Comparing Burton’s Family Tree Forager, Family Tree Pow Wrench and Fish powder boards in Hokkaido

When you first snowboard in Japan, you immediately notice how many riders are on directional powder boards. They are a relatively rare sight in the USA and Europe, and probably even rarer in Australia. It seems like they’re everywhere in Japan – and in all shapes and sizes, from short fat boards for navigating the trees to gigantic 200cm swallowtails.

Deep snow is far less reliable elsewhere in the world, so it makes sense to have a selection of boards or, if you have to choose one style, a twin-tip all-mountain board.

In Japan, riding a powder board as your main snowboard makes more sense because it snows almost every day, and riders spend most of their time on the hill riding powder or on their way to powder. I’ve been carrying my twin-tip Burton Custom X around Japan for a decade in case conditions aren’t great, but it hasn’t touched the snow once because a powder board has been a better choice every day.

A 205cm powder board, spotted riding the ropeway at Hakkoda Ski Resort

A selection of short swallowtails

Short or long?

Over the last few seasons riding the tight tree runs of Hokkaido and northern Honshu, I realised that my 164 Fish was too much board. I’d bought it for the wide open bowls of Colorado (I demoed every length, and the longer it got, the better it got!) but I was working too hard to get between tightly packed trees in Japan and having to ride faster than I wanted because the board just wants to go. This made it harder to stay close to a buddy, which is recommended by most resorts for safety.

Which brings me to the Burton Family Tree Forager – a board that was designed for exploring the trees of Japan in collaboration with Japanese snowboarder Masa Takeuchi. I contacted the Burton store in Sapporo by telephone and reserved the 155 for a five-day demo, as well as the 148 Burton Family Tree Pow Wrench as part of Burton’s test ride program at a cost of ¥4,000 per day per board. You may have to call a few times, but if you persist, you can find someone who speaks English and will take your booking. If you rent a demo board, they will refund the cost of one day’s rental if you then buy a snowboard.

Burton Family Tree Forager

Burton Family Tree Forager

I usually prefer longer, stiffer boards as I like the speed and stability. This time, I followed Burton’s recommendations for my height and weight (181cm, 74kg, size US9) for both boards to maximise manoeuvrability. I’d not previously understood that the whole idea of wide, fat-nosed modern powder boards is to give you the float of a longer board in a much shorter form factor. The theory is: get the smallest board that will support your weight and boot size – rather than the longest – if you want the easiest riding experience with less effort to turn. The nose of the board will take care of itself and stay afloat.

On the snow

After landing at Sapporo airport, we drove straight to the Burton store on the way to Sapporo Teine ski resort. It was snowing in Sapporo, and the boards were waiting for me behind the counter in a giant Burton soft bag. We were in and out in 10 minutes before driving up to Teine in around 45 minutes. The snow was getting heavier and deeper as we gained altitude.

I took the Pow Wrench out first as I was excited to see how the shorter board would perform (I have K2 Darko boots and Burton Cartel bindings). It has a flat profile overall, which makes initiating turns easier and makes it harder to catch an edge, with a rocker nose that gives it a floaty feel in powder. It was still snowing, and we had a few inches of powder to play with, so I made my way to the Sanctuary, a mellowish tree run zone at the top of the resort.

On pisted runs, it did turn very easily, but it felt soft and short, and if I tried to carve the oversteer was a fight. If you’ve ridden both the Custom and Custom X, I felt like the Pow Wrench had a similar feel to the Custom with a lot of torsional flex, while the Custom X and the Fish are stiffer and more aggressive.

In the trees, the Pow Wrench was floaty and very easy to turn in the fresh snow; it was an effortless ride. Where the snow was chopped up, it got a bit wobbly and didn’t cut through the way I would like. Snowboards are all about personal preferences and ability levels, and I can definitely see how this board would make a good first powder board; it just wasn’t for me. After an hour or so, my mind drifted to the Forager sitting in the car.

