Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Atomic Backland Boot for Splitboarding Review

Bottom line: My Atomic Backlands broke. The boot couldn’t take it and failed after less than two months of use.

The Backlands, new, tongues removed.
I arrived at using the Backland as my splitboard hardboot (a new foray, and a topic for another post) based mainly on one reason, two of my partners were using them (one of them a skier, one of them also a splitboarder).

Having a partner in crime would be really nice to trade notes with as we both adapted to this big change.

The other major selling point aside from gear redundancy, was the awesome simplicity of the boot: basically all its parts are simple and field replaceable. This is a big selling point in Alaska, where parts availability is consistently in famine condition, and it’s a nice piece of insurance on remote trips where a lot of money has been sunk into getting to a corner of mountains where you don’t want to have a small broken part leaving you tent bound.

Out of the gate, this boot really didn’t disappoint. There was a learning curve to dialing in settings, made a little steeper due to the softboot-hardboot gear transition, but, all things considered, this boot felt at home on a board deck to me very fast.

The uphill performance goes without saying: these boots are meant for uphill travel if nothing else, and they really didn’t disappoint there. End story.

Dialing them in for descending didn’t take long to feel good either though: two runs to be specific.

I think by the third outing and maybe the 8th run total, I was certain that the big question surrounding soft boot versus hard boot: “how does it ride,” was answered.

Amazing.

My riding felt better than ever, incredibly simple, and confidence inspiring.

The steeper the line or deeper the conditions, the better these boots felt.

They didn’t lack for playfulness either: wind features and tree skiing remained just as fun.

I think a big reason these boots felt so good for boarding was their low-profile cuff. Compared to most ski boots, the Backland has a very trim cuff. With the booster strap and removable tongues pulled, this gave the boots a very progressive flex in ride mode. The only adjustments I made between tour and ski mode was to bump the ankle buckle a notch tighter (an easy feat thanks to the two-setting cable router), and to engage the ski lever.

The boot did have a steep forward lean, but I liked that, as I’m more a fan of stiff and reactive boots.

The only changes I was looking to make with the boot, was to experiment and modify the tongues to “true” half tongues, by cutting them down, basically at the elbow, so that the tongue provided improved lower shell fit, without stiffening the cuff/shin area.

For the record, I tried to use the stock half-tongues unmodified a few times, but couldn’t find a happy place, and felt way better without them.

My major complaints, the liners are terrible: Cold, floppy, and flimsy. I was interested in replacing them eventually.

Additionally, without the tongues, the top of the boot is essentially open, barring a supposed piece of weather-proof fabric. As a result, cold air poured in on nippy days, and promised to let wet spring snow melt through in the coming months.

I hoped to cut the latter issue off at the pass by adding the modified “true” half tongues into the mix once I got around to it.

Never got the chance though.

The first boot to go was my splitboarder partner’s. The black pivot portion of the cuff snapped just behind the rivets. Atomic uses three pieces of plastic to complete the cuff: the stiff, black plastic pivot piece, with two flexier pieces of plastic riveted to the top of the pivot piece to close around the shins. Where the two are attached, the stiffer black plastic thins.

This resulted in failure on my partner’s boots, one catastrophic, the other cracked and would have followed suit. The rivets themselves showed no signs of strain.

My fellow splitboard partner's boot broke where the two plastic types join. First glance appear the rivets pulled out, but look closer and you will see that the black plastic portion of the cuff is thinner, and that is what cracked away. The rivets were still intact doing their job

Two days later, my right boot, (back, driver leg) failed at the pivot itself, right side of the shell.

One thing to note, conditions on the weekend these boots failed were pretty cold - highs in the single digits, sub-zero lows – following a week of even colder temps, and snow conditions were very deep and soft.

My boot broke 2 days later at the cuff pivot

The theory is that a one-two punch of cold temps brittling the material, combined with increased torsional stress in the deep and low density snow, may have pushed the boots past their limits.

On the former point, after finding failure in my boot, I tossed one in a chest freezer for 24 hours, and left the other at room temperature, then opened the cuff on both boots side by side to compare plastic stiffness.

To a T, the cold-soaked boot was extremely difficult to work at the cuff, and the stiff black plastic felt like it could be broken or snapped if it was much colder.

Even taking off the boot puts a lot of stress on the weak connection point between two plastic types.

My boot’s failure was clearly the result of torsional stress and cold temps piling up on a single weak point. Some others have reported using this boot for splitboarding without issue, but, the fact it happened it all would make me weary of recommending it’s use to another boarder. I was glad it happened on a fairly mellow day and not somewhere more high consequence.

So for splitboarders, I’d rule this boot out. Atomic has let out that they will be taking some of the light weight characteristics from the Backlands and moving them over to the Hawx freeride boots for next season. If there was ever a cross-breed of these two boots, essentially a backland shell and a Hawx 100 cuff, I’d consider revisiting the boot.

In the big picture, as a splitboarder, I would look at the weak point on the Backland on other super light boots, e.g, the Procline and the Salomon version we’ll see next year. The torsional stresses we put on puts are different than for skis, and while these lightweight uphill centric boots may be tempting, they might also pose long-term durability questions too.

For skiers, I think replicating these failures in such a short period of time is low risk, if not impossible. That being said, lots of mileage in high stress skiing (e.g., lots of side hilling and side slipping, as well as lots of jump turns, any and all in deep conditions) could eventually produce similar failures, but the timeframe is hard to judge, and would probably depend on a list of variables from amount of use, to skier build, style, and setting preferences.

For someone slamming tons of vert in creamy pow, they may never replicate these failures even after a million vertical feet (I hope they don’t!)

As for what I did next, sold on hard boots, I’ve transitioned to the Dynafit TLT6. That boot has been used extensively by other splitboarders and has a good track record.

Stay tuned.

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