Microspikes vs Crampons for Hiking

If you’ve ever tried to hike on snowy or icy trails without spikes or crampons, you know how treacherous this can be. Without these special traction devices, your feet will slip and slide all over the place (and possibly you’ll fall). With them… not so much. But it can be hard to figure out the difference between microspikes vs crampons. Both have their own benefits and drawbacks for different situations, but which one will work best for your needs?

four shoes showing the difference between microspikes vs crampons

The difference between crampons and microspikes can get confusing, primarily because many people use both names interchangeably. But there is a big difference.

So, let’s talk about what sets each apart so you can make an informed decision on which will work best for your next adventure. We’ll cover everything from how they’re used in winter hiking to the pros and cons of each type of traction device. You’ll also find some helpful tips on choosing the right pair based on your specific activities, as well as some handy links at the end if you want to grab a pair today!

Microspikes vs Crampons: Quick Glance Comparison Chart

 Technical CramponsHiking CramponsMicrospikes
Length of SpikesLarge 1-2 inch long spikesStrong 1/2 to 1-inch spikesMedium spikes less than 1/2" combined with chains
Best TerrainFor hiking glaciers, steep ice-covered terrain or climbing vertical iceFor up and down steep terrainFor moderate or flat terrain
Snow/IceProvides aggressive traction on harder ice and snowBest for hard-packed icy trailsBest for packed snow or flat-surfaced ice
Ease of UseRequires fitting with climbing boots and trainingEasier than technical crampons, works with any hiking bootEasy to use for beginners
Very versatile

Why do you Need Traction Devices like Crampons and Microspikes?

At first glance, the answer to that question seems pretty simple. You don’t want to fall. But we took a little deeper look at this and found that according to Rothman Orthopedics the type of injury you can get from an icy fall can be pretty painful. Here’s their list of the top 5 injuries from ice falls:

  1. Muscle sprains and ligament strains
  2. Fractures, including spinal compression fractures
  3. Broken bones – most commonly the wrists and hips
  4. Back injuries and pain
  5. Concussions and other head injuries

Although you probably won’t die from an icefall, the time you are in pain and out of commission is real. And what’s silly about an icefall injury is they are easily preventable with a little precaution and using a traction device on your boots.

What are Crampons

Crampons were originally for ice climbering and mountaineering over a century ago. This traction device fits over your boot, attaching a series of spikes to your foot. The spikes provide a vastly superior grip on icy and hard-packed snow, especially on steep ice-covered inclines improving climber safety.

More recently, crampons have been adapted to a wide variety of activities to maintain traction by adjusting the size and positioning of the spikes. These newer crampons, for activities like hiking, ice fishing and hunting, are also easier to attach to a variety of boots than mountaineering crampons.

Types of Crampons

There are several types of crampons available, designed for different activities and conditions. All of them attach to the boot with either straps or quick-release bindings. There is no single best crampon, but there are the best crampons for each type of activity.

Now tell me those big spikes aren’t a bit intimidating!

Mountaineering or Technical Crampons

Technical crampons are designed for climbers who are planning to scale glaciers and icy waterfalls. With long 1-2 inch spikes, they dig into the ice to keep the climber steady as they move up the icy terrain. Depending on the style of the crampon, many have long toe picks just for grabbing onto that icy wall.

Climbing crampons aren’t ideal for most winter hiking. The long spikes are overkill for most snowy hiking trails, adding weight to your pack or your boots you don’t need. Not to mention the scary long spikes that could pierce your equipment or your body.

If you are interested in crampons for technical ice climbing or scaling challenging mountains, be aware that training is recommended for safe use. You need to carefully match your boots to the correct crampon for a proper fit.

Trail Crampons and shoes walking on ice and snow during outdoor winter trekking. Close up.
The more flexible trail crampons are easier to handle

Trail Crampons

Trail crampons are a modern modification of the original crampon, meant for day hikers on steep hills that may include hard-packed snow or ice. They feature a series of spikes like the original crampons, although shorter at 1/2″ to 1″ long, to ensure a solid grip when hiking steep, slippery trails.

