+4 4 votes

Lightning Snowshoes

Snowshoes are a vital tool for wintertime enjoyment of the immediately accessible open spaces of Central Washington. Leavenworth, Cashmere, Chelan, and Wenatchee all abut large tracts of public land around Icicle Ridge, Chelan Butte, Saddlerock, or Twin Peaks where a 45-minute uphill hike takes you from a no-snow zone into domains where forward progress is thwarted by the knee-deep snowpack. Compact snowshoes that strap quickly onto running shoes or hiking boots will help you enjoy these frontcountry spaces on a year-round basis. Why move indoors onto a cardio machine when snowshoes function as a stair-stepper with a view?

Snowshoes fitting the bill for these local applications should tuck inside a roomy daypack with 1,800 to 2,000 cubic-inches of capacity. They should be light because you’ll be carrying them as much as wearing them. They should strap to a wide variety of footwear so you can couple them with running shoes when you’re traveling light and fast or to warm boots when you’re enjoying a leisurely daytrip. And they need to grip well because the wussie-free ground surrounding us is often seriously inclined.
Shoes like the Northern Lites Elite ($199, 36 oz) and MSR Denali Ascents ($180, 58 oz) fit these criteria and are two good choices. A new entry to the game which I tested last spring on steep climbs up the west side of Twin Peaks, along the length of the One-Two Divide, and up Chopper Peak is MSR’s new Lightning ($230, 50 oz). I used the 22-inch- long version, the single-most versatile size. Large men (approaching 200 pounds) and winter campers using snowshoes for overnight backpacking trips will want to consider the 25-inch or 30-inch sizes.

Pros: These are a go-anywhere product and are the best-gripping snowshoes I’ve used—the crampon is aggressive, two bars with serrated teeth run across the width of the shoe, and the underside of the entire metal frame has teeth cut into it. The binding hinges nicely but is torsionally stable; when you’re traversing steep slopes, the binding keeps your heel from torquing sideways off the shoe. The binding is easy to adjust, regardless of the footwear you’re using, and the releases for the over-the-foot straps are excellent – you can get these puppies on and off easier than most of the competition. The metal frame is solid aluminum and the Hypalon deck providing the flotation is durable—these snowshoes aren’t going to fall apart unless you unwittingly back the car over them. Finally few snowshoes this technical are so light.

Cons: Price is the biggy. The Lightning retails for $230. For $180 you can purchase the MSR Denali Ascent, another excellent snowshoe. The Denali Ascent is a half-pound-per pair heavier, not quite as grippy, and the binding is a tad slower to get on and off, but it’s still an excellent, go-anywhere product. The other snowshoe I’m partial to is the Northern Lites Elite, which is nearly a pound lighter and $30 cheaper. The Lightning performs better on severe terrain (steep climbs, steep descents, steep traverses, icy snow) but it is a more technical snowshoe than many users need. The other drawback of the Lightning: It lacks heel lifters, which are restful to your calves on long, steep ascents. Heel lifters come with the Lightning Ascent, a higher-end version of the product costing $30 more.

Final Analysis: If price isn’t a deterrent, you won’t go wrong with the Lightning. This one product can service everyone in the family or in your friendship circle--hardcore winter climbers, winter backpackers, winter daytrippers, winter trail runners…

More Information: Contact Mountain Safety Research (MSR).

2013 Update: The Lightning Series of snowshoes has diversified since this article and now there several options with main difference being different bindings. We're partial toward the Lightning Ascent (3 lb.15 oz., $270) which is very similar to the original snowshoe we reviewed but has some binding, crampon, and grip refinements.

Click here for a review of nine other snowshoes.