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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.

Winter 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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19 comments

  1. If you turn it around, when would you want to wear microspikes? Do these have certain advantages over mountaineering crampons, apart from being lighter weight?

    • Energy efficiency is important in winter which is why you delay wearing heavy gear on your feet as long as possible and carry the lightest load you can SAFELY carry. You’d put in microspikes when your boots no longer give you traction.

    • As for their advantages, they’re compatible with all boots and idiotproof to put on in the cold without any special adjustment. Those are pretty big advantages overt crampons, I’d say. Read my Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra for more on thus.

      • Thanks. Yes, read your great new article, Philip, thanks!
        Any ideas on the Petzl Leopard FL so far? They weigh about the same as microspikes, yet seem to be almost a full crampon that fit any boot.

      • I’ve seen those. Basically just a walking crampon good for packed snow, light ice, and glacier use. Aluminum crampons are nice and light but do wear down quickly compared to steel. When I bring them on a trip I usually bring microspikes as well, since having too much spike is unnecessary, less stable, and you can do terrible damage to your pants/calves when you get tired and your aim gets bad.

  2. Its great to see the Hillsound trail pro crampons mentioned. I have Sabretooth crampons, microspikes and the hillsound pros. The Hillsound pros are my goto device for winter hiking when I’m not on my Lightning Accents. Light and easy to attach and will work on virtually any shoe. They seem to be unknown to many on the blogs I frequent. When the Hillsounds go in my daypack its going to be a good day! I know this is an old post but just wanted to make a shoutout for the Hillsounds!

  3. I have used kahtoolas for years backpacking. Loved them. The new version of kahtoolas are not designed well. My husband’s ripped the first time he put them on. The rubber is too thin. Ordered hillsongs. Hoping they will be better…
    As to kahtoolas … why on earth would they change a great design?
    I love my tubbs.. returned lighter mrs’s to store after sinking like a stone weigh below the recommendation maximum weight.

  4. Phil, what would be your carry recommendation for winter day hikes in the Presidentials when it’s possible that snowshoes, micro spikes, crampons, and even ice ax might be needed? Never mind that I hike with trekking poles! I’d like to keep things relatively light, but safe too.

  5. What is the best over-hiking boot/shoe to wear for hiking with a vertical component on sometimes ice, sometimes ice/snow and exposed rock? We tried Yaktrack Pro but after one hike the rubber broke and one of the coils popped loose, perhaps from the exposed rock portion. Is there anything out there than can handle all of those conditions in one unit? We were hiking in Tahoe, weather was 56ish-38ish, no recent snow, so packed snow/ice and exposed rocks. Vertical ~2,500′. Thanks!

  6. I know the average backpacker doesn’t do a lot of winter travel, but it’s worth mentioning skis and splitboards. I live in an alpine area and everyone up here slaps on skinned up skis or splitboards to head out for anything that’s in the multi-hour range and certainly the mult-day range.

    Snowshoes are nicknamed “slowshoes”, and skis/split let you make some serious distance and serious time. For the occasional winter backpacker it’s probably overkill. But if you live in a big snow area and spend a lot of time in it, you’ll have skis/split with a tow pulk eventually. It’s easily $1K worth of gear, plus avy skills/classes, but it can really take the winter into something enjoyable.

    It’s not even about the downhill part, in fact the last overnight I did I didn’t even bother taking my skins off. It’s the distance and speed advantage primarily. And for splitboards anyway you can find crampons that go onto them if you need to hit big verticals.

  7. so I’m walking in the loess hills of iowa, theres 2 inches of fresh snow over a layer of packed ice and snow. when it gets above freezing my microspikes start to snowball and its real slippery without them.whats a poor hiker to do?

  8. any recommendations?

  9. Hi Philip,

    I’m curious what one ought to wear in spring snow conditions, where it’s warm outside and the snow is likely slushy? For example, I’m planning a hike this weekend with temps in the mid to high 70s, at an elevation of ~5000ft, and the trail is still going to be covered in snow. My first thought is good GTX hiking shoes are probably sufficient (and avoid the weight on my feet), as I’m not going to need ice traction. Would microspikes, crampons or even snowshoes be required? Do any of these help with traction while climbing in slushy snow? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

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