With snow falling, many novice mountaineers face the same question: “Should I use crampons, or microspikes?” Frustratingly, the answer isn’t easy… put simply, it depends on the snow/ice, slope, your experience and more. Here are a few factors to consider when deciding which to use!
What ARE crampons and microspikes?
A lot of people use these terms loosely when talking about traction gear. A little clarity is key. Microspikes, also called trail crampons, are similar to snow chains for your shoes, using chains and small, 1-2mm long spikes to provide additional traction on snow and ice. Crampons feature large, 1-2 inch long points (either 10 or 12 usually), providing far more aggressive traction, usually on harder snow or ice. Now we can move on to our question: Should I use crampons or microspikes?
First, consider the snow and ice
Before you go hiking or climbing, do research on your route, ideally looking for recent condition reports. If you can’t find any, you should bring both types of traction and make your decision based on what you find. Microspikes work best with snow and mixed ice and rock. With smaller points, they’ll put up with mixed travel on rock better than crampons. However when snow hardens or you face hard ice for significant periods, microspikes lose their usefulness. In these situations you’ll need proper mountaineering crampons with their far more aggressive points.
If you are hiking in the spring, the snow and ice can change throughout the day. During the freeze-thaw cycle, the snow melts during the day, but freezes hard at night. When this happens, you will likely need crampons in the morning when things are icy, and microspikes or snowshoes for once things get soft. If you’re travelling on glaciers or other perennial snowfields, crampons are a good idea.
Second, think about the slope.
The greater the slope of your climb, the greater risk you have of suffering a major fall if you trip. Therefore, you should always use crampons when attempting steep climbs. This includes most snow climbing up headwalls, gullies or couloirs. If it’s greater than a 20 degree slope that’s probably the best bet (make sure you bring an ice axe too, and know how to use it!) When travelling on less aggressively steep trails or switchbacks, crampons are not usually necessary. The only exception is glacier travel, or other time spent crossing flat, but solid ice.
Third, gauge your experience.
The more time you have spent on the mountains in winter conditions, the greater room for error you have. As you get more used to judging snow conditions, travelling across ice and snow, and wearing winter gear, you’ll be able to take marginally more risk. For example, a beginner coming across a short snowfield on a steep slope should probably stop to put on crampons, even if it is a short distance. However, a more experienced mountaineer may feel comfortable making it across with microspikes , or without any traction at all. If you are starting out, minimize your risk and always use some type of traction on steep, icy terrain.
So… Should I use crampons or microspikes?
As you can probably tell, the answer isn’t simple. It depends on the snow and ice conditions, slope of the terrain, and your experience and comfort level. When you head out to the mountains, consider all three factors, and make a balanced decision. Remember to include more margin for error if you’re just starting out – we all make mistakes!
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.