Ultralight Snowshoes: Northern Lites

I purchased a pair of ultralight snowshoes this winter designed for mountaineering and winter backpacking that are manufactured by a company called Northern Lites. Weighing just 43 oz per pair, these 30″ snowshoes are 57 oz lighter than 30″ MSR Lightning Ascents which weigh 100 oz per pair.

Northern Lite Ultralight Backcountry Snowshoes

I got these snowshoes because I’ve been hell-bent on getting my winter backpacking base weight under 40 lbs. Climbing a 4,000 footer with 4+ pound snowshoes lashed to your pack is no fun and I wanted a lighter alternative. I have some friends who buy childrens-sized snowshoes for just this reason, but I wasn’t ready to go that route.

Northern Lite Snowshoes

The experience of snowshoeing in Northern Lites is different from other snowshoes that I own or have tried. First off, they are unbelievably lightweight. This makes a real difference if you are hiking in double plastic boots because they are a lot less fatiguing. But they also flex slightly when you step on a rock or log. This is due to the use of much lighter weight aluminum framing, aluminum crampons and plastic decking that are used in their manufacture.

Northern Lites takes a very different design philosophy than other commercial snowshoe manufacturers. Instead of using a heavy and very stiff aluminum frame, they use a thinner, lighter one, but compensate for the resulting lack if rigidity by using decking that is 250% stronger and way lighter than the decking you find on other teardrop style snowshoes. The decking is attached to the frame at many more spots than other snowshoes enabling the decking to supplement the frame’s strength instead of just being used for flotation.

 Northern Lites Backcountry Snowshoe Crampon

Additional weight is further reduced by using aluminum instead of steel for the crampons, which have deicing plates to improve traction. The foot and heel crampons are further augmented by adding plastic crampon teeth under each decking attachment point, increasing contact between the snowshoe or ice and crusty snow.

This can be good or bad depending on where you intend to snowshoe. Aluminum crampons are weaker than steel and will wear down quickly if you have to traverse a lot of rock. You can resharpen the crampons with a file, but this will reduce their lifetime. Still, I’m happy to make these trade-offs since I usually bring along steel crampons anyway.

The bindings on my Northern Lites are easy to adjust and stay reliably shut. When you put on a pair of Northern Lites, you should position your boot or shoe about 1 inch past the edge of the front hole and tighten the straps over your foot. There’s no need to make them real tight. An additional nylon strap loops behind your heel to keep your shoes from sliding out of the binding.

Unfortunately, my Northern Lites didn’t come with any documentation so figuring out how to use the binding system took a little bit of experimentation. For example, one question I had was which way the pointy ends of the straps should face: to the inside or outside of your stride. All of the photos on the company’s web site show them pointing at each other, which I found very annoying because the straps on the left foot smack against the straps on your right foot. After a while, I just put them on so the pointy ends point outward: left and right are interchangeable, and that was that.

There’s also no way to fasten down straps if they’re too long, so they flap around a bit. One way to fix this is to slip them under the other end where it runs over your boot, as shown above. This seems like a little thing that is easy to fix, and I may just use velcro tape to fasten the ends down if I continue to find them distracting.

Overall, I am very pleased with my Northern Lite Backcountry snowshoes, but they’re clearly not for everyone. The huge weight reduction they provide is fantastic, but if you’re not carrying a pack into the backcountry or that’s not a concern for you, you may be better off considering a snowshoe that’s not targeted at ultralight mountaineering or winter backpacking applications.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.

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7 Responses to Ultralight Snowshoes: Northern Lites

  1. Scott J March 8, 2009 at 6:13 am #

    I have these same snowshoes. They are great, and very sturdy. I will be using them this week as a matter of fact. Your right about the documentation, or lack thereof. A little confusing.

  2. George March 8, 2009 at 7:23 am #

    I don't snowshoe, but I can imagine that those long straps flapping around woud be annoying. Instead of velcro, it looks like you coud loosly attach a zip tie (or even string) to a hole on each strap and then tuck the loose end through it. Like the loop on a regular belt that holds the loose end down. Just a thought. I wouldn't think velcro tape would hold very well after being wet from the melted snow. But then again, I live in the South where the only snow we ever see is brief and wet.

  3. BG! March 9, 2009 at 5:07 am #

    I like the idea of getting some of these snowshoes, but I'll bet they'll cost a fortune for us UK-based folk.

    Regarding the straps: don't the black buckles (at the fixed end of the straps, on the left in the pics) slide along to allow the pointed ends of the straps to be pushed in and secured?

  4. Earlylite March 9, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    I can't imagine why they'd cost you any more than me, except for the extra postage, but at 2lbs, that can't be that bad. $249 for the pair.

    Regarding the straps – the answer is no. They flap like that. But really, if you wear the pointed bits so they point to the outside of your foot, they stop being annoying very quickly.

    Did I say that they feel absolutely amazing because they're so lightweight. You'll feel like you can run in them.

  5. Lena November 30, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

    I have a pair of Elites – very nice snowshoes! flaps are irritating. I will try velcro-what a great idea!

  6. Shane February 18, 2011 at 5:25 am #

    I have a pair of Elites and they are fabulous.

    Regarding the extra long straps, what I did was I cut off the extra on the pointed end. I left enough so I could use the snowshoes with my biggest boots and still have enough material to grab onto. I find that I need to crank them down very tightly – especially if I end up doing any traversing.

  7. DonB February 5, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    I have owned several pairs of Northern Lites for 10 years, I have used them extensively and have sent several pairs back for repair (not a manufacturing issue, I just did too many miles on rocks and didn’t take them off). The company changed hands in the last few years and I found the new owner to be very easy to deal with and very customer focused.
    I have tried several other snowshoes MSR was good, a bit easier to get in and out of. But once you have used the northern lites the others seem heavy.
    I have also used Tubs and feel they are more suited for the budget minded person that is buying them to leave at the ski house for others but never get used much.

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