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Winter Hiking Traction Devices – What, Why and When

So you’re ready to get out and experience the beauty of winter hiking and the frozen trails. You are ecstatic! You pack your bag, lace up, take your first icy step… and slip falling directly on your face!

It’s a hard lesson we all learn. Without the right traction devices a short winter hike can become a grueling, frustrating endeavor that ultimately can become dangerous. Traction is also a matter of personal preference. Some people wear light traction, some wear aggressive, some forego traction all together and sacrifice for a little weight savings in their packs.

I see a lot of questions regarding traction devices throughout the hiking community. What type to use? what crampons fit what boots? what brands to buy? This article aims to help answer some of these questions.

The Bare Boot

The bare boot… the most basic of traction, Or lack of. The traction of boots can vary greatly from different brands and models. Even the size of your foot can determine how effective your sole will grip. Typically big deep lugs found on winter hiking boots and mountaineering boots tend to help on packed snow, and some light ice. New technologies like Vibrams “Arctic Grip” claim to stick to ice better than competitors… I’ve never tried it, but I have a hard time believing it can defy physics (If you have… let me know how it works in the comments). All boots need help eventually when it comes to steep slick stuff.

When to use it: Flat or gentle grade trails made up of packed snow.
Pro’s: No added weight! Nothing to take on/off as terrain changes.
Con’s: As the terrain steepens and ice thickens you run the risk of slipping.
What To Buy:
I personally use Vasque Snowburban Boots for hiking and Scarpa Phantom’s for mountaineering. These fit my foot great and keep me warm on cold days. Boot’s are a very personal item. If you run hot you might not need as much insulation as a person who is typically cold. Some brands have wider toe box and heel cups than others. What I’m saying is… go to the store and try some on!

Light Traction

When the bare boot isn’t cutting it anymore it’s time to bust out the light traction. These low profile devices help grip ice and packed snow by utilizing metal teeth, chains, and other gripping features. Usually, these are quick to strap on, and remove. They typically have a rubber harness that wraps around the foot. There are a ton of these on the market but only a few that are worthy for winter hiking on steep snow and ice in my opinion. Kahtoola Microspikes and Hillsound Trail Crampons are the leaders. Both have a similar design with a rubber harness. The Hillsounds are a bit more aggressive with larger teeth and also feature a velcro strap to secure to your boot. I personally use Kahtoola Microspikes as I prefer the lower profile teeth and lighter weight in my pack. Which is better? That’s up for debate. It’s a matter of personal preference.

Trail Runner With MicroSpikes

Scarpa Mountaineering boots with microspikes

I will say, for hiking on steep stuff. Avoid purchasing light traction that doesn’t feature pointy teeth. Some rely completely on chains, coiled wire, or small square metal pieces for traction. They simply don’t work when you’re trying to climb up a steep icy trail! They’re good for shoveling your driveway though.

When to use it: moderately steep icy trails, steep packed down snow. As soon as your boots start to slip, throw them on!
Pro’s: Light weight, confidence inspiring, easy to take on and off, relatively inexpensive
Con’s: Can get stuck on stray branches and cause you to trip, can sometimes be annoying to take on and off as the terrain changes from rock to snow. Tend to get dull pretty quick if you hike a lot!
What To Buy:  I personally like Kahtoola Microspikes but Hillsound Trail Crampons are also very nice. Both will do the job, buy whats on sale!

Snowshoes


When the powder gets deep it’s time to take out the snowshoes. Snowshoes allow you to float on top of the snow rather than sinking deep into it and post holing. For hiking it’s wise to buy mountaineering snowshoes. These typically feature large metal spikes that can assist with crunchy icy snow as well as deep soft powder. Snowshoes are a MUST after a fresh dumping of snow hits an area. If you’re the first to use a trail after a big storm you’ll be packing out the trail for everyone else to use… also known as “breaking trail”. Another nice feature are “Televators” which are bars that elevate the heel of your boot when you’re going up a steep hill. This is great for giving your calves a break!

MSR Evo Tours with heel elevators up.

