These days, there is so much discussion about whether to choose crampons or microspikes. They are two different pieces equipment associated with winter, snow and hills/mountains. Because at a superficial level they appear similar, it’s easy to see why this discussion arises.
In this article, I’ll attempt to explain the differences and which one you should be wearing depending on what you are doing.
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Choice Between Crampons or Microspikes
So much social media and internet content references a ‘choice’ between crampons or microspikes. But is this even a valid conversation to be having?
Suppose I go into an outdoor shop and see a particular jacket that is available in Red or Blue. I have a genuine choice over which to purchase. Maybe I prefer Red. Maybe I prefer Blue. The choice is down to my personal preference. The performance of the Red jacket should be identical to the Blue jacket.
Suppose I go into a similar shop specialising in winter sports and start to look at skis and crampons. If my intended activity is to travel fast down steep slopes covered in deep snow, then which piece of equipment should I buy? If my plan is to climb up steep snowy or icy slopes, maybe even frozen waterfalls, then which should I buy? Is there really a ‘choice’ to be made?
Because crampons and microspikes are different things, doing a different job, then is the question of ‘choice’ relevant? A more relevant question might be “Under which circumstances should I wear crampons and under which circumstances might I wear microspikes?”
What are crampons?
Crampons are metal spikey points that you fit to your boots to give purchase on hard snow and ice. This general concept has probably been around for centuries.
In terms of sport/leisure mountaineering, crampons really began to make an appearance in the 1930s, and at first were actually considered to be ‘cheating’ and not ‘proper’ mountaineering at all. These days, crampons (together with an ice axe) are considered to be the minimum essential mountaineering equipment for movement on snow and ice throughout the world.
This is certainly true for climbing steep ice-falls, or Alpine mountain faces and crossing glaciers – but is equally true for the mixed terrain of the UK’s mountains too. Rock, snow and ice are all easily climbed in crampons.
What are the different types of crampons?
Crampons had traditionally relied on being fitted to a boot of a certain amount of rigidity. Think about it. A rigid metal structure will not take well to being stressed and bent (as when fitted to a flexible boot). So mountaineering crampons have gone hand-in-hand (or foot-in-foot) with a stiff boot for about a hundred years. This combination still stands true today.
However, the options available are a little bit more nuanced than was the case a century ago. Today, there is a fairly well-accepted system of rating boots as B1, B2 and B3 in terms of stiffness. Meanwhile, crampons are rated in terms of C1, C2 and C3 for their stiffness. You can read more about these classifications here. Suffice to say that a very flexible (B1) boot and flexible (C1) crampon offer the best combination for walking and mountaineering on mostly gentle/moderate gradients. On the other hand, a stiff (B3) boot and a rigid (C3) crampon would offer the best combination for climbing vertical ice.
Furthermore, today there are items that definitely class as a crampon but which are designed to fit onto a boot/shoe that is less rigid than has ever been the case in the past. You’ll never climb vertical ice in them, but they do offer an additional option which wasn’t available in the past.
What are crampons good for?
Crampons really come into their own when the gradient on which you are moving starts to move into 10-15 degree angle or more. That doesn’t seem much, but actually people have a massive tendency to over-estimate the angle of slopes. In short, you need a crampon much sooner than you think you might. Once we are talking about hard-packed snow/ice, with rock thrown in, of an angle about 30 degrees, then crampons are essential. They are not just for ‘ice-climbers’.
Crampons work well for walking on snowy and icy surfaces of easy angles using ‘normal’ walking technique. They work for climbing on vertical snow/ice/rock faces using only the front-points of the crampon. They also work amazingly well for walking on snow/ice of all gradients using the bottom points to penetrate the snow and using what (in the UK) we have historically called the ‘French technique’. Suffice to say that in snow and ice, you can move around on pretty much anything once you know how to move in crampons (properly).
Do you need training to use crampons?
Did you need training to learn to ride a bike?
Most of us learned to ride a bike at a basic level as children. But we were not born with that ability. Most likely we had to go through a lot of frustration, tears and pain before we finally learned how to ride at a basic level.
Did that training prepare us for mountain biking, BMXs or stunts? No, of course it didn’t. If we had an interest in these things we would have had to go through further learning of some sort. But our basic learning as a child would have allowed us to cycle to school, to town, or on well-made tracks.
