Traveling on snow and ice calls for more traction than your boot’s tread can offer. But when it comes to adding traction, how do you decide between crampons vs microspikes for mountaineering?
I’ve used both crampons and microspikes in the mountains, and I can tell you that choosing the proper traction device will make a big difference in how comfortable you feel moving through icy terrain. In fact, not having the right form of traction can be the difference between making a summit or not.
In this guide, I’ll explain the difference between crampons and microspikes, why it matters, and when each type of extra traction is appropriate.
Crampons vs Microspikes: What’s The Difference?
Crampons and microspikes are similar devices in that they offer extra traction for walking around on snow and ice. They’re each designed to fasten onto your hiking boots or mountaineering boots. Both use metal spikes that bite into snow and ice, giving your boot a firm grip in spots where rubber wouldn’t do much of anything.
However, that’s about where the similarities end. Crampons and microspikes differ widely in how they’re designed and how effective they are in different conditions.
Crampons provide far more aggressive traction than microspikes. The spikes are bigger and thicker, and the crampons themselves are more firmly attached to your boots. Importantly, crampons have a set of front-pointing spikes that allow you to kick into steep slopes. You can use crampons for everything from walking on snow-covered trails to navigating steep icy slopes to ice climbing.
Microspikes, on the other hand, are designed almost exclusively for walking on icy trails and low-angle slopes with hard packed snow. They have small, thin spikes, which aren’t as sharp as the points on crampons. Some don’t have any spikes at all and are primarily used for flat terrain. In addition, all of the spikes point straight downwards, so you cannot use microspikes to kick into steep terrain.
Crampons vs Microspikes: Design
Most crampons are designed with two rigid plates that sit under the front and rear of your foot, and a metal bar that connects the two plates. The plates are fastened to your boot with a heel welt, a plastic or metal bar that snaps into place on the heel of your boot. Then you secure the crampon even more tightly by tying a piece of webbing over the top of your boot.
Crampons for mountaineering typically have 8-12 spikes, each of which can be up to half an inch long and very sharp. Importantly, four of these spikes point forward—two straight out in front of your toe, and two more on either side of your foot that angle forward and down. The rest of the spikes point straight downward.
Microspikes have a stretchy elastomer harness with metal chains attached to it. The rubber harness stretches over your boot, holding the chains and the attached spikes tightly against the sole of your foot. Compared to crampons, microspikes are very easy to get on and off.
The points on microspikes are usually very small, about 1/8th inches in length or shorter. All of them point straight down to give you traction underfoot. Microspikes are not as sharp as crampon spikes, and there are usually only 8-10 points on each foot.
Microspikes are compatible with almost any hiking boot or mountaineering boot. You just have to choose a rubber harness size that fits your boot. You can also use microspikes with running shoes, although you might need a smaller size harness than you use with your boots.
There are two different types of crampons with different boot compatibilities. Step-in crampons, also known as automatic crampons, use a heel welt system to lock around your boot. To use step-in crampons, your boots must have a rubber platform on the back that grabs the heel welt and holds it in place. Every pair of mountaineering boots has this, but not all hiking boots do.
Strap-on crampons, on the other hand, are designed to work with any boot, including hiking boots. These crampons don’t use a heel welt, but instead rely solely on nylon webbing that you tie around your boot. Strap-on crampons aren’t as secure as step-in crampons and shouldn’t be used for steep, technical ice climbing.
Most crampons are one-size-fits-all, meaning that you don’t need to buy multiple pairs of crampons for different-sized boots.
When To Use Crampons
Crampons should be used instead of microspikes for almost any adventure that you’d call “mountaineering” as opposed to “winter hiking.” You absolutely need crampons to navigate steep slopes since you have to kick in with crampons’ front points to get a foothold.
Crampons will be at least as effective as microspikes on any non-technical terrain or rocky terrain. However, if you’re sticking to a low-angle slope or icy trail, there are some downsides to using crampons.
First, they’re a lot bulkier and heavier than microspikes. A pair of stainless steel spikes can weigh more than two pounds! You can get ultralight aluminum crampons, but they’re more expensive, not as durable, and don’t kick into icy slopes as well.
The second drawback to crampons is how sharp and large the points are at times when you don’t need such aggressive traction. It’s very easy to catch a point on a root or rock and trip when you’re walking on trails. It’s also easy to catch a spike on your mountaineering pants and rip a hole in them. In addition, it’s hard to carry crampons in your mountaineering backpack without the spikes ripping holes in your gear.
That said, I can’t stress enough how important it is to bring crampons when you think you might need them. Trust me—there’s nothing more disappointing than getting within 100 feet of a summit, only to find that the last pitch is steep and icy and you don’t have crampons with you. Microspikes simply aren’t going to help you reach your goal in that situation.
