Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW

Innovative snow travel system consisting of an overboot with cleats that click into a snowshoe deck. The design eliminates the snowshoe binding and allows the use of the overboots separately, which allows wearers to use lightweight trail running shoes inside, but there are a few significant drawbacks we discovered from our field testing.

Overall Rating: Average

Although the concept of the Kahtoola FLIGHT snow travel system is very appealing, in actual use we found it to be heavy and less versatile than expected. Will in particular felt that the neoprene FLIGHTboot negates the weight savings of the design concept; he'd rate the system as "Below Average." Steve felt that in conditions that required switching between snowshoes and cramponed boots, the system was more appropriate, and would rate it "Average" overall. Both of us found that the boots can easily get damp or wet inside (from snow or perspiration), limiting their usefulness for snow camping. On the trail, the progression from trail runner to traction device to snowshoe sounds good in concept, but has some snags in practice. Finally, the system is pricey. Overall, the FLIGHTsystem should work well for a smaller-footed person who desires convenience for walking on ice and snowshoeing on consolidated snow, but we cannot recommend the FLIGHTsystem as a versatile system for serious backcountry snow travel in most conditions.

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by Steve Nelson and Will Rietveld |

Introduction

We previously reported on the Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem for snow travel in our dispatches from the 2006 Outdoor Retailer Shows. The system consists of a FLIGHTdeck and a FLIGHTboot. The FLIGHTboot is basically an overboot designed to be worn over trail running shoes, and its front crampons click into slots on the FLIGHTdeck like the cleats on bicycling shoes. We had an opportunity to test the FLIGHTsystem in the Sierra Nevada and southern Rockies during the winter of 2006-2007, and report our experiences in this review. The FLIGHTsystem is certainly innovative, but is it truly lightweight, and how well does it perform compared to conventional snowshoes?

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 1
The Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem consists of a neoprene overboot that clicks onto a snowshoe deck.

What's Good

  • Allows the use of lightweight trail running shoes
  • FLIGHTdeck is light in weight
  • Decks are very packable
  • FLIGHTboot insulates well
  • Versatile system for snow/ice hiking and snowshoeing
  • FLIGHTboot serves as an insulated overboot for winter camping
  • Convenient for moving between conditions requiring snowshoes and crampons

What's Not So Good

  • Crampons on snowshoe are minimal
  • Inadequate flotation in soft snow
  • FLIGHTboots are heavy and somewhat cumbersome for packing
  • Minimally stable on sidehills
  • FLIGHTboot does not have a gaiter loop
  • Neoprene foam in FLIGHTboot soaks up water
  • Current design for locking boots to decks can jam with snow and ice (new design is meant to address this)

Specifications

  Manufacturer

Kahtoola

  Year/Model

2006 FLIGHTsystem

  Dimensions

Gemini deck is 8.5 x 24 inches (22 x 61 cm), Gypsy deck is 8 x 23 inches (20 x 58 cm)

  Frame

Aluminum alloy 5/8 in (16 mm) diameter

  Deck

Hypalon and Pebax plastic

  Binding

Boot cleat and locking slot

  Crampons

Stainless steel-4 toe and 4 heel

  MSRP

FLIGHTdeck $185, FLIGHTboot $149

  Weights

FLIGHTdeck Gemini 2.69 lb/pair (1.22 kg) quoted, 2.88 lb (1.29 kg) measured
FLIGHTdeck Gipsy 2.5 lb/pair (1.13 kg) quoted
FLIGHTboots 2.75 lb/pair (1.25 kg) quoted, 3.19 lb/pair (1.45 kg) measured (size XXL)

Performance

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 2
Steve wearing the FLIGHTsystem on a steep slope. The system climbed well in this consolidated snow, but had some trouble on side traverses and steep downhills.

The Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem consists of a FLIGHTboot, which attaches to a FLIGHTdeck, which is a snowshoe deck available in two sizes. The claimed advantages of the system are:

  • Lightweight trail running shoes can be worn inside the FLIGHTboot
  • The FLIGHTboot can be worn separately for hiking on icy trails
  • The FLIGHTdecks are flat and easily attached to a backpack
  • When deeper snow is encountered, the FLIGHTdeck can be easily attached to continue on

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 3
The neoprene insulated FLIGHTboot (left) is designed to be worn over a trail running shoe. Seven sizes are available. Cleats on the bottom (right) provide traction for walking on icy trails, and the "C" shaped cleats attach to a snowshoe deck.

The FLIGHTboot is a 3 millimeter neoprene insulated overboot designed to be worn over trail running shoes to conserve weight. They are available in seven sizes to fit US size 5-14 shoes. If they are sized properly, there is enough room inside for a lightweight insulated boot or trail runners plus a neoprene bootie. We tested the FLIGHTboots in size XL (Steve) and XXL (Will), which weighed 49.7 and 51 ounces/pair, respectively. That's pretty darn heavy!

