Testing the MSR Lightning Flash at 11,500 feet (3505 m) on a cold blustery January day. The Flash is MSR’s lightest snowshoe in their Lightning series; our measured weight for the 25-inch (64-cm) length is 3 pounds 6 ounces (1.53 kg) per pair.
The new Lightning Flash is the lightest snowshoe in MSR’s Lightning series of snowshoes that have a distinctive vertical flat aluminum alloy frame. These snowshoes have what MSR calls their “360° Traction Frame;” unlike other aluminum frame snowshoes, the frame has teeth on the bottom side, plus two toothed cross-members. The Lightning arguably has the most traction of any snowshoe out there. In this review we compare the Lightning Flash with a lightweight conventional tubular aluminum frame snowshoe, the Northern Lites Elite.
|Year/Model||2011 MSR Lightning Flash|
|Sizes||21 in and 25 in (53 and 64 cm)|
|Dimensions||25-in length tested: 8 in wide x 25 in long (20 cm x 64 cm)|
|Frame||Vertical flat 7000 series aircraft Aluminum, 1.1 in (2.9 cm) high, powder coated|
|Deck||Polyurethane coated polyester scrim|
|Crampons||Steel toe crampon, two toothed steel cross-members, serrated bottom of frame|
|Weight||Measured weight: 3.4 lb (1.54 kg) per pair |
Manufacturer specification: 3.6 pounds (1.63 kg) per pair
|Load rating||120-220 pounds (54 to 100 kg)|
|Options||Instep Strap (3.1 oz/88 g per pair) US$8; Tails (9.5 oz/269 g per pair) US$50|
Most conventional tubular aluminum snowshoes have a toe crampon and heel crampon, and some have extra lateral crampons attached to the decking to help with sidehill stability. With the MSR Lightning snowshoes, the entire bottom side of the frame is serrated to provide traction, in addition to an aggressive steel toe crampon and two toothed cross-members. Clearly, these snowshoes have no shortage of traction.
MSR Lightning Flash snowshoe top (left) and bottom (right). Their distinctive feature is a vertical flat aluminum frame that is toothed on the bottom side.
The Flash has MSR’s new SpeedLock binding, which is an adjustable band over the toe that you adjust once, and then you don’t have to adjust it again (for the same person and same boots). Simply insert your boot at an angle, return to a straight position, and tighten the heel strap. The snowshoes go on and off very quickly. An optional instep strap is available (shown above) for more challenging conditions.
The steps to adjust the SpeedLock binding are: 1) unlock the top strap clasp; 2) place the ball of your foot over the crampon hinge and fold the strap over the boot snugly; 3) note the number on the strap; 4) adjust the strap at least two settings smaller, and 5) engage the strap’s teeth, slide the clasp over both straps, and lock. I found it challenging to adjust the binding without directions, and resorted to watching a video on the Cascade Designs website to get the step-by-step procedure. Fortunately, you only have to do it once, if you will be using the same boots with the snowshoes.
The decking on the Flash is similar to Hypalon, a lightweight durable fabric that is standard in the industry.
The steel front crampon pivots on two clevis pins. It rotates freely and has plenty of range to climb the steepest hills without binding. The Lightning Ascent version of this snowshoe has a heel lift to make hill climbing more comfortable.
Snow camping in mid-May at 12,000 feet (3658 m). I got out with the MSR Lightning Flash on five day trips and one overnight trip from January to May 2011.
I snowshoe with a group of friends who like to do extreme snowshoeing; we call it “plunging” or glissading on snowshoes. On our way down off a mountain, we choose the steepest routes and literally slide on our snowshoes. I gave the Flash a thorough testing on these trips.
I quickly found out that the Lightning Flash does not slide that readily. It does while going down really steep slopes, where the snow simply gives away and you go into a controlled slide. But the Flash locks on when going down moderate slopes and sidehills. The same is true on snowshoe tracks when snowshoeing with a group.
The extreme traction is something you have to get used to. Conventional tubular aluminum snowshoes are smooth on the bottom, except for the crampons, and you can glide along by lifting the snowshoe a bit and sliding it forward. The Lightning snowshoes don’t glide; you have to lift them up more and push them ahead. It’s more like walking with the snowshoes rather than shuffling.
In my testing on steep hills, I found that my boots tended to slide forward in the binding. Tightening the binding alleviated the problem, but it put uncomfortable pressure on the toebox area of my boots. A better solution is to add MSR’s optional Instep Strap, which is an extra strap over the front of the boot. The Instep Strap is not needed for typical snowshoeing in moderate terrain. If you typically snowshoe in more challenging conditions, I recommend getting the Lightning Ascent instead of the Flash; rather than the SpeedLock binding, it has three conventional straps on the front that hold the foot in place more securely.
I also tested the optional Lightning Tails, which give the snowshoes another 5 inches (13 cm) of length. Since the snowshoes I tested are 25 inches (64 cm) long, I found the tails to be overkill most of the time, and they limit maneuverability. The tails are a more useful option if you choose the shorter version of the snowshoes.
Like any metal frame snowshoe, the Lightning Flash ices up in certain conditions, usually when going from wet snow to colder snow in the shade. The solution is to spray the bottom of the snowshoe with silicone or WD-40.
Comparison with the Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe
While the MSR Lightning Flash is not the lightest snowshoe to be found, it could rightfully lay claim to the title of lightest high-traction snowshoe. The Northern Lites Elite is the lightest snowshoe; so how do the two compare?
The MSR Lightning Flash (left) compared with the Northern Lites Elite (right). The difference in traction is obvious. Note on the Elite that the numerous nylon clamps around the frame have a ridge on them to provide some peripheral traction.
Both snowshoes are the same size: 8 inches wide and 25 inches long (20 cm x 64 cm). The Flash has more surface area on the snow because it’s not upturned as much on the front and has less taper on the tail. The difference in traction capability is obvious in the photo above; you can almost climb trees with the Lightning Flash, but the Elite has less aggressive traction and is more comfortable on moderate terrain. One situation where you notice a big difference is when sidehilling on firm snow; the Flash does not slide sideways, but the Elite breaks loose.
The weight difference is not that large: the measured weight of the Flash is 3 pounds 6 ounces (1.53 kg) per pair, and the Elite weighs 2 pounds 6.1 ounces (1.08 kg) per pair, a difference of 1 pound (454 g). Yes, a pound (454 g) is significant if you are carrying the snowshoes, but the choice gets down to whether you need the extra traction or not. In gentle to moderate terrain, the Elite (which has aluminum alloy crampons) is adequate; but in steeper terrain and sidehills, the Lightning Flash is king.
Another factor to consider is the Northern Lites Elite costs a bit more, US$219 versus US$200 for the MSR Lightning Flash.
Overall, the MSR Lightning Flash is the lightweight high-traction king of the mountain. Its SpeedLock binding works well once adjusted, but adjusting it can be humbling.