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MSR Lightning Ascent Review

MSR Lightning Ascent
Editors' Choice Award
Price:   $300 List | $299.95 at REI
Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros:  Rigid, precise, excellent binding security, traction, flotation
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.
Editors' Rating:     
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Manufacturer:   MSR
By Jediah Porter
Wednesday November 22, 2017

Our Verdict

Whether you're chasing backcountry or hiking the trails, the MSR Lightning Ascent will perform to suit your agenda. They offer unparalleled traction and stability in a range of conditions. Offered in three primary frame sizes, they also have the option for add-on flotation tails to extend an additional 5 inches. This makes these an incredible option for use in a wide range of snow conditions, too. They are one of the only snowshoes in our review that are recommended for technical terrain and steep snow.

An updated version of the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoe, pictured above, is out and about on the market. See what's new below.

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 the light 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 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 Men's Snowshoes of 2017

Our Analysis and Test Results

The Updated MSR Lightning Ascent next to its Predecessor


The latest iteration of the MSR Lightning Ascent is updated to be beefier. New features include DTX steel crampons, augmented geometry, and thicker construction. See the changes in the side-by-side photos below (the new model is to the left).
MSR Lightning Ascent
MSR Lightning Ascent

Here's a list of what's new:
  • DTX Crampon — The latest model features DTX (steel) which should increase the bite.
  • New geometry — A continuous piece of martensite steel to increases strength.
  • Thicker construction — Overall, beefier construction.
  • New Colors — These snowshoes are available in updated colors.
  • Increased Price - The price increases by $10.

We haven't taken these babys for a spin yet, so the text and ratings below are indicative of the original model.

Hands-on Review of the Original MSR Lightning Ascent


In deep snow on technical terrain  the MSR Lightning Ascent is unparalleled. Here  in early season High Sierra snow-over-talus  the precise footwork and durable construction work better than any other product in our test.
In deep snow on technical terrain, the MSR Lightning Ascent is unparalleled. Here, in early season High Sierra snow-over-talus, the precise footwork and durable construction work better than any other product in our test.

Flotation


Flotation is measured by how close the snowshoes keep you to the surface of the snow. 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. The Lightning Ascent is a decent floater, though the Top Pick Louis Garneau Blizzard II and Crescent Moon Gold 10 float better. The 7000 series aluminum frames with urethane-impregnated nylon excel at keeping you afloat.


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 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.

In deep snow the size of the Lightning Ascent allows fairly good flotation. The Louis Garneau Blizzard II is better  but add the optional MSR Tails to the Lightning and its again a contender.
In deep snow the size of the Lightning Ascent allows fairly good flotation. The Louis Garneau Blizzard II is better, but add the optional MSR Tails to the Lightning and its again a contender.

Traction


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 side stepping and traversing. The MSR Evo offer 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


The fully hinging binding/deck interface allows for precise and confidence inspiring footwork in all terrain.
The fully hinging binding/deck interface allows for precise and confidence inspiring footwork in all terrain.

It is in terms of stride ergonomics that the Lightning Ascent edges ahead of its closest competitor. The Atlas Aspect and Lightning Ascent are largely similar, with the only other major difference being a slight edge in flotation to the Atlas Aspect. In terms of walking comfort and precision, however, there is a significant difference. In general, we look at overall footprint shape and size and the attachment of binding to deck in assessing stride ergonomics. The Atlas and MSR Ascent are close enough in size and shape that these differences are unimportant.


In general, 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 use 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 prefer the Atlas Aspect. It is good to have good choices!

The heel lifters and relatively narrow shape of the Lightning Ascent aid its stride ergonomics.
The heel lifters and relatively narrow shape of the Lightning Ascent aid its stride ergonomics.

Ease of Use


Ease of use is defined by how easily the snowshoes can be fastened, adjusted on 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. The light 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 light weight. The binding system packs down flush with the snowshoe deck for easy stowage, whether on your pack while hiking or in your luggage or trunk in transit.

Binding Security


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 comfortably fit into the bindings. 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.


Best Applications


Like with all great products  simple execution with excellent materials is the recipe. The MSR Lightning Ascent is arguably the simplest product in our review  but performs at the top of the heap.
Like with all great products, simple execution with excellent materials is the recipe. The MSR Lightning Ascent is arguably the simplest product in our review, but performs at the top of the heap.

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.

Value


The Lightning Ascents are the most expensive pair of snowshoes in our review, costing between $290-$300. They are a great value for the versatility, lightweight, and technical features. The Lightning Ascents can tackle 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, we would recommend our Best Buy winner, the MSR Evo.

Conclusion


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 light 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
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