Slide Into Backcountry Snowboarding on Snowshoes

Backcountry riding is one of the fastest-growing winter sports. But for many interested in snowboarding off-piste, immediately plunking down big bucks for a splitboard isn’t feasible. Fortunately, there’s a tried and true solution for snowboarders who want to experience the backcountry without a splitboard: using snowshoes!

Read on to discover why snowshoes might be the solution for getting into the backcountry. Also, we provide a few tips to keep you safe once you get there.

man with snowboard strapped to pack in the backcountry

There’s a tried and true solution for snowboarders who want to experience the backcountry without a splitboard: using snowshoes! Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

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Beating the Backcountry Barrier

One of the most significant barriers facing backcountry-curious snowboarders is cost. For many riders, touring-specific snowboards called splitboards are prohibitively expensive. It’s easy to spend nearly $1,000 on just a board, never mind other essentials like bindings and skins.

Unlike renting skis at the resort, finding a splitboard to demo is challenging. Snowshoes help break down this barrier, allowing you to use your existing board, bindings, and boots. Thus, using snowshoes instead of a splitboard for backcountry snowboarding makes it a much more affordable endeavor.

Read More: Top 10 Snowshoeing Tips for First-Timers

Outside the Resort Made Easy

Simplicity is another characteristic of snowshoes that makes them ideal for newer backcountry snowboarders. Unlike splitboards, which require tricky assembly and disassembly when transitioning between the ascent and descent, snowshoers simply detach their snowshoes and attach them to their pack.

Moreover, the walking-like movement pattern of snowshoeing is already familiar, unlike the kicking and gliding motion splitboarders employ for skinning uphill. The advantages of snowshoes over a splitboard allow novice backcountry riders to focus on factors they don’t need to consider while riding at the resort—weather, snow conditions, and layering.

Read More: Three Benefits for Why You Should Use Snowshoes

backcountry snowboarding

Unlike splitboards, which require tricky assembly and disassembly when transitioning between the ascent and descent, snowshoers simply detach their snowshoes and attach them to their pack. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Performance Pros of Using Snowshoes

On most uphill terrain, a person with a splitboard has a performance advantage over a snowboarder with snowshoes. That changes, however, on steep terrain.

Splitboard Loss of Effectiveness

When moving uphill, the skins that provide traction to splitboards lose their effectiveness between 20 and 30 degrees. This loss of effectiveness means splitboarders in the backcountry need to criss-cross or, at times, boot their way up steeper slopes. Meanwhile, snowshoers can charge straight up the more precipitous pitches, especially on snowshoes with an advanced crampon system.

The uphill advantage offered by snowshoes on steeper slopes has led to the development of hybrid ski/crampons such as the Snowfoot (just read our review). Splitboarders and AT skiers, on the other hand, turn to snowshoe-like Ascent Plates when the going gets steep.

Read More: Why You Should Use Snowshoes on Your Next Mountaineering Adventure

Snowshoes and Superior Traction

Speaking of crampons, the aggressive crampon configurations found on backcountry or technical snowshoes provide superior traction to splitboard crampons when snowboarding in the backcountry. Splitboard crampons typically place only a few teeth under the boarder’s foot. Alternatively, backcountry snowshoes can have multiple sets of crampons under the toe, heel, and side of the foot.

Although any pair of snowshoes will get you into the backcountry, some snowshoes work better than others. Snowshoes that pack flat—with their crampons’ teeth facing each other and away from you (such as the MSR Lightning Ascent)—carry nicer and are less cumbersome to stow for the downhill than other style snowshoes.

Read More: MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes Review

back view of man backcountry snowboarding

Snowshoes provide superior traction when ascending steep slopes like this one on Mount Washington. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Snowshoe/Snowboard Safety

Snowshoes enable access to crazy couloirs and amazing alpine bowls, but they also make it easy to wander into treacherous avalanche terrain.

According to the National Avalanche Center, avalanches are possible on any slope steeper than 30 degrees and are most common on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. A backcountry snowboarder skinning on a splitboard or skis cannot easily ascend these slopes, but snowshoers can access these areas.

If you’re heading into avalanche terrain for backcountry snowboarding, consider beefing up your knowledge with a class from American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Moreover, carry the essentials like a beacon, probe, and shovel (or this kit with all three items).

