The Lightning Ascent fits the bill for the widest range of application in snowy conditions.
The best flotation will keep you at or just below the surface of diverse snow conditions. Snowshoes with poor flotation will sink further from the surface and require more energy for snow travel. A large surface area generally translates to good flotation. The Ascent landed in the middle of the pack in surface area measurement, yet the lightweight 7000 series aluminum frames with urethane-impregnated nylon decks excel at keeping you afloat. The Top Pick Louis Garneau Blizzard II and Best Buy Chinook Trekker float better. Most importantly, this MSR shoe balances flotation and stride ergonomics better than them all. Furthermore, if you need more flotation in fresh and deep powder, MSR offers 5-inch tails at an additional cost ($60).
On packed snow and groomed trails, they feel similar to walking in boots alone because they are lightweight with excellent range of motion. When feet of fresh snow fell, we took them out to test their flotation in depths of up to three feet, and they managed to keep us afloat, close to the surface, and stable. In steep terrain, rather than sinking with each step as many other snowshoes do, they allowed for efficient movement upward. Better flotation directly correlates to a more efficient motion. The Atlas Montane snowshoes rival the Lightning Ascents for flotation because they have a similar surface area, but they are heavier in packed snow conditions.
Heading deep into the woods with the Lightning Ascents on top of a crusty layer of snow.
These have the most aggressive traction system in our review. There are two cleats under the front of the foot, two horizontal rows of sharp aluminum teeth running from edge to edge, and if that weren't enough, the entire frame is 360 degrees of serrated aluminum edging that offers additional traction. The Lightning Ascent is the only snowshoe with lateral crampons designed into the frame. The aggressive traction keeps you stable and secure on steep and slick ice and snow and is ideal for sidestepping and traversing.
The MSR Evo offers a similar degree of traction with brake bars running horizontally, lateral crampons (separate from the frame), and semi-aggressive underfoot cleats, but do not exceed the durable construction and design of the Lightning Ascents.
Aggressive cleats. Sharp horizontal teeth. Serrated perimeter. These snowshoes bite into snow and ice to provide superior purchase.
The hinged deck and binding system of the Lightning Ascent allowed for excellent stride ergonomics, especially off trail.
Stride ergonomics are where the Lightning Ascent edges ahead of its closest competitor. The Atlas Montane and Lightning Ascent are mostly similar, with the only other major difference being a slight edge in flotation to the Atlas Aspect. Concerning walking comfort and precision, however, there is a significant difference. In general, we look at overall footprint shape and size along with the attachment of the binding to the deck in assessing stride ergonomics. The Atlas and MSR Ascent are close enough in size and shape that these differences are unimportant.
Smaller is better for stride ergonomics. With binding/deck interface, we look at two different systems. For on-trail use, a strap-based system is best. This sort of system allows for some shock absorption, with no other drawbacks. For all-around application that will include steep and rowdy terrain, we want a hinged attachment of binding and deck. This is more precise in tough terrain, and the drawbacks on trails are worth the trade-off. The Lightning Ascent has a hinged interface, while the Montane has a strapped junction. For this reason, and this reason alone, the Ascent edges ahead to our Editors' Choice award. We are well aware that some all around and even some technical users will prefer the strapped attachment. This segment of the population is small but will favor the Atlas Montane. Having good choices is good!
As its name implies, the Lightning Ascents excel in steep terrain.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is defined by how easily the snowshoes can be fastened, adjusted on the trail, and removed after your outing. The Lightning Ascents have simple to use binding straps that securely fasten through a belt style buckle. The rubber straps are freeze resistant making them easy to use in cold conditions with gloves on. Heel lift bars rest beneath the heels of the boots when inactive and easily lift up to encourage natural muscle usage when hiking uphill in steep terrain. The heel lift is easily lifted or lowered without resistance. Our testers even managed to use their poles to engage/disengage the heel lift mechanism, but bending over and using hands requires much less finesse. The reduced weight of the Lightning Ascents almost makes them unnoticeable while snowshoeing and results in an easy, natural stride.
This model is easy to use as a result of the simple binding straps, aggressive traction systems that ensure stability and security, and the low weight. The binding system packs down flush with the snowshoe deck for easy stowing, whether on your pack while hiking or in your luggage or trunk in transit. The easiest to use snowshoe is the Crescent Moon Gold, which allows single-handed on and off transitions.
Posilock AT bindings secure your boots onto these snowshoes. Three binding straps secure the top of the foot while a heel strap wraps around the back of your boot to keep your foot from sliding forward or backward. The long rubber straps tend to flop around if not held by the binding strap tabs, but the length allows a wider range of boots to fit into the bindings comfortably.
The overall binding design provides the best security of any snowshoes in our review. Some bindings, like those found on the Fimbulvetr Hikr and the Tubbs Flex Vrt become dislodged while hiking, but the Lightning Ascent bindings remain securely fastened. This style of binding, shared by the MSR Evo, is the most secure style in our test.
These snowshoes are recommended for backcountry terrain, although the user-friendly design and construction make them suitable for someone new to snowshoeing as well. The technical features will not be necessary on beginner terrain but come into play on steeper terrain and in deeper snow. While snowshoeing on groomed trails we found the Lightning Ascents to be lightweight and well tractioned but the full rotation bindings, edged frame, and heel lift were not fully utilized in this kind of terrain. For groomed trails and snowshoeing in the park, we recommend a simpler design such as the MSR Evo or TSL Symbioz Elite. For travel in backcountry terrain where deep snow, off-trail travel, and steep inclines are likely, the MSR Lighting Ascents shine.
These snowshoes will have you praying for powder dumps.
The Lightning Ascent is the most expensive pair of snowshoes in our review, costing $300. They are a great value for the versatility, lightweight, and technical features. The Lightning Ascent tackles advanced terrain and are lightweight should you wear them deep into the backcountry for a technical mountain excursion. With the option of purchasing add-on flotation tails, this extends not only their length but their wide range of applications as well. For a backcountry specific snowshoe that is capable of comfortably striding on packed trails, these are an excellent value. If saving money is your thing, try our Best Buy winner, the Chinook Trekker.
Binding in for another snow adventure.
Our Editors' Choice Award goes to these snowshoes for their versatility in terrain from beginner to the most advanced. Excellent traction and stability in varied conditions from ice to deep powder is necessary when snowshoeing in the backcountry. The aggressive traction systems and low weight make them the ideal option for snowshoeing into untrammeled landscapes and up mountains in the winter. They are a great value for the experienced snowshoer looking to expand his or her winter travel options.