MSR Snowshoe Guide: How to Choose
MSR makes great snowshoes for winter hiking and backpacking that provide excellent traction and flotation over packed snow and ice in mountainous terrain and powder in higher elevations and drier climates. With an ironclad guarantee, MSR also has a great reputation for replacing snowshoes that fail, something that will save you money in the long haul if you are rough on your gear.
But picking the right MSR snowshoes and sizing them appropriately can be a real challenge since MSR has so many models available and MSR’s fitting guidelines push you into sizes that are much larger and heavier than required. If you’re doing any kind of serious snowshoeing in winter, the last thing you want is to hike in snowshoes that are too big and too heavy, or that don’t match the kind of terrain you hike in.
Here’s a table that lists MSR’s different snowshoe models, sizes, and features. It’s very helpful for comparing the different models that MSR makes, their features, and prices.
|MSR Lightning Ascent||22"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Ascent||25"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Ascent||30"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Womens Lightning Ascent||22"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Womens Lightning Ascent||25"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Revo Ascent||22"||Paragon||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Revo Ascent||25"||Paragon||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Womens Revo Ascent||22"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Womens Revo Ascent||25"||Paragon||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Evo Ascent||22"||3 Straps||Evo||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Explore||22"||Ratchet||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Explore||25"||Ratchet||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Explore||30"||Ratchet||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Womens Lightning Explore||22"||Ratchet||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Womens Lightning Explore||25"||Ratchet||Lightning||Yes|
|MSR Revo Explore||22"||Ratchet||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Revo Explore||25"||Ratchet||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Womens Revo Explore||22"||Ratchet||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Womens Revo Explore||25"||Ratchet||Revo||Yes|
|MSR Lightning Trail||22"||2 Straps||Lightning||No|
|MSR Lightning Trail||25"||2 Straps||Lightning||No|
|MSR Womens Lightning Trail||22"||2 Straps||Lightning||No|
|MSR Womens Lightning Trail||25"||2 Straps||Lightning||No|
|MSR Revo Trail||22"||2 Straps||Revo||No|
|MSR Revo Trail||25"||2 Straps||Revo||No|
|MSR Womens Revo Trail||22"||2 Straps||Revo||No|
|MSR Womens Revo Trail||25"||2 Straps||Revo||No|
|MSR Evo Snowshoes||22"||2 Straps||Evo||No|
|MSR Shift Snowshoes||19"||2 Straps||Evo||No|
|MSR Tyker Snowshoes||17"||2 Straps||Evo||No|
I have been using MSR snowshoes for over a decade, including testing and reviewing their products as they’ve changed the design and features they offer. I give a lot of advice to friends who are trying to decide which MSR snowshoes to buy for winter hiking and the information and recommendations below sum up the guidance I provide them.
Traction and Flotation
Snowshoes provide traction and flotation when hiking over powder, packed snow, and ice. They’re designed to help you save energy by eliminating the slipping, sliding, and post-holing that occurs when you try hiking on deep snow without snowshoes.
When choosing snowshoes, you want to select a traction system that is designed for the surface conditions you expect to encounter *most* of the time (unconsolidated powder, packed trails, ice and rock) and a size that provides the right amount of decking surface area or flotation to prevent you from sinking into the snow.
MSR snowshoes incorporate several types of crampons and traction. Each of these correspond to MSR’s Lightning, Revo, and Evo snowshoe product families. The snowshoes within each of these families differ from each other in terms of bindings, features, sizes, and prices.
- The Lightning traction system provides a full 360 degrees of traction with teeth cut into the frame of the and crossbars, with an additional crampon under the ball of the foot. This is the best traction system that MSR offers and is excellent in all conditions – powder, packed trails, and over mixed ice and rock. The Lightning frames can also handle a higher degree of torsional flex than any other MSR model making them excellent in mixed mountainous terrain where you’re likely to side-hill or snowshoe across uneven surfaces. The Lightning traction system is offered with the MSR Lightning Ascent and Lightning Explore snowshoe models.
- The Revo traction system is similar to the Lightning except that teeth are only cut into the sides of the frame and not a full 360 degrees around the front and back. While the Revo system also has a crampon under the ball of the foot, the Revo traction system doesn’t have toothed crossbars under the heel providing the wearer with less traction than the Lightning models. The Revo traction system is best used on packed trails and flat or gently rolling terrain. The plastic on the bottom of the Revo traction system gets cut up very easily if you hike over rock ledge with them, so you want to avoid that. The Revo traction system is available with MSR’s Revo Ascent and Revo Explore Snowshoes.
