Crampons are intimidating metal spikes when you don’t know how or why to use them. However, they are a crucial piece of gear for snow and ice sports, such as mountaineering and ice climbing and learning to use them can open up new realms for adventure.
Crampons are metal attachments for your hiking boots, and they usually have a set of, pointed spikes in a number of different areas of each foot which allow you to find grip on ice and packed snow.
Crampons are made of either aluminum or steel, with different front points, and the number of points varies for the activity.
They are essential for snow and glacier travel and for safely traversing ice. There are different types of crampons for specific activities and needs and different fits depending on the type of boot you’re pairing them with, and crampons are becoming highly specialized.
Crampons are used for: snow walking, general mountaineering, technical mountaineering and waterfall ice, and mixed climbing.
The bindings and construction of the crampon vary as well for the activity for which they’re being used.
When Should You Use Crampons?
Crampons are used in just about any icy or snowy conditions that would be difficult to navigate with normal boot soles. However, official activities that use crampons are Snow Walking, General Mountaineering, Technical Mountaineering and Waterfall Ice & Mixed Climbing.
Best Crampons by Activity:
Crampons used for snow walking are made out of aluminum or steel with a flexible construction. Aluminum is preferred because it is a lighter weight metal and can aid in energy conservation, but be wary of walking over rocks with aluminum crampons because the rocks will wear the crampons away quicker.
These crampons have a fixed horizontal front point and 8 to 10 point and they come with strap-on bindings for your boots.
For general mountaineering, you will want steel crampons for durability and a semi-rigid construction. The front points will be fixed horizontally with 10 points.
They can be strap-on, hybrid, or step-in.
For technical mountaineering, you will want steel crampons for durability and a semi-rigid construction. The front points will be fixed horizontally with 12 points. They can be strap-on, hybrid or step in.
Waterfall Ice and Mixed Climbing
For waterfall ice and mixed climbing, you will want steel crampons for durability and a modular vertical frontpoint with 14 points or more. These crampons will be semi-rigid with a hybrid or step in binding. (“How to Choose Crampons.”)
There are three main materials for crampons: steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. Steel crampons are best for general mountaineering because their durability makes them essential for technical, steep, and icy terrain.
Stainless steel crampons have the benefits of steel crampons as well as corrosion resistance. Aluminum crampons are the lightest weight and are ideal for approaches and ski mountaineering.
Their lower weight helps in energy conservation in alpine pursuits, however, they will wear out significantly faster than steel if used on rocky terrain.
Choosing the right crampon frame alignment has a lot to do with what type of boots you’re wearing. If you’re wearing double plastic boots, it’s best to wear crampons with a vertically-oriented frame.
If you’re wearing insulated leather boots, the crampons can be horizontally oriented and therefore less rigid.
Horizontal frames flex for walking and your feet are closer to the ground so you enjoy greater stability. The flat bars also repel snow efficiently.
Most crampons used today are semi-rigid. A semi-rigid construction offers the advantage of good performance for most activities.
It provides sufficient flex for winter walking yet is rigid enough for moderate ice climbing. Semi-rigid crampons are easier to adjust than the old rigid designs and fit a greater variety of boot shapes.
Crampons attach to most boots via three main bindings: hybrid, step-in, and step-on.
Hybrid, or mixed or semi-step, crampons feature a heel lever and a toe strap. They require boots with a stiff sole plus a heel groove or welt to hold the heel lever.
The toe strap, however, doesn’t need a welt to fit securely. You just pull on the toe strap and throw the heel lever which makes it easy to put on with gloves since you don’t need to clean out the toe welt and line it up.
Step-in crampons use a wire bail to hold the toe in place while a heel cable with a tension lever attaches the crampon to the heel and results in a very secure system. This is also the easiest style to put on with gloves and in snowy conditions, which can be great for those cold, chilly mornings.
For a step-in binding, boots need to have rigid soles and a toe welt or groove on the heel and toe that is at least ⅜”. An ankle strap is also part of the system.
Another advantage of a step-in system is that you can move the front bail to adjust the length of front points according to the type of terrain, adjusting it to make ascending or descending easier.
Strap-on crampons usually feature a pair of nylon webbing straps. This system can be used with almost any boot or shoe.
They are a great choice if you’ll be using multiple boots with the same crampon. They can be fit tightly enough for moderate ice routes.
Strap-on bindings, however, aren’t quite as precise as step-in because you can get a small amount of movement between boot and crampon.
