≪ Go to our review of Snowshoes - Men's
Hands-on Gear Review
MSR Lightning Ascent Review
Cons: Hinged binding/deck connection compromises some trail shock absorption
Bottom line: The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineering.
Weight (per pair): 4.1 lbs
Frame material: 7075-T6 aluminum
MSR does not disappoint with the Lightning Ascent. From backcountry thrills to wintery trail hikes, this snowshoe reliably gets you in and out. Ready to confront the widest range of conditions of all models tested, the Lightning Ascent consists of a simple and strong design with high-end construction and features, all in a relatively lightweight package. Only the MSR Evo weighed less among all contenders. They are also prepared for wide-ranging snow levels. This pair is available in 22", 25", and 30" versions, with additional 5-inch floatation tails (sold separately). They are one of the only snowshoes in our review that are recommended for technical terrain and steep snow. The 2016 version of this snowshoe was excellent, and MSR added some beefiness to this latest version with a thicker aluminum frame and DTX steel crampons.
The full rotation Posilock AT bindings allow for an unrestricted range of motion and precision of footwork. Additional features such as the Televator heel lifts and its low weight add versatility to these technically featured snowshoes. The closest comparison is to the Atlas Aspect. These are remarkably similar snowshoes, except for one significant detail. They both are metal frames with fabric decking. They are similar in size, with similar traction features, binding, and similar weight. The primary difference is in the attachment of binding to the deck. The Ascent does this with a hinge, while the Atlas does it with flexible straps. In the most serious of terrain, we prefer the hinged arrangement, so the Lightning Ascent gets the overall greater score.
The Women's Lightning Ascent is also the Editors' Choice winner in our Women's Snowshoe Review.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Snowshoes of 2018
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
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. Only the Top Pick Louis Garneau Blizzard II and Crescent Moon Gold 10 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 Aspect snowshoes rival the Lightning Ascents for flotation because they have a similar surface area, but they are heavier in packed snow conditions.
These have the most aggressive traction system in our review. There are two cleats under the front of the foot, three 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 and Atlas Aspect are the only snowshoes 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.
Stride ergonomics are where the Lightning Ascent edges ahead of its closest competitor. The Atlas Aspect 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 Atlas 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 Aspect. Having good choices is good!
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 Tubbs Flex VRT, 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 and the Atlas Aspect, 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.
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 MSR Evo.
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.
— Jediah Porter
You Might Also Like
The Best Snowshoes of 2018Determining the best pair of snowshoes for your adventure can be difficult. To help, we researched over 40 models...
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: January 31, 2018
Where's the Best Price?
*You help support OutdoorGearLab's product testing and reviews by purchasing from our retail partners.
Table of Contents
Other Gear by MSR