from Lucas Debari, it was designed to take on the world's gnarliest mountains. It took over two years to develop, and boy does that show through its thoughtful design. The foundation of the boot is a burly, crampon-compatible Vibram mountaineering sole. Unlike a traditional snowboard boot, the sole is incredibly stiff, making kick-stepping up exposed faces a piece of cake.
Say farewell to foot cramps while willing your soft-soled boots to stay on a steep headwall. Unlike most other splitboard boots built up from a mountaineering sole, the Aspect felt like a snowboard boot during descents. It actually outperformed many resort-specific freeride boots. Testers had just as much fun riding this boot deep in the backcountry as they did soul-carving groomers and even sending hits in the park.
Bringing it all together is K2's Boa Conda Lacing system. The Conda's not-so-secret ingredient is the full ankle wrap, which locks the heel completely in place to provide even more power and responsiveness in demanding terrain. This boot gets after it in the backcountry.
Rome Guide – $360
Bombproof and built to last, this is the Ford F-350 of boots. Not a pure backcountry boot, it's for the rider who lives in their boots and spends just as many days riding lifts as they do splitboarding or boot packing.
Rome made a couple minor tweaks to this year's Guide, and based on rider feedback, they go a long way in making it even more splitboard-friendly. The biggest improvement over last year's model is the new Vibram Griplight outsole. Rome claims this sole combines unmatched traction with lightness and feel, and testers agreed.
Last year's sole was clunky and heavy. It now feels significantly lighter without sacrificing the durability Rome is known for. Rome's product development team confirmed the new Guide is five ounces lighter than last year.
Testers did note the new sole sacrifices some traction, so although lighter underfoot it felt more slick than last year's model. Rome also swapped the internal Boa lacing for traditional internal lacing, making for a quicker fix in the backcountry should laces fail. The Guide fits the bill for riders who need their pre-work dawn patrols then want to rock the same boots inbounds all day.
ThirtyTwo J Jones MTB – $600
Skeptical testers had wanted to get their hands on the ThirtyTwo J Jones MTB for quite some time, and it exceeded expectations. Going into the test, one was worried that Jeremy Jones could have got carried away during the design process and that it might be over engineered. What if it was too complex for the general user or difficult to repair if/when any parts broke in the backcountry?
The reality: the MTB is simple to use and no more complex than most modern day snowboard boots. The beefy Vibram outsole gripped all surfaces it graced, the traditional liner lacing and outer laces kept entry and exit simple, the zip-up boot wrap kept snow and ice from passing through to the liner, and the walk-mode Boa reel was quick to dial in. Testers reported that with the walk mode open, which gives users a range of motion increase of up to 35 percent, it almost felt like they could have run up mountains since they were no longer locked in by a stiff upper boot.
Should the system fail in the backcountry, it appears that it could be MacGyvered by using something as simple as a Voilé strap, and that a binding highback could provide the remaining support necessary to get back out of the mountains safely. Overall, this boot represents a big step forward in splitboard boot technology. For riders pushing their limits and traveling the distance in demanding terrain, we suggest sampling the liberating range of motion and tractor tire-like grip of the MTB boot.
Fitwell Backcountry – $600
Built for days when crampons and ice axes are the tools of choice. More of a mountaineering boot that snowboards than a snowboard boot that climbs mountains, this is the footwear for serious splitboard mountaineers. Ultra stiff, robust yet simple with a traditional lacing system, and designed to get up the steepest, most technical climbs.
Everything that makes this boot excel at the old kick, kick, axe makes it a stiff ride on the way down. The Backcountry really comes into its own making tight jump turns down steep faces and gnarly couloirs, where losing an edge simply isn't an option. New this year, Fitwell updated the liner by adding more cushioning to relieve pressure points some riders had complained about in the old model.
Lacking the bells and whistles of some other splitboard boots on the market such as a walk-mode, this is a human-powered big-mountain boot at the most basic level. For riders taking a bush plane to camp on an Alaskan glacier and bag big lines, this is the boot to bring along.