Gear Review: MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes

Gear Review: MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes
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I don't know if you've seen MSR's t-shirt line, but one of the designs has a blueprint of the original Lightning snowshoe depicted on the chest...

What always struck me as interesting about this picture is the math behind each element of the snowshoe. I'm sure this is something that MSR's engineers have agonized over and yet if the design works well, it is completely invisible to the end user.

MSR's Lightning Explore takes into account these calculations and gives you a lightweight (22" weigh 1.78 k per pair) aluminum snowshoe that are ready for trips off the beaten path. The Lightning Explore come in 22", 25" and 30" models that support anywhere from 54 to 127 kilos depending on the model. If you need extra flotation there are add-on tails that give you an additional 13 cm that attach without the need of tools and are great for when you have a heavy backpack or are breaking new trails. These snowshoes are narrow enough so that you can walk with a normal gait and comfortable enough that you won't be sore after using them all day long.

Rather than the tube design you may see from other companies, the Lightning aluminum frame is based upon an edge of teeth that provide traction in the harshest conditions. This winter has given us a wildly varying range of temperatures which have created more icy days than fresh powder, yet the Lightning Explore has earned my confidence when traversing outdoors. With the inclusion of the crampon that sits under your foot, each step is secure even when ascending or descending allowing me to scale places I would never dream of attempting in tubular snowshoes.

There are dedicated left/right snowshoes and each has a little pull-tab for what is called Axis Gait Technology which lets you rotate the foot plate to counter toe-in/out conditions. It only takes seconds to configure. You can also flip up the Televators (which fold completely flat when not in use) when heading up steep ascents and they dramatically help with the climb.

While I appreciated the straps of previous Lightning snowshoes, they could be cumbersome to attach, and if you didn't have them set properly, they were no fun to tweak out in the cold. This generation of snowshoe hopes to address this by incorporating what is known as HyperLink bindings, a ratchet type system that makes it both easy to initially get strapped in, and adjust easily while out in the woods... even while wearing gloves. Finding pressure building up on the top of your boot? Press the two red release triggers and you will have instant relief. No more issues of your heel slipping out as you can ratchet it in securely. My only qualm is that if you are wearing insulated winter boots, the top strap (which measures 6.5") may be a little short for those with big feet. There is a replacement strap kit in case your bindings should ever fail, and it includes longer straps (8" and 10") which you can swap out in short order.

It has been twelve years after the release of the first pair of Lightning snowshoes and each of the calculations and technologies implemented in these snowshoes have created the best snowshoeing experience you can get. I'm always looking for mobility to explore on and off the path and I don't feel restricted by these snowshoes. They don't swing wildly from your foot allowing for efficient travel and let you back up without tripping over yourself or having to remove the snowshoe all together. I even found kneeling or stepping over tress effortless as they didn't feel unwieldy. My only complaint is that while heading across crusty snow, that the deck can sound like a drum, so there won't be any photographic opportunities with nature during these conditions.

If you're serious about heading out into the backcountry to explore, I can't recommend these enough. The Lightning Explore is available in a design for both Men and Women. Be sure to check out our reviews of the MSR Flight 3 Winter Poles as well.

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