GearSnow Sports
Ski Week 2020

Long-Term Review: Our Favorite Snowboards Right Now

Decks for the park, powder, and everything in between

This year's boards that stood out among the rest. (Photo: Drew Zieff)
This year's boards that stood out among the rest.

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Singling out your next snowboard has never been trickier. Imperceptible design variations, seemingly limitless options, and an avalanche of technical jargon—it’s enough to paralyze the ill-prepared shopper with indecision. Thankfully, Outside does the research for you. 

Every spring we call in the best boards from brands big and small, rally testers from all rides of life, wade through mediocre models, and hoist a few select winners high above the rest. I’ve been running the annual test for the last five years, reviewing snowboard gear professionally for the last seven years, and snowboarding for the better part of the past two decades. Here, to aid you in your quest for the perfect board, we’ve put together an authoritative review of the best boards in recent years. 

How We Test Snowboards

Each year, about 30 testers—most recently, nine women and 21 men—converge for the annual Outside snowboard test. In the early spring of 2019, we set up shop at Crested Butte, Colorado. We evaluate anywhere from 50 to 100 boards from more than 20 companies, ranging from corporate behemoths to mom-and-pop operations (last year it was 56 boards from 24 companies). We generally test up to three boards from each brand, aiming to include a men’s, a women’s, and a wildcard when possible.

Our testers represent a cross section of the industry, including former professionals, up-and-coming competitors, shop techs, and instructors. Riders take a board out for a couple laps, fill out a review form, swap out bindings, and repeat. That translates to up to eight boards and over 25,000 vertical feet of riding per tester per day.

We then put the scores from each test sheet into a master spreadsheet, and after a couple of days, we have a pretty good idea about which boards are contenders and which are duds. On the last day, we box up the losers and encourage testers to take longer spins on 20 potential winners.

In the weeks following the test, my bedroom floor turns into a mosaic of beer- and coffee-stained review forms, which I read through and catalog, contacting testers with questions. Finally, I choose our top picks.

Our Favorite Snowboard

snowboard
(Photo: Courtesy Lib Tech)

Lib Tech Travis Rice Orca ($600)

Lib Tech tested the waters in 2019 by launching a single size (153 centimeters) of the Travis Rice Orca. In response to resounding demand, the Pacific Northwest board-building powerhouse added more sizes for 2020 without changing the recipe. The Orca now comes in six sizes, ranging from 144 to 159 centimeters. It emerged from this year’s test with Gear of the Year honors locked up. 

As fat, fast, and feisty as its namesake whale, the genre-defying directional deck melds the reliability of a big-mountain gun with the deep-snow performance and maneuverability of the short, wide, ex­perimental shapes that snowboarders crave today. Traction-enhancing serrated edges, a predictable moderately-stiff flex pattern, and a compact rocker zone between the feet that’s sandwiched by sections of camber give the portly yet aggressive shape stability, pop, and “grip for days,” according to one tester. “I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea when I stomped landings,” another said. 

But despite its ability to slay steep lines, command unruly hucks, and arc high-speed turns, the Orca is a treat in tight trees. While extremely fat boards are often slow edge to edge, making them hazardous in dense, technical tree areas and variable snow, the Orca is all muscle. Its above-average width also enables you to size down to avoid compromising on agility. (Testers who normally ride boards in the 159-to-161-centimeter range were struck by the all-mountain versatility of the 153.) “Powerful and nimble are often mutually exclusive in snowboard reviews,” commented one tester after sampling a smaller size. “That’s the Orca’s brilliance—it’s agile enough to swerve through dense trees and sturdy enough to straight-line out of a sketchy cliff drop.” Between the wide, compact shape and a buoyant nose and snappy tail, the Orca is a shockingly versatile all-mountain board and a beast in powder. 

