Crampons vs Microspikes for 14ers | What’s the Best Choice?

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 on using crampons vs microspikes.

What are crampons vs microspikes? What’s better?

A lot of people use these terms loosely when talking about traction gear. A little clarity is key, because each is used best in different situations. 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 slippery surfaces. They are best suited for hiking on trails with hard-packed snow and limited ice, but don’t dig into hard ice very well.

Mountaineering crampons feature large, 1-2 inch long points (either 10 or 12 usually), providing far more aggressive traction, usually on harder snow or ice. They are also a necessity for travelling on glaciers and steep, ice-covered gullies. Often times, they require special mountaineering boots with a welt to connect to more firmly than microspikes. Now we can move on to our primaryquestion: 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 traveling 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. Crampons win out in those situations, when picking between crampons vs microspikes.

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. This is a big consideration on using crampons vs microspikes.

RELATED: “HOW TO CLIMB A 14ER IN WINTER CONDITIONS”

A male mountaineer walking uphill on a glacier. Mont Blanc, France.

So… Should I use crampons vs 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!

Considering purchasing crampons or microspikes. Check out REI’s guide to buying crampons here, or this review of popular microspike brands here. I hope this blog has helped you decide on using crampons vs microspikes.

Top Recommendations: Crampons Vs Microspikes 

Ready to buy a pair, now that you know the difference between crampons vs microspikes?
Here are my two favorite pairs of crampons, along with the best two pairs of beginner microspikes for the Colorado fourteeners. 

My Crampon Recommendations

Crampons vs Mircospikes for 14ers

Black Diamond Contact Crampon

Black Diamond produces some great mountaineering gear, and their pairs of crampons are no exception. Their contact crampons are compatible with a wide variety of climbing shoes, though they are best for beginners looking for flexibility and an adaptable pair of crampons.

Click here to learn more or buy a pair.

Grivel is another fantastic maker of mountaineering gear. Their crampons are some of the best industry, often slightly more expensive than their peers but extremely durable. Their G-10 crampons are good for basic mountain travel and can fit most pairs of boots, but don’t do well for technical ice climbing.
 
Click here to learn more or buy a pair.

My Microspike Recommendations

Crampons vs microspikes for 14ersKahtoola Microspikes

When it comes to microspikes, the market is inundated with cheap knock-off brands that look good but are built cheaply and fail quickly. Kahtoola makes the original microspikes, well-constructed with solid materials. I have tried alternatives only to have them break midway through a climb, which is no fun at all. I highly recommend them.

Click here to learn more or buy a pair.

Hillsound Trail Crampons

Crampons vs microspikes for 14ersBesides Kahtoola, Hillsound is the next top producer of microspikes. While they prefer to call them “trail crampons” they are essentially the same thing. Don’t be tricked by their use of the word crampons vs microspikes. The one nice addition they have apart from Kahtoola is a velcro loop that goes over your boot, so that if they fall off or snap while hiking, you won’t lose them in the snow. It’s not a necessity, but it is a nice additional feature.

Click here to learn more or buy a pair.

Crampons Vs Microspikes for 14ers. Now You Know!

Ultimately you’ll need to consider the specific considerations of each 14er you climb to decide on wearing crampons vs microspikes. Remember to factor in the level of snow and ice, slope and your experience. When in doubt, bring both in your bag so you can adapt to whatever conditions you find in the field. Safe travels on the trail and good luck in your consideration of crampons vs microspikes 14ers: I hope I helped!

RELATED READ: HOW TO CLIMB A 14ER IN WINTER CONDITIONS 

Alex Derr

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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