Snowboard boots simply cannot be discussed at any length without mentioning the Boa Closure System. Its replacement to traditional laces — a system combining a micro-adjustable dial, tough yet lightweight laces and low-friction lace guides — can easily be referred to as the single greatest technological advancement in snowboard boots without much argument. The first commercially available boots with Boa dials debuted in the winter of 2001, and have become ubiquitous since. Replacing the cumbersome (and frankly painful) traditional laces found on most snowboard boots with the dial-based tension system not only made it remarkably easy to get your boots on and off, but it also allowed users to easily adjust the tension of their boot throughout the day, a necessity for snowboarders, whose feet swell as the day goes on.
Some would have stopped there, opting to sell the technology to a larger brand or license the company’s countless patents to other outfits looking to develop similar technologies — but that’s not the route Boa took. Gary Hammerslag, its founder, had other plans. The brand continued to innovate and improve its technology, expanding into other categories — and evolving from two guys at a card table stitching things by hand, to a state of the art facility in Denver’s RiNo district in the process: a sizeable, ultra-modern space embedded with amenities such as a ground-level Brooklyn-worthy cafe that refuses to serve milk with your coffee alongside prototyping machines that even the most high-tech outdoor brands would lust over. But Boa still keeps the do-it-by-hand mentality — a quality that adds to its ability to stay nimble when working with partners. Initial prototyping can happen quickly in-house in a vast area just beyond the reception desk and main conference room. Despite ample room for testing and prototyping, Boa continues to grow and expand — so quickly in fact that the brand’s current office space has been outgrown in a matter of four years. Boa is in the process of building a new facility, just down the road from its current one, filled with testing and prototyping equipment (and, fingers crossed, perhaps a coffee shop that serves milk if you’re inclined to ask for it).
The single dial was just the beginning at Boa. The company pushed beyond the single dial, developing a dual-dial system that allows for two different tension zones and companies across every market of the outdoor industry wanted to work with Boa. The technology now appears on everything from cycling shoes, to helmets for all sports, medical equipment and even military gear. The brand’s commitment to growth and innovation has, perhaps, never been stronger than it is today. In a matter of hours, and sometimes even minutes, Boa can mock up and test a completely new product — thanks in no small part to an array of 3D printers, torture testing rigs and sewing machines. Boa even has its own cable and rope braiding machine (which is quarantined in its own room due to the noise it generates) where different types and combinations of materials and like Dyneema and nylon can be tested.
For Boa though, only so much innovation can happen in-house. It depends heavily on its partners to work cooperatively on ideas outside the box. But to be the most effective, Boa needs to be brought in early to the product design phase. “We’re starting earlier in the process now with some of our key brands,” said Boa’s Director of Research and Product Strategy Brett Vladika. “If you just put Boa on as a lace replacement, all you’re going to get is the replacement of a lace. [The] configurations — where you put the dial, where you put the lace, how you organize the lace going through the guides, how you are positioning all of that — we can program fit.” And fit is what Boa is best known for. Perhaps the best example of Boa’s dedication to innovation, fit and working with a client early in the process to push the limits is in its partnership with Burton Snowboards.
Five years ago, Burton began developing a product aimed at disrupting how snowboard boots interface with snowboard bindings (and in many ways, the snowboard marketplace as a whole). It was a ground-up development process that threw every preconceived notion of snowboard boots and bindings out the window. The project was top secret — there was a sealed off room in Burton’s Burlington Vermont headquarters dedicated to the endeavor. Those employees who were enlisted to work on the project were sworn to secrecy, unable to discuss it even with family members and significant others. The project was Burton’s new Step On system, and Boa was a natural partner for the project. Burton brought Boa in roughly three years ago, to help shepherd the project to completion and fine-tune fit and performance. Like the Burton employees, Boa’s team was also sworn to secrecy. For Boa, working with Burton brings the brand full circle — Burton was one of the first brands that Hammerslag initially sought to work with in the company’s early days. “It’s not about working with every brand,” said Boa’s Global Snowboard Lead & Sr. Account Manager Jeffery “Woody” Woodward. “We really want to work with the premium brands, the brands that are pushing technology in the market itself.” For Woodward, Burton certainly falls into that category.
The Step On system hinges greatly on boot design, and the prototype boot went through countless iterations. One of the most prominent features of any Step On boot is the heel strap that comes across the instep of the boot, much the way you’d see on a typical snowboard binding. The strap, however, is attached solely to the boot and features a Boa dial instead of a typical ratchet system. The strap works to lock the heel into the heel cup of the boot. Another prominent feature of Burton’s Step On boots is the use of New England Rope for cable on the Boa system. Burton is the only brand using New England Rope, a company known for producing rope used on high-end racing sailboats. As with any Boa product, performance and durability are paramount, and figuring out how the New England Rope would route through the strap and into the rest of the boot was one of the biggest challenges. Boa’s in-house prototyping team stitched straps and cable guides into an existing Burton boot in order to get a feel for how it would perform. It was one of the most involved snowboard boots that the Boa team developed (save for an eight-dial custom boot personally designed by one of Boa’s staffers).
But Step On doesn’t work with just a boot, the bindings play more than a small role. And to put it plainly, a system reminiscent — in both name and concept — to old step-in boots and bindings takes a lot of convincing for snowboarders who’ve experienced some of the older systems. Burton’s Step On couldn’t be farther afield from the old setups like K2’s Clicker. For starters, the boot connects at the heel and toe, the two main performance areas on a snowboard, instead of at the middle of the foot. The Step On bindings, while they don’t feature traditional straps, feel as though they do (thanks in no small part to the aforementioned Boa strap that comes across the instep). They also feature a traditional highback — the lack of which was one of the drawbacks of older systems — that allows for gratuitous carving and plenty of leverage. The most seasoned of snowboarders would find few faults in how the Step On system rides.
But the Step On system isn’t aimed at the 60-100 day per year rider (though it could easily satisfy even the most discerning riders that occupy that market). It’s aimed at riders that value simplicity and ease of use highly — that value the latest in snowboarding technology. Burton’s marketing materials dub the system: “the quickest and most intuitive boot to binding interface”. That assessment couldn’t be more accurate. No more sitting down to strap in after getting off the lift. No more having your skier friends wait for you to be ready. It’s a dead-simple, beginner-proof system and one that is enhanced by the use of the Boa Closure System. And one that turns heads on the mountain and in the lift line. In testing the system at Boa’s local ski resorts, a short drive from the Denver office, everyone from ski patrol, to lifties, to skiers and snowboarders had something to say about Step On. It’s a conversation starter at the least — intrigue is certainly a hallmark of any innovative product.
When asked whether most of Boa’s innovation comes from in-house developments or from collaborating with partners, Woodward had this to say: “We almost push each other. We push back on the brand to be innovative and then they push back on us as far as what they want from us and what their expectations are.” Regardless of where the innovation is originating, it’s good for consumers. The traditional shoelace can only take us so far.