Crampons are not much different. With a few helpful tips (3 ‘Golden Rules’) anyone can learn to walk in crampons on benign terrain pretty quickly, most of the time, without (probably) having an accident. Does this qualify you as a crampon-ninja? It’s unlikely. Does it guarantee no falls will occur? Not for a second. Can you climb vertical ice without training? It’s unlikely.
Despite the passage of a century, and ice axe and crampons remain the basic essential combination of equipment for all UK winter and Alpine-style mountaineering.
What are microspikes?
Microspikes are metal spikey points that you fit to your boots to give purchase on hard snow and ice. This general concept has probably been around for centuries.
(Did you notice that I gave the same description to crampons?)
In terms of leisure and sport, microspikes have been around for a long time in some parts of the world but have suddenly come to pre-eminence in the UK in the last few years. People hail them as the new ‘hero’ on the block. The answer to all your problems. The way to get around the mountains cheaply and easily without all the expense and training involved in using real crampons.
What are the different types of microspikes?
There are a variety of different microspikes on the market, from the cheap. cheerful and flimsy to the good quality. Some brands are significantly better than others.
The difference between varieties of microspikes is not so pronounced as the difference between crampons. They almost all consist of a rubber (or similar) upper part to fit over the top of the boot/shoe and a metal spikey/studded/chained lower part to fit under the sole. It is this part that bites into the snow/ice and gives grip and purchase.
There are, however, small variations. Some are much lighter-weight, perhaps lending themselves to trail-running. Others are sturdier, perhaps lending themselves to ‘hiking’. Some have only small studs to grip. Others have small points like miniature crampons under the sole. But don’t be fooled – look at the pictures in this article. They do not compete with the size of the points on real crampons.
Do you need training to use microspikes?
Almost invariably, no training is necessary to use microspikes. Knowing how to fit them to your own footwear is usually enough to use them.
The often unstated point, however, is this. How do you recognise when you are on terrain or in conditions when your microspikes are no longer the right tool for the job? Tricky one, that. Especially without any prior knowledge or training in winter.
Comparing Crampons and Microspikes
These are the obvious physical differences in appearance between crampons and microspikes of various sorts.
- Number of Points
- Crampons – 10 (absolute minimum), most commonly 12, possibly more.
- Microspikes – varies hugely but often 4,6,8,9 with 10 as a maximum.
- Depth of Points
- Crampons – usually around 2cm or more.
- Microspikes – up to around 0.5cm. This is a huge difference and is obvious in the photos. That’s less than a quarter of the size of the points on real crampons. They are tiny.
- Footwear Required
- Crampons – normally on a boot with a stiff sole (minimum B1, up to B3 which is fully rigid).
- Microspikes – will fit on any footwear, including training shoes and typical flexible hiking boots.
- Methods of Attachment
- Crampons – various attachment methods depending on type of crampon, but almost always securing the heel and the toe of the boot to the crampon.
- Microspikes – usually a rubber attachment fitting on the upper of the shoe (no specific heel or toe attachment)
Difference in Performance Between Crampons and Microspikes
So is there a difference between the performance of a crampon and a microspike? Absolutely, there is. You are likely to only ever get one chance to find this out in practice – when your microspikes fail you suddenly, and you start to fall or slip.
- Crampons – will work on anything from 0 degrees (flat) to 90 degrees (vertical). They become essential on surprisingly low gradients, depending on other factors.
- Microspikes – work on gentle gradients only – flat or maybe up to 10-15 degrees or so. This gradient refers to where you are actually placing your foot. So it might be possible to ascend a mountain slope of 40 degrees because the path zig-zags its way up, meaning that you are always walking on a path of 5 degrees or on a ‘staircase’ of steps on that path.
- Feedback and Transition
- Crampon – constant ‘feedback’ as to how much grip there is. This allows you to gradually adapt technique, for example transitioning from flat-foot walking to ‘French technique’ on an icy slope to ‘front-pointing’ as it gets steeper.
- Microspike – ‘binary’ performance, as in it grips or it doesn’t. Failure to grip is instant and a fall-over is almost guaranteed. In certain conditions (eg a layer of fresh snow sitting on ice) the difference can literally be between one step and the next.
- Crampons – (along with an ice axe) definitely the only choice when the consequence of losing grip could be an out of control slide.
- Microspikes – only suitable when the consequence of losing grip is a tumble and a bruised bum, not starting to slide down a slope.
- Thin Cover of Snow/Ice
- Crampons – on a gentle gradient, a thin cover of snow or ice on rocks can be one of the most awkward types of terrain to move on in crampons. It’s not impossible (note) but it does require skill and care.