At the top of the Summit tree run at Geto Kogen Ski Resort with the Burton Tree Forager

At the top of the Summit tree run at Geto Kogen Ski Resort with the Burton Tree Forager

After a quick pit stop to switch boards, I could immediately feel that the Forager was a beast on the piste. Both boards are rated as mid-stiff, but to me, the difference was night and day. The Forager has a soft rocker tip and stiff tail, though, so I suppose it averages out at mid-stiff. It’s a very clever design that gives you the best of both worlds. Carving was easy, and I found I could immediately trust the board with aggressive turns. I was initially surprised at how well the Fish carves when I first rode it, but the Forager is comparable, so much so that I’ve seen it described as a carving board on Japanese review sites. It didn’t feel short at all, and it was a lot of fun making tight carves versus the larger turning circle of the Fish.

In the powder, it was everything I’d hoped for. Super manoeuvrable, loads of float and it didn’t try to get away from me like the Fish can when it gets steep. I could weave in and out of the trees and control my speed with little effort. It’s a super nimble piece of equipment and it made me feel more confident in attacking tree runs rather than backing off or worrying about a safe line. I had time to pick my route and enjoy my riding. It’s still a fast board, but it’s quick and controllable.

Over the next five days I took the Forager tree hunting in Kiroro, Asari and Sapporo Kokusai and fell in love with the board. Switching back to the Fish (I have the discontinued model, not the newer 3D Fish), it felt heavy compared to the Forager, although the Fish was noticeably faster and more stable on piste, bombing the wide runs of Asari. At Kiroro, almost the entire mountain is designated as lift-accessible tree runs, and the Forager was perfect for route-finding, negotiating the steeps and keeping an eye on my buddy. I also felt like I could stay out longer and didn’t feel as exhausted at the end of the day. Deep snow can be tiring and the right board can help you save a lot of energy.

A 205cm powder board, spotted riding the ropeway at Hakkoda Ski Resort

A 205cm powder board, spotted riding the ropeway at Hakkoda Ski Resort

Burton customer care

Unfortunately, Burton Sapporo didn’t have the 155 Forager in stock (or anywhere in Asia), but they gave me in-store credit for five days of demoing one board. This was generous as it should have been just one day. After returning the demo board, I immediately ordered a Forager from the UK Burton website and a friend brought it to Japan in time for a trip to northern Honshu. On that trip, the rail at the tip of the swallowtail started to separate slightly from the board, and the topsheet was cracking, so I contacted Burton UK. They had also run out of stock for a replacement, but they furnished me with a brand new Forager for this season and it looks like the rail problem on the swallowtail has been addressed with a modified construction.

Personally, I only ride Burton snowboards because I love the versatility of the Channel bindings. I tweak my setup as the conditions change, and I like a very wide stance set way back. Normal screw-in bindings are fiddly to adjust on the hill and don’t give you the same infinite range of stances. Even before Channel bindings, the draw for me was the ability to test the boards before buying. Also, as with this board and in the past, I’ve had a great experience with Burton replacing snowboards that have delaminated or with cosmetic defects where graphics have bubbled. If something breaks while you are on a trip, they will often courier you a replacement.

Try before you buy

As with all boards, if you are considering buying your first powder board, a demo is essential. There can be a big difference even between different sizes of the same board. Burton makes demoing in Japan easy, but you can also demo or rent Japanese powder boards at many of Japan’s ski resorts. The equipment is usually new and of very high quality. If you’re at the stage where you’re thinking about buying equipment, get boots and bindings first. Try as many boards as you can in different conditions, then buy the one you fall in love with. Don’t rush it or buy online unless you find something heavily discounted, as you’ll probably regret it. I can’t imagine visiting Japan without a powder board, as there’s so much deep snow to explore. It’s just the right equipment for the terrain. That said, many people stick with the same board and bindings set up whatever the conditions, as the consistency means they can trust how their board feels and reacts. It’s a personal preference.

Overall, I don’t miss the versatility of a twin-tip board. If I was riding the park or focused on tricks or jumps, things might be different, but that’s not why you go to Japan. That said, you can still hit the jumps and boxes in the terrain park and, surprisingly, even ride switch when you need to with a swallowtail. I think it’s a myth that powder boards – specifically swallowtails – are hard to control and not much fun on groomed runs. If you’re a decent-level rider and you can get your board up on its edge for carved turns, you’ll lose very little with the right powder board, and even if you’re not, boards like the Pow Wrench are worth a try because you’ll gain so much: effortlessly floating on deep powder, slashing turns and darting in and out of trees all day long.


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