Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW

The lightest snowshoes on the market, but with less traction than heavier shoes.

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by Will Rietveld | 2005-12-06 03:00:00-07

Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW

Introduction

At 2.4 pounds per pair the Northern Lites Elite are the lightest snowshoes on the market. These shoes embody the lightweight backpacking principles of keeping it light, simple, and functional. Obviously we like their weight, but how do the Elites measure up to beefier, toothier, full-featured snowshoes we reviewed?

What’s Good

  • Very lightweight, only 2.4 pounds per pair
  • Very packable
  • Aluminum alloy frame and crampons
  • Strong, lightweight deck and binding
  • Solidly built and very durable

What’s not so Good

  • Crampons are minimal and not very sharp
  • Webbing heel strap is too short for easy tightening
  • Traction on steeper slopes and hard snow is not as good as other snowshoes we tested

Specifications

  Manufacturer

Northern Lites

  Year/Model

2005 Elite

  Dimensions

8 in wide x 25 in long (20 cm x 64 cm)

  Surface area

Measured surface area 185 in2 (1194 cm2), manufacturer specification 163.5 in2 (1055 cm2)

  Frame

Aluminum alloy tubing, 5/8 in (16 mm) diameter, powder coated

  Deck

Coolthane (polyurethane coated nylon mesh) which is claimed to be 250% tougher than Hypalon

  Binding

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 (basically nylon seatbelt webbing in a water resistant, toughened polyurethane shell)

  Crampons

Duraluminum toe and heel crampons, claimed to have greater strength and abrasion resistance than many titanium alloys

  Weight

Measured weight 2.4 lb (1.1 kg) per pair; manufacturer specification 2.2 pounds (1.0 kg)

  Load rating

Less than 175 pounds (79 kg)

  MSRP

$199

Performance

The Northern Lites Elite, at 38.4 ounces per pair (Backpacking Light measurement), are by far the lightest snowshoes we reviewed. While most of the other snowshoes we reviewed are well-designed, feature rich, and unquestionably durable, the Elite seems to combine the same attributes in a much lighter package. The light weight of the Elite is very noticeable, akin to hiking in trail runners compared to conventional hiking boots. Those benefits are explained more fully in our upcoming snowshoe Review Summary. In this review I will focus on how the features and performance of the Elite compare to the other snowshoes we reviewed.

Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW - 1
The Northern Lites Elite at 38.4 ounces per pair are the only truly lightweight snowshoes we reviewed. The deck is attached with 19 nylon clips that have projections on the bottom for extra traction around the perimeter.

The deck on the Elite is Coolthane (polyurethane coated nylon mesh), which is claimed to be 250% tougher than Hypalon. It is also nice and light. In dozens of miles of testing, I was not able to damage this material.

Decking is attached to the frame using 19 toughened nylon clips. Each of these has a 1/4-inch protruding ridge on the underside, which act as perimeter cleats for extra traction.

The binding on the Elite is simple and functional compared to the more elaborate bindings on the high-end snowshoes we reviewed. The Elite binding is made of a heavier weight of the Coolthane decking material that is riveted directly to a flexible Biothane pivot strap (see specifications for a description of these materials). There are three hook-and-hole straps across the toe area, plus a webbing heel strap with a ladder-lock buckle. This type of binding is similar to that found on the MSR snowshoes, and has been proven over time to be durable and reliable. For my size 11.5 boots, I found that the heel strap was too short to provide a good handle for tightening, especially with gloved hands. 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.

Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW - 2
The Elite has a simple collapsible binding with hook-and-hole fasteners over the toe area, and a nylon webbing heel strap. I found the binding fairly easy to tighten, and secure once attached. However, the heel strap was barely long enough for my size 11.5 boots, and the strap end was too short to grasp for tightening while wearing gloves.

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 They resisted icing to a large extent, but still iced up in contrasting sun-snow/shade-snow conditions.

Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW - 3
Toe and heel crampons on the Elite are made of an aluminum alloy, and are not very aggressive. Each of the nylon clips that attach the deck to the frame has a protruding ridge on the bottom for extra traction.

In climbing tests, I found the Elites have adequate uphill traction under most snow conditions. Because of the blunt angle of the teeth, the crampons do not perform especially well on steep slopes and on hard icy snow. Other shoes we tested that had longer, thinner, sharper stainless steel or titanium teeth performed much better in the same snow conditions. However, the aluminum alloy crampons held up well, showing little wear after four months of testing.

For downhill walking on firm snow, I found the Elite’s traction to be a little less than the toothy Atlas 10-Series, Tubbs Elevation, and MSR Lightning Ascent with sliding occurring at about 30 degrees. On soft snow, gravity took over at a steeper slope angle, generally around 35 to 40 degrees, resulting in a controlled slide.

On sidehills, the Elite’s performance was average. Lacking lateral crampons like the MSR Lightening Ascent and Atlas S-10, they broke loose and slid sideways more easily.

In running tests the Elites were a standout because of their balance and light weight. The reduced effort was very noticeable. The pivot strap has a medium torsional stiffness, which returned the snowshoes back to a favorable angle without slapping the bottoms of my boots. If I were to enter a local snowshoe race, these are the snowshoes I would want on my feet.

Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW - 4
The Elite pivot strap has a medium torsional stiffness that works well for general snowshoeing. When a foot is raised, it lifts the snowshoe to a favorable angle to improve maneuverability and maintain a smooth forward glide.

The Northern Lites Elite snowshoes were also the most packable shoes we tested. The bindings lay flat, making the shoes easy to strap to a backpack, and the extra weight was much less noticeable than other snowshoes weighing nearly twice as much.

Overall the Northern Lites Elite came close to the manufacturer’s claim of “combining ultra-light weight with incredible performance and durability.” They provided adequate (but not exceptional) traction under most snow conditions, but lose their grip and slide on steeper hills and sidehills more readily than toothier snowshoes we reviewed.

What’s Unique

Presently the Northern Lites Elite (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 or long. Sharper teeth on the aluminum alloy crampons, or switching to sharp titanium crampons, would improve traction in harder snow and icy conditions. Longer teeth would improve traction in soft snow or on steeper slopes.


Citation

"Northern Lites Elite Snowshoe REVIEW," by Will Rietveld. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/northern_lites_elite_snowshoe_review.html, 2005-12-06 03:00:00-07.

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