Hikers use two different kinds of traction devices in winter: crampons and snowshoes. Crampons are used to provide traction on higher angle rock that is at least partially covered with ice and slick packed snow, while snowshoes are mainly used to provide flotation on top of loose unconsolidated snow. (There are many different kinds of crampons and snowshoes; see below for a detailed explanation of their differences).
However, putting on crampons or snowshoes on prematurely can exhaust you quickly if you’re hiking on a trail or up a mountain that is going to stretch your physical limits. Therefore the best strategy is to only put them on when you need to and not before.
So when should you put on your crampons?
Here’s what I do:
I put my crampons on climbs or descents on consolidated snow or ice, ice covered rock, or mixed ice and bare rock when I can’t get any more traction out of my boot treads or the consequences of sliding downhill into trees or off a cliff outweigh the extra exertion required.
With a little practice, you can learn how to maximize the effectiveness of a winter boot tread and defer having to put on your crampons. For example, if you splay your feet out and walk like a duck uphill you can coax a little more traction out of your boots. Another thing you can do on a steep uphill is to kick steps into the snow with the rigid toe of your boot.
I also always use an ice axe when I wear crampons to stop an uncontrolled slide if my crampons slip out from underneath me, and if you haven’t been trained to perform a self arrest with an ice axe while wearing crampons, I wouldn’t recommend that you wear rigid mountaineering crampons at all.
When should you put on snowshoes?
Here’s what I do:
I put on snowshoes when I’m walking on unconsolidated snow and I sink into the snow with each step. Snowshoes are even heavier than crampons, so I only put them on when the extra flotation they provide outweighs the effort of walking without them.
Different Crampon Types
Crampons are used to provide traction on rock that is at least partially covered with ice and or snow. There are many types of crampons ranging from ones that can be used with any boot or shoe like Kahtoola Microspikes or KTS Crampons to ones that can only be used with very stiff mountaineering boots like Black Diamond Cyborgs or Grivel G12 Crampons.
If you compare different crampons, you’ll find that the ones with the longest teeth and most points (8, 10, or 12) work with very stiff mountaineering boots and are designed for climbing steeper slopes or frozen waterfalls. Crampons with shorter teeth and fewer points are really designed to prevent you from slipping on lower angle ice or slippery packed snow.
Different Snowshoe Types
Snowshoes have two functions: they provide flotation so you don’t sink as deeply into powdery or deep snow, which helps conserve your energy, and prevents post-holing which occurs when you sink into snow up to your thighs or waist (without them.) Snowshoes also have integrated crampons on their undersides that help provide traction on ice or packed snow and can be used instead of crampons in certain lower angle situations.
If you compare snowshoes you find that the ones with the greatest surface area are best for snowshoeing on powder and that smaller and narrower ones are better for walking on broken out winter trails (which have side snow walls). There’s also a fair amount of variety is the aggressiveness of the underlying crampons on snowshoes. Teardrop shaped crampons like the ones on Tubbs Snowshoes tend to have less crampon teeth than MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, where the frame itself acts like a crampon.