Not only do you need to consider what type of terrain you will be clomping up, but also what type of boots you will be wearing. These two variables determine your crampon choice and the attachment system for your crampons. In the following in-depth article, I will hit on how to choose crampons in relation to both of these topics. Let’s dive-in.
First, if you’re brand new to crampons, here are some definitions & clarifications to get us started. Knowing the difference in footwear, bindings, and materials out there will help demystify the process of selecting crampons. If this info is review, feel free to skip ahead to the section titled “Terrain”.
FOOTWEAR TYPE – Refers to the footwear you will use with your crampon or traction device.
BINDING TYPE/ATTACHMENT SYSTEM – How the crampon will attach to your footwear.
CRAMPON MATERIAL – What the metal components of your crampons are made of.
And on to the main topic . . .
To make things simple, I’m going to identify four types of terrain which each favor a specific type of crampon or traction device. And for each crampon and terrain type, I’ll recommend some footwear and an attachment system for your crampons. I’m going to cover the following terrain:
1) Trails compacted with snow & ice.
2) Low angle snowfields.
3) Glacier Travel w/ ice & rock.
4) Ice climbing.
If you know what terrain you’re specifically interested in, you can scroll to that section to read up on my crampon recommendations. If you want to nerd out on all terrain and crampons – read on!
For this type of terrain you usually don’t need a full-on crampon. Instead you can get by with a simple traction device, such as Kahtoola Micro Spikes, Hillsound Trail Crampons, or Black Diamond Access Spike Traction Devices. These devices are designed to attach to flexible shoes and boots, though you can also attach them to a mountain boot.
My favorite footwear for use on snow covered trails is the Altra Lone Peak All Weather, which is more of a burly trail running shoe than a hiker, and the Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX hiking shoes. Coupling a pair of traction devices with a pair of trekking poles, like Black Diamond Traverse Ski Poles, is a good combo for increased stability on snow-covered trails.
If you’re thinking about incorporating an ice axe into the mix, then you might want a proper mountain boot coupled with “classic mountaineering crampons” (see below) to improve your security.
In terms of the attachment system used for traction devices, the built-in attachments that come with traction devices are all suitable for flexible footwear such as the suggestions I listed above. They will also work with rigid footwear such as all forms of mountaineering boots. Buying Tip: Since mountain boots often have greater volume than hiking boots you may need to size-up to get them to fit.
Here is where aluminum crampons shine. Aluminum crampons are much lighter weight than steel crampons, and some- such as the Petzl Leopard– also fold-up super small. I like to use aluminum crampons for snow-covered approaches and descents of alpine rock climbs, like the North RIdge of Forbidden Peak, where I carry my gear up and over the climb.
This allows me to keep my weight down compared to carrying a steel pair. However, if there are significant sections of rock that I will be scrambling over in my crampons (like Pumice Ridge on a climb of Mount Baker) then these crampons tend to dull very quickly and can even be bent. I also avoid aluminum if I will be crossing a glacier in late season conditions where hard ice might be exposed and the angle could be steep.
This is because aluminum crampons tend not to be as sharp as steel (or they don’t stay as sharp for nearly as long), and on hard ice the ability of the points to penetrate is what gains you purchase and prevents you from slipping off. When in doubt, I ditch my aluminum crampons and go with steel instead.
Pro Tip: A good compromise is to use a pair of hybrid crampons that have a steel front plate and an aluminum heel plate like the Petzl Irvis Hybrid. In the past I have also swapped parts from two compatible pairs of crampons- the heel of the Black Diamond Neve and the front plate of the Black Diamond Serac Strap to create a hybrid crampon.
When it comes to the attachment systems for aluminum crampons I tend to go with strap-on. That is because a strap-on crampon can be worn on any form of footwear that has a reasonable amount of structure. I like to put aluminum crampons on my La Sportiva TX 4 approach shoes if I’m doing especially big rock routes that have mellow snow crossings on approach or descent, and a strap-on attachment will allow me to do that.
If conditions are a bit more rowdy and I need a mountain boot then I can put a strap-on crampon on my mountain boots. The disadvantage of a strap-on crampon is that the connection isn’t as secure as automatic or semiautomatic. This is especially true of the Irvis crampon’s dyneema cord attachment, which I have found can shift underfoot on steep terrain when worn on flexible footwear (even when attached using the alternative method recommended by Petzl).
But if I will be on steep, hard slopes I tend to opt for a full steel crampon anyway.
For this terrain a “classic mountaineering crampon” is a good choice. These crampons are all steel, and have ten to twelve points, including two front points. The orientation of the front points are horizontal (if you run your finger along the bottom of the front points there is no edge- it’s flat).
A 10-point crampon tends to be lighter-weight than a 12-point crampon, while a 12-point crampon tends to be less flexible but offers more points of contact in hard ice and better performance at steeper angles when wearing stiff footwear. I tend to go with a 10-point crampon due to the weight savings and comfort underfoot. I also tend to use boots with a bit of flex while I’m guiding during the summer because they are more comfortable to walk in and are warm enough to get the job done.