Most crampons have 10 or 12 points. You want the points to be under your instep and follow the shape of the boot. You might need to adjust the front bails of the crampon to get the correct point extension.
Highly technical crampons have points with serrated sides allowing the crampons to stick even in places where a point doesn’t penetrate the snow or ice.
The number of points needed on your crampons varies by activity. Generally, the more extreme the sport, the more points you will need.
- Most 10-point crampons are ideal for ski touring and glacier travel. These work best for snow walking and general mountaineering.
- Crampons for technical ice and mixed climbing have more aggressive front points that can be adjusted and replaced.
For general mountaineering, it is easier to walk with less frontpoint sticking out but for technical climbing, you’ll want longer front points.
Most step-in technical crampons have different front bail positions, so you can adjust the toe position according to whether you are walking or climbing which adds versatility.
Waterfall ice climbing crampons allow front points to be dual-point or monopoint.
Front points are the forward-facing points on crampons. These can be horizontal, vertical, or a monopoint.
- Horizontal: These dual points are suitable for almost any alpine climbing or ice/snow climbing.
- Vertical: These dual points are preferred for steep waterfall and mixed climbs. These frontpoints slip easily into cracks and are adjustable and replaceable.
- Monopoint: This single point is popular for technical waterfall and mixed climbing and consist of just one main point. (“How to Choose Crampons.”)
Modular vs. Non-Modular
Crampon points are either modular/adjustable or non-modular/fixed. With modular, or adjustable, front points, you can replace the points to for the type of walking or climbing you’re pursuing.
For mixed rock-and-ice climbing modular crampons because you’ll need to replace your points eventually. Non-modular, or fixed, points are lighter weight than modular points.
They can be sharpened but they get shorter with wear.
A bonus is that there are no moving parts so you don’t have to worry about screws coming loose.
Walking in Crampons
Now that you’ve chosen the right crampons for your activity, it’s time to learn the basics on how to walk. Walking in crampons can be awkward and intimidating at first, which is why it’s important to learn some basic techniques and to practice them before attempting a mountaineering endeavor.
Crampons are designed to increase traction and to aid in traversing snow and ice. When walking on flat ground, walk flat-footed, being sure to engage all points of the crampons.
Make sure to have a slightly wider stance to accommodate the sharp points on your feet, thus avoiding cutting your legs and pants. When walking up and downhill, you will also want an ice ax to accompany you.
Concentrate on maintaining a flat foot technique until the slope gets too steep. This may require walking with your toes turned out like a duck or turning your body sideways, always pushing your ankles and knees downhill to allow all of the spikes to engage.
When the slope steepens you may need to cross over your feet, but be sure to keep the crossovers small. If you try to take big steps, you will begin to lift the downhill spikes out of the snow and lose balance.
When the slope is too steep to walk flat footed, you will use a technique called front pointing. Face directly into the hillside, keep your heel low, and kick the toe of your boot straight into the slope.
Take small steps in order to stay balanced, as opposed to big leg squats. You are only using four spikes per foot, compared with 10 points when walking flat and so it’s important to make sure each step is secure before continuing.
Front pointing can be exhausting, so consider a hybrid technique, front pointing with one foot and flat-footing with the other, turning this foot sideways and rolling the ankle downhill so that all the crampon points engage.
A common saying in mountaineering is that going up is optional, but going down is mandatory. Which technique you pick for descending depends on the angle and snow conditions.
Front pointing while facing into the slope is best for when the terrain is the steepest. This is tiring and your steps may be blinded, so take your time and make sure each foot is secure before continuing.
With your feet apart, knees flexed and a horizontal foot, firmly kick into the slope as many times as needed to feel secure.
As the angle starts to lessen, turning sideways and stomping down one foot above the other works well and your steps become more visible.
If you feel insecure, stomp out a bigger step to make a flat platform. When the angle becomes less steep, begin facing straight down the hill in order to walk with a flat foot.
Keep your feet apart and place your foot down firmly, presenting it flat to the slope so as to engage all of the points of the crampons.
For further information on using crampons, consider reading Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers, which is considered the ultimate book on mountaineering techniques.
“Essential Winter Skills: Walking in Crampons.” Articles – Essential Winter Skills: Walking in Crampons,
“How to Choose Crampons.” REI,
The Mountaineers. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (50th Anniversary Edition). 9th Ed.