Updates to the Lightning Ascent
Along with new colors, the Lightning Ascent has been updated with a new crampon and thicker construction. The price has also increase $10 over the previous version. Check out the new model in the first photo, next to the model we tested on the right.
Here is a summary of the technical updates to the snowshoe:
- Updated Crampon — This model features a DTX crampon, using a continuous piece of martensite steel to increase strength and bite.
- Thicker Construction — MSR states that the overall construction of the new product is beefier, intended to increase durability and take on the challenge of demanding terrain.
Since we haven't strapped these new Lightning Ascents on yet, the remainder of the review is in reference to the green model we tested.
Hands-On Review of the Lightning Ascent
The MSR Lightning Ascent is for anyone yearning for deep backcountry and impressive summits. The combination of burly bindings, aggressive traction, and heel lifts for steep terrain makes for an all-around impressive snowshoe that was an easy pick for our Editors' Choice Award. The women's version is very similar to the men's but has a bit narrower frame and slightly smaller bindings in order to accommodate a woman's gait and foot size. Feel confident in advanced terrain for hours on end with this serious snowshoe.
The Lightning Ascent is a well built snowshoe perfect for steep terrain and long days. We felt nothing but confidence in these burly and comfortable shoes.
Flotation is definitely one of the main reasons for wearing snowshoes and is determined by how well you are able to stay up near the surface of the snow. The better your ability to float, the less energy you have to expend with each and every step. While the Lightning Ascent performed decently in this category, it wasn't our favorite. The narrow frame design, and the fact that we tested the smaller of the two sizes available from MSR meant it wasn't the top performer in this category — though it absolutely held its own in the middle of the pack and scored a 7 out of 10 points. However, if you plan to spend the majority of your time in deep powdery snow, we recommend purchasing the larger frame size as well as the 5" add-on flotation tails. These upgrades will make a huge difference out in deep powder.
The model we liked the best for flotation was our Best Buy winner, the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous, a more introductory shoe that is well constructed and very lightweight. Our least favorite model was the Crescent Moon Gold 13. It was the heaviest shoe we tested and is designed with an extremely narrow tail. It performed just fine on packed trail but gave us considerably less flotation out in serious snow.
The Lightning Ascent did quite well in deep snow despite the fact that we pushed the recommended weight load and didn't have additional floatation tails.
The Lightning Ascent had impressive traction on every kind of terrain we visited. It was the clear winner in this category, scoring one of the only perfect 10s in this entire review. Each shoe sports an aggressive toe pick, traction rails, and two rows of sharp teeth that run from edge to edge horizontally. There was no better shoe for climbing, descending, and traversing steep snow and slick ice. Close runners-up, both scoring a 9 out of 10, were the Tubbs Flex RDG and the MSR Evo - Women's.
These models also boast impressive traction rails and crampons, they just weren't quite as bomber on steep hills. Our poorest performer for traction was the Tubbs Xplore - Women's, which was the culprit of more than one fall on icy slopes.
The Lightning Ascent's 360 Traction frames include bomber traction rails down the sides that made a huge difference when traversing and navigating steep terrain.
This snowshoe is one of the narrowest we tested and walking in them felt easy and natural in most situations. One of our smaller testers found they still needed to widen their steps a bit, but the majority of women who wore these shoes were able to walk normally and with relative ease. On packed trail, the combination of full rotation bindings and very aggressive traction made walking feel a bit stiff and awkward, but the moment we were able to take off into deep snow and uncharted territory the Lightning Ascent felt great, though we did find them a bit heavy in comparison to many of the other models we tested.
Our favorite shoe for this category was the Tubbs Flex RDG, which we awarded our Top Pick for Ease of Use — in large part because they were so easy to walk in. We found the Tubbs Xplore - Women's to be the most awkward due to their shape and width at the ball of the foot.
The Lightning Ascents have a narrow frame that helps make walking feel surprisingly comfortable, especially considering how burly and technical these shoes are.
Ease of Use
We rated ease of use primarily on how painless it was for each model to be fastened, adjusted, and removed when kitted out in bulky clothing in the wind and cold. We also considered the overall experience of simply getting around and navigating different scenarios. The Lightning Ascent is pretty straightforward with bindings that open up completely (fantastic for snowboard or ski boots) and fasten with belt-style buckles. The rubber straps keep their stretch in the cold and are easy to use, even with large gloves on. That being said, there are a lot of straps to contend with (three across the top of the foot and another behind the heel), and for them to stay secure while walking you have to pull them tighter than may initially feel comfortable. If you don't pull the straps really tight, you can't achieve the proper angle on the buckle, and the strap will work its way undone.
