Winter Traction: How to Choose
Snowshoeing, Traction Spikes or Crampons?
For the uninitiated, winter hiking can seem daunting. Inclement weather, tough route finding and the sheer difficulty in traversing slippery snow and ice are some of the added challenges of hiking during the colder months. For those determined to enjoy a winter wonderland, there are several pieces of gear on the market designed to help.
Snowshoes are one of the more widely known gear choices. Attaching to the foot with bindings, these large, flat devices help the user ‘float’ on top of the snow. If the snow is deep enough that your boot sinks down a fair way, then snowshoes will be a better option than traction spikes.
There are many designs for snowshoes, from wide surface area designs intended for open fields and casual hikes, to narrower, lighter designs for tight trails. The underfoot spikes vary widely according to use, and there are many binding options, too.
Best usage: fresh powder, deep and loose snow, flat terrain
Snowshoes do not work as well on icy slopes or partially covered trails as the spikes on the bottom of the snowshoe do not bite into the ice to give enough grip. For narrow or uneven trails, snowshoes can be too wide and cumbersome to walk comfortably in. Another downside can be the weight and size of the product adding considerable bulk to your backpack when not in use.
Crampons, spikes, traction devices and ice cleats. There are a variety of names, brands and designs out there, but they all share the same principles. Metal coils or spikes on the underside of the foot, attached to a rubber harness that stretches over your footwear. A benefit of these devices is that they are lightweight, packable and easy to get on and off, so they can easily be brought along on hikes where trail conditions are unknown.
Best Usage: icy trails, partially covered trails, compacted snow.
Hiking spikes do not work as well in deep snow. Snowshoes are the best choice for this terrain. In conditions where the snow is compact or the trails are icy, however, traction devices give superior grip on slippery surfaces. Hiking spikes allow the user to walk nimbly on narrow icy trails and steeper scrambles. They do have their limits, though. When the terrain turns very steep and there is considerable exposure, mountaineering crampons (along with a helmet, ice axe and rope) are the safer option.
These crampons are for the more adventurous winter hiker with training for high altitude climbing and mountaineering. Technical crampons are designed for steeper inclines and declines, where the smaller traction devices do not provide enough grip. Most mountaineering crampons have 12 spikes, which includes the two spikes at the front of the crampon that enable the user to kick into vertical snow and ice. The different categories include ice climbing crampons, mountaineering crampons and the less technical snow walking crampons (such as Hillsound’s Trail Crampon Pro). There are various binding systems and materials, but most are made out of stainless steel or aluminum. For an in-depth guide to mountaineering crampons, check out the REI website. Make sure you get the proper training for using these technical pieces of gear- there is skill to walking in crampons without tripping over, damaging rope or stabbing your leg with one of the sharp points.
Best usage: mountaineering routes, steep ice, glaciers.
For more information on Hillsound’s traction devices, head on over to our crampons page.