How-To: Choose Winter Traction

// by: MWO

Keep Traction in Winter on Icy Trails

Winter and early Spring provides some of the most spectacular views and raw wilderness appeal, as a blanket of soft snow covers everything in a quiet, glistening layer. The same back-country traffic that goes unnoticed in the heart of summer, however, yields wintery trails that are packed out and very quickly turn to sheer and slippery bobsled tracks (as you have experienced we’re sure).  Fear not though, fellow adventurers, for you needn’t relate snowy adventures with a bruised bottom anymore. The solution is easy, and rests on the bottom of your feet. Enter you new best friends, microspikes and crampons.

 

Microspikes


When it comes to traction, overshooting your specific needs is a slippery slope towards roping up and setting protection systems on Teapot hill. Crampons are overkill. Forpacked out hiking trails Microspikes fill the need more than enough, and are going to be the best option for the vast majority of outdoor enthusiasts.  You can liken these to chains for your car tires, but on your feet.   Packable, handy when you need them, and more practical than steel studded ice tires.  These little “tailbone savers” are an essential piece of kit to have in your pack from October – May.  While the spikes on these are not as long or sharp as the spikes of a crampon, they provide more than ample traction on winter hiking objectives.  “But what about patchy sections of trail that are a mix between rocks and ice?  Will the spikes stand that abuse?” The steel used to make the Microspikes is incredibly hard, and with your body weight being dispersed evenly over many spikes they will not dull or bend.  Whether it’s trail running or hiking this is definitely the way to go for the standard backcountry user.

Crampons


Crampons are the classic depiction of ultimate traction on pure ice or hard snow surfaces. Think “What would I want on my feet if I woke up and was hundreds of feet up a vertical waterfall?” Crampons. That’s what. Also great for Mountaineering and walking the beautiful blue ice of our local glaciers.

The first crampons were developed in 1908 by an early mountain beast name of Oscar Johannes Ludwig Eckenstein. He had grown tired of pounding nails through the outsole of his boots, and the solution was to develop external spikes that one would simply strap on. This would also prevent the necessity of holes in the bottom of your boots during the off season… which aside from making your boots breathe like a hot damn also leads to very obvious waterproofing problems.

Crampons are designed for 3 main purposes:  Glacier travel, very hard snow faces, and ice climbing.   Within each of the disciplines there are specific crampons designed for each respective need.  Variables include:  number of spikes, how they attach to your boot, angle of the front points etc.  The ambitious adventurer getting into rugged places is perfectly right to throw on a pair of Crampons.  Unlike microspikes, crampons are a vast and varied category of gear, each model designed for a specific purpose.  So lets dive in a little to discuss the finer points of crampons (no pun intended).

Here are some things to consider:

Construction Material:

Crampons have changed drastically since their initial inception, and continue to change as we discover new techniques and develop new technologies.  In terms of construction, today we will find mainly steel frames and aluminum frames.  So, what’s the difference?  As with everything, your activity will determine the type of material you will want to shop within.  Steel is very hard, strong, and durable and for general use, or steel technical climbs is the go to.  Because of their durability they will last through all sorts of abuse on mixed climbs, and general scrappy rocky terrain.  The stiffness and strength of steel also makes this an ideal option for steel waterfall ice, where you don’t want any flex in your gear.  The one downside to steel is its weight, and depending on the terrain, aluminum might be a better, lighter choice to make.

Aluminum crampons, being less stiff and durable than steel are not quite as versatile in the terrain they can handle.  These guys are suited ideally for lower angle snow and ice: ski mountaineering, or glacial approaches to your objective.  For the weight weenies out there, they can be used for mountaineering, and the occasional mixed rock and ice situation but will have a significantly shorter life span than their steel counterparts.

