We thought we would clear this up once and for all with a simple description of the differences between Yaktrax, Micro Spikes, and Crampons. Knowing the differences and how to use each one correctly and in the right conditions is necessary for any winter hiking where ice is involved. I know first-hand the extensive damage to our body that can happen with just a simple slip on the trail. Knowing what gear and how to use it for different conditions will help lessen the chance of traumatic injuries or death. Winter hiking is something to take seriously.
Yaktrax makes multiple “traction device” options for “serious grip in any condition.” From their simplest option, the Spike-less Pro, to their “Summit” option, which they market as “a heavy-duty traction device that is essential for any winter hike or backcountry excursion,” it may seem that you can buy a pair of any of these and start hiking up an icy mountain. Unfortunately, as excellent as they seem, Yaktrax do have some limits.
The “Spike-less Pro” version is their patented skid lock coil system. They are their least aggressive system with no spikes. While they work well walking from your house to your mailbox in icy conditions, they are not suited for the trail unless completely flat with no exposure (exposure is a part of a trail that has a high risk of injury in the event of a fall because of the steepness of the terrain). They are perfect for keeping in your car to use when you need to put your chains on heading up the mountain as they are easy to slip on your boots.
Spike-less Pro Uses:
Flat surfaces with no exposure. Perfect for in town or around your house. Keep a pair in your car for putting on your snow chains on your way up the mountain. Use for packed snow or ice. They can be used with any shoes/boots.
Microspikes such as the Kahtoola MICROspikes or Yaktrax Summit have a bit more “bite” than the Yaktrax Pro because of the added spikes. The Yaktrax Summit’s 3/8th inch triangular Carbon Steel Spikes help bite into packed snow and ice better than the coil system on the Spike-less Pro’s. However, even with the additional grip, the spikes have limits and should not be used on super steep inclines, icy rocks, or aggressive slopes covered in ice. The Kahtoola MICROspikes have twelve stainless steel spikes that help dig into packed snow/ ice. Their welded stainless-steel chains offer added traction in the snow while remaining flexible and highly packable. They are my go-to choice for most of the winter trails I hike in my area.
Can be used on flat, semi-sloped/ mild incline, and slightly steeper trails with packed snow/ice. Perfect for adding extra traction to your normal hiking boots/trail runners. Use for packed snow or ice with low exposure. Can be used with any shoes/boots.
Crampons are used when you move across high angled packed snow/ice, icy rocks, glaciers, when you need more solid footing not to slide, and to hold your full body weight. Crampons do not “give” as microspikes do, so they are a sturdy option in harsher and more exposed conditions. They can also be used to climb vertical ice if they have front-toe spikes. They are used in conjunction with an ice ax. Specialized training to gain the proper skills and knowledge is recommended for terrain where crampons are needed.
Can be used on highly angled icy slopes with exposure, vertical ice (if they have toe spikes), and ice-covered rocks. Can hold your body weight. Must be used with stiff shanked mountaineering boots made to work with crampons. There are many different kinds of crampon styles depending on what you are using them for (vertical ice climbing vs. crossing a glacier).
With winter gear, you get what you pay for. Skimping on winter gear is something I would never recommend. You don’t want equipment failure to happen when you are miles from your car, and the trail is icy. You don’t want to risk injury and have to sit on the side of the trail in freezing conditions. There is a lot more to think about and be prepared for in the winter. To gain the necessary skills needed for winter hiking, consider taking a basic winter mountain skills course such as this one from Sierra Mountain Guides.