Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gear: Northern Lites snowshoes

With the wintry weather upon us snowshoes have become an indispensable piece of backcountry equipment. Without snowshoes (or their cousin the cross-country skis) the backcountry would be mostly off-limits to any adventures for nearly half of the year in the Adirondacks.

Snowshoes come in all different styles and materials (e.g. wood vs. aluminum). The industry has largely moved away from natural materials due to the light weight and durability of their artificial counterparts. Tubbs, Atlas or Redfeather are popular manufacturers but the leader in lightweight snowshoes is Northern Lites located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Northern who?” you might ask.

Northern Lites ( is not the most well-known manufacturer but they have been making lightweight snowshoes since 1992. You probably will not find them at your local sporting good store next to the popular brands though. Their marketing is almost exclusively by word of mouth and the best way to purchase them is via their own website. Instead of spending large amounts of money on marketing Northern Lites lets the quality of their product do the bulk of their advertising for them. The glowing reviews they have received (examples found here, here and here) do not hurt either.

Northern Lites provide two different series of snowshoes: the Extreme and Quicksilver.

The Extreme Series is their technical line of snowshoes, which are designed for the most demanding conditions and offer lighter weights with the most advanced engineering and materials. These snowshoes have a lifetime warranty to the original purchaser against defects in parts or workmanship. There are five different models of snowshoes within this series ranging from the super small Elite Racer to the gargantuan Tundra (for weight in excess of 250 lbs).

For the more casual snowshoer they provide the Quicksilver Series. These snowshoes are less-expensive but slightly heaver than their Extreme Series cousins. They come with only a limited warranty of a single year. They offer two different models of snowshoes within this series differing only by size.

All Northern Lites snowshoes are made right here in the United States of America.

The following technical specifications of the Northern Lites snowshoes were obtained from their website.

Northern Lites snowshoes are made with the lightest and most durable materials using advanced engineering in their design. They range in weight from 32 ounces per pair for the Elite Racer to 48 ounces per pair for the Tundra.

The aluminum framing is an advanced alloy 40% stronger than the traditional 6061 T6 framing on ordinary metal-frame snowshoes. This allows for the diameter of the frame to be smaller thus lighting the over-all weight of the snowshoe.

The decking is made with Coolthane®, which has a 250% greater abrasion resistance than the hypalon used on some other brands. The bindings are cut from thicker Coolthane and should be impossible to tear with even 500 pounds per square inch tensile strength.

The pivot strap is made from one and a half inch Biothane®, a material that can be twisted hundreds of thousands of times without even tearing.

The decking clips, with their exclusive perimeter cleats, are made from toughened nylon. These perimeter cleats are based on structures found on grouse feet during winter that assist with traction and flotation in the deep snow.

I purchased a pair of Northern Lites Elites back in February 2002. They have performed beyond all expectations and have totally supplanted my old Tubbs snowshoes (which were large and much, much heavier). The past eight years have treated them well as other than a little fraying around the edges of the decking and some scrapes and scratches on the bottom they look virtually brand new.

My Elite snowshoes continue to be the envy on my traditional early spring sojourn due to their small size and light weight, especially in the spring where snowshoes may be carried just as often as worn on the feet.

In addition, the TruTrack bindings are the easiest bindings to use in my experience. They can easily be secured while wearing mittens, which is a big advantage when out in below-zero temperatures.

One concern shown in other reviews is the possible wear and tear on the aluminum toe and heel crampons on the Northern Lite snowshoes. I have not found this to be a major concern and the amount of wear and tear appears to be comparable to that found on the crampons of other brands of snowshoes I have used in the past. The majority of my snowshoeing takes place in the lowlands though and therefore those spending a significant time on the open mountaintops may find an increased amount of crampon wear.

If you happen to have a backcountry explorer on your holiday gift list then you cannot go wrong with a pair of Northern Lites snowshoes. Their quality is excellent and they should provide many years of productive snowshoeing. Most importantly, their light weight allows for many more hours of snowshoeing than their heavier competitors, offering extensive opportunities to enjoy the outdoors during the long, cold Adirondack winter.

Photo: Northern Lites Elite by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

2 Responses

  1. Ultimate Snowshoes says:

    Northern Lites Elite snowshoes are on sale now at

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