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MSR Lightning Ascent Review

The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineering
MSR Lightning Ascent
Editors' Choice Award
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Price:  $350 List | Check Price at Backcountry
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Pros:  Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, impressive traction
Cons:  New binding trades ease-of-use for comfort
Manufacturer:   MSR
By Ian McEleney ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Jan 12, 2022
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75
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#1 of 11
  • Flotation - 30% 6.0
  • Traction - 25% 9.0
  • Stride Ergonomics - 15% 8.0
  • Ease of Use - 15% 6.0
  • Bindings - 15% 9.0

Our Verdict

Once again, the MSR Lightning Ascent takes our Editors' Choice Award. The latest version of what has become a classic snowshoe features a 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 set up 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.

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MSR Lightning Ascent
Awards Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award 
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Check Price at Backcountry
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$230.06 at Amazon
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Pros Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, impressive tractionGood traction, easy-to-use and comfortable bindingInexpensive, easy to use, versatileLarge, easy stride, great flotationCompact, uniquely excellent stride ergonomics
Cons New binding trades ease-of-use for comfortMediocre flotation for the length, strapped binding attachment isn't idealUnimpressive tractionHeavy, heel lifter is clunkySmall footprint and flexible deck creates limited flotation
Bottom Line The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineeringThis is a great traditional snowshoe that's outshone in a few areas by newer designsThis snowshoe does everything well and has a low price, making it a great valueAn all-around snowshoe that tilts its preferences to the wild and deep environmentsExcellent compact snowshoes for packed trail and firmer snow when flotation isn't the main concern
Rating Categories MSR Lightning Ascent Atlas Montane Atlas Helium Trail Crescent Moon Gold 10 TSL Symbioz Elite
Flotation (30%)
6.0
5.0
6.0
9.0
2.0
Traction (25%)
9.0
8.0
6.0
5.0
9.0
Stride Ergonomics (15%)
8.0
7.0
8.0
4.0
8.0
Ease of Use (15%)
6.0
9.0
9.0
7.0
7.0
Bindings (15%)
9.0
9.0
7.0
8.0
7.0
Specs MSR Lightning Ascent Atlas Montane Atlas Helium Trail Crescent Moon Gold 10 TSL Symbioz Elite
Uses Spring snow and steep terrain Spring snow and moderate terrain Spring snow and moderate terrain Deep snow Groomed trails
Optimum Weight Load (per manufacturer) 22": up to 180 lbs;
25": 120-220 lbs;
30": 150-280 lbs
25": 120-200 lbs;
30": 150-250 lbs;
35": 180-300+ lbs
23": 80-160 lbs;
26": 150-220 lbs;
30": 200-270+ lbs
up to 225 lbs S: 65-180 lbs;
M: 110-260 lbs;
L: 150-300 lbs
Weight (per pair) 4 lbs 0 oz 4 lbs 7 oz 3 lbs 9 oz 5 lbs 2 oz 4 lbs 9 oz
Surface Area 188 in² 176 in² 191 in² 256 in² 162 in²
Dimensions 25 x 8" 25 x 8" 26" x 8" 32 x 10" 22 x 8"
Crampon/Traction Aids Steel crampon augmented with rail and frame teeth Steel crampon augmented with traction rails Tempered steel Steel crampon Steel spikes throughout bottom of deck
Frame Material Aluminum Aluminum Aluminum Aluminum Composite
Deck Material Fabric Nytex fabric Plastic Polyurethane fabric Composite
Heel Lift Yes Yes Yes Optional add-on Yes
Binding/Deck Connection Hinged Strapped Hinged Strapped Hinged
Binding System Rubber Straps with pin-in-hole Nylon straps with cam buckles, rubber strap with plastic buckle Nylon straps with plastic buckles, rubber strap with pin-in-hole Rubber straps with plastic buckles Combination of rigid plastic, nylon straps, cam locks, and ratchet style straps
Flotation Tails Sold Separately? Yes No No No No
Men's and Women's versions? Yes Yes Unisex Yes Unisex
Sizes Available 22", 25", 30" 25", 30", 35" 23", 26", 30" One size S (20.5"), M (23.5"), L (27")
Tested Size 25" 25" 26" One Size M

Our Analysis and Test Results

The excellent features of this snowshoe have remained virtually unchanged for years other than the binding system in more recent years. The latest version of the bindings adds more comfort, though at the cost of being slightly less easy to use than the old rubber strap design.

