Outside Magazine, November 1998
Go browsing for a snowboard these days and you'll run up against a numbing array of choices: freestyle, carving, free-carving, boardercross, technical freestyle, halfpipe, and extreme, to name a few. But don't sweat it. If you like flying down groomers just as much as ducking into the trees, and occasionally sculpting backcountry powder or busting a few moves in the terrain park, then you're into "freeriding," which vastly simplifies your decision.
Freeriding is just shoptalk for, well, snowboarding. But now that the sport's equipage has become so nichefied, if you want to enjoy the entire mountain it's necessary to specify that you want a freeride board. A typical model features a nose that's longer and slightly wider than the tail, letting it raft through powder better than most specialized breeds. You can still ride fakie on one of these versatile styles, but they really rip with their tips pointed down. They're longer and stiffer than trick boards, for increased speed and stopping power, yet softer and more forgiving than carving boards, for broader range.
There remain a couple of details for you to sort out, however. First off, do you want a wood or synthetic core? Wood, the traditional material, has an inherently middle-of-the-road flex. Synthetics, on the other hand, can be easily manipulated into boards that are either incredibly stiff, as are often favored by expert riders, or incredibly pliable, which are best for beginners. Then, of course, there's the most important consideration: length. The rule of thumb is to start at chin-height and then adjust according to your riding preferences. Longer boards provide more velocity and control; shorter ones tend to turn quicker and simplify spins and skateboard-style tricks. You should also factor in weight: Heavier riders ought to go a bit longer, and lightweights vice versa. Whichever of the following ten boards you choose, though, you really can't go wrong: While each has its own subtly defined character, they all were made with you — the post-Clearasil, post-rebellion, post-poseur snowboarder — firmly in mind.
Arbor Hawaiian Koa Freeride
The unique timber topsheet on Arbor's Hawaiian Koa Freeride ($399) serves up more than just classy aesthetics — it's said to make the board more responsive than a standard plastic topsheet. Of course, it doesn't hurt that this board has a brawny, full-length wood core made of stiff aspen and poplar. The limber Koa Freeride cuts turns of varying degrees with ease, slithers through bumps like Jonny Moseley, and, fittingly, is ideal for tree-riding: It's pliable enough that you can easily force the back end around an aspen trunk, and yet, thanks to its resilience, it'll snap back in time for you to duck your shoulder into the next turn, thus avoiding snapping a limb of your own.
The Supermodel ($445) makes you feel like a superhero, whether you're carving corduroy, dodging trees, or spraying rooster tails of powder. And because it typifies freeride versatility more than any other board we tested, it's even at home in the halfpipe. The stable yet forgiving ride of this big gun originates in its notably carve-happy shape, which widens just enough at the tip and tail to strike a balance between buoyancy and edge-hold: It has adequate girth to float, but it's not so wide as to chatter on the hardpack. The Supermodel is built around a lightweight wood core, and its seemingly perfect combination of flex, shape, and weight makes it a board you can easily handle at a length 5 to 10 centimeters longer than you typically would.
If two green lights come on near the front of the Electra ($500), that means the piezoelectric damping has kicked in. Not that you need the visual reminder: The ride is so smooth that your feet will already have registered the benefits of this whiz-bang vibration-reduction system. Using the same unique technology that debuted in the revolutionary K2 Four ski, two computer chips implanted in the topsheet convert high-frequency vibrations — chatter — into electrical energy, which is summarily dispersed in the form of light and heat. In other words, hokey as they may seem, the lights are actually functional. The result is a distinctly quieter and — more important — less jarring ride. As for the board's more pedestrian features, a severe sidecut helps it slice through any snow conditions, and it's just soft enough to let you thread bumps with precision. Simply put, it's a blast.
