The Fitwell Backcountry is a splitboard mountaineering boot designed to get you to the goods faster and safer. For those with gnarly lines in mind, is this the Vibram-shod answer to your big mountain prayers?
Splitboarding and backcountry riding has blown up in recent years, with more and more people inspired to ‘earn their turns’. While there have been great improvements in splitboard bindings, it soon becomes clear that regular soft boots are a compromise for the demands of split use. If you spend any time on splitboard forums, you’ll notice the lengths splitboarders will go to improve boot performance – even going as far as modifying hard shell ski boots. Fitwell have addressed this need for support and split performance with the Fitwell Backcountry. Support and durability for mountaineering use without having turn to ski boots? Sounds good to me.
Snowboarders have come round to the idea of a quiver of boards, (surfers might wonder what took them so long?) but a quiver of boots? Sounds a bit crazy, but take Jeremy Jones for example. He mentioned at a screening in Japan that he likes bouncing through mellow powder as much as the next guy – and you can be sure he wears soft boots for that. He has his own splitboard-specific softboots now, but when climbing and riding that insanely steep ‘Shangri-La’ face in the Himalayas? Fitwells. Likewise, the Fitwell Backcountry is a popular choice for guides that spend all day moving around working in the mountains. One look at their burly build quality reveals why, but is this too much boot for the typical backcountry splitboarder?
The build quality:
Splitboarding tends to destroy soft boots, placing them under forces they are not designed for. Durability is one area where the Fitwells really shine. Every aspect of the build is solid, from the Vibram sole and oversized rubber welt, to the riveted metal lace hooks. Hiking over sharp loose rocks, I had no worries that the boots would be damaged and the outer shell looks like it will last a long time. Even if you are splitboarding every day of the season, you should get a good number of years out of these boots.
Sizing and fit:
The liners are functional rather than high end, but very solidly built, in line with the ‘Made in Italy’ durability of the boot shells. One point is that they are short: about one inch lower than a pair of 32 Lashed liners. This felt strange at first, but after about two days I didn’t notice it anymore. Mountaineering boots are generally shorter around the leg than snowboard boots, and this makes the Fitwells better for touring and climbing.
Trying on soft boots I’m often taken aback by how many have folds or seams in poor positions that make the shells kink when flexed, causing pressure points. The Fitwell Backcountry doesn’t have any of that, a testament to the Italian boot-making quality. The fit, for me, is great. Obviously everyone’s feet are different, but after heat molding the liners and adding after-market insoles, they should be good for most people. There is one major point to be careful with: sizing. Fitwell’s version of ‘Mondo’ sizing is totally different to every other brand! I wear a 26.5 or 27cm boot (US 8.5 or US 9, depending on the brand) and in Fitwell sizing, I am a 280. I highly recommend trying these on in your local shop, and paying close attention to Fitwell’s sizing chart:
How do they perform?
You don’t have to ride crazy Jeremy Jones lines to feel the benefit of them. On moderate terrain the boot performed as expected – you have to push a little harder to flex them when new, but get them on steeper terrain or at higher speeds and that stiffness becomes a reassuring feeling of security. Out of the box, the flex is even stiffer than a Burton Driver X, and with the solid build quality the breaking in process takes even longer. I really wouldn’t want to hit the park in them but I did enjoying blasting around resort, carving trenches, and once I got used to them, I was surprised to find that I could still throw a sidehit method.
In regular bindings a slight minus is the toe overhang – although the actual sole footprint isn’t much bigger than a typical snowboard boot, the shape of the semi-automatic crampon compatible heel welt sticks out further. This means the boot can’t sit as deep in your binding as normal boots. This seemed to be more of an issue in my Burton Cartels than in my Sparks, and to be honest I didn’t notice it once I was riding in either binding. What I did notice is that you can basically go as fast as your legs can handle. Want to straightline mogul fields ? “Hai Dozo!” Go for it. Your boot to board interface won’t be the part of the equation giving out. If your legs can take it, these boots will keep your board solidly driving on its edge. This is kind of the like the buzz of riding hardboots, without having to ride hardboots!
Riding wise, the only minus I noticed was the lack of shock absorption in the midsole. This is a material trade off: the solid shank that makes the Fitwells semi-automatic crampon compatible can never be as cushy as a typical softboot midsole. I didn’t really notice this blasting around resort on Re:Flex Cartel trays, but on the solid metal baseplate of Sparks it was noticeable. Some people put padding on their split baseplates for this same reason, so it’s not entirely the boots. Throwing in some good insoles with more cushioning would improve this.
One tweak I’d make is the laces: the super strong lace material is too slick to stay tight without double knots. They also seem to give more rope burn than other laces, and you have to really crank on them to tighten the shell. I would swap the laces out for a pair of softer 32 boot laces that grip themselves better. A spare lace is hardly a pain to carry – after all, that’s the point of having traditional lace boots in the backcountry. For those wanting a slightly mellower flex with the ease of BOA closure, Fitwell have released the Freeride, but for maximum mountaineering performance the Backcountry still seems to be the go-to choice of guides.
Final thoughts – are they worth it?
If you’re spending more than a few day per season on a splitboard, and like to push into more alpine terrain, the Fitwells are a sound investment. Yes, they are about twice the price of a typical soft boot but they do actually feel like they will last more than twice as long. Most of your day splitboarding is spent on the way up, and that’s where the right boots can make it a whole lot easier – and even save your life. Skinning along a ridge, kicking steps in sun crust, hiking with crampons… All of these common scenarios are harder work in softer boots and can quickly become dangerous, even in mellow terrain. The Fitwell Backcountry give security in these situations, saving you energy on the way up – which means more fun to burn on the way down too.
Stay safe in the backcountry – the right gear is only the first step. Get educated, take a course, and practice safe backcountry travel.