- The Evo traction system has two aggressively toothed-rails that are bolted lengthwise on the underside of the Evo’s injection-molded plastic decking as well as a crampon under the ball of the foot. In practice, the Evo system proves traction that is comparable to that provided by the Lightning and Revo systems: the main difference between them is that Lightning and Revo snowshoes are lighter weight while the Evo injection molded decking is heavier and more durable. The Evo traction system is best-used off-trail, on packed trails and mixed ice and rock. It is available on MSR’s Evo Ascent and Evo Snowshoes.
MSR Snowshoes come in three primary lengths: 22″, 25″, and 30″. The degree of flotation provided by an MSR snowshoe is determined primarily by its length since there’s very little width variance between the models they offer.
If you expect to snowshoe on deep powder, you’re going to want more flotation than if you hike on packed trails or snow that undergoes the frequent freeze-thaw cycles.
In sizing snowshoes, I’ve always found that you can almost always use a size smaller than the one recommended by MSR based on body weight unless most of the snowshoeing you do is off-trail on unpacked trails in deep powder, which is fairly rare since most people stick to packed out trails. For example, I use a 22″ MSR snowshoe for snowshoeing in mountainous terrain on packed and unpacked trails, even though MSR’s sizing guideline would put me into a 25″ or 30″ size, which is unnecessary weight to carry in my opinion.
If you’re on the border between sizes, get a smaller, shorter sized snowshoe that accepts a tail attachment for those rare times when you feel you need more flotation. MSR tails lock on the back of a snowshoe and extend the length, providing more decking surface area, hence flotation. Larger snowshoes are almost always heavier and more awkward to use than shorter smaller snowshoes, especially on packed trails, and you’ll come to regret carrying a larger snowshoe if you get one that’s too big most of the time.
MSR provides four styles of bindings that attach your boots to the snowshoe.
- The Paragon binding has a flexible net-like panel that covers the top of your boots and a flexible rear strap that prevents your boots from sliding out the back. The front of the binding has two corner stops that optimize the placement of your forefoot over the front crampon and eliminates hot spots on the top of your boots. It packs flat which is important when you have to strap your snowshoes onto a backpack and won’t freeze shut in the cold. New for 2019-2020, the Paragon binding is only found on the Lightning Ascent and Revo Ascent snowshoes models.
- The 3 strap Posilock binding has three flexible plastic straps that run over the top of your boot and one in the rear to lock your heel in place. This provides a very secure binding that won’t freeze shut, won’t come undone when you put a lot of torsional stress on the snowshoe and can be adjusted while wearing gloves.
- The ratchet-style Hyperlink binding has two straps, one the runs over the front of your foot and the other behind your heel to lock it in place. The ratchet binding is much easier to adjust than the 3 strap Posilock binding, but it can freeze shut when it gets wet and can be difficult to release without taking off your gloves. Once fitted, however, these ratchet bindings make it very easy to put on and take off your snowshoes, without the frustration of tensioning plastic straps.
- The 2 strap Duofit binding has two flexible straps that run over the top of your boot and one in the rear to lock your heel in place. This provides a secure binding that won’t freeze shut and can be adjusted while wearing gloves. While less secure than the 3 strap Posilock binding, it’s more than sufficient for keeping your boots attached to your snowshoes in flat terrain, even with rolling hills.
A Televator is a piece of wire that flips up under your heel. It’s used when you hike uphill and positions your foot so that your heel stays level with your toes when hiking up an incline. This significantly reduces calf fatigue and increases the traction provided by snowshoe’s rear crampon teeth, preventing slippage. Snowshoes with televators are a must-have in any kind of hilly or mountainous terrain and you’ll be glad you have them.
Men’s vs Women’s Models
MSR snowshoes are available in men’s and women’s models, which is a misnomer because MSR snowshoes are unisex and can be used interchangeably by men or women. The main difference between the two is that the women’s versions may have a slightly narrower width than the corresponding men’s snowshoe, although this varies by model, where the narrower width can more comfortable for people with shorter legs and a narrower gait. The women’s snowshoes also tend to be a bit lighter weight than the men’s snowshoes and provide a way for hikers concerned with gear weight to save a few ounces.
Snowshoe Selection Tips
Still confused? Here are the models I’d recommend for several common circumstances.
- If you plan to hike in flat terrain in a front country setting like a golf course, local park, or ski resort, the Revo Explore is probably your best option because it provides good traction with an easy to use binding.
- If you plan to hike primarily on packed trails in mountainous or very hilly terrain, the MSR Lightning Ascent or Lightning Explore will be good choices because they both have televators and lightweight frames.
- If you plan to hike off-trail in mountainous terrain, the MSR Evo Ascent snowshoe is the best choice because it has very durable decking, a secure three-strap binding, and a televator. Unfortunately, they’re only available in a size 22″. If you need a larger size snowshoe, I’d recommend the Lightning Ascent.
If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them.
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