When To Use It: Deep fresh snow or whenever you’re sinking deep enough to create post holes.
Pro’s: Greatly reduces the effort of walking through deep snow.
Con’s: Heavy! Some models are quite expensive.
What To Buy:
I personally use MSR Evo Tour snowshoes that are no longer made. However, the new generation of MSR snowshoes are very nice too. Another great brand is Tubbs!

Crampons

When things get terribly steep and icy it’s time for crampons. Crampons are much more aggressive than MicroSpikes. They feature between 8 to 12 teeth that are much larger and sharper than the light traction options. Crampons come in four major flavors:

Light Traction Hybrid Crampons:


These are a mix of aggressive mountaineering crampons and microspikes. Hybrid crampons work well on icy trails but lack true front points that protrude past the front of the boot. which means they cannot kick into icy bulges. I personally do not own hybrid crampons as I don’t see the value but many people like them. I still consider these to be in “light traction” territory. I also tend to dislike the binding systems of these devices as they rely on plastic ratchet straps, socket head screws, and are prone to failure.

Example: Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro, Kahtoola K10

Strap-on:


These typically have flexible center bars. Designed for walking on ice, and packed snow. Suitable for glacier travel, general mountaineering, and winter hiking. Strap type crampons can be mounted to nearly any footwear. I’ve attached mine to my trail running shoes for spring hiking on icy trails.

Example: Black Diamond Contact

Semi-Automatic:


These require a stiff boot with a heel welt (hard lip on top of the heel of the boot). These crampons are suitable for glacier travel and low angle ice climbing. They can be used for winter hiking, but they require a special boot. If you opt to hike in mountaineering boots… these are an option.

Example: Black Diamond Sabertooth

Fully-Automatic Climbing Crampons:

Black Diamond Cyborgs mounted to Scarpa Phantom 6000

These are typically designed for ice climbing on vertical ice. Most will feature vertical front points for kicking into and standing on ice. These vertical points aren’t great for walking and also pose a hazard as they are very sharp. Climbing crampons require special mountaineering boots that have both a toe welt, and a heel welt for clamping securely to. These are typically much more expensive than the other options.

Example: Black Diamond Cyborg

What Crampons to Buy?

For general winter hiking I think Strap-On crampons are the best value for performance. They dont require special expensive boots. I personally use Black Diamond Contact crampons and love them on steep icy trails.

Black Diamond Contact Crampons mounted to Vasque Snowburbans


Helpful Tips

  • Always keep snowshoes and crampons in your car. It’s nice to be able to add them to your pack even if you weren’t expecting it.
  • Don’t hesitate to put on MicroSpikes or light traction. I throw mine on as soon as I start slipping.
  • Remove traction when you don’t need it. Wearing it on rocky surfaces will make them dull.
  • Keep them sharp, sharpen your traction using a hand file to avoid ruining the heat treat process in the metal.
  • Practice fitting your crampons to your boots. This is an annoying task to do for the first time with cold hands!
  • Buy the correct crampons for your boots. Clip-on crampons WILL NOT fit regular boots or shoes.

Hiker, climber, father, and husband. The mountains have become a tremendous source of inspiration, physical challenge, fitness, motivation, and enrichment for me. I love the gear, and technical aspects of climbing. I also enjoy sharing this other type of lifestyle with people who haven't experienced it!

3 Comments

  • Laura

    February 7, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Excellent list. I’m new to Montana and there’s a lot more to know about winter footwear than I expected! I have some Yak trax and they are pretty good for normal walking. But the missing piece for me is crampons…It’s pretty icy in some parts and you never quite know what you’ll encounter.

    Snowshoeing has been super fun, as long as I have some toe warmers. Do you have any tips for keeping your feet warm?

    Reply
  • David Lottmann

    February 1, 2017 at 1:30 am

    Solid advice! I’ll add for readers who plan to ascend popular trade routes like Mount Washington’s Lionhead Route that the Strap on or Semi-Automatic are much preferred. Those of us who guide these routes see a disturbing amount of people pushing the limitations of the hybrid, snowshoe, and light traction options in terrain that is too aggressive for these choices. Thanks for another great post Chase The Summit!

    Reply

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