Performance Comparison


The Lightning Ascent is our testers favorite snowshoe for steep...
The Lightning Ascent is our testers favorite snowshoe for steep, mountainous terrain.
Credit: Ian McEleney

Flotation


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 regarding 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 were in excellent balance. We suspect this is due both to the hinged binding design and the slightly rockered shape of the frame.

We calculated the surface area ourselves, the 25" Lightning Ascent...
We calculated the surface area ourselves, the 25" Lightning Ascent offers 188 square inches.
Credit: Ian McEleney

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 length to the snowshoe. Our testers liked these on mellow terrain but found them to be rather cumbersome on steep or technical ground.

Traction


The 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 includes serration along about half of their length.


The vertical orientation of the aluminum frame pieces means that any part of the frame 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 by any other product in our review, making this snowshoe an excellent performer when sidestepping on a steep slope or for switchbacking in firm conditions.

For traction, the Lightning Ascent boasts two big crampon-style...
For traction, the Lightning Ascent boasts two big crampon-style front points (in red) and two more rows of points behind (in grey). Much of the vertically oriented frame is also serrated, significantly enhancing the traction.
Credit: Ian McEleney

Stride Ergonomics


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 in, though there's often a sacrifice in flotation. Our testing team prefers a hinged attachment of the binding to the deck, which the Lightning Ascent has. 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 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 lightweight of the Ascent (4 pounds even for a pair of the 25") makes them far less cumbersome with each step than heavier models.

Our testers felt that the tip-to-tail rocker of the deck contributes...
Our testers felt that the tip-to-tail rocker of the deck contributes to good walking efficiency.
Credit: Ian McEleney

Ease of Use


When it comes to ease of use, our testers look 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 redesigned part of the binding. The rubber webbing that cages the forefoot is secured by two rubber straps that pass through buckles near the foot's arch. We found that though these straps are long enough to fasten, the tails aren't long enough to grab easily, especially with a larger foot in the binding using up more of the strap. This effect was exacerbated when we wore gloves, which folks will often wear while snowshoeing. A small hole at the end of the strap helps a bit, but we just wished these straps were a couple of inches longer.

A size 11 Keen Venture (a light hiking shoe) leaves 3 inches of...
A size 11 Keen Venture (a light hiking shoe) leaves 3 inches of strap tail for grabbing and adjusting. Bulkier or larger sized footwear leaves even less tail available.
Credit: Ian McEleney

MSR also 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 the keepers are, in our experience, the most broken part of any MSR snowshoe. Finally, the heel lifters snap into place securely but are also simple enough to disengage.

Bindings


MSR has long been a leader regarding binding security, and while the Paragon binding is a newer feature, we found it kept up the tradition. The rubber mesh/webbing securely cradles the forefoot with zero slippage, and the heel strap keeps the 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 heel strap should be familiar to the users of any MSR snowshoe...
The heel strap should be familiar to the users of any MSR snowshoe model. It features an improved strap keeper.
Credit: Ian McEleney

A comfortable snowshoe binding distributes the tension of the binding as evenly as possible around the foot. Meaning that even if you're wearing thin or soft footwear, there are no hot spots, and circulation to the toes isn't restricted. The Paragon binding system found on the Lightning Ascent nails it for 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 the Ascent nails a balance of comfort, simplicity, and packability with the binding.

The binding on the Lightning Ascent is comfortable whether it's...
The binding on the Lightning Ascent is comfortable whether it's paired with a hiking shoe (top), a trail runner (bottom left), or a supergaiter mountaineering boot.
Credit: Ian McEleney

Value


The Ascent is the most expensive snowshoe in our review. Even so, we think it's a reasonable value as long as you'll be using it in the situations it was designed for: rugged, mountainous terrain.

Conclusion


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, and the 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 binding, so we recommend trying before you buy, if possible. Overall, the Ascent is a good value for folks who want to expand their horizons in snowy environments.

Chris breaking trail in wind-transported snow.
Chris breaking trail in wind-transported snow.
Credit: Ian McEleney

Ian McEleney
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