A couple of key factors almost always accompany game-changing innovations: the spark of inspiration, and the willingness to risk. You need to be able to think about things a little differently, and then to follow through without sweating the possibility that the reason this new product does not yet exist is that it’s stupid.
Here at GP, we generally applaud the results of such bold undertakings. While they may not always result in best sellers, they often get the ball rolling toward things that are. So on my most recent snowboard trip, a fine February foray to upstate New York’s underrated Gore Mountain, I brought along three products that dare to envision better ways to hit the slopes: K2’s new easy-access snowboard bindings, a backpack you wear on your front and ski-centric communication headsets.
Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some measure of doubt about all three. But temporarily pocketing preconceived notions is the best way to uncover hidden gems. So without further ado, here are my gut reactions, followed by what the actual testing revealed. Spoiler alert: those two things are far from the same.
K2 Clicker X HB Step-in Binding System
Gut Reaction: Burton Step On ripoffs.
Actual Testing: There's no escaping this comparison for the second-biggest name in snowboarding. The Step Ons came out a few years ago to rave reviews from yours truly. But K2's version differs in a few notable ways. It's actually a throwback to the click-in system the brand made way back in the day, updated and upgraded with a highback for better responsiveness and control.
One big difference is that getting in and out of the Clickers involves wedging your boot directly down with a bent knee (as opposed to sneaking your boot in from the side, into a little front hook, as you do with the Burton version) before slamming your heel down to lock it in. I found this motion a bit tricky to get used to at first, but that's in part because my brain kept telling me to treat them like the Step Ons. As the weekend wore on, I got the hang of it, which is a huge plus when most of your crew are skiers who don't like waiting for their knuckle-dragging friend to strap in at the top of the lift.
Another big difference is that while Step On boots are only compatible with Step On bindings (thanks to this funky little Boa ankle strap), Clicker boots differ only from standard ones in the recessed cleats on the bottom, so you can use them to ride any board in a pinch.
There is also the matter of cost. The cheapest Burton bundle for men totals $650, the most expensive set-up with the Ion boot (which I tested), goes for $800. Meanwhile, the high-end K2 set-up I was testing, including the Maysis boot, totals $660, with less expensive boots adding up (with the $260 Clicker X HB binding) to $610.
Bottom line: I would still give the nod to Burton for a slightly more dialed-in set-up (the brand has had some time to hone it, after all) and in my opinion a much comfier boot. (The Maysis is very stiff, which some people like but I don't because it kinda trashed my ankles.) But if you want to save a bit of a cash and/or are the kind of alterna-kid who distrusts everything from the Apple of snowboarding, K2's the way to go.
Price (Boot): $400
Price (Binding): $260
Slope Pro-180X Chest Pack
Gut Reaction: A BabyBjörn for snacks and flasks.
Actual Testing: This pack is designed to address two main problems. The first is a common issue for anyone wearing a backpack: you can't actually access any of your stuff without taking it off. The second is quite specific to skiers and boarders: the fact that anytime you get on the lift, you're supposed to take your pack off, to avoid the risk of it getting caught on the chair when it's time to disembark. (Even without the safety element, it's more comfortable and convenient to have it off.)
Toward these ends, the Slope Pro-180X adjusts to slip over the shoulders and keep all your stuff in front of you with three easy access pockets, including an insulated one to preserve phone battery life and a fleece-lined one that doubles as a handwarmer. It also has a smooth, good-looking, water-resistant finish.
And despite my initial concern over how it might look wearing a pack that really does resemble that famous baby carrier, I was pretty impressed with what it enabled me to do. I ended up stashing even more stuff than normal in it, including my phone and wallet, just because they were so easy to access. There's enough room to include other essentials — such the aforementioned snacks and flask, plus hydration thanks to the included flexible water bottle and even an extra layer. The double-zippered pocket with the pull handle is especially convenient, and I felt a measure of smug satisfaction every time the lift came around and my buddies were hustling to get their packs off before sitting down, of course.
A couple of hangups are worth mentioning however. This pack is really best for resort use because if you are going into the backcountry, you need something bigger, with more attachment points, to tote shovels and other gear. And I did find that having a pack on the front did make deep bends (to maintain speed on flats or navigate through trees) a bit tricky, although this quibble probably applies more to boarders than skiers.
That said, I definitely found the Slope Pro-180X growing on me, and I would recommend for a hassle-free day of party laps at your favorite mountain.
Cardo Packtalk Ski Headsets
Gut Reaction: What *NSYNC takes skiing.
Actual Testing: Cardo's reps were gracious enough to send over four sets of its latest product for my crew to review. The idea is that when you are skiing/boarding in a group, once you start spreading out on the mountain, it can be tough to communicate. Whether you are deciding which trail to take or what time to break for lunch, the Cardo Packtalk Ski headsets make it easier by enabling continuous communication on the slopes. With eight hours of battery life, a range of more than 3,000 feet and the ability to connect up to 15 people, the applications for weekend crews and also lessons are compelling.
My buddy Rich, who took the photo at the top of this page and runs the wonderful website All About Après, was searingly skeptical as I attempted to get them mounted to helmets and paired up the night before our first day on the slopes. It was a bit tricky at first, but the brand does give you two attachment options — both a clip and an adhesive — and the pairing got quite easy once my friend Jen and I phone-scanned the code on the instruction booklet to call up a helpful instructional video.
By the end of the first day testing them, even Rich had to admit they were pretty handy. The hardware is pretty well-engineered and sturdy, and the lines of communication hold up pretty well even when you lose visual contact. We found this quality to be especially useful when we hit the trees and took different paths through them, because we could chat and make sure we both emerged safely onto the same trail. We also found that when we ended up on different chairlifts, we could still communicate pretty smoothly.
By the second day, the crew was using all four headsets and having a blast. You can also use them to make phone calls and listen to music, though you have to make sure to get your pairings right. At one point Rich's headset got paired with my phone, and suddenly I was assaulting him with "Blitzkrieg Bop." And of course it's best to turn them off when you run in for a bathroom break — or decide to talk some crap about your friends.
Still, the boy band vibes are hard to ignore, thanks to the foam ball covered microphone that hovers in front of your face on a flexible stalk. I would not be surprised if the form factor on these shrinks a bit in the next couple years, to the point where the whole set-up is integrated into a smaller unit that attaches less noticeably onto a helmet. In the meantime, the Cardo Packtalk Ski is a clever (if pricey) device that just happens to make you look like Justin Timberlake circa No Strings Attached. There are worse fates in life.
Price: $249 each