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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
Photo: MSR
Editors' Choice Award
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Price:  $330 List
Pros:  Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, traction, flotation
Cons:  New binding trades ease-of-use for comfort
Manufacturer:   MSR
By Ian McEleney and Jediah Porter  ⋅  Sep 25, 2019
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78
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#1 of 11
  • Flotation - 25% 6
  • Traction - 25% 10
  • Stride Ergonomics - 20% 8
  • Binding Comfort - 10% 8
  • Ease of Use - 10% 4
  • Binding Security - 10% 10

Our Verdict

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.

Compare to Similar Products

 
MSR Lightning Ascent
Awards Editors' Choice Award   Best Buy Award Top Pick Award 
Price $330 ListCheck Price at REI
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Check Price at REI
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Pros Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, traction, flotationFully featured for steep and technical useGood traction, and an easy-to-use, comfortable bindingInexpensive, simple, reliableCompact, with uniquely excellent stride ergonomics
Cons New binding trades ease-of-use for comfortLoud decking and bulky harnessMediocre flotation for the length, strapped deck/binding attachmentLoud decking on crusty snowSmall footprint and flexible deck creates limited flotation
Bottom Line The best snowshoes in our test, complete with high end features and simple engineeringThis contender provides excellent traction, heel lifts, a comfortable binding, and moderate weightThis is a great traditional snowshoe that's outshone in a few areas by newer designsThis molded snowshoe is reliable, inexpensive, and offers widespread appealExcellent snowshoes for packed trail and firmer snow use
Rating Categories MSR Lightning Ascent Tubbs Flex VRT Atlas Montane MSR Evo TSL Symbioz Elite
Flotation (25%)
6.0
5.0
5.0
5.0
2.0
Traction (25%)
10.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
9.0
Stride Ergonomics (20%)
8.0
9.0
7.0
8.0
8.0
Binding Comfort (10%)
8.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
9.0
Ease Of Use (10%)
4.0
8.0
8.0
5.0
7.0
Binding Security (10%)
10.0
8.0
9.0
10.0
5.0
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
Heel Lift Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Binding/Deck Connection Hinged Hinged Strapped Hinged Hinged
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.

Performance Comparison


The Lightning Ascent is our testers favorite snowshoe for steep...
The Lightning Ascent is our testers favorite snowshoe for steep, mountainous terrain.
Photo: 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 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.

We calculated the surface area ourselves, the Lightning Ascent...
We calculated the surface area ourselves, the Lightning Ascent offers 173.8 square inches.
Photo: 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 flotation. Our testers liked these on mellow terrain but found them to be cumbersome on steep or technical ground.

Traction


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

Binding Comfort


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.

The new binding on the Lightning Ascent is comfortable whether it's...
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.
Photo: Ian McEleney

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.

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.
Photo: Ian McEleney

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.

Binding Security


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 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.
Photo: Ian McEleney

Value


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.

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. 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.

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

Ian McEleney and Jediah Porter

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