Updated Binding Technology
Since we last tested this Top Pick winning snowshoe, MSR has graced it with a revised binding. In place of the 3 straps from the top of the previous binding, this new design uses one larger mesh style strap, which fits a variety of boots and is designed to eliminate pressure points and provide increased foot security. Compare the updated snowhoe in the first photo (note the red "mesh" binding") to the version we tested previously in the second photo.
Since we haven't taken this latest version out for a winter hike yet, we can't vouch for the technology, but we're excited to test them and hope that MSR has only improved on this award winning snowshoe. For now, the review below still pertains to the previous model.
Hands-On Review of the Lightning Ascent
The Lightning Ascent is for the adventurer yearning to get deep into the backcountry and high on icy summits. The combination of burly bindings, aggressive traction, and heel lifts for steep terrain make for an impressive all-around snowshoe that was an obvious choice for an award. This snowshoe was our previous Editors' Choice and while it has now been edged out by the Tubbs Mountaineer with its slightly better flotation and fantastic bindings, the Lightning remains the best choice for serious technical terrain.
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, check these out. The differences between the two are minimal, and either can work for anyone as long as you're not super small or very large.
The Lightning Ascent is the best shoe for taking you into remote places and through technical terrain.
Flotation is the main reason for wearing snowshoes and is determined by how well you can stay up near the surface of the snow. The better your ability to float, the less energy you have to expend with every step. The Lightning Ascent performs very well in this category, but the Tubbs Mountaineer is a bit better.
The women's Lightning has a narrow frame design, which aids in easy maneuverability but also decreases the surface area a bit. That, in turn, affected its flotation marginally. It's nothing you will be disappointed with while out in deep snow drifts, but we did notice it when testing models side-by-side. However, MSR offers add-on flotation tails, which we tested as well. They are great if you plan to be out in bottomless snow, making these snowshoes even more versatile and ready for anything.
The Lighting floats quite well on its own and is also compatible with 5" add-on tails (sold separately) if you want to increase surface area even more for super deep snow.
The Lightning has impressive traction on every kind of terrain. It is a clear winner here, scoring the only perfect 10 in the entire review. An aggressive toe pick meets traction rails and two rows of sharp teeth running edge to edge horizontally.
This snowshoe was our best performer in its previous iteration and easily remains on top with its new updates. MSR reworked the crampon and overall construction in the last year, making an already impressive shoe even more so. The DTX crampon is now made with a continuous piece of martensite steel to increase strength and bite, and the shoe body is beefier to help increase durability.
Despite this, it is still one of the lighter models in our review for its size, further showing why this is such a great alpine and mountaineering shoe. There is no better shoe for climbing, descending, and traversing steep snow and slick ice.
Smart design on the Lightning means highly impressive traction while keeping the overall weight surprisingly light.
The Lightning is one of the narrowest shoes we tested and walking in them feels easy and natural. 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 naturally.
On packed trails, the combination of full rotation bindings and very aggressive traction sometimes makes walking in these feel slightly stiff and awkward. But the moment you take off into deep snow and uncharted territory everything feels great. This makes sense because, while some shoes are meant for simply walking on easy packed trails, the Lightning is designed for technical terrain. This isn't the shoe to buy if you only want to stay in flat groomed areas — if you do that you will be missing out on what this shoe does best.
Bring on the hills and ice, the Lightning can handle it all with ease.
Ease of Use
We rated how easily these shoes are to use based primarily on how painless it is to fastened, adjusted, and removed them when kitted out in bulky clothing out 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.
Despite the ease and straightforwardness of the Lightning's system, there are a lot of straps to contend when putting these suckers on — three across the top of each foot and another behind the heel. You have to pull the straps pretty hard to achieve the proper angle on the buckle, or they can work loose over time. It sometimes felt as though we were going to break something stretching the straps so much, but this is how the binding system is meant to work, and once you get a feel for it, it's quite intuitive.
Our main complaint with the system is that the long tails on the straps come out of their retainer clips too easily, leaving them to flop around. It doesn't compromise the security of the bindings, but it is distracting and messy looking. This design also makes it more challenging to get uniform evenness between the two feet, and it's easier to create pinch points by over-torquing.
The Lightning has lots of straps to contend with. This increases its versatility and adaptability, but also means a bit more work up front.
The Posilock AT bindings on these snowshoes are 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 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 find the bindings on the Lightning to be very secure. Since each strap is its own independent system, you could completely break a strap while out in remote backcountry, and the rest of the straps would not be compromised in the slightest. This is not the case with most of the other models we tested and is a definite selling point.
Despite long straps flopping around at times, the bindings on this snowshoe are very secure and well-suited to being far from civilization.
In general, all the binding systems we tested were quite comfortable. Because we test the best and most popular models on the market, everything is above average to begin with, even our last place finishers.
The two MSR models, the Lightning Ascent and the MSR Evo, our Best Buy for Versatility, are marginally less comfortable than 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 side. That said, if you want a system that is burly and can accommodate the widest range of boot sizes, this is the best.
The many straps on the Lightning are highly versatile but also not quite as cozy as other systems that tighten uniformly around the whole foot.
These impressive snowshoes shine in backcountry terrain and are also great for a backyard tromp. But, if you plan to only 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.
If you will be wandering off into lonely variable terrain on the regular, the Lightning Ascent is a very smart choice.
These are the most expensive snowshoes we tested. If you choose to purchase the 5" add-on flotation tails, that will set you back another $60. 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 performed strongly and consistently in all the categories that matter most for a technical snowshoe, securing its clear position on the Top Pick throne. It's the best choice for navigating variable backcountry terrain and steep icy slopes. 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.
No terrain was too advanced for the impressive Lightning.