‘Dude! Where are your highbacks!?’, something I hear fairly frequently when people realise I’m missing a (supposedly) crucial piece of my snowboard. Have you ever stopped to think about why you need highbacks in the first place? It’s entirely possible to perform nearly every type of riding without highbacks, and it might just train you to ride with a more effective posture.
The highback is basically a big lever that rocks the board onto it’s heel edge when we push on it. This lever, however, is one that we can only push on with the bottom of our calf muscle. If we’re in a good solid snowboard stance – knees and ankles flexed – then to push on the highback, we either have to straighten our legs, or maintain our flex and move the hips over the heel edge of the board. If the highbacks have little forward lean, it takes a large amount of leg-straightening or hip movement, to start to push the highback enough to tilt the board. With more forward lean (and stiffer highbacks) these movements are more efficient at tilting the board, but many people feel this setup is restrictive and uncomfortable for all-day riding.
It’s quite common for riders with low forward lean, when riding at high performance levels, to begin to ‘sit down’ too much in their heel side turns, and occasionally straighten one or both legs, in an effort to exert every last bit of pressure they can against the highback.
The most effective way to create heel-tilt is by pulling up on the toes, closing the ankle joint. This doesn’t require us to change our solid riding posture, or project our mass inside the turn too much. We can stay balanced over the heel edge which won’t make the board want to ‘blow out’ in high speed turns. By maintaining our posture we can use all the absorption we have in our bodies to deal with bumps and ruts during the turn. A popular analogy to help this movement is imagining you have a tennis ball sitting on your heel strap, and you’re trying to grip that tennis ball between your shin and the top of your foot.
Riding no-backs is a great way of training yourself into a better technique, as it effectively removes the possibility of doing the wrong thing. Your boot may be supportive enough to act as an ‘imaginary highback’, but it certainly won’t feel great and you’ll probably be very aware as soon as you start to lean on them; for me it serves as a strong mental warning-bell to tell me I’m being lazy.
Personally, I took my highbacks off to try and force myself out of bad technique. When I used low forward lean, soft highbacks, I suffered from both excessive sitting-down and leg straightening during high-performance heel turns. When using stiff highbacks with more forward lean I had incredibly bad ‘highback bite’ i.e. bruising on the calf muscle from the top of the highback digging into it. After a few hours of feeling very unsteady with no highbacks, I started to feel stronger and more stable heel-side carves than I ever had
done, but with a huge amount more freedom for simple things like standing up fully straight every now and again during an epic long run! 2 seasons later I still haven’t put them back on.
In addition to all-mountain improvements there are some great freestyle benefits to riding no-backs. You’re free to poke the board sideways far more than someone with a highback in the way – get ready for massively tweaked boardslides and shifties! Using effective ankle flexion to keep stacked over the edge on heelside turns is also super important when setting up for a frontside rotation, it means you’ll be centred and balanced in the air or on the box/rail, rather than spinning off-axis or slipping out.
Equipment-wise, not all bindings can be used without highbacks, some only have a single bolt for both the heel strap and highback, and some don’t have a heel loop at all. The upcoming Switchback bindings are specifically designed to allow you to go no-back if you prefer. It helps if you can wear the toe strap over the top of the foot (traditional style) rather than on the end of the toe (cap strap), this increases the leverage you can exert when pulling up on the toes. Don’t believe this? Try the test below on a table top. Also try and find boots with an articulated ankle joint, this means they are designed to flex at the ankle, and will do so straight out of the box without several days of ‘breaking-in’.
Riding no-backs isn’t for everyone, I wouldn’t suggest it for racers who are dealing with massive forces in turns, or those spinning over big kickers who need the support in case of a heel-heavy landing. If you’re finding it hard to keep the board under you in big heel turns then it could help train you into a more effective way of turning. If you already have a solid heel turn then you’re probably not making much use of your highbacks, in which case you might really appreciate a bit of extra freedom!
By Jon Merrifield, first person to pass the BASI ISIA Technical course with no highbacks, and owner of such large shin muscles that they won’t fit under my jeans any more.