Best Overall Splitboard Bindings for Backcountry Snowboarding
Spark R&D Arc
Awesome downhill & uphill performance
Attaches simply and transitions quickly
Superior straps & ratchets
Some riders may have trouble engaging climbing bar
High back isn't very stiff
The Spark R&D Arc
binding consistently received the highest scores in every category of our review. It is the lightest binding in our test, weighing in at three pounds. It had the highest climbing score and was tied for the highest downhill performance. To put the cherry on top, it will cost you $385, making it among the most affordable product in our review. Talk about impressive dominance! Losing the pin through the use of the Snap Ramp system saves an appreciable amount of hassle during transitions. This improvement is a significant evolutionary step that improves speed of transitions, reduces the hassle of fiddling with a pin and cable retention leash, while maintaining the speed and simplicity of the puck system.
Read review: Spark R&D Arc
Best Bang for the Buck
Spark R&D Blaze TR
Excellent performance on the downhill
Lightweight and lean
Superior strap design
Outdated slider pin design
Inconvenient forward lean adjusted
The Spark R&D Blaze
is $195 more than the Voile Light Rail and is a model that even the cheapest dirtbag would gladly throw down the difference on. While both the Blaze and the Light Rail feature the classic slider pin, which does feel a bit dated in 2016, the Blaze is lighter, easier to transition, and rocks superior straps. The forward lean adjuster is a notable step down from the one found on the Arc, but otherwise they are similar in functionality (with the significant and noted slider pin vs snap ramp difference).
Read review: Spark R&D Blaze
Analysis and Test Results
Price, ease of use, and overall performance are the most obvious features that folks will consider when making this investment. We not only considered these features, but also dug a bit deeper into what goes into a modern splitboard binding. Within the models we reviewed, they could all adequately function in a wide range of terrain and snow conditions, but had not yet evolved to the point where they have a similar range or function when compared to backcountry ski bindings. This includes heavy models that have been designed to be used in-bounds 90% of the time and very lightweight models designed to be skied in the backcountry 90% of the time. Since splitboards are generally not ridden in-bounds (although they can be), their bindings do not currently compare to backcountry ski bindings in this way. The models that we reviewed all essentially function as normal snowboard bindings when riding downhill. While we don't have to navigate these types of decisions, we do have to make significant choices; instead of prioritizing in-bounds versus backcountry, buyers need to consider cost, weight, transitions, uphill performance, and downhill fun.
Types of Splitboard Bindings
Our review quiver of splitboard bindings.
We reviewed contenders from Karakoram, Spark R&D, and Voile. Within this group, the major differences worked out to be between Karakoram on one side and Spark R&D, Voile on the other. While differences of quality and features exist between Spark R&D and Voile, fundamental differences of type and interface exist between Karakoram and the others. These differences can be thought of as choosing an ecosystem, perhaps like an iPhone versus an Android. Both function fine, but present different strengths and provide plenty of ammunition for online fanboy arguments. The primary differences are covered in general in the Pucks vs Karakoram section below and in more detail in the Karakoram Prime 1
Pucks vs Karakoram
These are the splitboard interface options in our review. Traditional insert pattern with puck, channel system with canted puck, and traditional insert pattern with Karakoram interface.
The first commercial splitboards manufactured by Voile featured pucks that were made for sliding bindings on and off when transitioning from touring mode to riding mode. Although Voile has made incremental improvements, modern pucks largely resemble the earliest versions. Spark R&D released their own puck this season and while it is demonstrably easier to install and adjust, and arguably stiffer than Voile pucks, it too represents a modest evolutionary improvement on a long existing standard. All versions of pucks are compatible with puck style split bindings. Historically, locking pins were inserted in front of the pucks to secure the binding in place. These pins are still found on the Spark R&D Blaze and Voile Light Rail. While completely functional, the pin can be a bit of hassle during changeovers and the thin cable that prevents the pin from being dropped can get in the way when putting your boot into the binding. The Spark Arc uses a locking mechanism they call a Snap Ramp to secure the bindings onto the pucks. This Snap Ramp removes the pins and saves little time with each transition.
Karakoram bindings represent a different type of mousetrap; their system uses no pucks. The method of attaching and releasing Karakoram bindings relies on a mechanical locking mechanism within the binding itself, which locks down and then releases the binding to the Karakoram interface (that is attached to the board). According to Karakoram, the clamping action of attaching their binding to the board pulls the two board halves together, thus improving ride quality. Presently, the choice of setting up your splitboard with pucks or the Karakoram system is likely the biggest choice you'll make in outfitting your board.
Criteria for Evaluation
Skinning up Red Lake Peak on the Landlord.
To determine how well these contenders climbed, we took them splitboarding. When climbing up, we engaged the heel riser(s), adjusted the forward lean, and evaluated how well the products navigated challenging skin tracks and sidehill sections. While all of the heel risers functioned, none were absolutely perfect. Helped by its lightweight, the Spark Arc blew the rest away in this category with a score of 8; all the other contenders scored in the 4-5 range. It also has a very handy highback adjustment mechanism and also allows for the most rearward flex of any binding in our review.
Our measurement includes pounds or grams for a pair of bindings; we noticed that while cruising the manufacturers' websites, they often gave the weight for a single binding, not a pair.