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Best All Mountain Snowboard

Snowboards
(Photo: Courtesy Jones)

Jones Mind Expander ($550)

At the crossroads of surf and snow sits the Jones Mind Expander. Crafted in collaboration with celebrated surf shaper Chris Christenson, the Mind Expander’s front half has a Surf Rocker profile that helps keep the nose high in deep snow. Another notable surf-sparked design element is a contour across the board’s horizontal axis, which brings a subtle shape to both the nose and tail, encouraging a fluid, rocking ingress into turns. Testers subsequently loved the edge-to-edge action, and one noted that its short sidecut “snaked quick turns through trees like an agility show dog through weave poles.”

Another tester liked the feel of the medium-stiff deck, although one rider who prefers to ride the fall line at full gas noted that the flex was too soft and the long nose too chattery when straight-lining. The Mind Expander can actually ride switch with surprising ease, and overall it’s a more versatile board than we expected. One tester figured he’d leave it at home on any day with fewer than six inches or of fresh now but ended up loving it in variable snow. “I wouldn’t have called it a quiver killer—until I rode it,” he said.

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Runner-Up: Never Summer Shaper Twin ($530)

We’ve tested plenty of park boards and all-mountain boards throughout the years, and the wide-waisted Shaper Twin doesn’t fit neatly in either box. Rather, it plays its own niche: it’s an all-mountain freestyle assassin, one that testers were stoked to ride in and out of the terrain park. A former freestyle competitor said that the Shaper Twin was ideal for all-mountain riders who want one board, but warned that park riders may want more dampening or oomph.

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Best Freeride Snowboard

Snowboards
(Photo: Courtesy Gnu)

Gnu Müllair ($600)

A big-mountain charger named after Nicolas Müller, the Swiss pioneer of backcountry freestyle riding, the Müllair is a stiff, directional board. With a C3 hybrid camber profile—aggressive camber at both feet, with a mild rocker bulge in between the bindings—it is best suited for riding sketchy lines.

“Stiff enough to blast through chop, soft enough to butter,” said a heavier tester, who was also impressed by the Müllair’s ability to handle hang time. “So much pop,” he said. “You could boost to the moon with this thing.” A freeride competitor added that the wide 159 version offered a “very stable landing platform—it takes bumps like a champ and absorbs them all.” He went on to call the Müllair his “new favorite big-mountain board,” and hinted that we might be seeing it on his feet at his next big-mountain event.

A couple of lightweight riders, however, found the Müllair tricky to maneuver at lower speeds, noting that it was perhaps too stiff. That stiffness, though, paired with serrated Magne-Traction edges and the camber-dominant profile, helped it lock into icy hardpack. The big-picture consensus was that this board loves high speeds, thrives on air time, and isn’t designed for beginners or intermediates.

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Runner Up: Signal Tailgunner ($695)

The Tailgunner is locked and loaded for bottomless days. Freestyle-oriented testers deemed the broad-nosed board strictly a powder tool, but the freeride contingent considered it an adaptable shape they’d be stoked to use anytime, anywhere. A big-mountain rider with a penchant for stiff decks poetically summed up the design’s versatility: “Body of a pow board, mind of an aggressive charger, impish soul of a jibstick.”

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Best Powder Snowboard

Snowboards
(Photo: Courtesy Weston Snowboards)

Weston Japow ($599)

It’s no secret that snowboarders draw inspiration from surfers. From carving techniques and aerial style to lingo and board shapes, we’re closely related to our salty cousins. And it appears that manufacturers are building more boards than ever that allow for a surfy approach to snowboarding. Case in point is the Weston Japow, with its directional pow shape that chewed up marginal conditions and spat out good times.

