Snowshoes, Micro Spikes, and Crampons. Oh my!

Get ready for an “exciting” blog about what I put on my feet for traction/flotation when I’m adventuring in the winter.   I usually use one of two things: snowshoes or micro spikes.  I have a section for each item, and I’ve also included a section for crampons, even though I don’t have or use them.  My husband has crampons, and he has used them for years.  I picked his brain, did a little reading, and have a few things to say about them.

So let’s begin.

Snowshoes

True confession: I rarely have to use snowshoes when hiking in the winter.  The room gives a collective “Gasp!”  Bear with me for a moment, and I’ll explain myself.  Snowshoes are meant primarily for flotation, and secondarily for traction.  Most of the time I’m wandering around in the snow, I’m not breaking a trail.  In case you’re a super newbie, “breaking a trail” is when you are the first person to walk on it (or the first person since the last snowfall, and there’s now two feet of powder on the trail … not bitter).  Not only is it rare for me to be the first person, the trails I use are often tramped down by hundreds of my predecessors.  The snow is usually packed hard enough that snowshoes serve little purpose, and can actually be detrimental.  Why, you ask?  Snowshoes, in the right conditions can act like a sled, or toboggan.  They have very little traction material on the bottom (some brands have none), so trekking on packed snow can get rather slippery.  Walking across a packed slope can often be much worse because snowshoes weren’t designed for that kind of thing.  For more details on this subject, I suggest you read How to Kill Yourself Snowshoeing.  Although the title sounds menacing, the article is accurate.  Snowshoes are meant for low slopes, and fresher snow.  Many people seem to be unaware, and we are now seeing more rescues for snowshoers who slip and fall, ending up in a tree well, or breaking/dislocating something.  It used to be more common for skiers or snowboarders to be rescued when going out-of-bounds.  Now we see people who are on a snowshoe trail getting injured.  The times, they are a changin’.

If you’re wearing snowshoes,  and walking uphill dig your toes in, so you’re placing your weight on the front half of your foot.  The greatest amount traction material on a snowshoe is usually at your toe, so use it.   If the hill is steep and/or icy, I personally wouldn’t use snowshoes.  It’s dangerous, and you’re increasing your risk of being injured.

When you’re going downhill, and this will seem counter-intuitive, the same rule applies.  You want to dig your toe in.  If you lean back, you increase your odds of sliding.  Your other option is to sit down on your behind, and slide downhill like a four-year old.   This is my favourite option.

We broke trail once this year, in powder, and we still sunk down about 2 feet.  This is preferable to post-holing without snowshoes.  “Post holing” is what they call it when your foot sinks in much further, like to your hips.   We didn’t float as well as we hoped we would, but we would have needed much larger snowshoes to get better flotation.

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It looked like fun when my husband was doing it.

For the record I own Women’s MSR Lightning Ascents, which I got for Christmas.  I tried the MSR Evo Ascent which were supposed to be unisex, but my foot slid off the heel lift.  Apparently my size 7.5 foot isn’t big enough for unisex sizes.  Good to know.   The Lightning Ascents are supposed to give you more traction, as they have metal ridges all the way around the bottom of the frame.  My first pair was MSR Denalis that I used for (probably) a decade until the rubber straps finally gave out, and snapped on one shoe.  I ordered new rubber straps from MSR on Amazon.com,  and was able to refurbish both shoes for about $40 Canadian.  I’ve kept them as spares for friends, or our kids.  All of our snowshoes are 22 inches.  If you want to extend your shoe to give you more flotation, you can buy a little piece that attach to the back of the shoe.  We’ve never invested in the extra piece since we don’t use them all that often.

Micro Spikes

About three years ago I bought a pair of Kahtoola Micro Spikes.   I was snowshoeing up Mt. Seymour with my husband when I first spied them.  The snow was hard packed on the trail, and I was wandering up with my snowshoes, whose extra weight, and lack of traction,  filled me with lustful envy when I first spied those mini crampons.   I knew I had to try them, so I gleefully opened my wallet and purchased a pair.  My husband was not moved by them.  He’d always used snowshoes, and they were good enough.  He doesn’t like change as much as I do.

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My old MSR Denali snowshoes, and my Kahtoola micro spikes

One year later he had a pair.  I’m not saying I was right, but we can connect the dots.

When wearing micro spikes uphill you should walk on the front of your foot, just like you do with snowshoes.  It’s not because you need the traction, but rather that it will relieve the stress on the top of your foot.  I made the tendons on the top of my feet very sore from walking flat-footed, as I hike quite frequently.  Some snowshoes come with a lift on the back, but in micro spikes you will have to remember to do it yourself.  My injury took about 6 months to heal.  You’ve been warned.

Micro spikes are easy to use, since they are framed with rubber which slips easily over the toe, and heel of your boot.  The spikes and chains on the bottom are made of stainless steel, so maintenance is straight forward.  We rinse ours off after we use them, hang them to dry, and store them in the bag that they came with.  They also work well in the mud, as an added bonus.

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The only two cons to micro spikes are: 1. soft, wet snow; and 2. a greater angle, icy slope.  Soft, wet snow tends to create a ball under your foot, which feels funky, and can increase your odds of slipping.  If that happens, try to bang it off your foot.  As for a steep, icy slope, micro spikes are good for hills, but they won’t cut it on a really serious hill.  That’s where we get in to crampon territory.

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Snow balling underfoot

Crampons

Do not use micro spikes if you are crossing a steep, very hard ice slope.  That’s where you want to use crampons, and an ice axe (not poles).   I don’t consider myself to be properly educated, or equipped to cross such a slope.  Always be mindful of where you go, and what your capabilities are. As I’ve said before, this is an area of hiking that I don’t have much experience in.

Oh, and always check for avalanche danger.  Know where you are going, tell someone where you will be, and when you plan to get back.  Be prepared, just like a Scout.  If you are in the “crampon-wearing zone” you probably know this already.  I plan to take an avalanche safety course next winter.   So far, I just stay away from anything that looks remotely dangerous.

My husband took a mountaineering course in the Rockies 19 or 20 years ago, and used crampons exclusively for traversing a glacier.  They are meant for icy surfaces where you don’t want to plummet to your doom: glaciers with crevasses, ice climbing, steep slopes.  When we hike Mt. Seymour together, I wear micro spikes, and go up the wand-marked route, while my husband walked up the face of the mountain in crampons.

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My husband walking up a steep slope to see a cornice … for fun.
Some crampons have an anti-balling feature, so you don’t get that same wet snow ball on the bottom of your foot like you do with micro spikes.  Crampons have longer, sharper spikes, and are rigid on the bottom.  They go deeper in to the ice, and have little or no play to them.  Like the name denotes, micro spikes have shorter spikes, and the chains that connect them allow some movement, decreasing stability.

These are the ones my husband bought from MEC.  He had to trim the straps, which also required melting the ends, so they wouldn’t fray.  I’d suggest talking to someone at an outdoor store, or doing some more reading if you think you need them.  This is my husband’s second pair, and he’s really enjoying them.

crampons

So to summarize, here’s how I view walking in a winter wonderland:

  1. Flat trail, fresh snow, minimal traction required: snowshoes.
  2. Hard packed snow, some ice, hills that aren’t crazy steep: micro spikes.
  3. High angle, dense ice, walking across glaciers: crampons.

I hope that helps, and happy walking!

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