MSR Snowshoes: Bred in the Mountains, Made in Seattle

With the right snowshoes—MSR snowshoes—you can venture out into most anything winter has to offer, from snow-covered hills and forested trails, to glacier fields and steep, icy slopes. MSR designs have led the industry in innovation for twenty years, and one of the ways we continue that forward progress is by manufacturing our snowshoes right here in Seattle, Washington. Take a look and see how we create the unrivaled traction, modular flotation and ergonomic efficiency that go into MSR Snowshoes. 

Manufactured in Seattle

All MSR snowshoes have been made on site in Seattle since the 1995 launch of the Denali Classic snowshoe. Working from a concept by renowned inventor and big wall climber Bill Forrest, and developed using MSR technology and engineering, the Denali featured traction bars and crampons made of strong martensitic steel in a design that revolutionized the snowshoe industry.

Bill Forrest from the MSR photo archives (left) and MSR Denali Classic Snowshoes, 1995 (right)

Such a breakthrough design and its legacies—the MSR® Lightning™ (2004) and MSR® Revo™ (2014) snowshoe series—deserved the close supervision and quality control that MSR’s on-site manufacturing has always offered. Such oversight allows us to live up to MSR’s founding goal of creating functional and reliable gear, and it provides us with an opportunity to learn from the manufacturing process itself. Many of our competitors save costs by making their products overseas, we look to save cost through our efficiency of design and manufacturing.

The Process: Making the Lightning Ascent

For a look behind the scenes, you can see how we make our snowshoes by following one of our exclusive designs, the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoe, through its fabrication and assembly process. The first stop is its unrivaled traction frame, which begins with a large laser cutter that cuts out multiple snowshoe frames at once. In the case of our lightweight Lightning Ascent snowshoes, the frames are cut from a single blade of strong, ultralight 7000 series aluminum.

Frame before bending.
Shot from the factory floor: Lightning Ascent snowshoe frame before bending.

Each laser-cut frame is then shaped into 360 degrees of traction formed by a programmable bending machine that can precisely bend the 7000 series aluminum into its unique shape. This bending operation is crucial to the design’s functionality, and our on-site manufacturing quality checks help ensure that each Lightning Ascent snowshoe works as it’s designed to do.

The 400-ton punch press sits on its own isolated 5-foot-thick reinforced concrete foundation in the factory.

Guided by a single operator, a 400-ton punch press is used to fabricate other snowshoe parts, such as the frame’s cross members and crampons, which are made and attached at key points in the assembly process that helps improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce labor costs.

Riveting machine operator attaching snowshoe crampon.
Riveting machine operator attaching fabric to frame.

After the 360° traction frame is bent and riveted in one station, the frame is sent out to a local paint house to receive a powder coating. When it returns, the riveting machine operator attaches a special die-cut polyurethane fabric (the same fabric used in our MSR® Fluke snow anchor). This high tensile fabric is what makes the Lightning Ascent snowshoe so lightweight and flexible, yet also durable. Oversight is critical during this part of the manufacturing process because the fabric must be cut and riveted to the deck in precise angles to tension the frame for proper flex and function.

Kinh, an MSR employee for 12 years, assembles snowshoe bindings.

Offsite, the plastic bindings, made of polyurethane (a cold-resistant, flexible plastic used on all our snowshoe bindings), are injection-molded.  The parts are delivered to the Seattle factory where they are assembled and riveted to the die-cut crampon. Then whole binding assembly is attached to the snowshoe deck frame and voilà: a brand new Lightning Ascent snowshoe.

Kieu, an MSR employee for 15 years, assembles snowshoes in their final packaging stage.

Design & manufacturing efficiency

At MSR, we match our efficient snowshoe designs with an efficiency of manufacturing because attending to both product and process makes everything work better, and assure that only quality gear goes out the door. Our machines are created in our own on-site tool shop and regularly maintained by the toolmakers to assure they are operating on spec. Making snowshoes in Seattle has also allowed us to learn how to deal with disposable waste material and recycling, so we can maintain our goals of environmental and socially conscious manufacturing. We try to be good stewards, and that begins at home.

