Winter Hiking: Microspikes, Crampons or Snowshoes

Choosing between microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes for winter hiking depends on the trail conditions and the terrain you’ll encounter. Understanding the characteristics and purposes of each piece of equipment helps make the right choice.

When determining whether to use snowshoes, microspikes or crampons for winter hiking, it’s essential to delve further into their specific features and how they function in different winter terrains to ensure a safe and enjoyable hiking experience.

Microspikes and snowshoes serve different purposes for winter hiking, each suitable for specific conditions and terrains. Crampons and microspikes are both traction devices used for winter hiking or mountaineering, but they serve different purposes based on the terrain and the conditions you’ll encounter.

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hiker on the snowcovered trail wearing snowshoes and another hiker carrying snowshoes on her backpack
une paire de crampons sur des bottes de randonnée en hiver

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Microspikes for winter hiking


Design and Function

Microspikes are small, lightweight metal spikes that attach to your boots. They are lighter, more flexible, and have smaller spikes than crampons. They provide excellent traction on icy or packed snow surfaces.

microspikes over hiking boots with the snow-covered river and forest in the distance

Versatility

Microspikes are highly versatile and suitable for various outdoor winter activities. They’re ideal for hiking or running on well-maintained trails, walking the dog, or even light running when encountering patches of ice or packed snow.

Ease of Use

Microspikes are easy to put on and take off, generally fitting over most boots or shoes. No need for specialized gear. Their convenience makes them a popular choice among casual hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

They are less cumbersome compared to snowshoes, making them a convenient choice. They provide added traction without significantly altering the way you hike. Microspikes are more suitable for quick transitions on and off icy sections.

microspikes over hiking boots on a snow-packed and icy surface with snowy mountain in the background

Trail Condition and Terrain Suitability

Microspikes excel on icy or packed snow surfaces. They’re handy on trails where the snow is compacted or when encountering icy sections by adding additional grip and stability in moderately slippery conditions. They are ideal for less technical terrain and provide good traction in these conditions.

My microspikes are the Walk Traction Ice Cleat Spikes. I recommend them as they are affordable and straightforward to use. They fit my hiking boots and my snow boots and stay on. You can buy them from Amazon (check the price here).

Walk Traction Ice Cleat Spikes on a hiking boot

Snowshoes for winter hiking


Design and Function

Snowshoes are designed to disperse your weight over a larger surface area, preventing you from sinking into deep snow. They’re essential for walking on deep, powdery snow where you’d otherwise sink and struggle without them. They excel in conditions with significant snow depth, helping you stay afloat and preventing exhaustion from constantly sinking into the snow.

wearing snowshoes for winter hiking in the snow-covered forest

Versatility

Snowshoes are beneficial in backcountry hiking or when the snow depth is substantial, offering stability and making walking in deeper snow more manageable.

Ease of Use

Most snowshoes will fit over any snow boots or hiking boots. Some are easier to attach, while others require more handling.

Snowshoes are more cumbersome to carry if the trail conditions vary and you decide to take them off during the hike. Plan on how you will carry them if you choose to do that.

carrying snowshoes on a winter hike

Trail Condition and Terrain Suitability

Snowshoes are more suitable for deep snow or areas where the snow is not compacted.

Snowshoes are more suitable for off-trail hiking or terrains with deep, powdery snow. They offer better stability and prevent you from post-holing, which is when you sink into the snow, thereby conserving energy and ensuring a more enjoyable hike in deeper snow conditions.

My very favourite snowshoes are the MSR Lightning Ascent Backcountry & Mountaineering Snowshoes. They are perfect for hiking up mountains- my favourite kind of hiking! They are light to carry and narrower than most snowshoes. You can buy them in any outdoor gear store or on Amazon. (check price on Amazon).

MSR Lightning Ascent Backcountry & Mountaineering Snowshoes

If you plan to snowshoe on flatter hiking trails, a pair of regular aluminum tube-framed snowshoes (like these on Amazon) with crampons under the foot will do.

aluminum tube-framed snowshoes

Crampons for winter hiking


Design and Function

Crampons are aggressive traction devices with long, sharp spikes or points, providing significant traction on steep ice and mixed snow and ice conditions. They are specifically designed for more technical terrains, such as steep ice, mixed ice and rock, or extremely steep snow.

Versatility

Crampons are crucial for activities that involve steep ascents or descents, technical ice climbing, glacier crossings, or alpine mountaineering. They provide enhanced grip and stability in challenging conditions.

Ease of Use

Crampons require a more rigid boot with a specialized sole or a specific type of mountaineering boot, often with specific attachment points for safely securing the crampons.

Trail Condition and Terrain Suitability

Crampons are essential for challenging terrains like steep, icy slopes or technical mountaineering routes. They provide better security and safety in extreme conditions where slipping or lack of traction could lead to significant risks or dangers.

Some crampons, like the Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro on Amazon, are designed to fit over your hiking boots.

You should check out climbing specialty stores such as Mountain Equipment Company (MEC) in Canada or Recreational Equipment Inc. Co-op in the United States for a more specialized crampon with mountaineering boots.

Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro crampons on a hiking boot

Making the Right Choice


Consider the trail conditions.

Microspikes would be the better choice if the trail is primarily icy or has packed snow. They offer the traction needed to navigate such conditions comfortably.

Snowshoes would be more appropriate in areas with significant snow depth or fresh powder as they prevent sinking and provide flotation, making hiking more manageable and enjoyable.

Many winter hikers carry both and decide based on the actual conditions encountered during their adventure. This allows flexibility, ensuring you can handle different terrain and snow conditions during your hike.

By knowing the trail conditions, snow depth, and terrain type, you can decide whether microspikes, snowshoes, or a combination of both will be more suitable for your winter hiking adventure. Always prioritize safety and comfort to ensure an enjoyable experience in the winter outdoors.

Consider the terrain

Always match the traction device to the specific conditions and terrain you’ll encounter to ensure safety and proper functionality during your winter adventures.

Microspikes are often sufficient for hiking on flat or moderately inclined trails with icy patches. Snowshoes are preferable for more challenging terrains with deeper snow or off-trail excursions.

Microspikes should suffice if hiking on relatively flat or moderately icy terrain. However, crampons would be safer if you’re facing steeper, icier, or more technical terrain.

In essence, the choice between crampons and microspikes depends on the difficulty of the terrain and the level of traction required. For basic winter hiking on less challenging trails, microspikes are usually sufficient. Crampons provide the necessary traction and safety for more technical or steep terrains with ice or mixed snow and ice.

hiker winter hiking on a frozen slope in the forest wearing snowshoes

More on winter hiking

Your hike will be more enjoyable if you have the right gear, especially during winter when the conditions can be harsh. Besides what I wear on my feet, consider reading my winter hiking tips for a safe winter adventure.

Also, check out the gear I add to my backpack during winter on top of the essential hiking gear.

Happy trails!

hiker standing on a snowy trail looking at the mountain range in the distance

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