Weight is the most objective evaluation available to us; it also happens to be one of the most critical features when climbing mountains. We weighed all of the models on the same scale. In order to understand the total weight of each system, we weighed the respective interfaces. It is widely believed that weight on your feet, that moves with every step, saps more energy than the same weight on your back, which moves less with every step. This means that saving weight on your bindings can potentially lead to significant gains while climbing.
The Spark R&D Arc
was the featherweight champion at 3 lb and received a score of 8. Not too far behind was the Spark R&D Blaze
at 3.05 lbs. Carbon or other advanced materials could likely drop the weight further, but would almost certainly increase the cost. The Karakoram interface (which is attached to the board) does weigh about 4 oz more than the Voile interface, so the total weight of the Karakoram Prime system is actually higher than just the binding weight we list here.
Weighing the splitboard bindings.
Changing between climbing mode and snowboarding mode can be a hassle. Anyone who has toured with efficient backcountry skiers has likely noticed that splitboard transitions can take longer than skier transitions. Add in some refrozen snow that has become stuck to the small parts of the interface and transitions can occasionally turn into ordeals, whether or not anyone is waiting on us. While some of this unavoidable, it is desirable to reduce the transition time as much as possible. Faster transitions translates to more time riding and that's the whole point.
Experienced splitboarders develop strategies to streamline this process. Pro tip: it helps to have an organized pack with gear accessible in the order that you want it. Being consistent with your transition process builds speed as you become more proficient with each step. Splitboard transitions do not need to take drastically longer than ski transitions and it helps if the splitboard binding (and splitboard too) facilitate quick changeovers.
The best design takes this into consideration and creates a binding that is easy to manipulate with gloves on, requires minimal clearing of snow from the interface, and reduces the number of steps to release or attach the binding. There is a huge difference between operating binding systems in a warm living room and performing the same steps on a windy summit with cold fingers battling refrozen snow and ice clogging the interface system.
The product that scored highest in our Transition section excelled at facilitating changeovers. The Spark Arc received our highest score of 7 because it consistently received the best reviews from testers for ease of transitions. The Snap Ramp system found on the Arc is the easiest to operate with or without gloves. The Light Rail received a 5, largely because the latch securing the slider pin was very awkward to operate. The Karakoram Prime also received a 5, largely because of issues around clearing snow from the interface before reattaching them. Certainly, an organized experienced boarder can switch over quickly using any binding, while a newbie might struggle using the most efficient model in existence; we found the Spark Arc was consistently faster than the others.
Powder day tree runs on Flagpole Peak after an impressive wet loose avalanche cycle.
Riding downhill is the fun part; this is your reward! The whole point of climbing the mountain is to enjoy the shred down, so it is critical that the bindings work well for this. Once attached to the board, they should look and function very similarly to regular snowboard bindings. We tried to evaluate whether attaching the binding actually influenced the ride quality. We did this by riding all of them and then riding the same splitboard with multiple bindings in an attempt to discern if and how the binding changed the feel of the board. Our primary finding was that most of the contenders functioned great on the descents and that changing the binding did not significantly alter the ride personality of the splitboard. The small quibbles from individual reviewers focused on ankle strap and high back preferences, but were not consistent across our group of reviewers.
Our downhill performance evaluation mostly focused on downhill snowboarding, but we did investigate the heel lock features of the Spark Arc and Karakoram Prime. These heel lock features offer the promise of improved downhill skiing performance by locking down your heel. In certain situations, locking down your heel can also help with short climbs as well. Ultimately, we did not factor these into the scores for the Arc and Prime. We found that the heel lock features are an interesting feature, but not yet functional enough to significantly influence one's buying decision.
Straps and Lean Adjusters
We cranked on the buckles that were tightened onto our boots and slapped them off at the bottom of runs before transitioning for another climb. While all of the straps were similar, some worked better than others.
Voile Lightrail strap tearing after a two months of use. Both ankle straps display the same tears, which though more cosmetic than functional, are still disappointing from a fairly new binding.
Most of the bindings have specially designed forward lean adjusters to encourage zero or negative forward lean for more efficient flat land touring. Many snowboarders don't appreciate that zero or negative forward lean is highly desirable on longer and flatter tours.
The view of highbacks and forward lean adjusters in our review quiver.
Covering any significant flat distance with forward lead shortened each stride and quickly added up to more exertion over the course of a day. Rocking zero or negative forward lean (and boots that allow your ankle to flex totally upright or even backwards) significantly improved our efficiency over the course of long touring days in both flat and rolling terrain. If your objective heads straight up from the trailhead, the benefit of this is less noticeable, but still present. The best forward lean adjusters easily switch to whatever amount of forward lean that riders prefer for snowboarding down. The Karakoram Prime 1
and Spark Arc were the clear standouts in terms of easily changeable forward lean adjusters.
Best for Specific Applications
None of the models that we reviewed are specialized in terms of performance. They all tour up and shred down just fine. Perhaps in the future, splitboard specific bindings will differentiate as backcountry ski bindings have based on their intended use, but this hasn't yet occurred.
The biggest difference is between the puck based system (Spark, Voile) and the Karakoram system. We did not find a significant performance distinction but note differences of weight, transition ease, and cost. These differences generally favored the Sparks. Higher priced Karakoram models do weigh less than the Prime we reviewed, so at this issue can be addressed by choosing one of those models.
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From ease of use to overall performance, we considered all of the features that go into finding the right pair of splitboard bindings for backcountry snowboarding. We hope our tests and observations have helped you narrow down the best product for your particular needs. If you're still having trouble deciding, check out our Buying Advice