I previously tested the Northern Lites Elite snowshoe and found it to be the lightest general purpose snowshoe around. It definitely matches our philosophy for lightweight backcountry travel. In this review, I take a look at the Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoe, which is basically the same design and construction but 5 inches longer and 1 inch wider. The difference is the intended use - traveling in soft snow while carrying a backpack and snow camping. How does the Backcountry compare with the Elite (and other snowshoes), and which is the best choice for different applications and conditions?
The Northern Lites Backcountry (left) at 30 x 9 inches and 45.7 ounces/pair is truly lightweight, and fits with our lightweight philosophy, but how does its performance compare with other (heavier) snowshoes?
- Lightest backcountry snowshoes available, only 2.85 pounds per pair
- Excellent flotation
- Tracks well
- Very packable
- Lightweight aluminum alloy frame and crampons
- Strong, lightweight deck and binding
- Excellent balance of lightweight and durability
- Ideal snowshoe for snow travel with a backpack
What’s not so Good
- Less aggressive crampons provide less traction on steeper slopes, sidehills, and hard snow compared to other snowshoes
- Webbing heel strap is too short for easy tightening on larger boots
|Northern Lites 2006 Backcountry|
|9 in wide x 30 in long (23 cm x 76 cm)|
|Aluminum alloy tubing, 5/8 in (16 mm) diameter, powder coated|
|CoolthaneTM (polyurethane coated nylon mesh) which is claimed to be 250% tougher than Hypalon|
|TruTrak Binding System made of a heavier weight of Coolthane, three hook-and-hole front straps plus one webbing and buckle heel strap; pivot strap is 1.5 in (4 cm) wide Biothane|
|Duraluminum aluminum alloy, toe and heel|
|Measured weight 2.85 lb (1.29 kg) per pair; manufacturer specification 2.69 pounds (1.22 kg)|
|175 to 250 pounds (79 to 113 kg)|
The Northern Lites Backcountry, bottom side (left) and top side (right), is a larger snowshoe (30 x 9 inches) designed to provide better flotation in soft snow and while carrying a backpack.
While it’s readily apparent that the Northern Lites Backcountry (and Elite) are the lightest snowshoes around, weight isn’t everything. We evaluated their performance in comparison to other snowshoes in various applications and conditions. Also, it’s useful to evaluate the Backcountry in relation to its lighter and smaller brother, the Elite, and determine the ideal application for each.
The Northern Lites Backcountry (left) at 45.7 ounces/pair (my measurement), is the lightest backcountry snowshoe around. Compared to the popular Northern Lites Elite (right), it’s 5 inches longer, 1 inch wider, has 35% more surface area, and weighs 7.3 ounces/pair more.
The deck on the Backcountry is Coolthane (polyurethane coated nylon mesh), which is claimed to be 250% more abrasion resistant than Hypalon. It is also nice and light. In dozens of miles of testing, I was not able to damage this material.
The deck is attached to the frame using 21 toughened nylon clips. Each of these has a 0.25 inch protruding ridge on the underside that acts as a perimeter cleat for additional traction.
The binding on the Backcountry is simple and functional compared to the more elaborate bindings on other high-end snowshoes we have reviewed. The Elite’s binding is made of a heavier weight of the Coolthane decking material that is riveted directly to a flexible Biothane pivot strap. Biothane is basically nylon seatbelt webbing in a water resistant, toughened polyurethane shell. There are three hook-and-hole straps across the toe area, plus a webbing heel strap with a ladder-lock buckle.
The Backcountry has a simple collapsible binding with three hook-and-hole straps over the toe area, and a nylon webbing heel strap. I found the binding easy to tighten and secure. The heel strap was long enough for these size 12 boots, but was too short when I wore bulky pac-type boots with the snowshoes.
This type of binding is similar to that found on other brands of snowshoes, and has been proven over time to be durable, secure and reliable. I would personally prefer another hook-and-hole strap around the heel rather than the webbing strap because it is easier to tighten and loosen. Also, three toe straps may be overkill, and a couple ounces might be saved by going to two straps instead of three.
The crampons are a hardened aluminum alloy with serrated edges that are cut at about a 45 degree angle. The toe crampon is attached to the pivot strap, and the heel crampon is attached to the decking below the heel plate. Each crampon has a plastic “de-icing pad” on it, which resisted icing to a large extent, but still iced up in contrasting sun snow/shade snow conditions.