Though the Weston is designed for deep fluff—“Japow” is a portmanteau of “Japan” and “powder”—we tested this board during a dry year in the Rockies. Still, testers loved it on groomers, leftover stashes, and spring slush. The board’s camber-dominant profile “railed responsive turns like a Formula One race car,” said a tester, and it made groomers “an art,” according to another. Because of the dramatic swallowtail design (which is the notch in the board’s tail), the Japow doesn’t offer much pop, but we were pleasantly surprised by its ability to let loose, get airborne, and stomp landings. “Given the choice to send or not to send,” said one tester, “I’d send on the Japow.” He went on to complement its “dreamy flex,” quick transitions despite a wide nose, and superglue-like edge hold. Testers agreed that while the Japow is ultimately a board meant for soft snow, it’s capable in variable spring snow on everything but the steepest, most technical lines. A freeride carver with energetic flex and float, this is a powder board worth riding even when conditions don’t cooperate.

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Runner Up: Burton Day Trader ($500)

Built with input from freeride phenom Kimmy Fasani, the women-specific Day Trader’s mellow 12-millimeter taper, set-back stance, and gentle flex make it an obvious choice for deep days. The directional deck’s offset sidecut and camber profile help the board engage with the hardpack like a twin, while a lengthy nose comes in handy in powder. Testers agreed that the Day Trader’s soft flex pattern is easy for intermediates to handle, while technical riders craving a freeride weapon may find it too forgiving.

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Best Women-Specific Snowboard

snowboard
(Photo: Courtesy Capita)

Capita Equalizer ($500)

Pro snowboarders are often specialists—they find their niche and stick to it—but not Jess Kimura, a British Columbia legend who began shredding the backcountry after building her cred as an urban rider. Her transcendent skill set inspired Capita’s new women-specific Equalizer, a do-it-all plank with a poppy yet stable ash core and a versatile, subtly directional shape that can both straight-line steeps and get creative on cat-track side hits. Testers deemed the hybrid profile—a level tail, cambered midsection, and rockered nose—floaty in deep powder yet steady on Mach-speed groomer runs. And after dropping cliffs into questionable landings, testers agreed that the Equalizer rallies through chunder with the best of ’em. “I hucked farther than I’ve ever hucked before,” said one smitten big-mountain rider. 

We’ve judged the Equalizer as the best women-specific snowboard, but it could just as easily earn all-mountain accolades. “Fast, responsive, reliable, energetic, and all-around fantastic—a unicorn,” summed up one rider.

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Runner-Up: Pallas Epiphany ($549)

Small brands need to throw big punches to stand out among test heavyweights, and that’s exactly what Salt Lake City’s Pallas did with the Epiphany. A tapered speedster with a squared nose and crescent-moon tail, this beauty had one tester gushing: “I’ve never had prettier, more laid-out carves.” She did warn that the Epiphany’s stiff carbon- and fiberglass-reinforced poplar core demands an aggressive and attentive riding style. “Commit to the turns, then drive the board,” she said. “Otherwise the board will drive you.” 

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Best Custom Snowboard

snowboard
(Photo: Courtesy Igneous)

Igneous Dark Star (Custom builds start at $1,399)

The Dark Star we tested boasted a yellow-heart wood-grain topsheet that was so breathtaking that our crew’s first inclination was to hang the board in a museum. But once we sampled it in powder, those civilized notions disintegrated. This beast belongs in the wild. 

Thanks to a lively and responsive ash and maple core, the board both charges serious lines and pops playfully off every feature. And the blunt nose, notched tail, and aggressive sidecut draw lines through corduroy with architectural precision. Why so expensive? Well, Igneous’s boards are handmade to spec in Jackson, Wyoming, and topped with exotic woods like orange pine, burnt ash, and cocobolo. You can pick from three construction profiles: the ash and maple all-mountain build that wowed our testers with its balanced ride, a lighter maple and fir backcountry build, and a pricier ultralight option, which uses the maple and fir core but replaces the fiberglass that’s sandwiched around the core with a carbon-fiber laminate. Oh, and if lifts turn you off, Igneous will be more than happy to manufacture your Dark Star as a splitboard.

