Snowshoes are essential for traveling in the mountains in most of the winter and spring months. In some places of the western U.S. (e.g., the Cascade volcanoes and Northern Rockies), snowshoes may even be necessary for high-country travel well into May and June.
We reviewed and tested nearly 20 models of 25-33″ long backcountry snowshoes from Atlas, Red Feather, MSR, Northern Lites, Little Bear, Grivel, Tubbs, and Crescent Moon. We put these snowshoes to the test for an entire winter season, and used them ALL on the following types of terrain:
- Deep backcountry powder in the foothills of Wyoming’s Teton Range
- Powder and windblown hardpack in Montana’s Bridger Range (famous for its steep backcountry skiing and snowboarding chutes)
- Hard ice on the glaciers of Washington State’s Mount Rainier
Review criteria included an assessment of the decking design (flotation), binding (ease of use and durability), crampon (effectiveness in hard conditions and durability), and of course, carry weight.
It’s a safe bet that if you’re simply in the market for a day-hiking snowshoe suitable for packed trails and shallow powder, you won’t go wrong by purchasing a foot sled from any of these manufacturers. However, there were only two models in particular that really captured the hearts of our equipment review team, and we are pleased to award them with Trail’s Best Awards and highlight them in this review:
- Best Snowshoe for Steep and Icy Terrain: MSR Denali Ascent
- Best All-Around Backcountry Snowshoe: Northern Lites Quicksilver 30’s
MSR Denali Ascent
Trail’s Best Award Winner
Mountaineers and other visitors to the steeps take note: there is probably no finer snowshoe than the MSR Denali Ascent for climbing steep and hardpacked or icy terrain.
The Denali Ascent is made with a one-piece injection-molded deck (8″ x 22″ with optional modular extension tails), resulting in excellent durability on rocky and icy terrain and relatively light weight. The deck’s bottom is made with a variety of fins and edges that are designed primarily to resist backsliding on steep terrain. Although not the only, or the lightest, injection-molded deck of the snowshoes we reviewed, it proved to be the most durable (in its resistance to cracking and nicking) and certainly one of the most well-designed. Of all the snowshoes tested, the MSR resisted backsliding the best (although this has a great deal to do with the crampon design as well).
The Denali Ascents feature aggressive crampons, a pair of 1.25″ steel spikes, and a pair of long traction bars (11.5″) that minimize the backsliding so common in climbs of steep and icy slopes. We were able to climb alpine glacier ice slopes up to 30 degrees without backsliding, and were able to traverse ice slopes to 40 degrees without side slipping. We are pleased that MSR chose to use steel for the crampon material and traction bars, rather than titanium, as some manufacturers did. We found the titanium crampons to be “soft” and not particularly durable after hard use on black ice and other rocky terrain.
The Denali Ascent employs a binding with Voile-style straps that can be operated with a single mittened hand. Three straps over the instep and a single strap behind the heel locks the foot securely into the snowshoe. The binding sole is reinforced with a thin steel shank that effectively prevents your foot from “rolling” over while traversing a steep slope. This was a feature that was greatly appreciated in a traverse of a windblown 30-degree ice slope on Mount Rainier’s Ingraham glacier last spring.
Incidentally, of all the snowshoe bindings we tried, we unanimously chose Voile-style straps as the best strap style for snowshoes, not only for their mitten-friendliness, but also for their ability to remain secure at light tension settings (to prevent cutting off blood circulation in your feet), their excellent flexibility at low temperatures, and their resistance to snow buildup. Of our panel of eight reviewers, we found no one that would purchase snowshoes that did not have this type of binding.
In addition to its characteristic injection-molded design and aggressive crampon, the MSR Denali Ascent stands out from other snowshoes with its heel lifters. These bars flip up when needed while climbing steep slopes and greatly reduce calf fatigue. They are a blessing and we wished that they were standard on every snowshoe model on the market! This feature alone was capable of tipping our reviewers’ pocketbooks into purchases of their own Denali Ascents.
The Denali Ascents are not the lightest snowshoes around (3 lb 15.0 oz actual measured weight), but they’re not the heaviest either. When you consider their performance on steep and hard or icy terrain, there may not be a better snowshoe on the market.
However, if you’re looking for an all-purpose powder shoe for off-track backpacking, the Denali Ascents do not provide the flotation necessary for deep powder. MSR recommends adding their extension tails, but this adds weight to the snowshoe and makes it somewhat cumbersome — there are lighter, better snowshoes for deep powder.
Final Grade: A
Mountain Safety Research
PO Box 24547
Seattle, WA 98124
Northern Lites Quicksilver 30s
Trail’s Best Award Winner
The Northern Lites series of snowshoes stand out for one simple reason: they are light. Really light. The full-length 9″ x 30″ Quicksilver 30’s weigh only 49.0 oz (actual measured weight) – or 3 lb 1 oz. The shorter 25’s (25″ deck length) and their higher end (and more expensive) Extreme models weigh even less. So when you consider that the Quicksilver 30 is their heaviest model, and it is still the lightest snowshoe on the market for its deck size, you begin to appreciate its design. When you strap Northern Lites to your feet then that appreciation turns quickly to outright giddiness. Similar shoes from Atlas or Tubbs are 1.5 — or more — POUNDS heavier than the Quicksilver 30’s.
Northern Lites are so light due in part to their very simple design and in part to lightweight materials. The aluminum tubing used for the frame is thinner in diameter that the industry standard, but even so, in normal winter backpacking, when you aren’t abusing the frame on rocky terrain, both the snowshoe frame and lightweight PVC-based decking material held up through an entire season of hard use.
Northern Lites shave weight by employing a very simple aluminum crampon. They are not appropriate for either icy or rocky terrain, or the crampon will wear quickly. However, the crampon is certainly aggressive enough for the occasional icy slope and can easily climb hardpack snow up to 30 degrees without backsliding.
Like the MSR snowshoes, the Northern Lites employ a binding secured by Voile-style straps. The only fault of the Northern Lites binding was the use of a traditional nylon strap with a ladderloc buckle for the heel strap – a design that occasionally “locked up” as the nylon absorbed water and froze. The binding sole on the Northern Lites snowshoes is “soft” in contrast to the plate sole of the MSR Denali Ascents: they are not as appropriate for traversing steep slopes as snowshoes with more rigid bindings and sole plates.
Northern Lites are easily the lightest snowshoe on the market for their flotation range. In exchange for the weight, they do sacrifice some features that are needed for steep and/or icy/rocky terrain, including crampon aggressiveness and durability, lateral binding stability, and frame durability. However, for most recreational snowshoe backpackers, these features are seldom, if ever needed, so why carry the weight?
Final Grade: A
Wausau, WI 54401