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Winter Hiking Skills: Crampon Walking Technique

There’s no doubt that Kahtoola Microspikes revolutionized winter traction and opened up winter hiking to a much wider audience. Before microspikes came along, most hikers had to purchase mountaineering boots and crampons if they wanted to hike on icy trails, which required proper training to use safely not to mention a lot of extra expense. But there are limits to how far you can take microspikes on winter hikes, especially on higher angle routes where the tiny spikes don’t penetrate deeply enough into the ice and where you can easily slip because you have less purchase.

If you need to hike steeper routes (but not do full-on ice climbing or mountaineering), it really pays to buy a pair of crampons. Most people start with a pair of strap-on crampons which will work on any type of winter boot. If you hike in a soft bendable boot, make sure the crampons you buy have a flexible leaf spring, which is the bar connecting the front and rear half of the crampon. Many strap-on crampons come with a flexible leaf springs out-of-the-box, including:

Once you get a pair of crampons, you should learn how to use them to walk on ice. It is very different from walking in Microspikes which don’t require any change in your footwork. In some ways it’s unfortunate that people can simply strap a pair of crampons on their feet and start hiking without any training or practice. Every winter weekend, I see hikers wearing crampons who have no idea how to use them and put themselves and the people they hike with at risk because of it. For example, you should never sled or glissade while wearing crampons because they can catch on a root or branch and break your ankle or leg.

With crampons, the name of the game is keeping all of your spikes (called points) in the ice so you don’t slip and fall. When walking up an incline, you’ll want to stomp the ice and hike with your feet pointed horizontally or angled to your direction of travel because this gives you the best grip. Keep one foot planted in the ice/snow at all times and shorten your steps to keep your center of gravity over your points until you can shift your weight onto the forward foot. It’s very different from a normal walking stride.

Watch the videos I’ve provided here to get a good feel for classical crampon techniques like french stepping or the international step, another basic crampon footwork technique. Learning how to walk in crampons is a skill worth learning, so ask a friend who knows how to do it to help you practice or sign up for a winter hiking class with a local hiking club or climbing school and learn how.

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4 comments

  1. I wasn’t familiar with ‘french stepping’ – thanks for sharing the videos.

  2. Most important crampon advice I’ve received is ‘practice.’ Once you receive basic instruction use them as much as possible. It takes a lot of practice to really get comfortable on steep ice and not trip over yourself.

    Was using them today up towards the top of north twin, good times.

    • I took a basic 3 day mountaineering class with IME many years ago and learned how to use crampons at the Willey Slide ( 2 pitch climb) and then on Mt Washington. That was probably the best outdoor class I’ve ever taken.

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