For the past few decades, Northern Lites snowshoes have developed a cult following among racers and ultralight hikers, and for good reason. With snowshoes that are, on average, 10 ounces lighter per pair than competitors, a Northern Lites trekker lifts about 2,000 pounds less weight for every mile of snowshoeing.
Founded in 1992 in Wisconsin, Northern Lites had some big changes this year — including a move to Colorado and a new face behind the brand, Wes Dunn. I sat down with Wes to chat about the move, ultralight backpacking, and building U.S.-made outdoor products.
A New Move to Colorado
This past April, Wes Dunn, his father, and two brothers acquired Northern Lites for their family-owned snowshoe company, Crescent Moon. Wes is now in charge of operations at Crescent Moon, and since April, has been bringing his supply chain expertise to bear on issues that challenged Northern Lites in the last few years.
“The pandemic was really hard on small businesses that didn’t have a rainy day fund to scale and get their components on time,” he says. Since starting with Northern Lites, Wes has expanded brand visibility and where you can find Northern Lites.
Now, Northern Lites snowshoes are handmade in Colorado by the same team who hand make Crescent Moon snowshoes. “We’re still only four employees,” Wes says. “It’s definitely a small shop.” But working year-round, even in the summer, they’re able to keep up with production for the two brands.
By pooling resources, Wes and his family feel like they’ve saved a long-loved legacy brand. “We are bringing back Northern Lites to what it was and has been for over 30 years.”
Detail-Oriented, Ultralight Designs
One thing that Wes is avoiding? Tinkering with Northern Lites’ time-honored design. “Engineers worked on this design for three decades meticulously to get down every gram in the racing and tracking snowshoes,” Wes says. Those innovations mean a backpacking snowshoe that’s lighter and more streamlined to use.
“I think it's the only design where there are dozens of hand-riveted deck clips around the perimeter,” he explains. By removing the need to fold decking material around the frame, engineers created a snowshoe that is 50% lighter than some competitors.
Despite the manual labor that it takes, the design is worth it, Wes says, maintaining “Northern Lites' unique and rich history.”
Wes hopes that Northern Lites snowshoes will appeal to backpackers as well as their traditional racing market. After all, for many backpackers and trail runners, winter doesn’t need to mean sitting on the couch watching Netflix for 6 months.
“If you like being outside in the summer, there's no reason you're not going to like hiking or running around the woods in the winter. It's less crowded. It’s extremely peaceful,” Wes says. Besides, he says, “I love having a new outdoor activity on the horizon each season…I think variety is the spice of life.”
The equipment for snowshoeing is fairly easy to use, too, Wes explains. “Snowshoeing is a simple thing in practice. You shouldn’t be thinking about tinkering with your bindings or how heavy your snowshoes are.” Snowshoeing is instead about staying active in winter and having fun.
Snowshoes for Hikers and Ultralight Backpackers
When designing for backpackers, snowshoe weight matters. It doesn’t just allow backpackers to burn fewer calories each time they lift their feet, but means they need less food, water, and fuel to power their walking. “It’s this cascading effect,” Wes explains. “Saving pounds on a relatively large piece of equipment like snowshoes can really help keep down your overall pack weight.”
But weight is just part of the equation. Backpackers — especially thru-hikers — are also more likely to encounter mixed conditions, where some miles are on dirt and some on snow. That means that convenience matters too. “Northern Lites hiking and backpacking series are very low profile, which means they're stackable. You can undo them from your backpack easily,” Wes explains.
Bindings cinch down, too, on Northern Lites’ hiking and backpacking series, which helps save space when hikers are also likely to be carrying cold weather clothing and equipment. When strapping a snowshoe onto a pack, Wes recommends keeping the center of gravity closer to the body. That way, “you're not going to feel like a turtle with six pounds on the very back end of your backpack.”
Snowshoes that Last Decades
Despite their light weight, Northern Lites emphasizes their durable American-made component. Rather than promoting cheap snowshoes that can be used just a few times before replacement, Wes quips that Northern Lites takes a different approach, like “that 1975 microwave Mom and Dad have that still works great.”
“I think anyone could come up with a snowshoe that is lightweight that would fail quickly,” Wes warns. But Northern Lites snowshoes have been running for decades. “You’ll see that commitment in our warranties.”
The advantage of a long-lasting snowshoe isn’t just saving money in the long run or reducing waste. “You're really going to learn to love that snowshoe and think of it as an extension of your foot after years and years of using it, versus rotating pairs every four or five years when something breaks.”
As a U.S.-based company, people can easily send in snowshoes for repairs. Wes estimates that just in his time at Northern Lites, he’s repaired dozens of models — some almost 20 years old.
For him, there’s satisfaction in knowing someone who purchased a snowshoe in 2005 doesn’t need to buy a new pair. Maybe they just need new crampons or a binding system. “We’re not going to force people to buy a brand new snowshoe if they don’t need it. We love repairing because we love seeing them out there in the wild.”
Ultimately, Wes believes that snowshoeing matters. “Making snowshoes that are easy to use, accessible, fun and effortless can help people get into the outdoors and get excited about it. That, in turn, makes them year round outdoor enthusiasts that might think about public lands differently.”
That’s why Wes and his family are committed to continuing the 30 year legacy of Northern Lites, a legacy of being the lightest snowshoes for hikers, trail runners, and backpackers.
Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is a thru-hiker with 20+ long trails on her feet, including the PCT, CDT, and AT, for which she held an FKT. Her trail experiences led her to co-found Treeline Review, an outdoor gear review space dedicated to buying right the first time to reduce waste on the planet.