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Runner Up: Franco Snowshapes Panacea (Custom builds start at $3,000)

Franco’s handcrafted snowboards are always a smash hit at the test. The custom Panacea 164 we tested had a zebra-striped wood-grain topsheet that was hands down the most arresting of the entire test. But it was the gun’s elongated nose, rounded tail, and stiff, big-mountain build that won us over. The only problem is that none of our testers can come close to affording them.

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What to Know Before You Look for Your Next Snowboard

Before you start searching for that magic shred stick, take time to know yourself. The more you can define your intentions, the better buying process will be. These five key considerations will help you get to know just what you want before searching for a new snowboard:

1. How do you envision your dream day of snowboarding?

Are you cruising the bunny slopes? Dropping jaws in the park? Scoring deep powder? Carving fresh corduroy? There are specialized boards for each of these aspects of riding, as well as do-it-all decks that get any job done.

2. Now wake up. What does reality look like?

Not every day of riding is a dreamy one. Do you live on the East Coast and need a board that holds an edge in ice? If there’s a powder shortage, will you wander toward the park? Don’t just shop for the board you want, shop for the board you need.

3. What boards have you enjoyed in the past—and what boards have you hated?

Did you need more float on deeper days? Did you crave more pop? Was the size right but the flex too soft? If you don’t have experience riding different boards, go out and experiment. You can read snowboard reviews all day long, but nothing will reveal your preferences like firsthand experience.

4. What’s your skill level?

If you’re completely new to snowboarding, you need a beginner-friendly board that’s on the soft side, easy to turn, and doesn’t break the bank. We didn’t include beginner boards in our test, but directional twins like the Burton Instigator, Gnu Chromatic, and K2 Standard are solid, affordable options that will be easy to learn on and still allow for progression.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced rider, you should consider the terrain you most enjoy and the style of riding you prefer. An advanced park rider, for instance, has drastically different requirements than those of an equally advanced freerider.

5. What’s your budget?

There’s no magic formula for navigating snowboard costs. Generally, a more expensive deck ($1,000 or more) will use lighter, pricier materials like carbon or employ complex construction techniques. However, a more expensive board won’t necessarily last longer or improve your riding. We’ve fallen in love with cheap, no-frills decks that are heavy, surprisingly durable, and a dream to ride. If you’re board shopping on a budget, aim for something around $500 or less.

How to Pick a Snowboard

Not only is it helpful to know yourself before picking out a new board, but it’s also good practice to know the difference between specialty boards and all-mountain boards, as well as variations in snowboard shapes, profiles, flex, sidecut, and technology.

Specialized Boards Versus All-Mountain Boards

Like shot-putters or hurdle hoppers, specialized snowboards shine in certain areas. Poppy park boards are unbeatable when sliding boxes all day long, but you wouldn’t want to tip into a 60-degree chute with one underfoot. The same goes for a directional powder board: your typical wide, big-nosed swallowtail is at its best in deep snow, but chunky, variable conditions weeks after a storm may have you cursing your purchase.

Because conditions are always changing, we love specialized shapes that are still competent outside their areas of expertise. Testers found that the Never Summer Shaper Twin, for example, crushes the park but still has the stability to whip through moguls, ride groomers at speed, and drop technical cliffs. The Japow, while designed for powder, maintains impeccable edge control when carving groomers.

And then, of course, there are boards built with everything in mind, like the women’s Rossignol Diva LF and the Jones Mind Expander.

Shape

Snowboards can be broken down into four main categories: directional, twin, directional twin, and asymmetrical shapes.

Directional shapes tend to have longer noses and shorter tails. They often have a taper, which means the nose is wider than the tail (this bestows better float in powder). These boards are built mainly for all-mountain snowboarding and freeriding, as they are more confidence-inspiring at speed. Some of them ride well switch (though rarely as well as a true twin shape), while others, like the Gear of the Year–winning Weston Japow, would require a death wish to do so.

The twin (a.k.a. a true twin) is the classic symmetrical shape that most folks picture when imagining a snowboard. The nose and tail are mirror images of one another, and these boards are best suited for freestyle or all-mountain riding, as they can be ridden both regular and switch.

