Crampons vs Microspikes

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

During the winter, slick snow and ice make hiking more challenging. Using a traction device reduces your risk of falling by improving your boot grip on slippery surfaces. However, you have many options to choose from when entering the mountains, and it isn’t always easy choosing between crampons vs microspikes. In this article, I introduce the two primary kinds of traction devices, what to consider when picking between crampons vs microspikes, a few suggestions to try, and some other frequently asked questions and advice.

Table of Contents

Crampons vs Microspikes: What’s the Difference?

Both devices do the same: improve your grip on snow and ice by adding steel bits or teeth to dig into the terrain. The most significant difference between them is the size of these teeth and the level of added grip they provide.

What Are Crampons?

Crampons are the original form of traction device used by mountaineers to ascend steep snow and ice in rugged terrain. The original crampons evolved from boots with nails in them. Today, they feature stainless steel teeth an inch or two tall, which quickly grab on to glacier ice or snow for alpine snow and ice climbs. They require a boot with a rigged sole and a unique heel to use – these are generally called ‘mountaineering boots.’ 

What Are Microspikes?

Microspikes were invented in the past several decades as a half-step between no traction and full crampons. When comparing crampons vs microspikes, these have smaller teeth, usually a half-inch or less. Some use wires or other types of stud instead of spikes, allowing them to be used in various environments. Unlike crampons, microspikes are better for average winter hikes on snow-packed trails with an occasional patch of ice.

Choosing Crampons vs Microspikes

When deciding whether to use crampons vs microspikes, you should make the decision for each individual trip you are planning. Consider these four factors to choose between them. 

Type of Terrain

If you plan to climb steep snow gullies or couloirs or engage in any rugged off-trail travel in snow-covered areas or spend time on glaciers, you probably want to have crampons with you. If you are staying on a trail or snow-packed route, microspikes are probably adequate.

Slope Angle

Steeper terrain requires more aggressive forms of traction. People hiking on flat, snow-packed trails may not need any traction whatsoever. However, even a small slope angle makes microspikes a necessity. If you are traveling on or across moderately steep slopes, bring a pair of crampons with you, an ice axe and the skills to use them both.

Weight and Cost

Crampons are generally heavier and more expensive than microspikes. This is why you should think carefully when choosing between crampons vs microspikes. If you don’t need the level of traction provided by crampons, leave them at home. They will only weigh you down.

Type of Boots

Crampons require special mountaineering boots with a heel cleft for crampons to attach to. If you don’t own a pair, you can rent them at most mountaineering outfitters. They are a significant investment, which is another reason not to get them if using microspikes will provide enough traction. 

Microspikes are Best for Most Hikers

Because of the cost and weight of crampons, along with the skill required to use them, microspikes are best for most hikers in winter. If you think you need crampons, I recommend talking with the staff at a nearby REI or outdoor outfitter. They have the expertise and experience to help determine what you need for your specific adventures or expeditions.

Microspikes: My Suggestions

If you were considering between crampons vs microspikes and decided you’re a hiker, you have some excellent options. In general, I recommend picking from a reputable gear company rather than buying a cheap version on Amazon. These materials are subjected to bitter cold and tough conditions, and cheaper materials used by most companies will fail when you need them most. The premium price is worth the added dependability of these microspikes.

Most Affordable: Kahtoola Microspikes

The best microspikes overall are the option from Kahtoola, without a doubt. They provide the best traction of any option, with durable materials and a design built to last. I use Kahtoola microspikes for all my hikes and climbs unless I need a pair of crampons. For most people, Kahtoola is the only pair of microspikes you will ever need. Putting them on takes a little practice, so I recommend trying it out before heading to the mountains.

Buy at REI

Best Overall: Black Diamond Distance Spikes

For elite hikers and climbers looking to shave off extra weight from their backpack, consider Black Diamond’s new Distance Spikes. These microspikes are 4.1 ounces lighter than the standard Kahtoola option, with a lower profile that makes them slightly more versatile without sacrificing much traction. The price tag is higher thanks to these added benefits, but if you spend a lot of time on the trail during winter, the cost may be worth it. These won’t replace crampons, but they’re a great pair of microspikes.

Buy at REI

Crampons: My Suggestions

If you’re going to be doing snow climbs or glacier travel, you will need a pair of crampons to put on your mountaineering boots. There are many types of crampons based on the type of climbing, the terrain, and the boot you use. These options both use a strap-on system, the most adaptable option, and are designed for all-around use with a lot of versatility. 

