With their Mountain Series of snowshoes, Kahtoola has come up with a two-part snowshoe system to cover a wide range of backcountry winter use. Incorporating a stand-alone trail crampon that works along with the snowshoe itself, the Mountain 28 eliminates the need to carry a separate traction device for conditions that call for grip, not float. I put it to the test over a two-week period to see how it performs for winter hiking.
|Manufacturer||Kahtoola Inc. (http://www.kahtoola.com)|
|Year/Model||2011 MTN 28|
|Weight||Manufacturer Specification: N/A
Measured Weight ea: 35.8 oz (1015 g)
|Size||Length: 28 in (71 cm)
Width (at widest point): 8.4 in (21 cm)
|Materials||Aluminum frame, synthetic CSM deck|
|Suggested Use||Multi-day backcountry trips, powder, unbroken trails|
Design and Features
The MTN 28 is the largest snowshoe made by Kahtoola, a company that got their start making flexible crampons for hikers. They have incorporated their Kahtoola Traction System (KTS) into these snowshoes that they say are, “designed for the technically advanced adventure.” The frame of the MTN 28 is made of 6061 T6 aluminum tubing. The 25.8-ounce (731-g) frame is 8.4 inches (21 cm) at its widest point and narrows at both the front and back. It also lifts up in the front 4 inches (10 cm) and 2 inches (5 cm) at the back.
The decking is made from a material called CSM (chlorosulfonated polyethylene), which is a synthetic rubber that has been bonded to a polyester fiber based core. Kahtoola says they chose it for its excellent flexibility and durability under all weather conditions, high resistance to puncture, and also because snow has a very hard time sticking to it. Flipping the shoe over, we see that triple-pointed teeth have been riveted to the deck for traction. A group of four is located in the center of the shoe with two more mounted further back to keep the shoe from having the tail slide down during traverses.
Top: The MTN 28 has an aluminum frame and a synthetic rubber deck. A steel binding plate sits under the ball of the foot. Steel traction teeth are riveted to the underside of the deck. Bottom: The binding plate has a T-shaped pull for the binding release and an oblong pull to reset the plate. When the steel bar is showing, as in the plate to the left, it is ready for action.
More teeth are incorporated into the steel binding plate at the front of the shoe. This is part of the SKYHOOK step-in system. The binding plate has a steel bar that runs across the plate which can be seen through the two slots on the top. Pulling a T-shaped handle on the side of the plate will slide the bar up, clicking and locking into place after it is completely clear of the slot. On the other side of the plate another pull, this one kind of oblong, releases the lock, allowing the bar to snap back to the ready position. As the binding plate is attached to the frame with a piece of CSM material, it will flex allowing the user’s boot to pivot downward.
The second part of the snowshoe is the 10-ounce (283-g) Trail Crampon. This piece is the rest of the binding. It consists of a hard plastic foot plate with the crampon points attached to the bottom. A piece of CSM material has been attached to the bottom to keep snow from balling around the crampon teeth. The plate can be adjusted to three different widths to accommodate a wide range of footwear. The top of the foot plate has a nylon strap that crosses the front of the user’s footwear and tightens with a sliding buckle. A rubber strap goes around the back of the footwear and hooks with an aluminum toothed anchor. A sliding plastic hook on the rubber strap keeps excess strap tucked in tight.
The ingenious thing about these snowshoes is the funny shaped crampon teeth that are the other part of the SKYHOOK system. These teeth slide into the slots on the binding plate and snap onto the bar described earlier, by stepping down on them. The bar locks onto the round notch on the teeth and stays there until the release is pulled to allow the bar to move out of the notch.
Because the Trail Crampon is attached to your footwear, it can be used as a stand-alone traction device for times that conditions warrant traction but not snowshoes. Icy trails that do not have dangerous drop offs (that would call for real crampons and ice axe) or frozen lakes are situations that often are better served by something like YakTrax or Kahtoola’s own (better performing) MICROspikes. But having the trail crampons of the MTN 28 lets you just pop the snowshoe off and go. Back to deep snow again? Step back into the snowshoe.
Once the Trail Crampon is attached, the MTN 28 has some formidable traction with twenty points of contact around the ball of your foot.
