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Winter Traction and When to Wear It

Mountaineering crampons provide deep penetration on hard ice.
Mountaineering crampons provide deep penetration on hard ice.

Hikers use three different kinds of traction devices in winter: microspikes, mountaineering crampons, and snowshoes. Microspikes and mountaineering crampons are used to provide traction on ice and packed snow while snowshoes are mainly used to provide flotation on top of loose unconsolidated snow. 

However, putting on microspikes, mountaineering crampons, or snowshoes prematurely can exhaust you quickly if you’re hiking on a trail or up a mountain that is going to stretch your physical limits. The best strategy is to only put them on when you need to and not before.

Kahtoola Microspikes provide excellent traction on packed snow and light ice on fairly level hiking trails
Kahtoola Microspikes provide excellent traction on packed snow and light ice on fairly level hiking trails

When should you put on microspikes?

Microspikes are best worn on fairly level hiking trails covered with packed snow or ice. They provide that little bit of extra traction that you need to when your boot treads stop giving you good grips. A car analogy is useful here: regular boots are like winter snow tires with a more aggressive tread, but when they start sliding, you put on tire chains to get more grip.

However wearing microspikes means added weight on your feet, which can wear you out prematurely on a long hike. It’s often possible to defer putting them on with better footwork, especially on packed snow. 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.

While microspikes are marvelous winter traction aids, they do have their limits when you start to tackle higher angle slopes covered in ice. That’s when you want to switch to longer and sharper winter traction aid called a mountaineering crampon.

Crampons for Leather Hiking Boots
Crampons for Leather Hiking Boots have a flexible middle bar callled a leaf spring.

When should you put on mountaineering crampons?

Mountaineering crampons are best worn on higher angle ice, ice-covered rock, or mixed ice and bare rock when you need a deeper bite and more solid footing to climb a slope. The chains and spikes on microspikes have too much “give” in them and are too short to penetrate deeply into ice when you need it to hold your full body weight.

Barebooting without crampons can save energy for later.
Barebooting without crampons can save energy for later.

There are  many types of crampons ranging from ones that can be used with any boot or shoe like Kahtoola  KTS Crampons or Hillsound Trail Crampon Pros to ones that can only be used with very stiff mountaineering boots like Black Diamond Cyborgs or Grivel G12 Crampons.

When should you put on snowshoes?

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.

MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes
MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes

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. 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.

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10 comments

  1. Great post, Philip. That's exactly what I was looking for, thanks. Further to your comments about weight, I realize crampons are a MUST to bring along on a winter hike, but do you find that you'll check the trail conditions before you head out before you decide whether or not to bring your snowshoes as well? That's a lot of extra weight to lug around on your pack, especially if you won't be using them. Or do you always bring both pieces of gear, just to be safe?

    Cheers,

    Glenn

  2. I’ve used MSR snowshoes for years. First had the basic plastic Denali model, then got the plastic Denali Ascent. When the aluminum Lightnings came out I got a pair of the 25″ Ascents and picked up a like-new pair of the newer Ascents that allow the addition of tails for those days when there’s a couple of feet of fresh snow or when my pack is heavier.
    The women’s version do provide a tiny bit less flotation. Thought I’d mention that. But I like the idea of having the narrower footprint. Maybe I’ll borrow my wife’s.
    Anyway, these, to me, are the best snowshoes around. They’re tough, light, aggressive, and MSR stands behind their products 100%. Since I got mine at REI I’m covered there also. (Disclaimer: I work for REI.)

  3. You know I love your stuff but can I add something to what you wrote above and perhaps you can update the post. The picture shows crampons with a stuff center bar on leather boots with a non-rigid sole. If you want maximum traction while minimizing the possibility that the crampons will pop off your boot as your boot flexes during ascent you should use a flux ingle center bar with non-rigid soles and a stuff bar with rigid soles. Many if the models that will could be used on non-rigid soles now come with the flexible bar as the standard item but don’t worry if you have an older version, both Black Diamond and Petzel sell the flexible bars as a separate item.

  4. Darn typos and autocorrect. That should read use stiff bars with rigid soles (eg plastic boots) and flexible bars with non-rigid soles. (eg soft soles like Merrill and Keen).

  5. Especially in Europe, short skis are also used for traction versus a form of transportation in it of itself.

  6. Thanks for the notice since I own the original design crampons.
    I’ll modify my crampons to create a rough equivalent of the improved design.

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