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MSR Lightning Ascent - Women's Review

This is a serious snowshoe for people that want superior traction and versatility while out in steep and variable backcountry terrain.
Editors' Choice Award
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Price:  $320 List | $239.96 at Amazon
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Pros:  Stellar traction, heel lifts for steep terrain, easy to use, add-on flotation tail compatible
Cons:  Expensive, front of binding difficult to navigate with thick gloves on, side and back stepping are laborious
Manufacturer:   MSR
By Hayley Thomas ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Feb 11, 2020
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86
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#1 of 8
  • Flotation - 30% 8
  • Traction - 25% 9
  • Stride Ergonomics - 15% 9
  • Ease of Use - 15% 8
  • Bindings - 15% 9

Our Verdict

The clear winner for our Editors' Choice award is the MSR Lightning Ascent. While this shoe is optimized for ascending and descending technical terrain littered with obstacles, deep snow, and even ice, its performance on more tame terrain doesn't suffer. Often we find that snowshoes built for rougher landscapes don't perform well on groomed trails. Their stellar traction makes them stick to the packed snow, actually making it harder to hike. We are happy to share that the Lightning Ascent suffered no such fate. Between the DTX Crampons, binding rotation, 360° traction, and heel lifts, this pair of snowshoes is hands down the best choice for backcountry hiking AND leisurely strolls. The women's version is available in two frame sizes, both of which can accommodate 5" add-on flotation tails to increase your weight load by 60 pounds, further diversifying what you can accomplish with these impressive shoes.

Curious about the Men's Version?
Check out the men's MSR Lightning Ascent review as well. These offer all the same amazing features but with a slightly wider frame and the ability to accommodate a bit larger boot. Regardless of your gender, if you prefer a larger snowshoe, these are worth a gander.


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Our Analysis and Test Results

While the Lightning Ascent is designed for the epic adventurer, we discovered that it is actually more versatile than that! If you enjoy ascending steep, rough terrain, the heel lifts will help you reserve some energy and adventure further. If you like descending icy hills, the aggressive DTX Crampons and caged bindings will help keep you on your feet and off your behind. If a long leisurely stroll down a well-packed trail is more your style, then strap these on, because the Lightning will still feel great.

Performance Comparison


The Lightning Ascent is created with the extreme adventurer in mind.
The Lightning Ascent is created with the extreme adventurer in mind.

Flotation


If you want traction and nothing else, you can just wear crampons, right? You wear snowshoes to avoid sinking down to your chest when walking on fresh snow. The closer to the surface you can stay, the better! The Lightning Ascent excels in this department.


The Lightning has a narrow frame to help facilitate the normal stride and average gait for females and smaller-framed folks. While less surface area does affect float, the light weight of the shoe helps keep it above the surface. The bindings also rotate almost 90° from the deck, allowing snow on the shoe to fall off the back, reducing excess weight and, in turn, increasing float. If you plan on carrying more weight or being in particularly fresh, deep snow, it is worth looking into the add-on floatation tails. Floatation is excellent with the shoe alone, but adding the tails likely improves it quite a bit, though we did not test them for this model.

The shoes are light enough that the narrow decking doesn't affect float!
The shoes are light enough that the narrow decking doesn't affect float!

Traction


MSR did a wonderful job creating a shoe with versatile traction. Between the massive toe pick (which somehow does not get in the way while walking), traction rails, and sharp teeth lining the perimeter of the deck, there isn't a mountain the Lightning Ascent can't climb.


Not much has changed in the way of traction from last year's model, and for good reason! The DTX crampon is made with a continuous piece of martensite steel to increase strength and bite. Whether you are hiking up, down, or across this shoe will make things easier for you. Even with a burly crampon and spiked crossbars, the Lightning is decently lightweight, solidifying our decision to award it the Editors' Choice.

Martensite steel crampon for heavy duty traction.
Martensite steel crampon for heavy duty traction.

Stride Ergonomics


As mentioned earlier, the Lightning is one of the narrowest shoes we tested. Most of those who tried them on did not feel the need to widen their gait; due to the lightweight nature of the shoe, the narrow decking does not negatively affect float. This allows most women and smaller-framed individuals to walk with a normal stride.