The lovechild of twin and directional shapes is the directional twin, a bit of a confusing term as it can refer to two different things: a directionally shaped board with a twin flex pattern, or a twin with a directional flex pattern. These boards are suited to anything from powder to pipe, but are most often designed for all-mountain riding.

As of late, brands have been experimenting with asymmetrical shapes. This trend comes on the heels of an epiphany: unlike skiers, who face forward and turn left or right with exactly the same physical movements, sideways-standing snowboarders have anatomically disparate turns. Essentially, because our toe-side turns differ from our heel-side turns, toe-side construction need not mirror heel-side construction.

Splitboards are snowboards that are cut in half and can be disassembled and divided into a pair of skis for skinning uphill. When it’s time to descend, the splitboarder stows the skins, reassembles the snowboard, and rides downhill. One of our favorite splitboards of 2019 is the Lib Tech Split BRD. (Since splitboarding most often occurs in avalanche terrain beyond the patrolled boundaries of a ski resort, we recommend you reach an advanced level of snowboarding and enroll in an avalanche level-one course.)

Profile

Profile refers to the contour of a snowboard when you look at it sideways laid on the ground. This curve determines how a board interacts with the snowpack. The following terms are related to profile.

Camber. Go back in time to snowboarding’s golden days, and camber is all you would see on the mountain. This classic arch-shaped profile is defined by a downward curve, with a gap between the center of the board and the ground, and contact points on either side of the binding inserts. Camber requires downward force to engage the flex and rails of the board, and subsequently supplies pop, power, and grip.

Rocker. Rocker is the opposite of camber. Like an upside-down arch, rockered boards have a single contact point between the bindings, with an upturned tip and tail. Rocker offers less precision in icy and technical terrain, but it’s easy to turn and unrivaled when it comes to float in powder.

Flat. Flat camber has become exceedingly popular over the past few years, so much so that it’s earned its own category. As flat as the name suggests, this shape is often employed in park and all-mountain boards.

Hybrid. These days, hybrid boards, which combine both rocker and camber, are common. The Weston Japow, for example, has a camber section dominating the bulk of the board, allowing for high-speed carves, with a rockered nose that brings the float requisite for deep days. The Gnu Müllair, on the other hand, has a subtle rocker between the feet, sandwiched by two intense camber pockets.

If you’re new to these terms, try not to get caught up in them. Rather, determine what kind of riding you like to do, and work backward from there. If you crave pop and only ride at hell-bent speeds, a camber deck is best for you. If you ride playfully and appreciate buoyancy on storm days, rocker is your friend. If you’re an indiscriminate shredder, as likely to get lost in the white room as you are to throw down in the park, a hybrid will best serve to your needs.

Flex

A discussion of snowboard shapes is incomplete without mention of flex. Snowboarders refer to flex two ways: longitudinal flex and torsional flex. Longitudinal flex—the flex that you feel from tip to tail—helps determine ollie power and stability. Torsional flex—the flex you feel from edge to edge—directly influences turning ability and edge hold. All you really need to know is that a softer board is more playful and forgiving but also less stable at speed, while a stiffer board is less playful but more reliable and responsive in steeps.

Beginners will be happier with softer boards, while advanced riders should pick their stick based on personal preference: soft to medium-stiff boards for park, medium-stiff and beyond for all-mountain riders and freeriding.

Sidecut

Sidecut refers to the arc alongside the edges of the snowboard. This arc—measured by its radius—is directly responsible for how a board turns. (A board with a bigger-radius sidecut naturally wants to draw bigger arcs as it carves down a mountain.) When eyeballing a new snowboard, keep in mind that bigger-radius sidecuts are shallower and harder to see, while smaller sidecuts are deeper and more defined.