- Microspikes – on the same gentle gradient, with no consequence after slipping, the same thin cover of ice on rocks can be an absolute breeze to walk over with microspikes. This is absolutely when they come into their own. After all, it’s what they have been designed for all along.
Do I Need Both Crampons and Micropsikes?
There is no doubt that crampons and microspikes are different tools for different jobs. Whether you need one or the other or both depends on what you might be doing. But they are not alternatives to one another so don’t fall into the trap of treating them that way, like some people have done.
Here’s an example of how my decision-making might work in four different scenarios. It’s always essential, of course, to check the weather forecast and conditions reports, and to make your own visual assessment on the day. But that only tells us so much. We don’t know what we actually encounter until we are physically there. Here’s what I might see from the valley.
- Scenario 1 – ‘Black’ summits with specks of white on the tops. Let’s say it had previously snowed and since thawed. However, temperatures had remained cold and summits have been around freezing. My plan is to go for a walk, rather than graded climbing, and my chosen route is on very gentle gradients only. I might be drawing the conclusion that there is no significant snow cover but that paths or rocks might occasionally be icy. This might feel like a day for microspikes. If the snow-cover was more extensive then I would take an ice axe too. But if I had any doubt about what I might encounter then I would definitely take crampons.
- Scenario 2 – ‘White’ summits; ‘green’ valleys; patchy snow cover on the transition between the two. My plan is to go for a Grade 1 ridge to a summit. I would definitely take an ice axe and crampons for the ridge, the summit and the descent. However, I might also pack microspikes so that if the path through the ‘green’ valley turned out to be ice-covered then I could use the spikes instead of full crampons.
- Scenario 3 – Extensive snow cover on all mountain slopes from just above valley-level. My plan is to do a walker’s traverse of a significant ridge range, with numerous steep ascents and descents, even though nothing on it warrants a technical climbing grade. This would be a full winter mountaineering day requiring ice axe and crampons. I almost certainly would save weight and not bother carrying microspikes at all.
- Scenario 4 – Thick, low-lying cloud masking everything from a couple of hundred metres up the hillside. For whatever reason I have not been able to gather any up-to-date information about snow conditions on the ground. In short, I’m ‘flying blind’. I would take my ice axe and crampons to cover all eventualities.
Dangers Associated With Microspikes
The big danger associated with microspikes is inadvertently finding yourself on terrain where crampons are actually the only safe choice. This could come about because you moved onto a steeper gradient than intended. Or it could be because the depth or hardness of the snow or ice is not what you expected, perhaps covering the path completely and making it become part of the overall mountain-side.
Microspikes work brilliantly for the job they were made for. But they are simply not suitable for steep, consequential icy terrain.
If you have microspikes only, and are finding that the terrain and conditions are changing, then the only safe decision is to turn back. However, this requires two things. First, the judgement to recognise that microspikes are out of their depth. Second, the moral courage and self-confidence to turn back, especially if others are egging you on and telling you that “you’ll be fine”.
Crampon and Microspike Repair Kits
Whatever piece of equipment you are wearing/carrying, spikey footwear attachments are both essential when they are needed, and are prone to getting broken. This is probably more the case with microspikes because of the circumstances under which we use them.
It therefore makes sense to always carry a simple repair kit to carry out ‘field repairs’ that are just enough to get you back down safely.
For a crampon, it’s always worth having a spare crampon strap, a toe bail (if they are of that design), some thick wire and a variety of cable-ties. Cable-ties are the ‘go-to’ repair item for so much kit.
With microspikes, any manufacturer’s spares would be good, along with cable-ties and wire.
- Crampons and Microspikes are different tools for different jobs – they are not comparable alternatives.
- Both Crampons and Microspikes can seem similar at first acquaintance – hence the confusion.
- Crampons will do everything that a Microspike can do and more. The reverse is not true.
- On terrain that Microspikes were intended for, they are a better choice than crampons.
- However, Microspikes have their limits, and if you are likely to get closer that limit, or exceed it, then crampons are the only sensible choice.
- If the terrain means that a slip will have consequences (eg sliding further out of control) then Microspikes are not suitable.
- The big risk with using Microspikes is inadvertently ending up on terrain or in conditions for which they are not suitable – and then having an accident.
- When carrying either Crampons or Microspikes, it’s always wise to carry a suitable repair kit to get you home in the case of a breakage.