It might feel like you're going to break something stretching the straps so much, but don't worry — this is how the binding system is meant to work and once you get the feel for it, it's actually quite intuitive. Our main complaint with the system was the fact that the long tails on the straps come out of their retainer clips too easily, leaving them to flop around. It didn't compromise the security of the bindings, but it was distracting and messy looking.
The heel lifts on the Lightning Ascent meant that getting up steep slopes felt almost as easy as walking on flat ground. Combine that with a straightforward binding system and superior traction, and it's no wonder this shoe keeps winning the Editors' Choice award.
Our favorite model for this category as well as our Top Pick for Ease of Use, was the Tubbs Flex RDG - Women's
. The Boa binding system was the fastest and easiest binding system of all the shoes we tested, and the frame shape made for very easy walking. We again had to place the Tubbs Xplore
at the bottom, mainly because we found them awkward to walk in and the heel strap seemed to be at a difficult angle to allow for easy tightening.
The Posilock AT bindings on these snowshoes are definitely robust. Three binding straps across the top of the foot and a heel strap around the back keep you securely in place. As mentioned above, the long rubber binding straps seem to enjoy boycotting their retainer clips, so be prepared for some straps to potentially be flopping around. While this may seem disconcerting, it in no way affected the security of the bindings, and the extra length meant we could accommodate a very large boot. Overall, we found this binding system to be very secure, and we awarded a 9 out of 10 for this category. Even if you completely broke a strap while out in remote backcountry, the rest of the system would not be compromised in any way — this is not the case with most of the other models we tested and is a definite selling point.
The Crescent Moon Gold 13 just barely eked out a win over the Lighting Ascent in this category. We awarded the Gold 13 a perfect 10 because of how compact and evenly secure the SPL binding system was on our feet. The lowest score went to the Tubbs Flex RDG. While we liked the Boa binding system and found it super easy and convenient to use, if one tiny wire cable were to break, the entire system would be rendered useless. This didn't give us the level of confidence you want and need to have when considering going deep into the backcountry.
This burly binding system was easy to use and felt extremely secure. While you can see how much extra strap length there is with a smaller pair of boots (and the tendency for the tails to flop around), this means you can also wear large snowboard or ski boots with no problem.
We found all the binding systems tested to be quite comfortable. There were no major issues or pinch points with any of them, even across many types of shoes and foot sizes. It is important to keep in mind that since we test the best and most popular models on the market, everything is above average to begin with, even our last place finishers.
We found our two MSR models, the Lightning Ascent and the Evo to be marginally less comfortable than our other models because of the strap and buckle system. As happens with belt-style buckles, it's easy to feel like you need a hole where there isn't one, and have to settle on one that is slightly too tight or slightly too loose. While having multiple independent straps also means more security (you could break one and still be held tightly in the binding system by the remaining straps), it also means there can be areas where one strap fits better than the next, causing the hold on your foot to feel imbalanced or different from the other foot. Our favorite binding system for comfort was on the Crescent Moon Gold 13. Flexible polymer straps tighten uniformly over the whole front of the foot by pulling a single loop, and the heel strap ratchets into place securely.
The Lightning Ascent has a very secure and customizable binding system that, while not quite as comfortable as other models we tested, still provided us with hours of carefree - and pinch free - hiking.
While they shine in backcountry terrain, they're also great for a backyard tromp. That being said, if you only plan to stay on packed beginner trails, then the technical features of this model are overkill and we recommend a simpler design such as our Best Buy winner, the Atlas Elektra Rendezvous. But if you're excited to explore backcountry terrain where deep snow, off-trail travel, and steep inclines are likely, then the Lightning Ascent is the snowshoe to choose.
At $300, they're the most expensive snowshoes tested. The 5" add-on flotation tails will set you back another $60. Needless to say, these snowshoes are 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. The Lightning Ascent is one purchase that will float you through all of it, from packed trails to advanced mountaineering, for years to come.
While the Lightning Ascent wasn't the top performer in any one category except for traction, it performed strongly and consistently across the board, securing its win as our Editors' Choice and as the best choice for navigating variable backcountry terrain. Superb traction and stability in mixed conditions from ice to deep powder, a flexible and user-friendly binding system, the perfect width to allow women to walk normally and comfortably, and features like heel lifts for steep climbing are just some of the reasons we love this snowshoe and think you will too.
We were happily ready for anything in the impressive Lightning Ascents.