Grivel G10 New Classic Evo Crampons

This no-frills pair of crampons includes 12 points for added stability (8 in front and 4 in back). Their new EVO bindings are simple to use, a huge benefit when you are struggling to put these on in negative zero snowy weather. Built-in snow plates prevent snow build-up as you move. The result is a great entry-level pair of crampons ideal for winter 14er ascents that involve steep or technical terrain. They are a heavier pair than others but make up for it with high-quality materials and construction.

Buy at REI

Black Diamond Contact Crampons

Black Diamond’s 10-point Contact Crampons are a slightly lighter and less aggressive pair of strap-on crampons. Their lack of front points means they aren’t as versatile as the Grivel G10, but they weigh less for more extended expeditions or glacier travel. In my experience, they are harder to secure than the new Grivel crampons, but their profile tends to fit a wider variety of hiking boots, even those without rugged soles. If your priority is saving weight and you don’t plan to do any aggressive climbs, I would recommend these.

Buy at REI

How to Use Traction: Crampons vs Microspikes

Once you have decided whether you need crampons vs microspikes, you need to know how to use them. There are entire books and training programs dedicated to using crampons in a mountaineering setting. However, here is a quick introduction on how to use these two traction devices for 14ers.

How to Use Crampons

Crampons should only be worn on snowy or icy terrain. Wearing them on rock or on a trail dulls their edges and slows you down. Step into the pair, and wrap the straps around your shoe, through the front and back to the shoe rear. Each crampon uses a different way to secure the straps. Practice with your pair at home, so you know how it works.

Walking in crampons is not easy. Many people struggle at first as the crampon teeth catch their pants legs, so they trip and fall. If this occurs on a mountain slope, the results could be serious. Take time to practice walking with crampons in a low-risk environment. Find a stride that feels natural, and that moves your feet without bringing them close together. Over time, you will get better, and catching your crampon teeth will become rare. 

How to Use Microspikes

Microspikes are much easier to use than crampons and require little to no practice. Find the spikes for each foot, and put the front of your shoes within the rubber, with the chains hanging below. Pull the back of the rubber up and over your heel so that the chains are pulled tightly up along the bottom of your boot. Adjust the chain if needed to ensure it fits tightly.

While walking in microspikes, be mindful to avoid tripping. This is not nearly as common as it is with crampons, but it can still happen if you are not careful. If you feel you are losing traction, pause to remove any snow that builds up on the bottom of your microspikes. This is common in loose, wet snow that easily sticks together. In this terrain, microspikes may slow you down.

Frequently Asked Questions About Crampons vs Microspikes

A: Microspikes are not the same as crampons. Microspikes are similar to crampons as both use small teeth to provide traction. However, crampons have much larger teeth and provide more aggressive traction than microspikes do.

A: Crampons are not better or worse than microspikes because they serve different purposes. Crampons provide more traction than microspikes, so they perform better in situations where you need more traction, like on a glacier or steep terrain. Microspikes work better when you are hiking across packed snow where large teeth are cumbersome and unnecessary.

A: Crampons are traction devices with large teeth that strap on to your boots to provide a better grip on snow and ice. Microspikes are a smaller version of crampons that provide less traction for situations like snow-covered hiking trails or sidewalks.

A: Microspikes are ideal for snowy and icy terrain on trails or in urban environments like sidewalks or walking paths. They aren’t ideal for rugged and steep terrain where you travel off-trail. In these situations, mountaineering crampons are the appropriate choice.

Leave No Trace Whether Using Crampons vs Microspikes

There is one conservation best practice always to follow while using traction. Whether you are wearing crampons vs microspikes, do not walk on exposed plants and alpine terrain. Spikes dig up the ground and cause significant adverse impacts. They kill plants, cause erosion, and leave a scar for future visitors. If you reach a patch of exposed ground, find a snow-covered path around it, hop on rocks across it, or stop and remove your traction to avoid damaging it. 

Conclusion: Crampons vs Microspikes

As you can see, there are many things to consider when choosing between crampons vs microspikes. Both traction devices will improve your grip on snow and ice, but they perform best in different circumstances. Considering the type of terrain, slope angle, weight and cost, and type of boot involved will help you make the right choice between them. My four recommendations are all good options if you need a pair for your next adventure. Whether you hike on a snowy path with microspikes or tackle a peak with crampons, I wish you safe travels on the trail!

Additional Resources Related to Crampons vs Microspikes

Were you looking for more information to help you choose between crampons vs microspikes? These articles and resources were helpful as we wrote this guide and made our suggestions. If you have any other links we should add to the list, please post a comment below with your thoughts. We love to highlight advice from our community!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located 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. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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