Everything You Need to Know: Microspikes + Trail Crampons

December 01, 2020
Sean O'Dwyer, Mountain-Hiking.com
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

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Everything You Need to Know: Microspikes + Trail Crampons
Microspikes and Trail Crampons. Photo by Sean O'Dwyer of Mountain-Hiking.com

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Special thanks to our friends and partners over at Mountain-Hiking.com for writing this article. Check them out for the best mountain hiking trails, mountain hikes, and nature walks.

Have you ever wondered what the differences between cleats, microspikes, trail crampons, crampons, and snowshoes are? Our friends at Mountain-Hiking.com have the answers for you! 

Since the early 2000s, microspikes have revolutionized winter hiking. They are inexpensive, easy to put on and take off, and they fill the gap between the most basic traction (cleats) and the most aggressive traction (crampons, and snowshoes with crampons).

Microspikes have, effectively, opened up the world of winter hiking to people who might never have otherwise hiked across the ice.

Safety Issues

Full mountaineering crampons are specialized equipment. They require training to use correctly, and they cannot be used on normal hiking shoes or boots. In contrast, microspikes can be used by anyone and can be attached to almost any normal footwear.

The word MICROspikes® is actually a registered trademark of Kahtoola, Inc. — so, in a legal sense, it should apply to their products only. This is why Hillsound® calls their similar products “trail crampons”.

But most people seem to use the word “microspikes” as a generic expression that means “any kind of user-friendly toothed traction that falls below full mountaineering crampons”. I’m using it below in that sense, too.

However, this use is reductive. It simplifies the differences between traction devices to the point where safety may be a concern.

Winter Traction

For winter traction, mountain hikers need tough, aggressive options. In order of effectiveness, here are the broad categories you need to consider.

Cleats

Cleats like Yaktrax® and NANOspikes® are great for walking around your yard or suburban neighborhood. Runners also find them useful for extending their training season into the coldest months. However…

Although Kahtoola’s NANOspikes® have 10 spikes per foot, each spike is tiny — less than a quarter-inch in height.

These devices are completely unsuitable for mountain hiking. They do not provide enough teeth, and they will not stand up to the rigors of mountain hikes. They should never be used on a mountain.

MICROspikes® / Trail Crampons

These are the same thing, named differently purely for legal and marketing reasons.

The two big players in this market are Kahtoola® and Hillsound®. Each offers a range of options. After I did my research, I chose a pair of Hillsounds for three reasons:

  1. I like the plate system under the heel because I suspect it disperses impact and pressure better than loosely attached spikes;
  2. I’ve seen a few complaints about Kahtoola’s newer materials;
  3. the teeth on Hillsound Trail Crampons are “more aggressive” — i.e. they’re a little longer.

Most hikers in the Catskills seem to prefer Hillsounds.

With my trail crampons on, I can walk confidently across smooth, glassy ice, and even head uphill on long steepish sections without too much worry.

Do not try to save money here by buying cheaper products. This is definitely not the place to cut corners. I speak from experience. Before I bought my Hillsounds, I tried a cheap set of imported knock-offs. Terrible idea. On my first hike with them, a solo winter hike up Blackhead Mountain, the links holding the spikes together began to come apart. I had to do field repairs before I even got to Lockwood Gap! (Luckily, I had a few zip ties in my backpack as part of my basic mountain hiking kit.)

Please treat yourself right on these items. You’ll be rewarded with years of excellent and safe winter traction. My Hillsounds are about to enter their third winter season, and they’re still in great condition.

Snowshoes

Modern snowshoes are a marvel. Light, strong, and colorful, most options now seem to include built-in crampons for solid traction. Snowshoes are used for breaking trail, or for when you want to deal with any depth of snow that slows you down.

In the Adirondacks, snowshoes are mandatory once there’s more than 8″ of snow on the ground. This is to prevent post-holing.

There’s no such rule for the Catskills, but there should be. Please follow the Adirondack rule and switch into snowshoes once the snow gets deep enough.

For mountain hikers, the two most popular brands right now are MSR® and Tubbs®.

I have a pair of MSR Evo Trail Snowshoes. I really like them. A fancier model (the Evo Ascents) include the addition of elevator heel lifts — essentially, little kick-stands for your heel for when you’re hiking uphill; friends who use these snowshoes really love them and say the heel lifts really do make it easier to climb.

Crampons

In the Adirondacks, once the snow and ice arrive, crampons are mandatory safety equipment. They are the only way to ascend steep icy sections, typically in combination with ice axes and rope — which means you’re no longer just hiking: now, you’re climbing. At this level, you need specialist training to go with your equipment, which is well beyond the scope of this post. For more information, check out the ADK Winter Mountaineering School. Their student handbook is a great read.

In the Catskills, there are only a handful of places where you might need full crampons. The west side of Sugarloaf Mountain is a classic example. Once the cold weather arrives, that side of Sugarloaf is an enormous and potentially deadly ice-rink. It should not be attempted without real winter mountaineering training, proper equipment, and experience.

I hope this post has helped get you up-to-speed on winter traction and helped sort through the basic options. Remember that trail crampons are just one part of a solid winter hiking kit. If you’re about to buy a pair of spikes, think about throwing a headlamp or two in your cart. Headlamps are cheap, and they’re a crucial piece of year-round safety gear.