New for 2006, the MSR Lightning represents some serious innovation in snowshoe design. Instead of using aluminum alloy tubing, MSR uses bar stock aluminum to create a “blade” frame, and the frame itself has teeth on the bottom side for peripheral traction. The toothy frame in combination with a steel toe crampon and toothy steel cross members add up to unbelievable total traction. The design also cuts weight about a half pound per pair compared to conventional aluminum tubing snowshoes. Are the new MSR Lightning snowshoes the perfect balance of lightweight, traction, and durability? Or is it possible they have too much traction for their intended purpose?
- Unsurpassed traction
- Good balance of traction, lightweight, and durability
- Step in binding is easily attached and released
- Binding positions and aligns feet well
- Superb climbing ability and sidehill stability
- Flattens and nests well for packing
What’s not so Good
- Inside edges of frame grind on each other
- Frame is soft aluminum and not very durable
- Floatation is low for their length
- Clevis pin pivot system does not appear to be very strong
|Mountain Safety Research (MSR)|
|2006 Lightning 30|
|8 in wide x 30 in long (20 cm x 76 cm)|
|Measured surface area 208 in2 (1342 cm2), manufacturer specification 210 in2 (1355 cm2)|
|Painted “aerospace grade aluminum” vertical flat stock, approximately 3/32 in (3 mm) thick and 1.25 in (3.2 cm) high|
|Propriety urethane with a mesh fiber core|
|Molded clear urethane, with molded gray and black straps, secured with speed clips and hook-and-hole fasteners|
|“Traction Frame” is aerospace grade aluminum; toe crampon and three cross members are painted carbon steel|
|Measured weight 3.86 lb (1.75 kg); manufacturer specification 3.88 lb (1.76 kg)|
|225+ lb (102+ kg)|
The MSR Lightning snowshoes remind me of the Tasmanian Devil cartoons – they’re all teeth! These shoes represent some serious innovation in the snowshoe world. They are aluminum frame snowshoes, but instead of aluminum tubing they have a vertical “blade” frame made of aluminum alloy bar stock. The bottom of the frame is toothed from the pivot point back, adding loads of peripheral traction. The traction frame in combination with a steel toe crampon and teeth on the bottom side of three cross members add up to all the traction you could possibly want.
The MSR Lightning does not have the Televator heel lift found on the Lightning Ascent (so it weighs 5 ounces less per pair), and it is available in a 30-inch length while the Lightning Ascent is not. A heel lift reduces fatigue by providing a more natural ankle position when climbing. Overall, the Lightning Ascent is a good choice where long steady climbs are common, while the Lightning is better suited to highly variable conditions.
The biggest innovation in the MSR Lightning snowshoes is their blade-type frame with teeth cut into the bottom side of the frame, including the cross members. I tested the MSR Lightning in a 30-inch length. Note it has three cross members on the bottom compared to two for the 25-inch snowshoes.
When I had a friend compare the MSR Lightning with the Northern Lites Elite (the lightest snowshoe we know of, but with more tame crampons), her reaction was “what good is lightweight if they don’t have enough traction?” That about sums it up, the MSR Lightning weighs about 1 pound more per pair than the Northern Lites Elite (comparison based on a 25 inch length), but the difference in traction is enormous. So, is the extra traction worth the extra weight? Decide for yourself as you read this review.
The bottom side of the MSR Lightning is all teeth, giving them superb traction and climbing ability.
The step-in binding on the Lightning is amazingly simple and functional. It’s made of tough molded urethane plastic riveted to a steel foot plate to provide rigidity. There are two hook and hole straps over the toe area and one around the heel. Once you have the heel strap adjusted for a particular boot the rest is simple. After stepping into the binding, with your heel pushed back against the heel strap, slip the two front straps under the opposite side speed-hook buckles, and pull tight, locking the hook into one of the adjusting holes of the strap. It’s all done in one motion, and easily done with gloves on.
The binding adjusts to a wide range of shoe sizes, thanks to a simple design with long straps. The design also allows the binding to lay flat when not in use. The snowshoes nest very neatly together and pack well on the outside of a pack, making them ideal where skis will be used on the way back down.
The binding is simple, light, and effective. The speed clips (right photo) make it easy to fasten the straps over the toe area, and black plastic hold-down clips secure the loose ends.
The decking is a propriety urethane with a mesh fiber core. It’s very lightweight and stays pliable at cold temperatures. It’s attached to numerous metal clips anchored in slots around the frame. Unlike tubing framed snowshoes, the decking fabric does not wrap around the frame. This eliminates a common durability issue with tubing style snowshoes, where the tubing tends to wear through the decking where it wraps around the frame. This design places the deck about 0.25-inch lower than the top of the frame. I found that powder snow easily slides off when I raise a shoe to take a step, but wet snow sticks and I had to frequently flick or bump the snowshoes to knock it off.