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 4
Two FLIGHTdeck sizes are available, the 8 x 23 inch Gypsy (left) and the larger 8.5 x 24 inch Gemini (right).

At 46.1 ounces/pair measured weight, the Gemini deck is light in comparison to conventional snowshoes from Atlas and Tubbs, but it is not the lightest around. The Northern Lites Backcountry is 30 inches long and weighs 45.7 ounces/pair, and that includes the bindings. The Northern Lites Elite, which is similar in size to the Gemini deck, weighs just 38.4 ounces/pair.

The total weight of the Gemini deck plus a FLIGHTboot in size XL is 95.8 ounces/pair (6 pounds/pair), so it would be hard to claim that the FLIGHTsystem is lightweight. Perhaps that would be true for the Gypsy deck plus a size small FLIGHTboot.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 5
(left) Cleats on the front of the FLIGHTboot click into these slots on the FLIGHTdeck. Pulling the small knob engages the attachment mechanism, and pulling the T-handle releases it. The heel plate has an adjustable block (right) to raise the cleats above the deck. The blocks need to be adjusted only when initially setting up, or when changing the size of FLIGHTboots used with the decks.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 6
The underside of the FLIGHTdeck (left) has four stainless steel toe crampons and four heel crampons. For climbing, the toe cleats on the boot assist the toe crampons on the snowshoe deck (right).

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 7
The toe crampons on the FLIGHTdeck are attached to a conventional pivot strap that angles the snowshoe with each step.

Field Testing

We tested the Kahtoola FLIGHT snow travel system in California and Colorado during the winter of 2006-2007. Both of us tested the larger Gemini deck. Steve wore a size XL FLIGHTboot over his size 11 and 11.5 trail runners (a tight fit), and Will wore size XXL over his size 11.5 trail runners (a good fit)..

Steve used the FLIGHTsystem on several day-long and overnight trips in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, as well as for an overnight trip trip in the Lassen National Forest. Snow conditions varied from fresh powder to packed-down trails to consolidated spring snow and ice.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 8
Steve wearing the FLIGHTsystem to haul a pulk over packed-in snow on a forest road.

Concurrent to Steve's testing, Will used the FLIGHTsystem on several day trips and one overnight trip in the southern Rockies. Snow conditions varied from deep power to wet and sticky.

Our first finding was that the size XL FLIGHTboot, which Kahtoola's size chart indicated would fit up to size 12.5, was a very tight fit for both of us with size 11.5 trail running shoes. An exchange to size XXL overboots fit Will's shoes much better, but it's questionable whether they would fit size 14 shoes as the size chart indicates. Kahtoola lists the weight of the FLIGHTboot as 44 ounces/pair, but the weight of size XXL is a 51 ounces/pair, which reduces some of the weight savings of the system.

A notable realization on the first use is that you can't wear the FLIGHTboot while driving a car because of the cleats on the bottom. Nor can you very easily wear them while riding in a car, for fear of the cleats damaging the upholstery. Also, it's not appropriate to walk into a convenience store wearing the FLIGHTboots! Rather, you will most likely want to put them on at the trailhead, in the snow or slush, which means that some snow, mud and water in the tread of your shoes is likely to get inside the overboots.

On packed trails, the FLIGHTsystem performed like ordinary snowshoes-they tracked well and had adequate flotation. However, for breaking trail in soft snow, the FLIGHTdeck was noticeably deficient in flotation. Will sank in a foot or more, sometimes down to his knees, which made forward progress very laborious. Steve faced similar issues after an overnight storm left a foot of fresh powder, and also found that in conditions with a crust over deeper light snow, he broke through and sunk in more often than has been his experience with larger-decked snowshoes.

Sidehill stability was adequate but not exceptional, most likely due to the limits of the four small lateral crampons under the heel of each deck, and the material wrapped around the tubes preventing the latter from gripping.

Both Steve and WIll found that traction on snowpacked and icy trails was excellent. Will also tried using the FLIGHTsystem as "a new paradigm in snow travel" as suggested by Kahtoola-doing a late winter hike that starts out as a dry trail, eventually turns to mud, then packed snow, and finally deeper snow. The first thing he discovered is that it's not easy to carry the FLIGHTboots in a pack because of the sharp cleats, so it was necessary to put them on at the beginning, rather than wear trail runners with a gaiter at first. That added 25.5 ounces per foot.

Hiking in the FLIGHTboot was comfortable enough on dry trail, mud, and packed snow/ice but the boots were noticeably heavy and got fairly muddy. By the time the FLIGHTdecks were needed, the boots had shed most of the mud on the bottoms so the cleats could easily be attached to the FLIGHTdecks. Continuing in snowshoe mode was quite efficient because the consolidated snow was firm and supportive. The snow did a good job of cleaning the mud off the boots. Overall the FLIGHTsystem worked reasonably well in mixed travel conditions, although hiking in the combination of trail runners and FLIGHTboots was like wearing a pac-type boot in terms of weight and bulk.

