Splitboard Pro Tips With Colorado Adventure Guide Scott Levin
Like all new sports, learning to splitboard requires practice — even if you already know how to snowboard. The technical gear, transitions, and body dynamics demand some long, slow days in the mountains just to figure it all out.
I was lucky enough to get a beautiful on-snow practice day with Colorado Adventure Guides out of Breckenridge, Colorado. Patient and knowledgeable, guide Scott Levin walked me through everything from planning to skinning. I learned a ton in one day. Here are the pro tips I’m already putting to good use:
Before even setting foot on the approach to local’s favorite Mount Baldy, Levin showed me his favorite planning maps and apps. First, he checks the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) website after the morning forecast is posted.
Next is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) for nerding out on elevation and wind loads from shifting snow. After that, he dials in detailed backcountry trip planning through a mix of apps: CalTopo, Google Earth, and Hillmap.
Turns out what you put where in your pack matters, especially if you’re on the top of a mountain trying to apply skins with snowman hands. Levin likes his clips: He secures everything with a matrix of carabineers and clasps that ensure it’s all right where he needs it when he needs it fast.
If you’re not that anal, at least keep your avalanche probe and shovel together and alone in an outer pocket so you can access safety gear quickly. Hook your visor hat and helmet on the outside of your pack. Inside your pack, keep gloves and a windproof outer layer super handy for quick transitions. Skins, once removed, and extra layers can get squished lower down.
Make and take a basic kit for those mishaps that can happen as early as the parking lot, like mine. I sliced open my thumb on my splitboard’s edge before I even put it on and Levin quickly jumped into action with his mandatory First Aid kit, which of course he could locate within seconds in his orderly pack. I’ve got a First Aid kit on the way so next time I can be my own hero.
Unlike downhill skiing or snowboarding where you ride lifts between endurance sessions and can run inside if you get too cold, backcountry splitboarding or alpine touring requires much more careful management of body heat. You are working very hard hiking uphill, which will often make you sweat if you’re wearing too much out of the gate. And this can get dangerous fast when you shed layers and then your sweat freezes as the wind kicks up or temperatures drop.
In keeping, this sport requires a careful balance of layering with insulating and weatherproofing clothing, especially around the core, where it’s most critical to retain heat. This combination will be different for everyone and will require some field testing in different weather conditions, but it’s critical to get it right.
For example, Levin wore a sweat-wicking baselayer, kept a thin wind-blocking shell handy for quick changes, and vented his pants as needed. On our sunny day, I overheated quickly in a traditional wool baselayer and down puffy and had to play with my layering a lot. I’m definitely trying Voormi’s ultralight merino tech tee next time.
Oddly, my hands were hot and I went without gloves for most of the way up. The wind kicked up and I needed a shell fast at the top of the mountain. Getting my layers right will take more practice.
Sure, skinning on a splitboard is essentially shuffle-walking up the side of the mountain. But there are some technical tips and nuances that are important, particularly when you need to move faster or more safely due to the variable conditions in the backcountry.
The first is learning how to use your risers — the three-click metal prongs under your bindings — that help you walk more efficiently on progressively steeper terrain. Start by kneeling to change your stance; then move on to practicing the master click with the snow basket on the bottom of your poles. I found the latter challenging.
Three more skinning pro tips:
- Think outside the skin track: You don’t always have to follow the path others have carved. Sometimes it’s safer to cut trail rather than risk sliding at all on steep, icy lanes.
- Learn some backcountry turns: On steep switchbacks, the A-V-A kick turn can become your friend. Plus it makes you look like a pro.
- Preserve energy for laps: One of my favorite tricks for preserving energy on the uphill, knowing I wanted an extra lap of downhill powder, was the recovery or “rest” step. This is essentially taking a bigger glide with your first foot, then slowing pulling the back ski to meet the lead ski. It creates a pause that’s remarkably helpful for slowing the heart rate.
Transitioning from skinning uphill on two skis to converting bindings and clips into a single splitboard is one of the most important parts of the sport. You want to be able to do it fairly fast in case you’re caught in a weather event that can quickly turn your hands to immovable objects, ice up your board, blow away gear, and make communicating with others difficult.
Levin taught me three cool pro tips for making transitions smoother:
- Dual fold: If you’re not tall or have trouble navigating the right angle and hold on your skis to strip your splitboard skins head to toe, try the dual fold. Angle the ski from your foot out and strip the skin halfway; fold it glue to glue into quarters. Flip the ski and do the same on the other side. You’ll have a tidy package you can quickly stuff in your pack.
- Bridge trick: Instead of jamming your two skis together while parallel and flat on potentially slippery ground, use the edges to dig into the snow and make a little bridge the length of the skis. Then lock the internal clips; once hooked, lay the board flat and secure the top and bottom edge clips.
- Ice scraper: It’s important that your splitboard is free from ice so you can make a smooth transition to the downhill. Pack a palm-sized ice scraper or DIY one from an old credit card or anything with a solid edge to free ice chunks that could catch you up while making turns.
One thing I overlooked was the difference in body dynamics on a resort board versus a splitboard during the descent. Looking back, I wish I’d practiced at a ski area first. Carrying your poles, even the helpful folding kind, in one hand while adjusting for the weight of a backpack can quickly throw off your balance.
Without the freedom of hip and arm movement on a resort board, the descent on a splitboard is more cumbersome initially and requires some quick adjustments and understanding of body dynamics.
Additionally, on a splitboard you are traditionally set much farther back on the board to take advantage of powder and if your bindings are like my Spark splitboard setup, they may have a gentle rise under the lip. That also requires some getting used to. I have some work to do to master my body dynamics, but I consider it all part of the process.
One of my greatest fears in the backcountry is getting separated from my riding partners, especially in the trees. The idea of falling in a tree well in deep powder with no one in sight or seemingly out of shouting range freaks me out. Luckily, there is some gear for overcoming this fear. Increasingly backcountry skiers and riders are using basic but highly effective two-way radios. Just tune to the same channel and you’ll never feel alone.
But where technology may mask some sense of safety, there are some other simple methods for keeping your group together, according to Levin. One is plain old “hooting and hollering.” Make it fun, call out in the trees: yee-haw! It makes the ride down more fun anyway. I also liked Levin’s “three-turn follow.” Let the lead rider make three turns, then head for a parallel line to ensure you’re staying with your buddies.
The last simple pro tip is locating some visual waypoints as a group before the descent. On our day, there was big power line that we could orient around. Further in the backcountry, you could point out a stand of trees, creek bed, rock outcropping, or other natural elements to ski toward — or sometimes away from.
A big thank you to my smart and kind guide Scott Levin of Colorado Adventure Guides. This crew does it right. By walking me through trip planning basics inside, then transitioning as slow as I wanted up and down the mountain, they gave me the kind of experiential knowledge that my brain likes best. I’m looking forward to putting it to the test with each new splitboard adventure.