Read More: Avalanche Avoidance Tips and FAQs

Other Essential Equipment

In addition to the avalanche essentials,  carry the following when heading from the resort into the backcountry.

Helmet

You (likely) have two arms and two legs, but only one head—so protect it with a helmet! The helmet you wear at the resort will transition to the backcountry.

However, if your snowshoes frequently take you into more vertical terrain, consider a helmet certified for alpine skiing (CE 1077) and climbing (EN 12492). to protect against rocks and ice falling on you. A multipurpose helmet (like this one from Grivel) can protect you in the event of you crashing into something as well.

Read More: Are Skiers and Snowboarders Prone to Head Injuries?

Goggles

In the Northeast, where we’re based, trees and branches are often as dangerous as snow conditions, which makes packing goggles a great idea. The goggles you use at the resort also transition easily to the backcountry. But be aware that trees and going in and out of your pack can be tough on goggles.

person snowboarding in powder

Make sure to pack avalanche gear and the other essentials when out on a backcountry pow day. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Poles

Collapsible ski/trekking poles are essential for snowshoeing in the backcountry; they aid in the ascent, help with balance, and are even useful for poling across flat sections on the descent.

Tent-style poles (like these Black Diamond’s Ski Poles) collapse super small, allowing you to tuck them into your pack and out of harm’s way on the descent.

Read More: 8 Poles To Use for Snowshoeing

Backcountry Backpack

There are numerous ways to attach a snowboard to a traditional backpack. However, a snowboard-specific pack will carry the board more securely and comfortably.

A bag between 22 and 32 liters is ideal for day trips. For quick trips, check out the CamelBak Phantom LR 24 (and read our review of the LR 20). Also, don’t forget to fill your pack with the essentials.

Read More: Choosing a Backpack: Features To Consider for Snowshoeing

Dress for Success

Layering is critical to any backcountry outing, especially because it’s usually much warmer at the base than at the summit.

Packing layers you can add as the temperature drops and a puffy jacket (which celebrated 100 years) you can wear during breaks or in an emergency will go a long way toward helping you stay warm. In addition, a dry hat and an extra pair of warm mittens to protect those extremities are often a welcome respite when it gets cold up high.

Read More: Snowshoeing Dress Code: Tips for What Clothing To Wear

Did snowshoes provide an alternative to a splitboard for backcountry snowboarding?  Please share your experiences with us in the comments below!

This article was first published on November 5, 2019, and was most recently updated on August 24, 2022.

Author

  • Tim and Doug met long ago at the Eastern Mountain Sports in Canton, Massachusetts. Bonding over a love of slick Quincy Quarry granite, White Mountain sufferfests, and scheming up adventures while folding tee-shirts, today Tim and Doug collaborate to write about their favorite outdoor activities and occasionally get nostalgic about tee-shirt tables.

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6 Comments

  • What style boots would you recommend for using with the snowshoes? I assume something lightweight that will fit in your pack for the ride down. I haven’t gotten new snowboard boots in years but are there versions that fit into snowshoes now?
    It seems like a lot to have your snowboard, board boots and helmet (and any other extras) in your pack on the way up.
    Either way, hoping to get into some backcountry this winter!

    • Hi Casey! Thanks for submitting your question! The authors recommend snowshoeing in your snowboard boots since most snowboard boots will fit into snowshoe bindings nowadays. The snowshoe bindings that work best with snowboard boots are the two or three strap snowshoe bindings or any binding that doesn’t have a molded toe piece. The authors mentioned to me that their favorite bindings are the DuoFit and Posilock AT bindings from MSR. I hope that helps! Please let us know if you have any other questions. I hope you have some excellent backcountry boarding this winter! – Susan, Editor

  • I just bought a set of snowshoes to use on a two week trip in Japan. I was going to build a DIY splitboard but changed my mind because the cost was still going to be a bit high and snowshoeing will give me more flexibility in terms of riding my existing board, adjusting stance etc and save time on the learning curve of skinning. I think for my first real foray into side/back country that snowshoes will be great!

    • That sounds like a great trip, Simeon! Snowshoes offer such a great alternative to splitboards and definitely are more affordable. I hope you have an awesome first backcountry snowboarding experience using snowshoes! Thanks for sharing 🙂