The other difference between trail crampons and technical crampons is the trail crampon has an easy-to-use strap-on binding so that you can wear them with your regular winter hiking boots.

Spikes of Crampons

Crampons usually have 10-12 points of contact to provide traction. Crampons have many spikes around the outer edge of the soles and the toes, which give them anti-slip properties and also provide additional support.

The spikes are either made of steel or aluminum. Aluminum for hiking crampons is excellent to reduce weight both on your boots or when carrying in your pack but has a higher risk of bending if the winter trail is rocky. Steel spikes will last longer if you encounter a lot of rocks. Stainless steel spikes will resist rust extending the life of your crampons.

The spikes on a trail crampon are less than 1″ long, while technical crampons are 1-2 inches long. This is not a case of bigger is better for ice traction when hiking. Microspikes improve the grip of your boots rather than dig holes into the trail. A moderate-length spike lets you move quickly and smoothly over the trail. A long spike, as you would find in a technical crampon designed for ice climbing, will result in your foot snagging as you walk.

Microspikes on shoes climbing an icy stairway.
Microspikes are great on a mixed surface trail like this with rocks and ice.

What are Microspikes?

Microspikes are built to give you traction on snow and ice so that you won’t slip and fall. It’s designed for flatter terrain and shallow slopes. The best use for microspikes in the winter is to hike easy trails or through packed snow and icy surfaces.

Some hikers also carry microspikes in spring and summer to give them traction crossing ice and snowfields that haven’t yet melted. We even encountered snow in July while hiking to Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park and wished we had a set in our pack.

Microspikes combine the convenience of spikes with an added tough outer shell that wraps around the foot of your boot. The foot of the microspike is a mix of chains and small spikes, under 1/2″ long, connected by a strong rubber frame that wraps around your boot. They are designed to fit snugly over almost any winter boot without causing wear or damage to the boot.

Think snow chains for your boots when you consider microspikes!

Microspikes are generally less expensive alternatives to crampons. A major benefit is the minimal level of maintenance they require on a regular basis they can be cleaned or dried out and ready to use in hours.

Microspikes vs Ice Cleats

Just to confuse you a little more, many manufacturers will call microspikes ice cleats. And others refer to them as crampons. You know what? It doesn’t really matter what they call them. If you want the benefits of microspikes, you are looking for a lightweight traction device with a stretchy rubber frame that can easily be pulled over your boot that has small spikes and chains on the bottom.

Spikes and Chains on Microspikes

The chains and spikes on microspikes are usually made of stainless steel, durable and easy to maintain. The spikes are shorter and less aggressive than those found on crampons, usually less than 1/2 inch.

woman getting ready to take hike in snow fixing ice cleat onto boots
It’s pretty easy to stop and put on microspikes when trail conditions change.

How to Put on Microspikes

When you put on your microspikes, make sure they fit snugly on your boots. Once they are in place, the soles of the spikes will provide maximum surface area and grip to snow and ice surfaces. You can adjust the tension of the grips with a simple tensioning strap that quickly tightens or loosens while wearing them. Once you have adjusted the tension of the strap, tighten it until you have a comfortable fit. You do not want your foot slipping but don’t want so much pressure that your feet get numb when the boot is too tight. Then put on your boots and lace-up for your hike and you’ll have plenty of winter traction.

Versatility of Microspikes

Microspikes are lightweight and easy to pack in your backpack. That means they are perfect for carrying along anytime you are winter hiking, just in case, snowy or icy conditions appear. The smaller spikes and flexible frame of microspikes also make them perfect for winter trails with ice covered rock as you will be able to keep your footing.

Using microspikes for slick surfaces goes beyond hiking for us. We can be found wearing microspikes for ice fishing, shoveling snow and walking the dog. And, I keep an extra pair in my trunk during the winter, just in case I get stuck in snow conditions!