Toe and heel crampons on the Backcountry are made of an aluminum alloy and are not very aggressive compared to other snowshoes. Each of the nylon clips that attach the deck to the frame has a 0.25 inch protruding ridge on the bottom for additional traction.
The Backcountry’s pivot strap has a medium torsional stiffness that works well for general snowshoeing. When a foot is raised, it tilts the snowshoe to a favorable angle to improve maneuverability and maintain a smooth forward glide.
The most notable difference with the Backcountry snowshoe is their flotation. It was wonderful to travel through soft snow and only sink in 6 to 8 inches, compared to a foot or more with shorter snowshoes. That benefit was especially appreciated when carrying a backpack. The actual gain in surface area compared to the Elite is 35% (222 square inches compared to 164, manufacturer specification), which is not a huge difference, but the difference in flotation is very noticeable.
The Backcountry’s flotation is superb in soft snow. In this same snow, I sunk in a foot or more with 25-inch snowshoes.
In my climbing tests, I found the Backcountry has “adequate” uphill traction under most snow conditions. It works best in hilly, more gentle terrain. In soft snow, the usual technique is to switchback up steeper hills, so the crampon area doesn’t make much difference. But the limitations of the Backcountry’s minimal crampons are more noticeable on steep hills with firm snow, sidehills, and ice. Because of the minimal size of the crampons and their blunt teeth, the crampons simply do not bite and hold as well on steep slopes and on hard icy snow as other snowshoes we tested that had sharp stainless steel teeth and lateral crampons. The crampons on the Backcountry (and Elite) are simply not that aggressive, making these snowshoes less suited for mountaineering or activities that require serious hill climbing (like snowboarding or backcountry skiing). However, the aluminum alloy crampons held up well, showing little wear after several months of testing.
The Northern Lites Backcounty on a very cold day. I wore insulated overboots (Forty Below Light Energy) over lightweight insulated boots (Kamik Force). The snowshoe bindings adjusted to fit the bulky footwear, but the heel strap was none too long.
For downhill walking on firm snow, I found the longer Backcountry snowshoe more prone to toboggan than shorter and toothier snowshoes. I was able to adjust to this easily, and it helped to position my weight more forward and avoid leaning back. However, the sliding is an annoyance, especially while carrying a backpack.
On sidehills, the Backcountry’s performance was average. Lacking lateral crampons, they broke loose and slid sideways more easily.
The Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes are also very packable. The bindings lay flat, making the shoes easy to strap to a backpack, and the extra weight is much less noticeable than other snowshoes weighing nearly twice as much.
The Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoe is an effective balance of light weight, durability, and performance. Their extra surface area provides significantly more flotation in soft snow, especially when breaking trail or carrying a backpack. For travel in softer snow I recommend getting the Backcountry rather than the Elite. The Backcountry weighs 7.3 ounces more, but the difference in flotation is remarkable, and worth the extra weight. By keeping the snowshoes on top of the snow, the Backcountry's actually save effort so you can move faster and longer. For snowshoeing on more gentle terrain in firmer snow or on packed trails, the Elite is the snowshoe of choice.
These are not mountaineering snowshoes. The crampon system on the Backcountry (and Elite) is minimal and not very aggressive, so these snowshoes do not bite and hold very well in steep or icy conditions compared to other snowshoes with stainless steel teeth and lateral crampons. For those conditions I recommend a toothier snowshoe like the Atlas BC24 and MSR Lightning Ascent. Most of the time the crampons on the Northern Lites Backcountry are “adequate”, but it’s important to recognize their limitations.
For general snowshoeing in mixed terrain, especially in soft snow, the Northern Lites Backcountry really shines. They are perfect for lightweight snow travel carrying a backpack.
The Northern Lites Backcountry (and other Northern Lites models) are the only truly ultralight snowshoes on the market. They are durable and perform well in a variety of snow conditions and terrains.
Recommendations for Improvement
- Although the aluminum alloy crampons seem to be fairly durable, they are not particularly sharp and provide sub-standard traction on hard snow and steeper slopes. Northern Lites should either redesign the aluminum crampon to be more aggressive or replace them with sharp titanium crampons. Also, the heel crampon could be longer to act more like a lateral crampon.
- Eliminate one toe strap to save some weight.