MSR Snowshoes: Bred in the Mountains, Made in Market

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 ourselves. Take a look and see how we create the unrivaled traction, modular flotation and ergonomic efficiency that go into MSR Snowshoes.

REI went behind the scenes at MSR’s Seattle factory to show you how we make our Lightning Ascent Snowshoes. It starts with a sheet of aerospace aluminum and a laser cutter, and only gets better from there!

Manufactured in Market

We have manufactured every pair of MSR snowshoes in-house 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 with MSR Denali Classic Snowshoes
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 in-market manufacturing has always offered. Such oversight allows us to live up to MSR’s founding goal of creating functional and reliable gear, and 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 reduce cost through design efficiency and manufacturing our products, in our own facilities, in and near the markets we’ll ship them to. We manufacture in the USA for the North American market, and at our plant in Ireland for the European and Pacific markets.

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.

lightning ascent snowshoe frame
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.

punch press for crampons manufacturing
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 snowshoe crampon.
Riveting machine operator attaching fabric to frame
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
Kinh, an MSR employee for 12 years, assembles snowshoe bindings.

Offsite, the flexible, cold-resistant polyurethane bindings are injection-molded.  The parts are delivered to the 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
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.

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Updated. Originally published on January 26, 2015. 

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