The winter hiking season is fast approaching and it’s time to look out your traction devices. Are they missing cleats? Are the wire coils coming apart? Did they keep coming off last winter? Do you need new ones? Do you want them for negotiating icy streets or dog walking in the park, or do you want them for rugged winter hiking? Here are my thoughts on locally-available devices.
Most winter hiking in the Canadian Rockies is done in the low elevation, low snowfall areas of the foothills where modest snowfalls are quickly packed down by snowshoe and foot traffic. Chinook melting forms icy patches and year-round seepages spread out into ice flows. For serious foothill hiking your traction device must:
- be rugged enough to deal with ice, roots, rocks, mud, steep frozen grass slopes and packed old snow. They should also offer some traction in loose snow and wet, sticky spring snow overlaying an icy base.
- be easy to put on and take off.
- stay on all day in the same position on the boot, ideally without straps.
- be light weight and maintenance free.
Wishful thinking—none of the devices currently on the market fulfill all the above requirements, though one model Kahtoola MICROspikes comes close. Why are they our choice? They are most rugged and have the best traction for serious winter walking in the Alberta foothills. More about them below.
Here’s a look at the 3 basic types of light-weight traction device:
Metal cleats embedded in a rubber shell that slips on over your boot.
Good in hard, icy conditions, less effective in soft, foot packed snow. Requires very careful fitting to a specific pair of boots. Some models have a strap to ensure they stay on. Icer’s, made in New Brunswick, have replaceable steel studs. STABILicers Lite Cleat have steel plates with rounded studs embedded in a rubber frame.
Rubber wound with coils or hardened steel beads strung on aircraft cable.
Weighing between 200 & 300g they are some of the lightest traction devices. They perform well on packed snow, but are less effective on very hard ice. They are easy to slip on and off, and stow easily when not needed. Unfortunately they have a reputation for not standing up to hard use on rocky, icy trails. The Yaktrax Pro has removable straps, while the ICETrekkers ‑ Diamond Grip are strapless.
The Yaktrax Running Ice is designed for use with running shoes. They have removable (replaceable?) steel cleats under the forefoot and steel coils under the mid foot. The Velcro strap has reflective tags. They give traction on snow and ice while still allowing you to run on asphalt and sidewalks. However, the question remains: are they rugged enough for foothills trail running?
Kahtoola MICROspikes are mini frameless crampon with no straps, though slots in the rubber allows for attaching straps around the ankle and across the forefoot. As with all strapless crampons, fit is important. Each device has 5 pairs of 10mm steel spikes attached to a sturdy rubber frame by chains. They are good for packed snow and are better on ice than the coil-type devices. Not good on pavement, though tolerable for short distances.They are rugged enough to handle roots and rocks and don’t ball-up too badly in mud and sticky snow. Surprisingly even trail runners use them, though weighing in at around 800g a pair, they are the heaviest of the available traction devices.
One step up from these mini-crampons are flexible crampons with larger spikes, heel & toe straps, and frames. These are more suited to climbers scrambling in steep, mixed terrain. Overkill for low-elevation winter hiking.
Good fit is very important.
Most traction devices come in a limited number of sizes — small, medium, large and extra large. Each size fits a range of boot sizes. In practice, foot sizes are not a good indication of the perimeter size your boot’s welt. Take your boots into the store and try various traction devices until you get a good fit. While they should fit snugly — a little on the tight side — don’t get them too tight. Models that rely on a rubber cup over the toe of the boot will work their way off after a while if stretched too tightly.