Gear Review: MSR Lightning Explore 22-inch Snowshoes
MSR Lightning Explore 22-inch
$280, 3 lbs. 15 oz. (men’s), 3 lbs. 11 oz. (women’s)
Sizes: men’s and women’s 22-inch and 25-inch, men’s only 30-inch
Here’s the thing about snowshoes: This isn’t rocket science. In fact, it’s not even bicycle science. The basic concept of the snowshoe has been around for at least 4,000 years. But while today’s models essentially resemble the footwear worn by ancient Eurasian hunters and others who were trying to mimic the oversized feet of snowshoe hares, they employ modern materials and designs, and they differ in purpose and details that affect performance noticeably in the backcountry. And that’s exactly where the Lightning Explore 22-inch snowshoes, um, float above the competition.
Snowshoes for general hiking distinguish themselves from one another most obviously when you get into ungroomed snow in the backcountry, and they will differ in these performance aspects:
• Traction moving up or down in steep terrain.
• When traversing a slope at an angle (as opposed to straight up or down).
• In varying snow conditions, from deep powder to icy crust that either holds your weight or collapses.
• In the ease of use of the harness, while wearing gloves.
• In durability for hard abuse in variable terrain and snow conditions, including mixed snow, ice, and rock.
• Total weight.
I like the MSR Lightning Explore because it does all of the above very well.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.”
I wore these on days of snowshoeing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains in difficult conditions: heavy, wet snow, which can challenge the traction and performance of snowshoes, especially while traversing and descending, when wet snow will tend to slide out from underfoot. But the Lightning Explore gave me excellent traction and stability in that snow, even on steeper slopes.
Traction is superior thanks to several design features. The 360° Traction aluminum frames sport sharp teeth along both side edges that improve grip, especially when traversing a slope laterally or at an angle up or down. Two horizontal bars with more teeth, under the ball of the foot and the heel, enhance forward and braking traction.
The steel Pivot crampon below the toes digs two 1.25-inch teeth into the snow with each stride. MSR uses martensite steel in the crampon, which is an exceptionally hard carbon steel that gains its strength through heating a solid carbon and iron crystalline structure to 1,250° F, and then rapidly cooling it, trapping its carbon atoms inside the iron atoms; MSR says that changes the shape of its crystals, greatly increasing the steel’s strength and rigidity. That’s a long way of saying this crampon will not wilt from repeated scraping on rock under body weight.
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The ratcheting-buckle system of MSR’s HyperLink bindings is everything a snowshoe harness should be: simple and quick to use, very secure—my boot never slipped out of position—easy to adjust wearing heavy gloves, and comfortable. It also leaves no slack strap to trip over when walking. The TPU-coated nylon decking material easily shed the heavy, wet snow I was hiking on, preventing it from balling up underfoot. A Televator bar on each snowshoe flips up and locks in place to keep your heel elevated when ascending steep slopes, greatly reducing calf fatigue; that’s a standard feature on high-end snowshoes and mandatory for snowshoeing in mountains.
At under four pounds per pair, these snowshoes are reasonably lightweight, considering their features and durability. The men’s Lightning Explore comes in three lengths—22, 25, and 30 inches—all measuring eight inches wide. The women’s come in two lengths, 22 and 25 inches, and measure 7.25 inches wide—better for the narrower gait of most women. Taller women can certainly use the men’s model.
See my “10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier” for tips that help with snowshoeing, too.
The MSR Lightning Tails ($60, 9 oz./pair, sold separately) add five inches (13cm) of length for flotation in deep, light powder, or for someone with a combined body and pack weight of up to 250 pounds (on the men’s 22-inch model). Attaching the tails isn’t intuitive for the non-mechanically inclined, but very simple to accomplish in seconds the first time after reading the brief, clear instructions. Once installed, the tails remain as solidly connected as if they were part of the snowshoe frame, without any wobble or looseness. For most people in most situations, though, the tails aren’t necessary; and even with the best snowshoes, longer tails create a larger sliding surface under your feet, which makes any snowshoe more likely to slip out from under you when descending.
Whether you’re snowshoeing into rugged mountains (including when mountaineering or backcountry snowboarding without a split board) or hitting gentler terrain in ungroomed snow, it’s worth spending a little extra for a pair that will perform better in all snow conditions and prove more durable. (When my 80-year-old mother, an active hiker and snowshoer, needed new snowshoes, I got her these.) By all measures, in all circumstances, the MSR Lightning Explore 22-inch snowshoes excel.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a pair of the men’s or women’s MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes 22-inch at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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