The MSR Lightning Ascent
– Price: $350
– Length: 22” (56cm) – also available in 25” (64cm) and 30” (76cm)
– Max recommended load: 180 lbs (81.6 kg) – 120-220 lbs (54 – 99.8 kg) for 25 in. and 150-280 lbs (68 – 127 kg) for 30 in.
– Weight per pair: 4.1 lbs (1.87 kg)
– Snowshoe terrain: Anything and everything, deep snow and steep/technical terrain
The Wise Adventurer’s Verdict
This is our field test and review of the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoe, the latest high-tech powerhouse from the folks at Mountain Safety Research.
We were thoroughly impressed by the MSR Lightning Ascent’s outright capability on any and every terrain. This snowshoe has a well-earned reputation as one of the best models ever made, and we found it excelled in every environment we tested.
Few companies have done as much for the development and evolution of the modern snowshoe as MSR. They changed the industry forever with the introduction of the MSR Denali snowshoe back in 1995, a design whose innovations (injection molded decking, steel traction bars, modular flotation tails) are still used both by MSR and their competition almost 30 years later.
The MSR Lightning Ascent is the latest evolution in MSR’s long history of snowshoe innovation. Combining their 360-degree traction frame, ultralight polyurethane fabric decking, and the brand’s newest innovation, the minimalist Paragon binding, the Lighting Ascent represents all the best MSR currently has to offer in technical performance.
There’s no denying MSR is one of the leading innovators in the world when it comes to snowshoe tech, but we set out to determine if a snowshoe this advanced still works as a good daily driver.
The results didn’t disappoint! Here’s our take:
MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes: Detailed Evaluation
In our snowshoes field testing, we seek to evaluate each pair of snowshoes on every metric that makes any pair worth buying. This includes everything from direct feedback on how they perform over specific types of terrain to big-picture themes like their day-to-day walkability or comfort.
We aim to put each snowshoe through its paces in everything from steep and technical off-trail exploration to groomed-and-packed hiking trails to give you an accurate depiction of what to expect day-to-day. What follows are our team’s first-hand impressions after spending a few weeks in the MSR Lightning Ascent.
The MSR Lightning Ascent landed among the highest in our testing for overall flotation, which is impressive considering its relatively compact footprint. By our measurements, the total surface area of our 25” test shoe came in at just under 190 square inches, which is a good 5 to 25 square inches less than comparable all-terrain models we’ve tested.
So what’s the Lightning’s special sauce? Our testers contributed the unexpected performance to two factors: The pliable fabric decking and the rigid aluminum frame. We found this formula to be the best of both worlds as the rigid frame eliminates any flexing of the actual snowshoe itself, while the flexible fabric decking allowed our feet to better conform to the surface below.
The net result is a wonderfully secure feeling when walking in deep snow without the added effort of plowing around in a plus-sized shoe. The MSR Lighting Ascent is designed for use with MSR’s “Lightning Tails”(a five-inch extension to the rear of the snowshoe for added flotation) but if we’re being honest, we never really felt the need to use them.
The MSR Lightning Ascent tied for the best traction in our testing, going head-to-head with Atlas’ latest technical all-terrain juggernaut, the Range-MTN. These shoes grip like stink in every terrain we put them on including steep climbs with icy crusts, powdery backcountry descents, and rolling groomers of packed snow.
All that grip comes from MSR’s brilliantly simple design, which directly incorporates full-length traction rails into the frame itself. Two additional sets of aluminum teeth traverse the center of the shoe at the heel and ball of the foot to provide additional traction and stability on inclines, while a sharp set of toe crampons rounds out the entire package.
Our testers were particularly impressed with the Ascent’s toe crampons, which made for incredibly secure footing when climbing icy uphills. The curve of the points along with the hinged articulation really allows you to dig in confidently with each step, and we never experienced any slippage or worrisome wobbles at any point in the field.
As you may have picked up reading our notes on flotation, we’re big fans of the Lightning Ascent when it comes to walkability. In deep snow this came as no surprise, considering all the right elements are there like a compact footprint and a hinged binding, but our testers gave the Ascent high marks on groomers and packed snow as well.
What really surprised us was just how much we enjoyed walking over packed snow in these rigid frames compared to something with a semi-flexible composite construction. Normally we’d give the nod to plastic shoes in these conditions because the added flexibility of their tail sections adds a bit more “spring” to your step, but that just wasn’t the case with the MSR Lightning Ascent.
Our testers once again attributed this to the thick fabric decking of the Ascent. Even over firm terrain, this material gives an extra “cushion” to each step, which is particularly nice when wearing minimalist footwear like hiking shoes or trail runners.
If these snowshoes have one Achilles heel for us, it’s going to be the bindings. Don’t get us wrong, clearly a lot of thought and engineering went into this system and there’s a strong argument to be made for it, but we found the MSR Paragon binding among our least favorites in the field.
Our testers’ main complaint with this system was a lack of comfort. We felt that the Paragon system’s rubber mesh forefoot attachment always felt a bit too tight and restrictive when securely fastened, and this was the case both in minimalist hiking footwear and thick winter boots.