Top Left: The star of the show is the eight-point Trail Crampon. Top Right: When attached to the snowshoe, the MNT 28 has traction galore with more teeth than a great white shark. (Well, maybe not, but it has a lot!) Bottom: The Trail Crampon attaches to my boots and can be used alone on ice or hard packed snow. (Note the bent aluminum buckle).
Performance & Assessment
I was asked if I could do a fast turn-around review of the MTN 28s. Due to the willingness of Kahtoola to get them to me quickly, I was able to get one overnighter on the North Country Trail in Chippewa State Forest, a dayhike starting at MB Johnson Nature Park and continuing along the Red River outside Moorhead, Minnesota, and a three-day backpacking trip in Voyageurs National Park at the border of Minnesota and Canada. Each trip saw different trail and weather conditions.
One thing I would like to share is the fact that in 2004 I was snowshoeing in Mt. San Jacinto State Park heading for the summit of the namesake peak. The snowshoes I wore were conventional shoes with a crampon only under the ball of my foot. While traversing, the back of one shoe slid out and I tore my meniscus, which led to knee surgery. Since then, I will not use a snowshoe that does not have excellent traction. (No, just “good” ain’t good enough…) I am pleased to say that the Kahtoolas fit the bill with maybe the second best traction I have used and seen to date, and I have owned seven pairs of snowshoes. I suppose this is to be expected from a company that makes crampons and slip-on traction devices.
Minnesota received record snowfall last winter. After it settled down, I was on top of three to four feet (1-1.3 m) most of the winter. Because it is so cold here, the snow does not solidify into the Sierra Cement I have spent most my life on. Instead, it stays loose and dry. Three days before my first trip with the MTN 28s, we had a crazy warm spell for two days that saw temps go above freezing, then it dropped back down near 0 F (-18 C) The result was snow with a hard crust and loose sugar-like snow beneath.
I took the shoes hiking on the North Country Trail and, when I parked where it crosses a Forest Service road, I saw that the snow covered road was almost ice. A bunch of snowmobile riders came up and stopped next to me as I was unloading to go. They said that the roads were so hard-packed that there wasn't any snow to fly up and cool their engines so they needed to park a while to cool down. A couple were really interested in my pulk, so I asked one if they would mind taking my picture coming up the road they had just rode up.
They were right. The road was so slick that it would have been very hard to climb in just boots, especially with the weight of the sled pulling me back. Descending the road would have been scary. The Trail Crampons alone worked absolutely great. They bit into the ice and hard back very well.
Saying goodbye to the snowmobilers, I hit the trail. There was a hard crust there too that I thought might support my weight but, a few steps down the trail, I broke through and dropped about 18 inches (46 cm). Snapping the decks on actually proved to spread my weight out enough to mostly stay on the surface of the snow, which is much more desirable than slogging through deep stuff. When I did bust through, I only sank about 6 inches (15 cm). Not bad at all. The snowshoes worked great the entire weekend with no problems.
A few days later we got a storm that dropped 6 inches (15 cm) of fresh snow the first day. I did a dayhike on the second day of the storm while it was still dropping a bit more snow. The MTN 28s did well. They sank through most of the fresh snow, but did not punch into the deep snow that was there before. I did, however, encounter my first problem with the snowshoes here. After I had just started walking, I met two ladies coming back from their own hike on the nature trail. One asked what kind of snowshoes I had as she was in the market for her first pair. I showed her how the SKYHOOK system works and was embarrassed when I could not get the right one to snap back in. I made sure that the bar was back in place, I banged it to make sure there was not snow inside the plate, but it would not attach while stepping down. I finally had to resort to putting it on by hand, carefully smacking it so as not to impale myself.
Traction in action! Top Left: Trail Crampons alone worked well on a hard-packed icy road in the Chippewa Forest. Top Right: An icy slope on the Cruiser Trail System was no match for the MTN 28’s plentiful traction points. Bottom Left: Snowshoeing on fresh snow in falling snow along the Red River. (Lots of “snow” in that sentence…) Bottom Right: Punching deep holes on Elk Lake in Voyageurs National Park.
