Once again, the MSR Lightning Ascent takes our Editors' Choice Award. This version of what is becoming a classic snowshoe features a new binding design that is just as secure and more comfortable than the previous iteration. However, the Paragon binding is harder to use, especially for folks with big feet. Hikers who favor softer winter footwear may find this trade-off worth it.Otherwise, the design is unchanged from the simple, solid setup our testers have come to love. It features excellent traction and binding security, along with good stride ergonomics. This model works well for anyone who needs snowshoes, though those traveling off the beaten path will most appreciate them.
MSR Lightning Ascent Review
Cons: New binding trades ease-of-use for comfort
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MSR Lightning Ascent
|Price||$329.95 at REI||Check Price at Backcountry|
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|$265.00 at Amazon|
|Pros||Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, traction, flotation||Fully featured for steep and technical use||Good traction, and an easy-to-use, comfortable binding||Inexpensive, simple, reliable||Compact, with uniquely excellent stride ergonomics|
|Cons||New binding trades ease-of-use for comfort||Loud decking and bulky harness||Mediocre flotation for the length, strapped deck/binding attachment||Loud decking on crusty snow||Small footprint and flexible deck creates limited flotation|
|Bottom Line||The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineering||This contender provides excellent traction, heel lifts, a comfortable binding, and moderate weight||This is a great traditional snowshoe that's outshone in a few areas by newer designs||This molded snowshoe is reliable, inexpensive, and offers widespread appeal||Excellent snowshoes for packed trail and firmer snow use|
|Rating Categories||MSR Lightning Ascent||Tubbs Flex VRT||Atlas Montane||MSR Evo||TSL Symbioz Elite|
|Stride Ergonomics (20%)|
|Binding Comfort (10%)|
|Ease Of Use (10%)|
|Binding Security (10%)|
|Specs||MSR Lightning Ascent||Tubbs Flex VRT||Atlas Montane||MSR Evo||TSL Symbioz Elite|
|Uses||Spring snow and steep terrain||Spring snow and steep terrain||Spring snow and moderate terrain||Spring snow and moderate terrain||Groomed trails|
|Optimum weight load per tested size (per manufacturer)||120-220 lbs||up to 190 lbs||25: 120-200 lbs, 30: 150-250 lbs, 35: 180-300+ lbs||up to 180 lbs||S: 65-180 M: 110-260 L: 150-300 lbs|
|Weight (per pair)||4 lbs 0 oz||4 lbs 9 oz||4 lbs 7 oz||3 lbs 9 oz||4 lbs 9 oz|
|Surface Area||188 in²||179 in²||176 in²||173 in²||162 in²|
|Dimensions||25 x 8"||24 x 8"||25 x 8"||22 x 8"|
|Crampon/Traction aids||Steel crampon augmented with rail and frame teeth||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails||Steel crampon augmented with traction rails||Steel spikes throughout bottom of deck|
|Frame material||Aluminum||Steel traction rails||Aluminum||Steel traction rails||Composite|
|Deck material||Fabric||Molded plastic||Nytex fabric||Molded plastic||Composite|
|Binding system||Rubber Straps with pin-in-hole||Boa||Nylon straps with cam buckles, rubber strap with plastic buckle||Rubber Straps with pin-in-hole||Combination of rigid plastic, nylon straps, cam locks, and ratchet style straps|
|Flotation tails sold separately?||Yes||No||No||Yes||No|
|Men's and Women's versions?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Unisex||Unisex|
|Sizes Available||22, 25, 30||24, 28||25, 30, 35||One Size||S, M and L|
|Tested Size||25||24||25||One Size||M|
Our Analysis and Test Results
The latest version of the MSR Lightning Ascent features binding system that adds more comfort, at the price of being slightly less easy to use. Other than that, the excellent features of this snowshoe have remained virtually unchanged.
Flotation is the main reason to reach for a pair of snowshoes, and the best models keep you on top of or just below the snow's surface. There is a clear correlation between surface area and flotation. The Lightning Ascent is average among the models in our test when it comes to surface area specs, but the lightweight aluminum frame and urethane-impregnated nylon deck boost the flotation. A couple of other models float better because they provide more surface area when wearing the manufacturer's recommended size for our tester's weight.