We also felt that for such a simple system, the Paragon binding wasn’t any easier to dial in than something like a BOA binding or even a traditional nylon webbing strap. All three rubber straps always felt a bit more rigid than we’d have liked, and while it was never difficult to get strapped in, other systems scored better for their ease of use.
Taking all that into consideration, we’d like to reiterate that these are still highly technical and highly capable bindings. MSR’s focus is on minimal weight and complexity while delivering maximum performance. These bindings are extremely light and completely secure, and also happen to be the easiest to service in the field (more on that below), so while we didn’t love them from a comfort or ease of use standpoint, there’s no denying their technical capability.
The MSR Lightning Ascent is one of the most expensive snowshoes on the planet, and as such, we expect it to be nothing short of an heirloom quality product. MSR didn’t disappoint in that regard, and our testers had zero durability complaints or concerns with this model.
Our team praised the rock-solid feeling of the Ascent’s all-aluminum frame, sturdy metal hardware, and extra thick rubberized binding materials. Even the decking material, which is made from thick TPU-coated nylon fabric, feels above average in terms of durability, which is impressive considering some of the competition is made from seemingly indestructible one-piece composites.
We’ll also give the Ascent bonus points in this metric for its rebuildable design. The first thing to go on most snowshoes are the rubber straps (they can dry out and become brittle after a few years), and MSR allowed for that with this design. The entire Paragon binding system is attached using MSR’s “keylock” system, which can be easily removed/replaced in the field without special tools.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this, so we’ll just come right out and say it: MSRP for the MSR Lightning Ascent is $350, making them hands down the most expensive snowshoe we’ve tested to date.
With that being said, if ever there were a good argument for a $350 snowshoe, the Lightning Ascent makes a very strong case. After weeks of testing, we’re of the opinion that these shoes will be worth every penny for folks seeking uncompromising go-anywhere performance.
We say that because we have yet to find any sort of terrain where these shoes don’t absolutely excel. They’re easy to walk in, deliver oodles of traction on any surface, are built to last (and even be rebuilt), and feature all the latest technology on the market.
More casual users who aren’t tackling steep hills or serious mountaineering will have a difficult time justifying the Ascent’s asking price, however, as they can easily get adequate performance from shoes costing $50-$100 less.
Our experience also tells us that the Paragon binding may be a sticking point for some as well. While many hikers will undoubtedly love the ultralight simplicity of this binding, less hardcore users will likely be drawn to the premium look and feel of a BOA system or one of TSL’s three-way adjustable options.
What We Like
Uncompromising technical performance is the name of the game with the MSR Lightning Ascent, and the brand absolutely knocked it out of the park in that regard. The Ascent lacks nothing in terms of traction, security, and all-terrain performance, and its go-anywhere capability is tough to beat at any price.
The Ascent was consistently a top performer across the board in every metric, and we would trust this shoe to get us into and out of the most remote places on the planet when called upon. We’re also particularly fond of the Lightning Ascent’s heavy-duty nylon fabric decking, which contributed both to its outstanding walking feel over a variety of terrain and its above-average flotation for such a compact shoe.
Lastly, we can’t stress the importance of durability enough here. When you’re dropping this kind of money on any piece of gear, you want to know you’re buying a product that’s built to last. In our testing we found every aspect of these shoes felt absolutely bombproof, and the fact that MSR designed them to be easily rebuilt/repaired in the field is a major plus from a longevity standpoint.
What We Don’t Like
At risk of stating the obvious here, this is an expensive snowshoe. While we’ve already established that we believe the MSR Lightning Ascent is well worth its asking price, we can’t help but wince at the thought of dropping $350 on a pair of snowshoes. That’s more of a “whine” than a valid complaint, but we feel much better now that we’ve put it in writing, so thank you for listening.
Aside from the price, the only real complaint we have here is with the new Paragon binding. While the simplified rubber mesh/strap setup lacks nothing in terms of security or capability, we never quite got comfortable in it. It always felt a bit constrictive when properly tightened, which is an issue we just don’t experience with other top-dollar models.
In all fairness, we’ve spoken with a handful of other users who have no complaints, and some even feel the complete opposite for both comfort and ease of use. We can only relay our own first-hand experience here however, and ultimately the Paragon system feels like it compromises a bit of comfort in exchange for ultralight simplicity.
- Atlas Range-MTN: Comparable top-tier performance, plus a BOA binding, for a few dollars less. Read our full test and review of the Atlas Range-MTN…
- Tubbs Flex VRT: Another performance-minded model, also with a BOA binding but with a modern composite decking system. Read our full test and review of the Tubbs Flex VRT…
- Atlas Montane: Another premium quality design, albeit with a traditional frame and a more flotation-focused build. Read our full test and review of the Atlas Montane…
The Bottom Line
Despite our apparent beef with the Paragon binding, we really can’t emphasize enough how impressed we are with these snowshoes. There’s just nothing negative to say about their technical performance, build quality, or modern features, and we’re confident they’ll serve anyone looking to brave the most unforgiving terrain with aplomb.
If uncompromising technical chops are what you’re after, the MSR Lightning Ascent is what you’re looking for, and we believe they’ll serve you faithfully for many years to come. Most casual users who are simply looking to go exploring off-trail may want to look elsewhere if cost is a concern, but if you’ve got the money to spend, the Ascent won’t disappoint.