Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Splitboard Binding Shoot Out: Voile, Spark R&D, Karakoram

It’s been a little over a year since I switched from the Karakoram Split30 binding system to Spark R&D Burners.
I have no regrets.
Despite the low snow in AK this winter, we were presented with a lot of opportunities to ski some solid lines and do some big tours. The performance of these bindings has been top notch, and has lead me to some conclusions on splitboard binding technology in general.
In 6 seasons of splitboarding (I was on snowshoes my first winter up here) I’ve used Voile conversions for 1, Voile Lightrails for 2, Karakoram Split30s for 2, and Spark R&D Burners for 1.
In that time, I’ve had a number of partners who have used these same systems, as well the Spark R&D Tesla system.
Here are my conclusions:
 
Voile Lightrails and conversions
Voile’s slogan is “Simple, Solid, Backcountry.” That’s what you get with them too. They’re not fancy, they’re not cutting edge, but they came up with the puck and pin system first, and they haven’t done much to change their bindings since.
As far as the conversion bindings go, if you’re on a budget, and already own a pair of regular bindings, this is a good option. Using the conversion kit also means you can use any snowboard binding you want, and are not beholden to a specific splitboard binding company, or the feast/famine nature of parts availability for splitboard bindings.
The downsides are fairly obvious: you have the added weight of the heavy metal mounting plate and additional required mounting hardware, and you ride higher on your deck. Given that most splitboards are already on the stiff side, this last part could really give a board a “twitchy” feel in soft riding conditions.
The first season I splitboarded I had a pair of 2004 Burton Customs mounted to the Voile conversion base plate. Photo J.W.

Note the lift due to the base plates. Photo K.M.
The Lightrails, the original splitboard-specific binding, are a pretty good system for their value. 
One notable nuisance with Voile systems, they rely on a pin that is secured with a latch, and kept attached by a leash. Voile’s leashes don’t seem to last long, and it is possible to release the pins. I threw a pin at least once when I was on Voiles, and know others have too. 
I learned this winter though, while helping another rider out who had lost her Voile pin, that Spark pins can be used on Voiles. This is worth noting for Voile users as the Spark pin system is more secure. Also, any rider using a puck and pin system should ALWAYS carry a spare pin.
The touring interface on Voile is also weak, relying on a thin metal mount that is easily flexed.
In general, Voile makes good, reliable products, and I’ve had good customer service from them. It should be noted that Spark actually relies on some of Voile’s proven design for their own systems. When it comes to pushing the sport forward though, don’t expect much from Voile. I like them, but they are clearly a ski company that makes some splitboards and splitboard parts. If they wanted to be a leader, it wouldn’t take much.


Up on the Lightrails. Photo J.O.

And down. Photo J.W.

 
Karakorams
To see my thoughts on Karakoram’s Split30s, go here (LINK). The company launched a new interface this season. I have not met any other riders employing it so far, so I can’t comment on even second-hand experiences. It looks cool, and like a potential improvement, but I still see some obvious design weaknesses in the ride mode (the touring mode is still the same). I look forward to reading or hearing other’s thoughts.
Putting the Karakorams through their paces navigating a stout rain crust and some whippy terrain. Photo J.O.