Factors to Consider in Your Choice: Microspikes vs. Crampons

When choosing between crampons vs microspikes for hiking, there are only a few factors to consider:

  • The Terrain You Plan to Hike – If you are hiking a 14er or going up and down steep terrain, then you’ll need the extra grip of crampons for the ice and packed snow. For everything else, you will probably be much more comfortable with microspikes.
  • Condition of the Trail – If you know the trail is a solid sheet of ice, it would be time to pull out the crampons. A trail with a small incline suddenly feels like an ice mountain when the ice smooths over from the afternoon sun. However, microspikes are usually enough to sturdy you on a frozen section if it is a relatively flat trail.
  • Your Comfort Level – Walking with crampons takes some practice. Walking with mountaineering crampons is near impossible without training. For many of us, that extra-long spike results in tripping when the tip catches in the ice. Microspikes are incredibly newbie friendly, easy to put on and easy to walk in!
  • Your Budget – Microspikes are available at a very affordable price, starting at around $20 per pair. So if you are just starting out winter hiking and want to test the waters microspikes are easy on your wallet.

The Right Winter Boots are Just as Important

You do not want to go hiking unless you have insulated, waterproof boots with good tread. But good boots are not enough when the trail is packed snow or icy. That’s where traction devices come into play. And no matter what kind of traction device you choose between microspikes vs crampons, you need the ankle support on snow and ice that hiking boots provide.

Traction Devices on Trail Runners

Can you wear trail crampons or microspikes on trail running shoes? Of course, you can because the stretchy frame will fit just like it does on a pair of boots.

The bigger question is, should you? I’ve been known to wear microspikes over my runners to walk the dog or get the mail. But when it comes to being on unknown slippery surfaces like you will find hiking you should consider if you need ankle support.

Crampons vs Microspikes vs Snowshoes

While crampons and microspikes are for getting more traction on icy or snow-packed terrain, snowshoes serve a different function. Snowshoes let you walk on top of powdery or deep snow. If you’ve ever sunk knee-deep (or worse, waist deep) into the snow you know how hard it is to keep moving forward. Snowshoes disperse your weight over a larger surface so you can stay on top.

Snowshoes also have a built-in crampon in the sole for when the snow get’s a bit slick.

Crampons vs Microspikes: Summing up the real difference

The difference between crampons and microspikes is relatively straightforward. Microspikes and hiking crampons are both types of traction devices that can operate in snow and icy conditions. They are very affordable and extremely useful gear that can be used on almost all types of footwear. Most Microspikes employ a system of rubber or webbing strapping with chaining or metal spikes that vary in length. The biggest difference is easily discernable when comparing the size of the spikes. Here’s a summary in a nutshell:

  • Crampons are for more aggressive traction on more demanding and icier hiking terrain. They can be uncomfortable for hiking if you don’t need that extra support.
  • Microspikes provide support and grip in more common hiking environments where the terrain is moderate or flat. Microspikes are also easier for beginning winter hikers to get comfortable with on the trail. The only downside is that microspikes don’t have enough extra traction for when the trail is steep and you need to climb.

Human legs in hiking boot in microspikes on ice.

Our Final Recommendation

Seriously, you should never go out on a winter hike without a pair of microspikes in your pack. Trail conditions can easily surprise you, and they are so simple to use. Even in spring and early summer, it’s not unbelievable to find icy snow patches on the trail at higher elevations.

If you plan to winter hike on more challenging trails with many elevation changes, then grab a pair of crampons for the trip. Once you are walking uphill on ice, you’ll be glad you have them along!

Microspikes are the best choice for hikers who will be walking on snow or ice that is relatively flat. Hikers should also consider their level of experience before deciding between microspikes vs crampons, as well as whether they need additional support from hiking boots to stay comfortable and safe during these winter hikes.

Remember: if you’re just starting out with winter hiking, it’s better to start small rather than tackling challenging trails!