Steve found that using his trail runners for mud and dirt, and the overboots and/or decks for snow and ice, was cumbersome due to the tight fit when switching modes. In addition, a lot of dirt and moisture got inside the overboots, leaving permanent impressions and embedded dirt in the soft inner sole.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 9
Embedded dirt and impressions inside one of Steve's FLIGHTboots.

Bindings can clog with snow and ice-openings on the decking near the pulls that engage and release the bindings admit snow and can cause the mechanism to freeze up and not release or engage. Steve was able to clear this by using a small knife to remove the hardened snow; Kahtoola will be releasing a new version that is better sealed against intrusion.

On long hikes in warmer temperatures, the FLIGHTboots were quite damp inside from perspiration (plus some moisture from snow that got inside when the boots were put on). Consequently, Will found that the boots were too damp inside to wear for camp use as planned. In an immersion test at home, Will verified that the neoprene foam in the boots soaks up quite a bit of water-4.9 ounces per boot!

For snowshoeing at a moderate exertion level in cold temperatures, the FLIGHTboot was quite warm over trail running shoes and minimal moisture (from sweat) accumulated inside.

Assessment

The Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem is definitely innovative, and is conceptualized to expand versatility and minimize weight. However, for people with larger feet (such as the reviewers), the weight of the FLIGHTboot is significant. Will needed a size XXL FLIGHTboot, which weighs 51 ounces/pair, and Steve needed a size XL that weighs 49.7 ounces/pair. Combined with the 46 oz for the decks, that's a lot of weight even before adding in another couple of pounds for trail runners.

That said, for the combination of all features-a snowshoe, an insulated boot, and simple crampons for walking on icy or compacted snow, the smaller sizes could outshine a lightweight combination such as a pair of Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes (45.7 ounces), one of the lightweight insulated footwear systems described in Will's recent winter footwear article, and a pair of compatible lightweight crampons (for example, 6 ounces for a set of lightweight instep crampons or 17 ounces for a set of lightweight 10-point steel crampons such as those also offered by Kahtoola).

We found the FLIGHTdeck's flotation adequate for firmer snow but inadequate for soft snow. For general snowshoeing on firm snow the Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem should work very well, but for softer snow we recommend a lightweight "backcountry" type snowshoe that is at least 30 inches long. The Gemini deck is only 23 inches long.

The FLIGHTboots provide superb traction while hiking on snowpacked and icy trails, but they are somewhat heavy and bulky to wear, especially in the larger sizes.

The FLIGHTsystem's construction and materials appear high in quality, though there are some durability issues. The coating on the Gemini FLIGHTdeck scrapes off after only a few uses. Steve noted numerous exposed spots around the frame, even though he had only used the FLIGHTdecks on snow and didn't remember hitting any rocks.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 10
Underside of the rear of a Gemini FLIGHTdeck showing wear. The white area at top is eroded plastic, not a reflection. There is also some fraying of the neoprene decking, and lots of scraping of the coating on the frame.

The FLIGHTboots' crampons also dig into the plastic material around the heel plate on the decks; it's an area we'll be keeping an eye on.

Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW - 11
View of wear on the heel plate of the bindings; the blue plastic has cracked through on the right, and the flange of the right-hand rivet is starting to wear away.

Finally, the FLIGHTsystem is pricey. The total cost of the two components is $334, which is almost enough to buy a pair of Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes and a pair of lightweight waterproof/breathable insulated boots. We would opt for the latter in many conditions.

Overall, the Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem is a good concept, but its translation to the trail leaves something to be desired for hikers who are focused on light weight and hiking efficiency. The system should work well for people with smaller feet, people who hike in mixed snow and ice conditions requiring crampons, and those who value convenience.

What's Unique

The Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem consists of a unique and innovative overboot with traction cleats that click into a snowshoe deck, basically eliminating the binding.

Recommendations for Improvement

  • Offer the minimalist Aces binding as seen at the Winter 2006 Outdoor Retailer Show, allowing any boot to be used with the FLIGHTdecks. At only 11 ounces/pair, they could be used with lightweight waterproof/breathable trail running shoes or lightweight insulated boots on the FLIGHTdecks to create a genuine lightweight system
  • Deploy the updated binding mechanism that eliminates clogging from snow and ice
  • Offer a larger deck to provide better flotation in soft snow


Citation

"Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW," by Steve Nelson and Will Rietveld. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/kahtoola_flightsystem_review.html, 2007-07-25 03:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW


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Benjamin Smith
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Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW on 07/24/2007 20:05:52 MDT Print View

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Kahtoola FLIGHTsystem REVIEW