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Hibernation is for bears. You need to get out this winter—for your fitness, your sanity, and for the beauty of the frozen wilderness. But snow-packed slopes, icy trails, and frozen sidewalks make for a slippery world. Dangerously slippery. The National Safety Council reports nearly 8.9 million people visit the emergency room every year with slip-and-fall accidents.
Danny Giovale, founder and owner of traction specialist Kahtoola, was nearly one of them. While climbing in the Italian Dolomites in 1993, Giovale slipped nearly 600 feet down a snow gully. Thankfully, he escaped with his life. Upon returning home, he asked himself: What can I bring on my next climbing trip to ensure this doesn’t happen again? A lightweight, flexible traction device was his solution.
Today, Kahtoola makes a bevy of flexible traction products for everything just short of conditions that require full-on crampons. The goal is to help hikers and runners on nontechnical terrain enjoy winter outings with better confidence and safety. Giovale says that people often think they can handle slick conditions without traction but end up shuffling in an effort to stay upright. The outing becomes more about not falling than exploring the outdoors.
“It’s like four-wheel-drive versus two-wheel-drive,” he says. “You’re more efficient when you’re not concerned for your safety.”
EXOspikes: The Most Versatile Traction Device
As every winter adventurer knows, icy conditions vary considerably, from slick running paths to snow-packed roads to frozen trails and routes where you encounter all three, plus dirt and rocks for good measure. Kahtoola designed the new EXOspikes to handle it all, with the highest level of durability, so you don’t need to choose between models made for roads or mountain trails if you plan to go everywhere in between.
“Our customers continually asked for a product as durable as our NANOspikes but with the same level of traction as our MICROspikes,” Giovale explains. “So we built it.”
The secret is in the unique, industry-first thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) open matrix that criss-crosses the sole of the shoe. Previously, traction devices typically used either a TPU traction plate or stainless-steel chains. Kahtoola leveraged those ideas to create a hybrid approach: a TPU, XO-shaped system that sheds snow and weighs less and lasts longer than stainless steel.
Traction is topshelf, too. Kahtoola used 12 spikes per foot, each of which provide three levels of traction: tungsten carbide tips bite into ice and packed snow, aluminum steps grip uneven surfaces, and TPU lugs dig into loose terrain. When combined with shoe tread that stays engaged with the ground, you’ll have unsurpassed grip and performance.
Finally, the thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) foot harness uses new geometry for a better and more adaptable fit on a variety of shoes. Bonus: It’ll even stay stretchy in temps as low as -22 Fahrenheit so you won’t struggle pulling the spikes on in cold weather.
It took Giovale and two product designers nearly two years, 50 functional prototypes, and countless feedback notes to achieve Kahtoola’s desired outcome with the EXOspikes. But the results speak for themselves.
In product development, the EXOspikes held up against extensive testing on rocky talus, sheet ice, packed snow, and even a gnarly “kick test” where Giovale literally tried to break the product against abrasive stones — and couldn’t.
MICROspikes: For the Steepest Terrain
The new EXOspikes offer utmost versatility for mixed terrain, but if you’re going to be traveling primarily on steep slopes, MICROspikes are still the best choice. After more than a decade on the market—and wins for BACKPACKER’s Editor’s Choice Gold and Hall of Fame awards—it’s clear there’s nothing better for hikers venturing into backcountry terrain that’s just short of crampon territory.
With 12 steel spikes per foot (⅜-inch long each) and welded stainless-steel chains, the MICROspikes hold fast to everything from the side of a frozen volcano to snow-covered passes to bootpacking adventures for backcountry skiing.
NANOspikes: For Roads and Mellow Terrain
For hikers and runners who stick to the other end of the spectrum—icy and snow-packed streets, roads, and sidewalks—NANOspikes are the way to go. Running and walking on cement surfaces is super abrasive, so the NANOspikes have TPU traction plates for uber durability. For traction, 10 tungsten carbide spikes (per foot) are held in place with an aluminum anchor and surrounded by a hexagonal TPU traction cleat. The result: long-lasting traction that chomps into frozen surfaces while withstanding abuse from daily road runners and walkers.
With the creation of EXOspikes, Kahtoola’s trifecta of traction products is now complete, and Giovale is confident the brand has a solution for every type of winter recreationalist.
“We have a strong heritage in the mountains and in creating access for all nontechnical users,” he says. “Now we have something for anyone who wants to be active in slick, icy conditions.”