Crampons Pros & Cons
- Aggressive traction that works on all terrain
- Front-pointing spikes allow you to kick into steep slopes
- Very secure attachment to your boots
- One-size-fits-all design
- Very heavy and bulky
- Can easily rip holes in your gear
- Overkill for low-angle terrain
When To Use Microspikes
Microspikes are ideal for exploring relatively flat trails in winter. They offer excellent traction as long as your foot is flat against the ground, pressing all of the downward-facing spikes into the ice or snow. As soon as the grade starts to get steep and you’re on your toes, microspikes lose a lot of their effectiveness.
Microspikes are very light and they pack down small in your backpack. They’re great to bring along anytime you’re hiking or backpacking in cold conditions and aren’t sure what kind of surface conditions you’ll find. However, microspikes should never be what you rely on for navigating ice-covered rocks or steep gullies on a big mountain.
Microspikes Pros & Cons
- Lightweight and easy to pack
- Very effective on level hiking trails
- Quick to take on and off
- Can be used with running shoes
- Ineffective on even moderately steep trails
- No forward-facing spikes
- Different boots require different harness sizes
The 3 Best Crampons for Mountaineering
At this point, it should be clear that crampons are absolutely essential for mountaineering. So, it’s worth investing in a pair of crampons that can keep your footing secure in any terrain you’re likely to encounter. Here are my 3 favorite pairs of crampons:
The Grivel G-12 are tried-and-true mountaineering crampons that you can use for virtually any summits in the Lower 48. These stainless steel crampons feature 12 spikes that are sharp and durable. They hold up relatively well when scrambling on rock, and you can even use the front points for moderate ice climbing in a pinch. Built-in anti-botting plates prevent snow from building up under your feet.
The New-Matic model is designed for mountaineering boots with a heel welt, which I’d recommend because of how secure the fit is on steep slopes. However, you can also purchase a strap-on version of the G-12. Either way, the crampons are one-size-fits-all and you can easily adjust the fit without tools.
The Petzl Leopard is a set of aluminum crampons that weigh in at under one pound. They’re the crampons I take when I’m on the fence about taking crampons at all or when I know there’s only a short section of ice to tackle.
Of course, shaving more than 50% off the weight of a standard pair of crampons comes with some drawbacks. The Leopard crampons are noticeably less secure than the Grivel G-12 crampons when kicking into ice. I wouldn’t recommend these for beginner mountaineers or for use on really steep terrain. They also don’t have anti-botting plates, so you’ll also want to be cautious about using them in deep snow.
The Black Diamond Contact crampons are an all-around performer at a price that’s hard to beat. These 10-point crampons use a strap-on fit system that’s surprisingly secure thanks to rubberized heel and toe guards. They fit most hiking and mountaineering boots and you can adjust the length without tools.
At 1.8 pounds per pair, the Contact crampons are reasonably light for stainless steel crampons. I’ve found that front points feel relatively secure on steeper slopes, and I love the serrated secondary points when kicking into ice. The built-in anti-botting plates work well, although the center bar does pick up quite a bit of snow.
The Kahtoola MICROspikes are by far the most secure set of microspikes on the market right now. Each foot gets 12 spikes distributed directly underneath your foot to help you maintain balance. The spikes do a surprisingly good job of gripping into thick, polished ice and hold their own when climbing on ice-covered rocks.
Perhaps the best thing about the MICROspikes is how easy they are to get on and off. The rubber harness pulls easily over any boot, and you can pull it back off in seconds using the integrated heel tab. At 11 ounces, you won’t mind carrying these in your pack on every trip.
If Kahtoola’s MICROspikes are a little more aggressive than what you need, I recommend checking out the NANOspikes traction device. These have 10 cleats with a stainless steel spike protruding from rubber nodules. So, the metal spike provides initial grip, and then the rubber digs in to offer even more grabbing power.
These are my go-to microspikes for a high-intensity winter activity like trail running. It’s just easy to forget they’re there. The NANOspikes weigh only 8 ounces per pair and the spikes are distributed evenly across the soles of your shoes so you rarely feel them pressing into your feet.
The Yaktrax Pro Traction System is a simple set of microspikes that works best on packed snow. This traction setup doesn’t have spikes, but instead uses a rubber webbing wrapped with metal loops. The loops do a great job on any slippery surfaces they can dig into, but they won’t grip at all in icy conditions.
There are a few advantages to this design, though. First, you have grip all over the bottom of your shoe instead of only where there are individual spikes. In addition, these microspikes come at an affordable price—the Yaktrax Pro system costs half as much as Kahtoola MICROspikes.
The choice between crampons vs microspikes really comes down to whether you’re mountaineering or hiking. For mountaineering adventures that involve steep, icy slopes, crampons are a must. For hiking on moderate trails, microspikes are lighter and easier to use.
If you need crampons, I recommend the Grivel G-12 New-Matic crampons. They’re pricey, but they’ll help you navigate almost any steep terrain you encounter in the mountains. If microspikes are a better choice for your adventures, check out the Kahtoola MICROspikes.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.