The Scarpa Zodiac Tech are a favorite of mine, and climb rock very well for a boot. Coupling this boot with a 10-point crampon like the Petzl Irvis and a flexible sizing bar offers a light option with a secure fit. I sometimes climb long pitches of ice up to 60 degrees with this crampon and boot combo, but for anything that is sustained at a steeper angle I would want a stiffer boot and stiffer pair of crampons designed more for ice climbing than for glacier travel.
My preferred attachment system for my 10-point crampons is semi automatic. This is the attachment with a heel lever in back and a strap that passes through a toe-bail in the front. To use this attachment you need to have a boot with a heel welt (an indentation on a robust piece of plastic on the heel). This means it won’t work with hiking boots or approach shoes unfortunately.
It will work, however, on any mountain boot that has a heel welt, and it does not require that your boot also has a toe welt. This means I can easily swap my crampons between my rigid and warm winter boots, which have both a toe and heel welt, and my more flexible three-season mountain boots, which only have a heel welt.
So far I have found that the security of my semi automatic attachment has been comparable to that of my full automatic crampons, so I’m not worried that my ‘pons will huck themselves off my feet when I encounter a bit of ice climbing.
I could write an entire post on ice climbing crampons alone, as there are many innovative designs and front-point arrangements. For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep things simple. With a few exceptions, crampons designed for ice climbing tend to be all steel and have vertically aligned front-points.
Some ice climbing crampons, such as the Petzl Lynx, have designs that are very similar to those used for glacier travel. This optimizes a climber’s ability to cross a glacier and climb pitches of ice, such as that found on the North Ridge of Mount Baker. Other crampons have most of the glacier travel components stripped away, making a lighter, more specialized crampon that climbs vertical ice or rock exceptionally well, but doesn’t perform as well during a long hike to the base of a route.
Take a look at the Grivel G20 Plus for an example. Buying Tip: I’m a fan of ice climbing crampons that have replaceable front points, since these tend to wear out quickly when climbing dirty ice, dry tooling, or climbing mixed terrain. Swapping points out rather than replacing the whole crampon can save you a chunk of change, and allow you to swap in fresh points halfway through an ice climbing trip or expedition.
When it comes to ice climbing performance you usually want to find a boot that has a rigid sole and offers a lot of support around the ankle. This reduces the likelihood that the boot flexes and shears-out the front points, and can take the load off your calves while you’re standing on the tip of a partially sunk front point on steep ice.
Just about all ice boots have both a toe and heel welt so they can accept automatic and semi automatic crampons. My favorite ice boots are the Scarpa Phantom Techs, while my favorite all-around boot that hikes reasonably well and can still climb ice with ease is the La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX.
Pro tip– when you’re hiking into the route only lace your boot up to the ankle and leave the upper eyelets open. This will allow the boot to hike more like a shoe. Once you are ready to voyage into the steep thread the laces up your ankle and crank them down.
When it comes to crampon attachment systems for ice climbing there are two options. The first is what most ice climbing crampons come with- automatic. This system has a heel lever and a metal wire toe bail that rests in the groove of the toe welt on your boot. The advantage of this system is it is fast and precise.
On many crampon designs you can literally “dial-in” the fit by rotating a dial on the top of the heel lever to tighten or loosen the attachment. The downside of this attachment is if your boot is too narrow for the toe bail then there is a chance the crampon could pop-off mid-pitch during an ice climb.
This is more commonly the case with women’s boots than with men’s due to sizing, but it can also be the combination of a design of a specific boot when coupled with a specific pair of crampons. Some companies, such as Black Diamond, sell a narrow toe bail to address this issue. Unfortunately that means an additional purchase.
Another option is to use a semi automatic attachment for your crampon to your ice boot. The advantage of this is that in some cases the attachment is more secure, and if your crampon does try to shed itself there is a good chance you will feel it getting loose before it self-ejects. This tends to be my preference and so far, knock on wood, I haven’t had any problem with my crampons coming off during a climb.
And finally, I should at least pay homage to anti-bot plates (sometimes called anti-balling plates). These are pieces of slippery plastic or rubber that fit into the metal skeletons of your crampons and prevent clumps of snow from sticking underneath. I consider these essential on just about all of my crampons. That is because anti-bot plates dramatically reduce the likelihood that I will slip on a chunk of snow stuck in my ‘pons which could cause injury or, in extreme circumstances, be life threatening. So unless you’re only planning on ice climbing in a controlled venue like the Ouray Ice Park I’d recommend checking to make sure that the crampons you purchase come with some of these simple gadgets. And if they don’t, you can always make your own.
And finally, how do you fit your perfectly selected crampons to your perfectly selected footwear? Luckily I’ve made a couple videos for that. Hope they come in handy!
About the author:
Glen Young has worked as a guide in the United States and abroad for seventeen years. His favorite place to guide is Nepal, and his favorite place to recover from guiding is his bed in Washington State. Although Glen has owned more pairs of crampons than he can count on his fingers and toes, he encourages others to avoid this addiction as it can lead to uncontrollable cravings for cold places. Glen is a lead guide for Miyar Adventures based in Seattle, Washington.
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