Technology

First, a hot take regarding snowboard technology: much of it is utter nonsense. Brands throw around proprietary technology willy-nilly in their board descriptions—behold the Carbon Bamboo Booster Bumps! Gaze upon the Titanium Uranium Wiggle Rod! There are plenty of technological advancements that we love to geek out over, such as faster and stronger base materials, carbon-reinforced cores, serrated edges, revolutionary tail shapes, improved shock absorption. Generally speaking, though, we take tech talk with a grain of salt and try to avoid bringing up specific spec highlights unless our testers notice it on their own. For example, the Jones Mind Expander’s Surf Rocker is noteworthy because it significantly influences the feel of the Mind Expander.

Binding Hold Patterns

At this point, the snowboard world is pretty much split into two camps: screws and slots. Most common are four-hole screw patterns, and most binding brands craft their products with screw-hole compatibility in mind. Burton is at the forefront of the slot revolution, and all of its boards are built with the Channel system, which allows for an integrated, adjustable fit. Other brands, like Signal, are also utilizing this technology. Where you fall on the slots-versus-screws debate is largely a matter of personal preference, though keep this in mind: if you go with a Burton Channel system, Burton’s EST bindings are preferable, but they’re also incompatible with four-hole screw-pattern boards.

Sizing

There is no calculator that will spit out your precise ideal board size. Board-sizing charts exist, but they vary from brand to brand and board to board.

Old logic says to pick a board that hits between your chin and nose when stood on end. But that solely considers height and fails to account for more important measurements like weight, riding style, and skill level. Experimentation is key when it comes to dialing in your preferences, but you can also use this Evo general sizing chart and size up or down accordingly:

·   Go smaller if you’re a newbie.

·   Go bigger if you’re heavier than average for your height.

·   Go smaller if you’re a featherweight.

·   Go bigger if you care more about speed and float than agility and aerial performance.

·   Go smaller if you’re more likely to be in the park than chasing pow.

Funky Boards, Funky Sizing

Not every board plays by the same rules. While your classically cambered twin board will line up more with sizing charts, more and more unconventional boards are being built to be ridden shorter or longer than your normal size. Testers who normally ride 158- to 160-centimeter boards, for example, loved the Jones Mind Expander in a 154—it’s a big-nosed, rocker-dominant board with a smaller sidecut, and riders loved the playfulness it showed when sized down.

Boot and Board Sizing

You know what they say about big feet? They make snowboard shopping a pain! If you’ve got gargantuan, Sasquatch-size boots, you’ll need to consider a mid-wide or full-wide board to avoid excessive overhanging boots and toe drag.

Buying Women-Specific Boards

What’s the difference between men’s and women’s snowboards? We get this question all the time. The truth is, it’s minimal. While body types inevitably vary, men and women actually ride snowboards pretty similarly. Men shred, and women shred, too. Of course, guys’ bodies tend to be bigger and more muscular, so men’s boards are generally stiffer and available in larger sizes, while women’s options are often softer and available in smaller ones. Ladies with big feet (women’s size 11 and up) will naturally gravitate towards men’s models, since women’s versions aren’t usually offered in wide sizes. Women-specific boards are also peddled toward women—sometimes extremely poorly—with both graphics and model names reflecting that target market. Think of it like this: the ingredients in the recipe are the same, but the portions and presentation are a bit different.

Some brands build women’s boards from scratch. Others offer women-specific versions of men’s boards, the only differences being the sizing and flex pattern. Is one type better than the other? Honestly, no. Our testers have loved and hated iterations of both ilks. 

Can women ride men’s boards? Hell yes. Some boards, like the Gear of the Year–winning Travis Rice Orca, for instance, aren’t available in women-specific models. But it does come in sizes down to a 144, which is more than enough to accommodate people down to 100 pounds. Many of our strong female testers like a stiffer snowboard and thus prefer men’s models. By the same token, we have shorter male testers who opt to ride women’s boards. It’s 2020, people—ride what you want to. 

Filed To: SnowboardsSnow Sports
Lead Photo: Drew Zieff
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