Stride ergonomics and flotation are two metrics that exist in tension, as a larger snowshoe floats better but doesn't usually walk as naturally. In the case of the Ascent, our testers felt that these two characteristics are in excellent balance. We suspect this is due both to the hinged binding design and to the slightly rockered shape of the frame.
Winter travelers who need to augment their flotation in fresh snow or deep powder should look into the Lightning Tails. This MSR accessory adds 5 inches of flotation. Our testers liked these on mellow terrain but found them to be cumbersome on steep or technical ground.
The MSR Lightning Ascent features the most extensive traction design in our review. Under the forefoot are two large sharp points reminiscent of the front spikes of a crampon. Just behind this is a row of points featuring two large spikes and a selection of smaller ones. A similar row exists under the part of the deck where the user's heel sits. Additionally, the lateral frame members include serration along about half of their length.
The vertical orientation of the aluminum frame pieces means that any part of the frame that's touching the snow provides traction in at least one direction. This design stands in contrast to that of a tubular structure, the round shape of which only reduces grip. Furthermore, this means that the Lightning Ascent has lateral traction that's unmatched but any other product in our review, making this snowshoe an excellent performer when sidestepping on a steep slope or for switchbacking in firm conditions.
A number of the snowshoes in our review have great stride ergonomics. In this metric, we are examining the size and shape of the deck as well as the binding to deck attachment. Smaller and more shapely decks are generally easier to walk with (though there's a sacrifice in flotation). Our testing team prefers a hinged attachment of the binding to the deck. Though this sacrifices some walking comfort on firm trails, we're happy to trade that comfort for precision in steep, firm, or otherwise rowdy terrain.
The Lightning Ascent features a hinged binding/deck interface. The gentle taper in the deck from mid-foot to tail enhances the ergonomics slightly without giving up much flotation. Our testers also suspect that the rockered deck shape helps. The relatively light weight (4 lbs 2 oz) of the Ascent makes them far less cumbersome with each step than heavier models.
A comfortable snowshoe binding distributes the tension of the binding as evenly as possible around the foot. Meaning that even if we're wearing thin or soft footwear, there are no hot spots and circulation to our toes isn't restricted. The Paragon binding system found on the Lightning Ascent nails it when it comes to comfort. Though the red rubber webbing looks like something Spider-Man might want on his snowshoes, it distributes binding tension evenly regardless of footwear.
We think this version of the Ascent nails a balance of comfort, simplicity, and packability with the binding.
Ease of Use
When it comes to ease of use our testers are looking for snowshoes that are easy to put on, adjust on the fly, and take off when they're done hiking. The heel strap of the Lightning Ascent will be familiar to many users, it's a simple rubber strap with a belt style buckle that won't freeze up and is very durable.
Our testers had problems with the straps that secure the new part of this binding. The rubber webbing that cages the forefoot is secured by two rubber straps that pass through buckles near the arch of the foot. We found that though these straps were long enough to fasten, the tails weren't long enough to grab easily, especially with a larger foot in the binding using up more of the strap. This effect exacerbated when we were wearing gloves, something that we often wear when we're also wearing snowshoes. The small hole at the end of the strap helped a bit, but really we just wished these straps were a couple of inches longer.
MSR has changed the design of its strap keepers. They're just as easy to use but seem to be more durable. This update is a welcome improvement because these keepers are by far the most broken part of any MSR snowshoe. The heel lifters snapped into place securely but were also simple enough to disengage.
MSR has long been a leader in the binding security metric, and while the Paragon binding is a new feature, we found it kept up the tradition. The rubber mesh or webbing securely cradles your forefoot with zero slippage and the heel strap keeps your foot in place on steep uphills.
All of the rubber strap based bindings perform highly in this metric. None of them will come loose once properly fastened - except through user error.
The Ascent is the most expensive pair of snowshoes in our review. Even so, we think they're a good value for their versatility and technical features. Though we didn't have them long enough to test long-term durability, we suspect they'll last a long time.
The MSR Lightning Ascent wins our Editors' Choice Award. As in the past, it gives winter travelers high-end traction and biding security while still being a joy to walk in. The new Paragon binding system gives users more comfort for different types of footwear. Folks with bigger feet or bigger boots should be aware that there could be some adjustment challenges with the Paragon binding. They're a good value for folks who want to expand their horizons in snowy environments.
— Ian McEleney and Jediah Porter