This short post discusses the basic differences between cleats, microspikes, trail crampons, crampons, and snowshoes — and describes the safety benefits of each.
Since the early 2000’s, 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 ice.
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 registered trademark of Kahtoola, Inc. — so, in a legal sense, it should apply to their products only. This is why Hillsound® call their similar products “trail crampons”.
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.
For winter traction, mountain hikers need tough, aggressive options. In order of effectiveness, here are the broad categories you need to consider.
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.
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 “tooth”, 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 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 Hillsound Trail Crampons for three reasons:
- I like the plate system under the heel, because I suspect it disperses impact and pressure better than loosely attached spikes;
- I’ve seen several complaints about Kahtoola’s newer materials not being up to job;
- the teeth on Hillsound Trail Crampons are “more aggressive” — i.e. they’re a little longer.
Most hikers in the Catskills seem to prefer Hillsound trail crampons.
With my Hillsounds on, I can walk confidently across smooth glare 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 are about to enter their third winter season, and they’re still in great condition.
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 postholing.
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.
I have a pair of MSR Evo Trail Snowshoes. I really like them. MSR’s Lightning Ascent Snowshoes include the addition of televator 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.
- Read Snowshoe Basics
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 really need specialist training to go with your equipment — which is well beyond the scope of this post.
In the Catskills, there are only a handful of places where you might need full crampons. The west side of Sugarloaf Mountain is the 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.
More Winter Safety
I hope this post has helped get you up-to-speed on winter traction and helped sort through the basic options.
Grab the Winter Day-Hike Checklist — a handy PDF download with everything you need listed in one place.
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 an absolutely crucial piece of year-round safety gear — and they’re so cheap now.
This website’s low-key newsletter includes regular seasonal safety advice and rescue reports.