The Lightning feels good to walk in, whether on packed or fresh snow. The combination of almost 90° rotation and aggressive traction means that walking on packed snow does not feel any more awkward or stiff than trekking through untouched landscapes. Even though this shoe is designed for technical terrain, it magically still feels natural to walk on flat groomed areas as well! That being said, if you purchase this shoe, it truly shines brightest in harsher conditions, so try taking it out in the backcountry to really get a taste of what it can do.

The binding rotates almost 90 degrees  offering a fluid stride.
The binding rotates almost 90 degrees, offering a fluid stride.

Ease of Use


This metric is based mostly on bindings. We paid special attention to how difficult it was to strap in and remove each shoe, as well as whether or not they needed to be adjusted while in use. The Lightning has a cage-like toe strap and a stretchy, easy to use heel strap. We were worried about losing stretch in the cold, but it remained malleable even in very cold conditions.


Strapping into the Lightning Ascent is straightforward and intuitive. Small loops are strategically placed at the end of each strap, which is nice with bare hands but slightly too small if you are wearing thick gloves. However, if you usually hike in the same boots, you will not need to readjust the front straps as they stretch nicely and stay put once fastened. The back strap is also very easy to use, so once you've gotten through the initial fitting, they are a breeze to put on and take off.

Unlike last year's model, we were able to get uniform evenness between both feet. The new binding solves the issue of creating pinch points by over-torquing. Overall we are very pleased with the changes in this latest version.

Fastening the back straps of the Lightning Ascent with thick gloves on is a breeze.
Fastening the back straps of the Lightning Ascent with thick gloves on is a breeze.

Bindings


The Paragon binding is robust yet minimalistic. Two straps wrap over the toe creating a small pocket for the front of the foot. This helps significantly with keeping the foot in place when walking downhill.


The binding is complete with an easy to use heel strap. While the front toe straps are difficult to handle with thick gloves on, they do not need to be adjusted every time. If you wear the same or similar boots each time you snowshoe, you will find that you only need to remove the heel strap to take off or put on the Lightning.

The well-designed toe basket helps keep the foot in place when walking downhill.
The well-designed toe basket helps keep the foot in place when walking downhill.

The binding material on the Ascent offers some pretty serious stretch. It is for this reason that they feel very secure and can simultaneously accommodate a wide range of foot sizes. We even tried putting a snowboarding boot in one and found that it fit without a struggle. Overall the Lighting Ascent has made some pretty great improvements since their last release. The Paragon Binding is secure, comfortable, and accommodating. Backcountry, here we come!

The versatility of this shoe is outstanding. Packed or fresh snow  bring it on!
The versatility of this shoe is outstanding. Packed or fresh snow, bring it on!

Value


These are the most expensive snowshoes in our review. If you choose to purchase the 5" add-on flotation tails, that will set you back even more. Needless to say, this model is an investment. However, if accessing the backcountry regularly and safely is a priority for you, then this is a small price to pay for years of versatile, lightweight, and technical features. You could spend less on a more introductory shoe, but if you later outgrow its capabilities, you'll be stuck looking for a new pair and will have spent just as much if not more overall. The Lightning Ascent is one purchase that will float you through all of it, from packed trails to advanced mountaineering, for years to come.

The Lightning Ascent is great for adventurers of all experience levels.
The Lightning Ascent is great for adventurers of all experience levels.

Conclusion


The Lighting Ascent performed consistently across all our categories and is a great shoe for a variety of terrain, foot sizes, and experience levels. It is the best choice for navigating backcountry trails and works well on tame trails too! The next to perfect traction, comfortable bindings, narrow and light decking, and added features like heel lifts for steep climbing are just a few of the reasons we fell in love with this shoe and why it's our Editors' Choice yet again.

The stable yet lightweight heel riser satisfyingly snaps into place for ascending steep terrain with ease.
The stable yet lightweight heel riser satisfyingly snaps into place for ascending steep terrain with ease.


Hayley Thomas