Crampons Vs Microspikes: What To Use When

woman hiking in the snow with microspikes
woman hiking in the snow with microspikes

Our favorite summer trails become a different beast in the winter months. Every winter, I see the people making the same mistake which often costs them their life.


Now, I don’t say this to scare you or discourage you from hiking in the winter, I actually highly encourage trying winter hiking or any other winter sport. I say this, to help you take responsibility for your safety and be smart when getting outdoors, to help you prevent the mistake I see so many making.


In the summer, you can hike up a summit without technical mountaineering gear or much experience, with sometimes not much else but running shoes (not recommended). But in the winter, these trails get covered with snow and ice. They are much harder to navigate, being smarter about how you layer is required, and the last thing you want to do is to slip and fall. The biggest mistake I see people making is not wearing appropriate winter footwear, and not wearing any traction device to keep them from falling.


Breaking It Down

The first thing you want to do when winter hiking is to wear insulated and waterproof hiking boots. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen people hiking snow-covered trails in nothing more than Nike running shoes or those fashionable leather boots.


You might think, well the running shoes are comfortable or the fashionable leather boots are supposed to be waterproof. But neither will help you prevent frostbite. They’re great shoes for back home and running around the city in, but not snowy backcountry trails.


Insulated waterproof boots are going to keep your feet warm and dry which is essential for not only staying comfortable but also for preventing frostbite. The last thing you want to do is to lose a toe, right?!


So make sure to wear appropriate footwear. I wear Salomon’s winter insulated X Ultra boots (here is the men’s version). Read through this blog post with a full breakdown of the different boots I wear depending on the season.


In addition to good footwear, you also need to wear a traction device over your hiking boot. This keeps you from slipping and sliding on snow and ice. There are different traction devices including snowshoes, crampons, and microspikes.


If there is fresh powder on the ground and there is a lot of snow, then you’ll want to wear snowshoes. This will allow you to basically float on the snow and keep you from sinking into the snow. If you want to give snowshoeing a try, here is my full guide on snowshoeing.


But we’re not talking about snowshoeing in this post, we’re talking about crampons vs microspikes.

What Are Microspikes?

Microspikes on the other hand have small teeth (spikes) that are usually about ¼ to ½ inch long. They usually have a rubber attachment that goes over your hiking boots. The spikes are placed at the inner portion of the sole of your shoe.


They’re designed to give you traction on snow and ice so you’re not slipping and falling, but they’re designed to handle more flat terrain or low-angle slopes.


The best use for microspikes in the winter is for hiking easier trails or running on packed snow or icy conditions.


In the summer, some hikers also bring microspikes. Especially in the early summer months if there are patches of snow remaining on mostly snow-free trails to give hikers some traction when crossing those patches.


These are the microspikes I wear.


What Are Crampons?

Crampons are a traction device with large teeth (spikes) to be able to securely travel across snow and ice. Crampons have about 6-12 teeth per crampon, are about ½ inch to a full inch in length. Crampons are generally designed to fit stiff mountaineering boots, not our regular hiking boots (even the winter ones).

crampons on snow

With crampons on, you can securely and safely climb icy mountain slopes, cross glaciers, climb frozen waterfalls, and scale ice-covered rock.


Because of the more aggressive traction style, they’re designed to handle more technical terrain.


What’s the Main Difference?

When most people talk about hiking in the snow and needing a traction device, they usually assume they need crampons. And most of the time when you look this up on Amazon, the descriptions will list microspikes as crampons. But this is where people get it wrong.


In the summer, the peaks and 14ers we easily climb without and technical skills, turn into mountaineering conditions. Most people think that can strap on crampons and hike up the same trails they do in the summer safely.


But winter brings a different beast. To safely make it up and down those mountains, you need winter mountaineering training that will teach you to safely explore in the winter months and how to do an ice axe arrest, and usually an avalanche safety course.


If you’re wearing crampons, you will also need an ice axe and know how to do an ice axe arrest in case you slip. This is the basic foundation of climbing mountains in the winter months.


Winter mountaineering can be a very exciting thing, and a great way to challenge your skills, continue to build on what you already know and step into being limitless. But if you’re just getting started with hiking, don’t jump into mountaineering quite yet. Build up your foundational skills during the summer months, and in the winter months, go snowshoeing and snow hiking. From there, expand to mountaineering.

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