The pivot system on the Lightning is classic MSR. The binding is attached to a flange on the front cross member with two hardened steel clevis pins. There is a stop on the foot plate that keeps the hinge from rotating beyond about 45 degrees (see photo), which is a good angle for unloading snow while maintaining a smooth forward glide. I found that the Lightning’s binding in combination with its hinge pivot system positions the foot properly for straight tracking. However, from my past experience with a pair of MSR Denali snowshoes with the same pivot system, I found that the clevis pin holes get enlarged from wear, which loosens up the binding, causing some pigeon toeing.
The Lightning has a hinge-type pivot system consisting of two hardened steel clevis pins that attach the binding to a flange on the frame. There is a stop that controls the rotation of the binding when the snowshoe is lifted up.
MSR offers their Lightning series in a 30-inch length, differing from their Lightning Ascent line, whose largest length is 25 inches. I decided to test the MSR Lightning in a 30-inch length to see how much additional floatation the extra length provides. Theoretically, the extra length should translate into more surface area, reducing the amount I sink into deep powder snow. In practice it didn’t work that way for me (6 feet, 170 pounds), I sank nearly as much as I would with a typical 25-inch snowshoe. Our Make Your Own Gear Section Editor, Jay Ham, solved the mystery by measuring the MRS Lightning snowshoes using a planimeter. He found the surface area to be only 208 square inches, just a fraction larger than the 25-inch Tubbs Elevation and Atlas 10 Series snowshoes (at 205 and 200 square inches, respectively) we previously reviewed. The 25-inch MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoe measured 176 square inches, so our surface area measurements reveal that the Lightning snowshoes are lower on floatation than their length would indicate.
For pure traction, the 30-inch MSR Lightning was unbeatable. On firm snow I can climb hills so steep that I need to use my hands (or some serious poling) to hold on. They had traction to spare. The same is true for descending steep hills or walking on a sidehill; the Lightnings grip like Super Glue. The frame has a fair amount of flex, allowing it to conform to irregular surfaces and improve traction. The 30-inch length makes backing up a little more difficult, so I don’t advise getting the extra length unless the extra floatation is really needed.
In my previous tests of aluminum tubing snowshoes, I found that leaning back on steep downhills shifted weight to the tails, causing the shoes to break loose and go into a controlled slide. That was not necessarily the case with the Lightning. They did slide in powder snow or when the snow had an internal sheer plane, but they stayed glued to firm snow. This is somewhat of a disadvantage if you enjoy the thrill of glissading down steep slopes on snowshoes. The Lightning has too much grip, which makes them unpredictable and awkward for glissading. However, in conditions where safety is more of a concern, like when carrying a full pack, the lost ability to glissade will not be missed.
The Lightning tracks fairly smoothly through soft snow. Its pivot angle is good to unload snow from the deck and position the shoes for stepping over obstacles. In gentle terrain I found that traveling on the Lightning is a little more laborious compared to tubing-framed snowshoes. There is extra resistance from the blade-type frame slicing into the snow and pulling it out, and the teeth in the tail section resist sliding when you drag the tails from step to step. Overall, the Lightning is not as smooth as a tubing-framed snowshoe for gliding along in gentle terrain.
Although the innovative blade-type frame of the Lightning provides more traction and saves weight, it also introduces a few issues. I found the inside edges conflict with each other more than with typical tubular framed shoes. While the inside edges of a tubing frame simply rub together, the edges of the Lightning claw at each other, occasionally grabbing the other shoe and affecting my balance. This also results in a fair collection of scratches in the paint after only a few outings. Another issue is the durability of the frame material. Although it is claimed to be “aerospace grade aluminum”, it seems to be fairly soft and easily damaged from rocks. Other than these concerns, the Lightning is strongly constructed and very durable.
Although the Lightning can’t be beaten for raw traction and its balance of light weight and traction, I have a few reservations about how smoothly it performs for recreational snowshoeing. In more gentle terrain, its toothy design actually impedes performance to some extent. The Lightning doesn’t glide as smoothly as tubing-framed snowshoes. Granted, tubing-framed snowshoes tend to slide more going downhill, but I like that because it’s predictable and controllable. However, for alpine-type use such as climbing up high to ski or snowboard down, the Lightning is the snowshoe of choice because of its superb traction, light weight, and packability.
The MSR Lightning “total traction frame,” with teeth built into the bottom of the frame and cross members re-defines the meaning of traction in snowshoes.
Recommendations for Improvement
While I am really impressed with the Lightning’s innovations, there are a few opportunities for improvements:
- Increase the surface area to provide better floatation
- Beef up the clevis pin pivot system to make it more durable
- Use a harder aluminum alloy frame material
- Devise some means to prevent the shoes from damaging each other on the inside edges