By now you'll have seen and heard plenty about the new Burton Step On bindings. Some are calling it a passing fad, while others have been waiting a long time for a step-in system to return - but for all the head turning, tongue wagging and keyboard-warrioring, there are still very few people out there who have actually tried them.
It's clear that they're a massive improvement on past efforts, but are they good enough to rival a traditional two-strap binding? To find out, we headed to the Austrian resort of Axamer Lizum, a stone's throw from Burton's European HQ, for a warts-and-all test. Any questions?
So, step in bindings are well and truly back?
Step Ons, if you don’t mind - but yes. Many years have passed since their dalliance with ‘SI’ models, but Burton now claims to have perfected the technology.
“Perfected"? They look weird.
We have to agree with you on that one – even with the ‘Snugger Strap’ that mimics the look of a classic ankle strap, the sight of your unsheathed boot is an odd one at first. Then again, you could have said the same about highbacks when they first appeared. It took a few chairlift rides, but eventually we were able to stop staring down at our feet with suspicion, and enjoy the view.
How do you get in?
The mantra is 'heel, toe, go'. Firstly, get your heel down into the rear of the binding, where the cleat on the back of the boot will connect to the inside of the highback. There are three levels of engagement in this mechanism – you might hear a small click, but it’s quite a subtle process. The next step is to engage the toe cleats, which protrude out from each side of the boot. Put a little weight on your toes and you’ll soon hear a much louder (and more satisfying) snapping sound on each side that tells you the boot is secure in the binding – and unlike the heel cleat, you also get visual confirmation.
"After years of using straps it will feel weird at first, but that soon passes. It wasn’t long before we could step on whilst skating off the chairlift"
There are only three points of connection?
Yes, that's all – the biggest difference between these and the step-ins of old is that your sole sits in the footbed just like a regular binding. No rigid metal plates, no compromise on board feel.
Is it tricky?
After years of using straps it will feel weird at first, but that soon passes. It wasn’t long before we could step in (sorry, step on) whilst skating off the chairlift. If you have any skier friends that moan about how long they have to wait for snowboarders, this will shut them up.
How about getting out?
A piece of piss. Flick the lever on the side, then just lift your heel up and twist the ball of your foot slightly inwards. If you've ever used SPD pedals on a bike, it's a very similar movement. It feels pretty natural, and the lever automatically returns to the original position, ready for the next time you want to engage. For extra style points – and to save bending over again – you can use your back foot to lift the lever on your front binding.
What about the bit in between? The actual snowboarding...
The bindings are as comfortable and effective as you could hope for, feeling secure but not rigid. It was just a matter of trusting the system; once we were able to drown out the little voice inside our head screaming “what about the straps?!" we were fully won over.
So they’re better?
We wouldn’t go that far – but it’s certainly no worse than the classic system either. Also, one of us reckoned that the fact that you weren’t being held down on the board by straps made it feel "a little more like surfing or skating".
Do you get more heel lift?
None that we noticed, and the Boa strap on the boot does a good job of providing extra support if you need it.
How about foot pain?
Nope. After a morning of solid laps, only one person in the group mentioned feeling a slight ache under the side of their foot, but nothing major – and it could have had more to do with the fact that they were brand new boots, fresh out of the box. It's possible that the system works a slightly different set of muscles in your foot, which takes a little getting used to.
What kind of rider are they for?
Any, according to Burton. First-timers will enjoy not having to fiddle with straps – as long as they can master stepping in on a slippery slope – while experts can appreciate the supposed increase in edge-to-edge response.
Well, physics is on Burton’s side here; it’s just a matter of whether or not you really notice the difference from a traditional system. We didn’t think it was all that noticeable, but our conclusion was that anyone willing to trust the system would get on just as well with these, no matter their ability level.
"We deliberately piled some fresh pow into the mechanism, but it proved to be as easy to clear as a regular binding – a quick swish with a glove, and it’s good to go"
So you can use them in the park?
Yep, they worked great. In fact they offer the potential for a whole new breed of tricks. If you're boosting 20 foot out the pipe like Hitch Haller then maybe you'll demand the reassurance of traditional straps, but for 99% of park riders they offer all the support you need. And for piste warriors racking up the miles, they're ideal.
How about buttering?
Again, there’s a mental block that needs to be overcome. At first it doesn’t seem right to put extra strain on the system, but once you get going everything feels as it should – and when you've seen how well the cleats snap into position, you’ll have faith in them.
What about powder? Do the Step Ons get clogged up in deep snow?
We deliberately piled some fresh pow into the mechanism, but it proved to be as easy to clear as a regular binding – a quick swish with a glove, and it’s good to go. That said, it's a little trickier to engage the cleats when the snow isn't providing any resistance – you may need to wedge your board down a few times until you hear them click. It would be interesting to see how easy it is to remove your board when stuck in deep, soft snow (for instance, a tree well) but we didn't get the chance to try this.
Can you adjust forward lean?
Yes – there’s an adjustment system on the inside of the highback, above the channel. It's a little different to a regular binding and requires you to turn a pair of small screws.
So what’s the catch?
Drawbacks were minimal, but we did encounter a couple of issues. Firstly, it’s tricky to step in whilst on a steep slope. The toe cleats require some downward pressure in order to engage, so if you’re on your heel edge at the top of a steep face or have started side-slipping, it’s tricky to get enough weight on your toe without feeling like you're going to catch an edge. You can always sit down to do it, of course.
If you don’t like the Boa lacing system, then sit this one out; all models in the Step On system’s inaugural year (Photon and Ruler for men, Felix and Limelight for women) feature the wire.
Also, there’s a clip on the backstay that’s supposed to keep your snowboard pants from getting in the way of the heel cleat. For a couple of people in our group, this didn’t always do the job, as it’s a bit flimsy and gets bent easily. You can always remove it, bend it back into shape and reattach, but ideally this would be a lot stronger. We expect they'll work on this.
"Drawbacks were minimal, but we did encounter a couple of issues. For example, it’s tricky to step in whilst on a steep slope"
Do I need to buy the boot and binding together?
Afraid so – regular boots don’t work in Step On bindings, and vice versa. There’s no word yet on whether or not Burton will license the system to other brands in the future, but they’ve not ruled it out.
Does it work with any snowboard?
Yes, it works with any snowboard from any brand. It’s compatible with Burton’s Channel system, of course, but anything with the classic 4x4 interface is fine too.
Right – anything to add?
The biggest obstacle facing Burton is that many snowboarders, especially the more experienced, will require some time to warm to these. From the look of online responses, many have already settled in the ‘never have, never will’ camp. There’ll be others that are open to the Step On, however, and we’re pleased to say that they’ll like what they get. The benefits are undeniable, and the drawbacks are manageable.
Could a system like this become the new normal one day? Well, halfway through the day we bumped into Jeremy Jones, who was doing his own product testing in the same resort. As he kneeled down to strap in his front foot, we found ourselves looking at him and thinking “what a faff that is"...