Lib Technologies Emmagator
Strap a Lib Tech to your feet and prepare for admiring glances from liftline denizens, assuming they're in the know. Whether or not you can spin a tail-grab 360 — a requirement of all Lib Tech employees — you'll appreciate the ingenious design of the Emmagator ($417). The wood core is slotted lengthwise and the spaces filled with encapsulated air to provide an uncommonly strong platform at a lighter weight (picture the resilient air cushioning of your running shoes). Likewise, a unique construction that does away with the metal edges at tip and tail means it's easy to coax the Emmagator into a turn, and a Teflon-coated titanium base that's light and damn near frictionless makes for a rocket-fast ride.
As you might guess from the name of this rigid board, the Master ($480) is meant for experts: It requires a good bit of muscle and an equal amount of experience to handle. Its stiffness and stalwart edge-hold make it more of a carving model than its peers, and indeed, you wouldn't hesitate to race a skier top to bottom on this board. Credit the lightweight Master's performance to a cleverly manufactured core: A polyurethane sheet is cut lengthwise into strips, and the outer slices are wrapped in carbon and fiberglass, creating a series of sturdy, internal vertical walls. The effect is a taut board that you can actually feel stiffen at the apex of each turn as it coils up to slingshot you into the next.
Perfectionists out there will love the Natural ($479), which makes cuts with the precision of a scalpel. It has a progressive silhouette, meaning that the radius starts out wide at the tip and gets tighter toward the tail, letting you swagger into turns with smooth confidence and exit with aggressive speed. Also, it's the lightest board we tested — and therefore easy to steer — yet staunch enough to hold any line you choose. Its core is routed out in "strategic places" to shave weight, and then those hollows are masked by a stiffening wrap of fiberglass. In the event that you unwittingly find yourself hucking some big air, its sturdy platform ensures that you'll be able to stick the landing — and with a degree of style.
Option is one of a dwindling number of boutique manufacturers that haven't been swallowed by a conglomerate. Its continued independence stems from a reputation for quality that far exceeds the company's size. To wit: the beefy, leafspring-like Free+ ($429), which is constructed around a wood core that's whittled away in different areas to give it a variable flex pattern. The result is that it's stiffer in the tail, slightly less so in the nose, and luxuriously soft through the belly. Lay all your weight into one edge at frightening speeds and enjoy total confidence that the board will carry you through a perfect arc, without a hint of slippage.
Big feet require big sticks: If you strap a men's boot size 10 or larger to a standard board of any type, you risk snagging your overhanging soles on the hardpack, which can flip you quicker than a ticked-off Jackie Chan. The Mountain ($400) avoids this unpleasant scenario with a waist that's a good two centimeters wider than the average freeride model. Consequently, it weighs more: It took some muscle to flex the Mountain we tested, though the board does have a generous sidecut, which helps in turning. But since big feet typically support a big body, the rider who gravitates toward this board should have no complaint.
The performance of the Levitation ($445), which has a comparatively shallow sidecut, increases in direct proportion to its speed. Your thighs may burn when slow-carving the corduroy, but ratchet up the velocity and you'll slip into a satisfying groove. Carbon-and-Kevlar-reinforced sidewalls that meet the rails at a 90-degree angle (rather than sloping down to them) give the Levitation unparalleled edge-hold. It's quite rigid, but it won't buck you on rough terrain, thanks to a polyurethane core with a honeycomb pattern that helps to dissipate vibration. Overall, it has the sort of stability that will inspire advanced riders to point it down runs that look better suited to bobsleds.
Salomon 400 FR
The softest board of the bunch, the 400 FR ($399) blots out pilot errors that might otherwise cause a cartwheeling crash. Its forgiving nature makes it an ideal option for teetering beginners. And because the full-length birch core is wrapped in plastic, if you do scuff an edge or T-bone a picnic table you aren't risking ruining the heart of the board by letting moisture seep in. Riders weighing more than 160 pounds might find the 400 FR too noodly for everyday use, but its plush ride smooths out landings, meaning it's a friendly board for practicing tricks, launching off cornices, bashing moguls, or anything else that might strike your ever-impromptu all-mountain fancy.
Mark North lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and rides upwards of 100 days a year.
Photographs by Clay Ellis