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MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review

If unlimited traction is what you want in a snowshoe, the Lightning Flash delivers; it can rightfully lay claim to the title of lightest high-traction snowshoe available.

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Overall Rating: Recommended

The Lightning Flash is the lightest of MSR’s Lightning line of snowshoes. Its traction is awesome, but these snowshoes don’t glide as easily as snowshoes with a tubular metal frame. The SpeedLock binding is convenient to use (once you get it adjusted), but boots have a tendency to slip forward on steep downhills unless the bindings are adjusted on the tight side. Adding an optional instep strap easily fixes the problem.

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by Will Rietveld |

Introduction

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 1
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.

Specifications

Manufacturer MSR
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
Binding SpeedLock step-in
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)
MSRP US$200
Options Instep Strap (3.1 oz/88 g per pair) US$8; Tails (9.5 oz/269 g per pair) US$50

Description

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 Review - 2
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.

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 3
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.

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 4
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.

Performance

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 5
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.

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 6
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.

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 7
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?

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review - 8
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.


Citation

"MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review," by Will Rietveld. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/msr_lightning_flash_snowshoe_review.html, 2012-01-10 00:00:00-07.

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MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review on 01/10/2012 18:57:27 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Lightning Flash Weight on 01/11/2012 06:13:58 MST Print View

Will wrote:

>> 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.

The last statement - it's worth focusing on. This snowshoe is all about traction on steeps, sidehills, and one more scenario - in icy conditions. By nature of this snowshoe's design, it's also quite a bit more durable.

But the former statement about the weight - 1/2 pound per foot makes a difference on the pack, sure. But the difference is dramatically felt on the foot. So, if you don't need the aggressive design, the Northern Light's are a noticeably lighter shoe on the feet and utter joy to use on a winter tour.

Eric Swab
(ericswab) - M

Locale: Rockies
MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review on 01/11/2012 08:23:16 MST Print View

Nice timing on this review!

I have been looking at the Lightning Ascents in hopes of gaining better side hill traction for the more varied terrain I seem to be dealing with lately. I have the Northern Lites Quicksilver 30's and when crawling over downed trees and crossing stuff they are pretty loose and clunky, not much side bite either. I am thinking a shorter shoe with the fixed toe pivots and a better side rail would be better, then I could add tails if necessary.

Will points out that these drag a lot in regular "touring type" conditions due to the two fixed cross bars. Can anyone offer a comparison on the Lightning's versus the EVO shoe which is the plastic design? They have three molded cross bars, but do not extend the full width, so they may drag less. They are heavier though, would the EVO's be a better "middle ground" shoe?

It seems the only difference between the "ascent" and "touring" models is the heel lift bar, is it worth the extra weight? Is it easily removable?

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - M

Locale: Cascadia
Nice on 01/11/2012 10:43:46 MST Print View

Will's cranking out some nice reviews for a guy who retired from this.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Lightning Flash Weight on 01/11/2012 11:50:38 MST Print View

Ryan Wrote:

>But the former statement about the weight - 1/2 pound per foot makes a difference on the pack, sure. But the difference is dramatically felt on the foot. So, if you don't need the aggressive design, the Northern Light's are a noticeably lighter shoe on the feet and utter joy to use on a winter tour.

I would second this. The Northern Lites Elite snowshoes are light enough that you can actually run in them (in fact, they are designed to be racing snowshoes for softer conditions--not packed trails). For most terrain likely to be backpacked they are as Ryan says "[an] utter joy to use on a winter tour." Or just for day hiking and snowshoe running.

Eric Botshon
(Ebotshon) - F
2010 on 01/11/2012 12:26:44 MST Print View

******
The snowshoes reviewed are the 2010.
The current 2011 model is signifigantly different.
It LOOKS to have less traction since the peremiter outter teeth are replaced with non-serrated metal.
The 25" is also listed at 6oz heavier - 2lbs 10oz

*****EDIT****
EMS claims they have an exclusive bath of flash's with the extra traction frames which were reviewed here.

On sale as of 1/12/12 for $110
http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=11932724

Edited by Ebotshon on 01/12/2012 11:00:23 MST.

Tom Andrews
(TomAndrews) - M
Northern Lites Elite on 01/11/2012 16:54:05 MST Print View

Hi,

Just a comment on the Northern Lites Elite. I have been using these for a few years and marvel at how light and comfortable they are. I wear them with goretex running shoes, heavy socks, and gaiters (when I plan to go off trail). They have fine traction for fairly steep slopes, but certainly aren't designed for heavy duty steep mountaineering. All this said, I prefer telemarking in the mtns on very lightweight gear.

Tom Andrews

Ben Pearre
(fugue137) - MLife
Binding efficiency on 01/11/2012 17:37:38 MST Print View

I seem to recall a review or thread a few years back (probably on BPL) that found that free-pivot bindings such as on MSR's snowshoes are something like 30% more efficient than the torsion bindings on most other shoes. Am I misremembering? I can't find it now, but it was pretty fascinating.

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: MSR Lightning Flash Snowshoe Review on 01/11/2012 20:06:07 MST Print View

Good review Will,
I just picked up a pair of the "MSR Lightnings" and they weigh in at 3 lbs 2 oz

The outside rails are a little different than the ones pictured in your review and mine match the website, I don't know why the difference but maybe the newer ones are even lighter now.
MSR Lightning2

I haven't used them yet, but plan on this weekend.