I started using a different pair of snowshoes this year, switching from a pair of MSR Lightning Ascents to a pair of Evo Ascent Snowshoes, also from MSR. While the Lightning Ascents are great snowshoes for New England winter hiking and snowshoeing (click for my review), I needed a shorter, more maneuverable snowshoe for winter bushwhacking in dense vegetation.
Don’t get me wrong, the MSR Lightning Ascent is a bomber snowshoe that excels on mountainous terrain and hiking trails and I plan to keep using my current pair for that purpose. But the off-trail nature of bushwhacking requires a very different set of capabilities from a snowshoe including unibody construction to avoid getting hung up on brush.
A Bushwhacking Primer
I dived into bushwhacking at the beginning of last winter and have continued doing it since. A four season sport, it is slightly easier in winter because the leaves have fallen of the trees and the heavy forest understory is covered with snow.
While bushwhacking builds on all of your hiking skills, it is really hard on gear, puncturing, tearing, and scratching your clothes and equipment. It’s rare when I don’t come home from a bushwhack without shedding blood or ripping up some gear.
Snowshoes for Bushwhacking
When it comes to snowshoes for bushwhacking, less is more. Shorter length snowshoes are much more maneuverable through dense brush than long ones despite the fact that they provide less flotation in deep powder. Plus snowshoes with a smaller surface area are actually easier to pull out of deep powder than bigger ones. Further, climbing aids, like the MSR’s televator bails are even more important than normal because off trail routes can be very steep, unlike graded hiking trails.
But the most important requirement for a bushwhacking snowshoe, beside being indestructible of course, is that it not catch on protruding branches when you’re battling through brush. This requires a uni-body construction where the snowshoe frame and deck are molded from a single piece of material instead of the separate frame and riveted decking you commonly find on other snowshoes. It doesn’t take many face plants to figure this out. When bushwhacking through dense forest, little branches invariably get caught between the frame and decking and splat – down you tumble, into the snow, trapped until one of your hiking mates disentangles you.
As you can see above, there is no separate decking on the MSR Evo Ascent Snowshoe which is basically a big piece of plastic with aggressive size crampons riveted to the underside of frame. The orientation of the crampons prevents snow from balling up under them. In addition, there are several horizontal plastic ribs on the underside of the snowshoe that also provide some traction, but mainly act as brakes when coming down steep slopes with packed snow or in slushy conditions.
Lengthwise, the Evo Ascents come in one size, 22″ long, which I’ve always found a little frustrating because they’re a great snowshoe for regular trail hiking as well as bushwhacking. Still, if you need more flotation for deep powder, you can buy a pair of add-on flotation tails that attach to the rear of the snowshoe. My only caution with doing this is that the combination may be heavier than a standalone snowshoe that is sized appropriately for your needs, and I would avoid carrying a pair of flotation tails around unless you absolutely know you will need them.
All of the “Ascent Series” snowshoes in the MSR product line including the Evo Ascent and Lightning Ascent snowshoes have a piece of wire that you can flip up under the heal of your boot when climbing up hills. Called “Telvators”, they reduce the strain on your calves which causes lower leg fatigue making it much easier to climb steep trails while maintaining excellent contact between the crampons and the snow surface. I simply won’t buy snowshoes that don’t have this feature for New England hiking.
There’s a small plastic tab attached to the Televators on the Evo Ascents, that makes them easy to grab and lock into place under your heels. To lower them, I find that a sharp crack with the top of my trekking poles against the wire produces enough force to disengage them so I don’t have to bend down and do it.
Equally important for bushwhacking and mountaineering is the need to have a secure binding system that is compatible with many different sizes of footwear ranging from insulated winter boots and pac boots to bulky mountaineering boots. MSR’s binding system uses four plastic straps that lock your boot to the snowshoe and are easy enough to secure without taking off your gloves. Though not as fast as some other bindings, the plastic straps are completely waterproof and unaffected by cold temperature.
The bindings also fold completely flat making them far easier to attach to your backpack and carry when not needed. That’s actually something I care about a lot about for bushwhacking because it lets me carry my snowshoes on the side of my pack, closer to my center of gravity, and helps reduces my profile when I’m bushwhacking off trail.
I have to confess, I didn’t discover the utility of using MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes for winter bushwhacking in New England on my own. Several of my off trail mentors use these snowshoes and I decided to try them to see why they like them so much. Bushwhacking with them is so much easier and more efficient than larger snowshoes, that I am also convinced that they’re the right snowshoe for bushwhacking in New England.
Disclosure: Cascade Designs provided Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) with a sample pair of MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes for this review.
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