 
Spark R&D
I’m using Spark Burners. At this point, here’s what I can say: I don’t see any reason to use any other system.
Yes, the puck and pin is Neanderthal: you grunt and shove them onto the pucks before dropping in, and rely on a simple pin as your connection and axel while touring.
Here’s the thing, I think this system still wallops everything else for overall performance and reliability.
The main advantages I see the Burners having over the Lightrails is that 1. The Burners are a bit more burly than the former, and 2. More importantly, have a stiffer touring connection.
As an aside, and in keeping with my review of the Karakorams, I really appreciate the simplicity of the straps Spark uses (simple T-nuts are used on the inside of the straps to adjust length, as opposed to camlocks used by Voile and Karakoram).
The burly factor is not particularly significant. I think the Lightrails are pretty tough too. 
I do want to take a moment here to comment on one thing in general with splitboard bindings: burlier is better. 
Both Spark and Karakoram have pursued lightweight binding options, though Spark also offers the tougher Burner and Afterburner (for Tesla). I’m not a big guy (145 lbs), but this is snowboarding, not skimo racing. 
By default, snowboarding means more aggressive line choices, more power-edging, and more harsh maneuvering. If you want to cut weight on your set up, get a light deck; get stiff, light boots; get light clothing; but don’t skimp on your bindings. All the aforementioned components have proven reliability and performance in their lighter forms. When it comes to bindings, you’re getting down to basic physics when you cut out material in pursuit of weight savings. 
So, on this front, the Burner is a clear choice for a splitboard binding platform.
As noted in my comments on Voiles, the Spark touring bracket has a much stiffer connection. On advice from touring partner Nathan, I used the LT brackets and pins, which rely on plastic bushings in the touring bracket and an aluminum pin. I’ve put a lot of hours into the brackets and they show very little wear, a definite bonus over the brass bushings and steel pin combo. Eventually, wear will occur, but this is a robust combo that will stay tight for a long time.
I also like the simplicity of the Spark pin system, in that it’s secured beneath the toe strap, and does not require an attached latch, like Voile. The only way this system will release is some type of catastrophic failure.
The question left unanswered, is whether to stick with the conventional pin, or to go for the Tesla interface. 
My observation thus far, is that I can’t find a good reason to go with Tesla. I think the single best part of the Tesla system is that it should provide a stiffer connection in tour mode because the prongs clamp onto the interface. That being said, there are some known issues with the pins wearing down or breaking, particularly in instances where they were routinely torqued on from the side. If the Tesla pins fail in the field, they can be punched out and replaced with a conventional pin (read, you should still keep that spare in the bag), but that’s a difficult repair to make.
Also, the Tesla system uses riser wires mounted on the bottom of the binding itself. Voile dual riser mounts are known for failure, particular with the forward, touring, riser. The trade off, is that the Tesla’s risers are a bit more tricky to actuate, and require dropping both risers on initial deployment; if you want to use your low riser, you have to engage both wires, then flip the big riser back up into the disengaged position. Nathan also noted that he thinks the sizing of the wire height might be slightly different. We haven't had a chance to compare measurements, but he's definitely noticed a performance difference.
The Tesla also affords the opportunity to lock the heel down in tour mode. In all my years of touring, I’ve had very few experiences where I wanted this feature (side-stepping uphill without skins on split-ski exits is about the only one I can think of). That being said, I’m very comfortable split skiing.
In ride mode, I really can’t see any benefit provided by the Tesla. 
Though ancillary to all of this, I actually like having the conventional pins available as de-icing tools in freeze/thaw conditions. The pins work well to quickly scour out snow and ice from the pucks or rails. 
Burners in action. Photo C.G.

 
Bottom line.
I’ve heard from a few people now, and have seen through my own observations, there is a slight ebb and flow occurring, with a few more folks coming back over to the dark side and splitboarding. This may be localized to AK, but regardless, I can’t help but think part of it is because companies like Spark and Karakoram are innovating and trying new designs (simultaneously, the ride quality of the boards has improved). This is great!
For me, I’m waiting to see someone develop a system that provides the same stability and performance in ride mode presently provided by the puck and pin system. Someone is going to nail it here shortly.

2 comments:

James Johnson said...

Interesting! I sold the crap-o-korum after they iced up on me and wouldn't lock in, forcing me to spend about 30 minutes in a storm chipping away at them in a nasty storm on a peak. I hated the straps on the sparks but liked the feel of the base. Went back to the tried and true light rail binding because it just works all the time. Set my pins so that they lock on the side closest to the board, not edge and never managed to pop one out. I also check them and if needed, slightly squeeze the wire clip thing so it snaps on to the pin with more pressure. Oddly enough, my friend uses the old voile base plates on sintered and carbon fiber bindings that weigh less than all three and he loves the added height, which I despise, because he has a wide ass split that has a huge transition time from edge to edge. I also went through a lot of boards and found the magic one for me. If you ever see a late model mojoRx, buy it! I run a 171cm and she digs trench on a hard pack and responds like German made directional in the normal pow all the way to waist deep dumps. Even got a backup for when I whittle down my cap from touring and getting lazy dings. Voile is kinda like a 911 Porsche in design. It remained pretty much the same because it performs and works so no need to reinvent the wheel and add complexion to the system. They are a huge back country ski maker but they also produce a ton of good boards. If anything, they keep tweaking the board design instead of the bindings. Binders haven't changed much since I started snowboarding in the 80's. I figures we would be on magnets by now. Thanks for the info and sharing your insight. I have sent this link to a buddy who is considering the spark. Hope you get some gnarly pow up there. Greetings from Montana.

James Kateron said...

Snowboard is really enjoyable and I love it. Snowboard bindings knowledge is most important to enjoy snowboarding. Your writing and tips is really helpful to me and I hope it'll helps me to enjoy more Snowboarding. But, can you let me know some snowboarding beginning tips?