Gear Talk: Winter Traction Devices

Crampons vs. Snowshoes vs. Microspikes vs. the Field
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Hiking winter trails is a great way to embrace the colder, snowier months of the year and get your fill of the outdoors. But hiking or climbing in snow, ice -- or a combination thereof -- presents a new set of challenges above and beyond those of trekking in warmer months and/or climates. The key to truly enjoying winter hiking and/or mountaineering is to always be prepared gear-wise.

"There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." -- Sir Rannulph Fiennes

Let's slightly alter that well-worn outdoors quote and modify it slightly into: "There is no such thing as bad terrain, only inappropriate gear."

Proper use of winter traction devices is, by far, the most important factor involved in the relative success of any outdoors expedition in the winter months. Winter traction devices: don't leave home without them. But which one(s)? If one has to choose a single winter traction device that can cover the vast majority of possible scenarios, what would that be?

Well, that depends.


Crampons are every mountaineer's second-best friend, behind the lovable ice axe, of course. Or crampons could possibly be a mountaineer's third-best friend* (*depends on climbing partner quality). In the simplest terms, crampons are metal traction devices consisting of a plate, spikes and straps that connect to boots to provide traction on icy terrain. Crampons, often thought of as ice climbing gear, are also frequently used during hiking and mountaineering trips that involve steep an/or icy terrain.


Snowshoes can do wonders for hikers traveling in areas with deep snow, especially lesser-traveled areas with snow that has been packed down only slightly or not at all. Snowshoes spread out a hiker's weight by distributing it over a large surface area. This distribution of weight then prevents the hiker from sinking into snow too far, which can potentially help hikers avoid injury and conserve energy. For anyone who has ever suffered through a post-holing incident or two, snowshoes immediately jump to the top of the must-have list.


For lack of a better term, microspikes are "crampons-lite." Although not as sharp and sturdy as crampons, microspikes still utilize metal spikes to provide traction on snowy and/or icy terrain. For hikes with packed-down snow that will likely present some slick, icy sections but aren't particularly steep, microspikes can be a very wise choice.

The 'Others' and 'In-Betweens'

Various traction devices exist out there that utilize some form of metal chains or rubber spikes to help trekkers stay upright. These devices can be useful in a variety of situations, although are generally thought to be less durable than crampons or spikes when encountering harsh, icy, rocky terrain. Now, the "less durable" tag can surely be debated but focus specifically at the durability of metal spikes versus thin chains or rubber elements for the sake of this discussion.


With the outdoor gear industry exploding at the seams in recent years, gear choices are not always clear and simple. This is mainly because of that fact that there are now so many more options to choose from than in years past. There are crampons and snowshoes, but snowshoes also typically have small crampons attached for additional traction. And then there are the smaller traction devices of various names: spikes, tracks, traction systems, trail crampons, etc.

The two easiest cases can be made for crampons and snowshoes -- it should be pretty obvious when each of those winter traction devices is needed. Crampons: steep, icy and possibly rocky terrain that has more of a vertical element. Snowshoes: snowy regions with unpacked powder, especially lesser traveled areas.

When to bring microspikes or other similar winter traction devices depends on terrain, weather expectations and personal preference. Be sure to test out different traction devices, if possible, before investing in a pair.