Rigidity:

Back in the day you would have had to chose between a hinged crampon, and fully rigid crampon.  But it’s 2017,  and we are no longer Neanderthals with such primitive gear.  In this day and age semi-rigid crampons are king, and for good reason:  versatility.  Most semi rigid crampons combine the best of both worlds – flexibility on the approach, stiffness for the steepness.  Depending on the model, you might even be able to make a quick adjustment to create a hinge for greater flexibility on the approach and then switch it back to rigid for the ascent.  When choosing a crampon, you must also consider the boot you will be strapping them to.  If the two are not compatible you are going to have a drastic loss of performance from both pieces of equipment.  If you have a flexible hiking boot, you should be looking at flexible crampons.  Alternatively, if you hav stiff boots you should look at semi-rigid crampons. You want your crampon and boot to move and flex as 1 unit, if one is flexing without the other you may run into performance challenges.

 Number of points:

The number of points on a crampon, and their placement under your foot is also important.  Ensure the points follow the contour of your boot nicely, and are aligned under your instep.  If they are not, use the fine tune adjustments with your crampon length and bail positions to get it all lined up perfectly. Generally speaking, the more points you have the more technical terrain you will be able to comfortably travel through (with the compromise of increased weight of course).  For walking on lower angle snow typically you will only need 8-10 points.  General mountaineering will see usually 10-12 points depending on how technical your route it.  And finally, for the vertical ice, and mixed climbing routes 14 points is fairly common.

 Front points:

This part of the crampon is a key component to consider, of all the points on the crampon the front points are what will really determine the activity you will be able to do.  There are 2 styles of front points:  Horizontal, and vertical.  Horizontal front points are wide and aggressively scooped down, like a talon.  The scooped shape really allows the crampon to slice into the snow as you roll over your toe in your stride, and because they are horizontal the surface area helps you to be able to push off.  This type of front point is the best all around choice; ideal for glacier travel, and mountaineering objectives.  If you are looking for a crampon to get you up some mixed climbing routes, or waterfall ice you will need to look for vertical front points.  These points are oriented as a vertical bar that are taller than they are wide.  While these points, with their smaller surface area won’t gain a solid stance pushing off lower angle snow or ice they are however much stronger when weighted vertically.  When you are standing with your whole weight on 1 or 2 of these points only strength is important.  Additionally, because they are narrower than their horizontal cousins you will be able to kick them deeper into hard waterfall ice.  The final consideration with front points is whether or not it is modular or not.  Modular front points are adjustable.  You can remove them, replace them, and reorient them on your crampon.  This is a feature that for the most part is important for certain mixed climbing routes.  In non modular crampons, as you sharpen the points they will become shorter over time and are not able to be replaced without buying a whole new set of crampons.  With this in mind, try to prevent scraping your non modular front points on too much rock!

Binding:

Look at the toe and heel of your boots.  Do they have welts (thick grooves) in them?  If you have a technical mountaineering boot with a stiff sole then you might have these welts.  Technical crampons for steeper terrain need to be solid on your boot, and will have what is called a step-in binding.  As you step into these crampons, steel bars (bails) will clip into the welts on your boot and hold your crampon snugly to the bottom of your boot.  You will find this type of binding on the high end high performance crampons designed for a more vertical lifestyle.  The other end of the spectrum is the strap-on system.  Used mainly for lower angle snow walking, these crampons lack toe and heel bail bars and instead have a webbing strap that weaves through loops in the toe and heel and around your boot to keep it strapped on.  Being a less sturdy and secure attachment, these types of bindings are reserved for less technical terrain and for boots that lack welts.  You can also get yourself in to a hybrid system that has heel bail bars, and a strap on the toe.  These are fairly versatile crampons that are good for mountaineering objectives; overkill for snow walking, but not solid enough for vertical mixed and ice climbing.

For those visual learners out there, here is a summary chart!

Crampon Summary

ActivityMaterialsConstructionPointsFrontpointsBinding
Glacier/Snow WalkingAluminum/SteelFlexible (spring steel, or chorded center)8-10Fixed HorizontalStrap-on
General MountaineeringSteelSemi-Rigid10Fixed HorizontalStrap-on, Hybrid, or Step-in
Technical MountaineeringSteelSemi-Rigid12Fixed HorizontalStrap-on, Hybrid, or Step-in
Waterfall Ice/Mixed ClimbingSteelSemi-Rigid14+Modular VerticalStep-in