The latest version of the MSR Lightning Ascent features a new 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.
The Lightning Ascent is our testers favorite snowshoe for steep, mountainous terrain.
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. The Top Pick Louis Garneau Blizzard II and Best Buy Chinook Trekker 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.
We calculated the surface area ourselves, the Lightning Ascent offers 173.8 square inches.
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.
For traction, this model 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.
The TSL Symbioz Elite also offers a high degree of traction with its array of steel spikes and plastic paddles. Similarly, the Atlas Montane is no slouch in the traction department, bringing a generous cleat under the forefoot and traction rails. However, neither is quite as inspiring as the Lightning Ascent's design.
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.
Our testers felt that the tip-to-tail rocker of the deck contributes to good walking efficiency.
For some users, a strap style binding connection is preferable. Those folks should check out the Atlas Montane which has an otherwise similar feature set to the Ascent.
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.
Only the TSL Symbioz Elite sports a more comfortable binding, though it's significantly more complicated and less packable.
The new 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.
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 which 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.
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.
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.
This binding design tied with that of the MSR Evo (which has a setup similar to the old Lightning Ascent) for most secure in the test. We found that the bindings on the Fimbulvetr Hikr and the Tubbs Flex Vrt can loosen while hiking, but that won't happen with the Paragon binding except through user error.
The heel strap should be familiar to the users of any MSR snowshoe model. It features an improved strap keeper.
The Lightning Ascent has a user-friendly design and construction that works well for anyone who needs snowshoes, including a Texan seeing snow for the first time while on vacation in Colorado. Those folks would also be happy with the simple design of the MSR Evo or the value of the Chinook Trekker. However, those traveling off the beaten path will appreciate the high-end features found on the Ascent, whether you are a New England winter peakbagger or a mountaineer taking on the West Buttress of Denali.
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. They're a good value for folks who want to expand their horizons in snowy environments.
Chris breaking trail in wind-transported snow.