Originally published on January 26, 2015. 

  • Dennis

    I appreciated the article about your snowshoe production process. However, the last paragraphs are repeated.
    Thanks for the great read!

    • admin

      Thanks for the heads up. Fixed now!

  • Jay Thomas

    Do you ever do tours? I have worked in manufacturing my entire life and now do lean consulting work after having learned the Toyota Production System here and in Japan. Would love to see your operation and work with you. I am an outdoor enthusiast, have many of your products, live in Seate and have always wanted to figure out how to tie my work and what I do together. Jay

  • Jay Thomas

    Email was incorrect on last message. Jay

    • admin

      Hi Jay, at this time we don’t do public tours. Thanks for asking and thanks for the support.

  • Rick Kipphut

    I’m curious when you say Bred in the mountains, made in Seattle are you referring to western conditions? I’ve skied out west several times and find the conditions markedly different than New England where I live. In NE we hike and ski on ice during the winter months. In fact, the term “edgeable ice” only refers to NE conditions, which brings me to your Lightning Ascents. Although I love the shoes and am currently on my forth pair, they do not seem to be designed for NE hiking. During a typical NE hike the conditions change from deep powered to hard packed snow to ice and finally rock, and this scenario is repeated throughout the hike. I find that the Ascents are fine in the first two conditions. It is the second two where the issue lies. Don’t get me wrong if I need to climb up a narrow gully that is covered in both ice and snow, I want my Ascents, hands down. Ideally, one wants to climb in crampons if it is boilerplate ice. However, that is not realistic when the conditions keep changing. Obviously when I get to the ridge I switch out my shoes for crampons. The problem that has come up with the Ascents, at least from everyone who uses them in the NE, is that the rivets in the bindings crack. My first pair took three years before they cracked, while my second pair cracked on my second hike while I was 9 miles from a road. On the third pair the support bracket that holds the binding to the decking broke, though it was the original decking so they did take some abuse. I am now on my forth pair which are brand new, so I am hoping for the best. My humble suggestion would be to strengthen the crampon that attaches to the binding, or make a crampon/binding specifically designed for NE ice. I would gladly pay extra for peace of mind.

  • Bob & Geri

    Like Rick above we live and hike in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Love the Lightning Ascents overall, currently own 2 pairs of the 22 inch narrow version, 2 pairs of the 25 inch narrow version, and 1 pair of the 22 inch wide version, but:

    1. the crampon cracks at the rivet point as Rick mentioned. Your Online RMA process works well – we have had 3 or 4 bindings replaced over the years however really wish you would accept a photo of the break rather than making us spend the time and money to ship the binding back to you.

    2. the decking material wears away on the inner sides from wide boots hitting the decking – is there a way for DIY repair?

    3. Wish you would add a second or different type of retaining clip on the rear heel strap so that once you have the snowshoe sized for a boot the strap would stay in place and not come off the silver tab – our home grown method is to use a zip tie.

    4 The clips that hold the front 3 straps in place could use some work – with deep snow it pushes the straps out of the clips then they come off the sliver tabs. Those tabs should be bent at a great angle!

    Love the light weight and how nicely they stack together for carrying on a backpack!

  • admin

    Hi Rick, Bob and Geri,

    When we introduced the Torsion2 crampon in 2012-13, we addressed many of the durability issues that you and other users experienced. These improvements included: A redesigned crampon, which features a split tooth design to relieve stress in the rivet area and a thicker crampon retainer to increase durability. Along with these upgrades to the crampon, we also increased the boot hole size in order to accept larger sized boots. By working with consumer feedback like yours and our testers throughout the United States, we strive to constantly improve our products. Thank you for your feedback!

    Chris Parkhurst
    Vice President MSR