The last trip was a killer three days in Voyageurs National Park, where we were on miles of frozen lakes with either loose snow on ice, hard pack on top of ice with loose snow on top of that, or plain wind scoured ice. Once on land, we were on very deep untracked snow. Because of the extreme cold, (it was between 7 and -31 F (-14 to -45 C)) the snow was very loose and powdery.
The MTN 28s performed excellently on the lakes. There were some iced-over southern facing slopes that the snowshoe did a wonderful job ascending and descending, but the deep snow proved to be a bear for me. The 28-inch (71-cm) length just did not give enough flotation for a 215-pound (98-kg) guy. The way that the design narrows at the back takes away a lot of potential load-bearing surface too. There were times that I sank to my hip in spots with huge drifts. On more than one occasion I had to go back and try from a different direction as we were ascending, and I just could not get through it. My 168-pound (76-kg) hiking buddy was wearing 25-inch (64 cm) MSR Lightnings that, because of their shape, have more deck touching snow than my MTN 28s did. I really could have used a longer shoe. Considering that I was only carrying a daypack load and pulling a sled with my main gear, there is no way I could carry a 40-pound (18.1-kg) winter backpack through deep snow with the MTN 28s. Not everybody is a fat guy like me, so they may work just fine for lighter hikers. I bet they would work great for me on most of my old heavy California snow too. Powder hounds may want to look for something with a bigger deck.
The problem with the SKYHOOK continued the entire Voyageurs trip. They attach fine in the morning, but any time I took them off on the trail, at least one would have a hard time re-attaching even though I would stamp down on a firm surface to stand on. As I write this, they pop on and off just fine. Maybe it had something to do with the temperature or snow being clogged inside that was not coming out when I banged them to clear it.
One thing that was very impressive was how well they stay on my feet. I have owned many snowshoes that would pop off occasionally. Someone steps on my snowshoe as I am walking, or it catches a buried branch. Even the weight of deep snow as I drag my foot back up was enough to cause my foot to slip. I put the Trail Crampons on my Kamik Conquest boots when they first arrived and never took them off. I left the boots in my vehicle, putting them on at the trailhead. Not once did the rubber back strap pop off or the front straps loosen throughout the six days of use.
Looking back on all the trips that I have brought my YakTrax Pros on (to use at the start or finish of places like Arches National Park, where I had to go down a steep ramp to get to the desert floor, or San Jacinto State Park with its slick ramp at the tram station and trails that become solid ice for the first quarter-mile (0.4 km) because of all the tourist traffic), makes me really appreciate this design. Kahtoola kindly sent a pair of their MICROspikes for comparison. While the MICROspikes have much better traction than the YakTrax, neither are as stable as the Trail Crampon, and the lack of hassle and time wasted to get other traction devices out and put them on is a huge plus.
Another benefit of having the Trail Crampon on my boot instead of bindings that stay attached to the snowshoe is how nicely the decks pack. When nestled together (as seen to the right) they are only 2.25 inches (5.7 cm) thick. That helps when bushwhacking through trees that have thick branches, especially when I’m elevated 4 feet (1.2 m) above the trail by the snowpack.
As I was writing this, I took the Trail Crampons off and noticed that somehow one of the aluminum toothed-buckles that holds the back strap in place had bent. It had deformed to the point that I was unable to unhook the strap. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what I did to bend it. I don’t recall any huge shock to my foot while hiking. Kahtoola may want to switch the buckle to a sturdier steel one in the future.
Lastly, a note about the CMS material that constitutes the deck and covers the steel plate on the Trail Crampons: I did not experience any snowballing at any time over the six days of use. Snow does not stick to it. The material shows no signs of wear, even after walking on a lot of branches and rocks in Voyageurs. (The frames did pick up a few scratches.) I continued to use these for multi-day backpacking trips for the rest of the winter, which in northern Minnesota lasts until, oh, about May. If any durability or performance issues arise, I shall ask to amend this review.What’s Good
- Great traction
- Decent weight
- Easy to pack
- Very stable
What’s Not So Good
- Not enough load-bearing surface for heavy hikers or big packs
- SKYHOOK action balky at times
- Aluminum not the best buckle material