crampons vs microspikes

Crampons vs Microspikes: Differences and When to Use

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In full disclosure, these opinions are based on my years of hiking experience. I’ve been hiking since 2015, I learned mountaineering and ice climbing in 2021, and ski mountaineering in 2023. I have learned a lot about different types of crampons and spikes during the last few years as I’m all about gear and safety. In the end, I hope you make the right choice for yourself and the conditions you are going out in. Do your research for your climbs and don’t rely on just this article.

If you’ve been confused about what are crampons, what are microspikes, what the difference is between microspikes and crampons, and when to use either one, this article is for you.

Let me break this down for you in an easy-to-understand, non-technical, layman’s terms.

The most basic thing to understand about microspikes and crampons is they are both traction devices that attach to the bottom of your hiking (or mountaineering) boots when snow and/ or ice are present. It is not only necessary for winter hiking but can be useful in all seasons depending on snow conditions.

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Microspikes for hiking: Kahtoola Microspikes

Crampons for hiking: Petzl Vasak

There have been many accidents of people climbing mountains in microspikes when they should have been wearing crampons so I want to help you visualize a basic understanding of how to choose when it’s appropriate to wear microspikes and when to wear crampons.

When to use microspikes and crampons

While winter is the time you would expect to need crampons and microspikes, I’ve found that shoulder seasons are an important time to consider these traction devices for your hikes if snow is present.

When there is too much snow on the trails as there tends to be in winter months, traction devices like microspikes and crampons may be rendered useless and you are likely better off in snowshoes or skis to stay afloat.

Generally speaking, the purpose of micropsikes and crampons are to help you grip onto the trails to avoid slipping; spikes in a lot of powder is not going to help you stick to the snowy trails and can even be dangerous if balls form underneath crampons. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever need them — just consider the snow conditions of the trail to help you determine what foot accessory is best.

When firm snow or ice is present, you definitely want to consider these traction devices. Snow firms up and turns icy when it starts to melt, then freezes, and repeats. This is common in the Spring and sometimes early winter or even Fall, and having these traction devices can be vital to your hiking adventure.

So how do you know when to use microspikes or crampons?

Think about the design of each traction device. You (obviously) want the spikes on the part of your soles that dig into the snow and ice. So the short answer is to ask yourself is — am I walking on a flat hiking trail that is icy or am I climbing up a steep mountain?

A quick indicator will also be if you need an ice axe, you definitely need crampons and not microspikes.

crampons vs microspikes


If you head out for a winter hike that you know may have some snow and ice, and the trail is on the flatter side without much elevation gain so your feet will be planted on the ground with most steps, you of course want a traction device that has spikes on the bottom of the shoe — microspikes

This will allow you to get the most purchase of your traction device while you are walking.

Microspikes are best used for icy and hard-packed snow conditions on trails without a lot of elevation gain.

Kahtoola Microspikes

I’ve been using Kahtoola microspikes for about 7 years now and highly recommend these if you are looking for a good set of microspikes. They’re great quality and easy to use — you simply slip it on your boot. 

I’ve tried a cheap amazon pair that didn’t fit as nicely; the chains felt loose under my shoes yet the silicone grip on the shoe fit well. I’ve also been out with friends who have used a variety of amazon-purchased microspikes and they all had issues with it coming off their boots. I haven’t personally tried the Hillsound pair which has the added strap on the top of your shoe, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

I’ve only ever broken one chain on my Kahtoola microspikes once afer 6 years of heavy usage in them, and the Kahtoola team helped me repair it. These may cost more than a cheap amazon pair but it’s still affordable for what it is and totally worth the investment.

microspikes for hiking


If you are climbing a steep mountain (let’s use 30º as an example), your feet will not be walking flat up the mountain on your soles —that’s just gravity. You will either be kicking your toes straight into the mountain or side-stepping on the edge of your boot up the mountain. In this scenario, you want to make sure you have a traction device that has front-point spikes and spikes around the edging of your footwear — crampons. 

This will help you get the most purchase of your traction device while you are hiking/ climbing up the mountain. 

Crampons are used for hiking and climbing mountains with snow on steeper terrain, such as couloirs, bowls, and high-altitude mountaineering.

Imagine if you were wearing microspikes (which does not have any spikes along the edge of your soles) and you are hiking up a steep mountain, kicking in your toe or stepping with the edge of your boot would essentially render your microspikes useless because your spikes would be floating around with air beneath your feet and the edge part of your boot that touches the mountain has no spikes digging in.

There are different types of crampons for general hiking and mountaineering, technical mountaineering, ice climbing, and ski mountaineering, and you will need a compatible boot for each.

Types of Crampon Attachment

  • Classic Universal Crampons: straps onto your boot in the front and the back
    • This can be attached to any hiking boots.
  • Semi-Automatic Crampons: straps into the front of your boot but clips into the back
    • You will need a mountaineering boot with a welt in the back
  • Fully Automatic Crampons: clips into the front with a toe bail and back
    • You will need a mountaineering boot with welts on both ends

For general winter hiking and mountaineering, I’d recommend the Petzl Vasak. The Leverlock is the semi-automatic version and the Flexlock is the universal version. Overall, stick with Petzl if you plan to get different styles of crampons down the road as they’re all interchangeable in parts. 


FAQ: Crampons vs Microspikes

What’s the difference between micospikes and crampons?

In the simplest most basic terms, microspikes have mini teeth (spikes) on the bottom sole of the shoes and crampons have larger teeth on the bottom edge and front of the shoe, but not in the middle. Microspikes allow you to walk on flat ground with ice and have traction, and crampons allow you to climb up a steeper side of a mountain.

Are crampons better than microspikes?

Yes and no, it depends on what you are hiking or climbing. Microspikes and crampons serve different styles of winter hiking. While you can use both for winter hiking, you can only use crampons for mountaineering. Read the article above to learn when to wear each traction device.

Do microspikes work for ice?

Yes, microspikes are designed to help you walk with better traction on ice to prevent slipping.

When not to use crampons?

Avoid wearing crampons when walking on a lot of soft snow. The snow can form balls underneath the crampons and get stuck between the points which can be dangerous. Firm snow and ice are the best conditions for crampons.

Can you walk on rocks with microspikes?

You can walk on rocks with microspikes and crampons but it won’t be very comfortable and will dull the spikes quicker. Be mindful of your balance.

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