If you’re not familiar with crampons, they can appear to be the thing of nightmares. They’re pointy, sharp, freakish-looking objects that look more like a weapon than a useful outdoor tool. Nevertheless, crampons serve a purpose, and when you truly need them, you will be glad to have them on your hiking boots. But how do you choose which crampon is best for you? Let’s take a look. Before learning how to choose a crampon, it’s important that you understand what a crampon is. In a nutshell, a crampon is a type of spiky traction device that attaches to your footwear to help provide grip and stability while walking or climbing on ice and snow. Different types of crampons are used for different activities: ice climbing, glacier crossing, and snow hiking may all require crampons. You may need one type of crampon for smearing across an icy rock and a second type to ascend a snow-covered hillside. This is where your knowledge of crampon construction comes into play.
When using crampons, your shoe rests on a metal-plate like surface; this is the crampon frame. Frames are offered in three different materials, but you will want to choose your crampon frame based on the material best for your particularly activity.
- Aluminum crampons: This type of frame is the lightest in the group. This makes aluminum frames ideal for approaches and ski mountaineering where less weight means faster movement. However, the lighter materials mean you usually pay in durability and strength. Aluminum crampons tend to wear out faster, so you will likely see this type of frame in less technical crampons meant for snow travel (rather than ice or rock.)
- Steel crampons: Steel frames are heavier than aluminum frames but they are still the best for mountaineering thanks to their durability. Since they are so strong, they are best for mixed, steep terrain with technical challenges.
- Stainless-Steel crampons: These are similar to regular steel frames in that they are likely your best choice for mountaineering. However, stainless-steel frames are rust- and corrosion-resistant. Some proponents claim that snow doesn’t ball up in these frames as much as in other frames.
In addition to researching the material, it is also important to check out the construction of the frame. Technically, rigid and hinged and semi-rigid construction frames are available on the market today. However, the majority of frames now rely on semi-rigid construction. This type of construction provides a lot of versatility since it can be used in a wide variety of environments. A semi-rigid frame is flexible enough for snow walking, but is rigid enough for ice climbing. Thanks to this utility, this type of frame construction is easily the most popular.
After identifying the type of material you want, the next critical step is to figure out which binding best suits you. Bindings are important. After all, without this component, you wouldn’t have anything to keep you strapped onto your spikes! These days, you’re looking at three different types of bindings: hybrid, step-in, and strap-on.
- Hybrid bindings: Hybrids have a bit of an identity crisis since they occasionally go by other names like mixed or semi-step crampons. Either way, this crampon features a heel lever and a toe strap. Hybrids require a boot with a stiff sole. Thanks to the heel lever, they also require footwear that has a heel groove in order to hold on to that lever. The toe strap doesn’t need anything fancy; it can securely fit onto footwear without a welt. Since there isn’t any type of groove needed for the toe strap, hybrid bindings are easy to put on with gloves; you don’t need to clean out or line up the welt. Instead, put your foot into the frame, pop the heel lever, and pull the toe strap over. You’re ready to go. Hybrid bindings work well for general mountaineering or ice climbing sports.
- Step-in bindings: If you’ve got the proper boot to fit with this binding, this setup is very secure. A horizontal wire bail holds the toe in place while a tension-levered heel cable locks the heel down. This type of binding works only if you have boots with a rigid sole and at least a 3/8-inch groove on the heel and toe (This is where the wire bail and heel cable lock in.) An ankle strap provides additional support, but the frame should remain on your foot thanks to the binding setup. This type of binding is great if you are wearing gloves since there is no intricate handling that needs to happen. Another added bonus? If you need to change the length of your frontpoints (the spikes on the toe of your crampon) to accommodate varying terrain, you can simply adjust your toe bail. Step-in bindings are great for mountaineering or ice climbing. Additionally, they work well with tele boots.
- Strap-on bindings: This type of binding is constructed just like it sounds: a series of nylon webbing straps hold your foot into the frame. Strap-on bindings are a great option if you know you will be wearing a variety of boots with your crampons, since you can adjust the straps to accommodate different sizes. However, there is literally some wiggle room in these bindings. The straps don’t typically hold your foot as tightly or securely as the other bindings, so you may notice slight movement between your boot and the crampon. They can also be trickier to put on with all of the straps. If you are wearing gloves, you may find the webbing cumbersome. Strap-on bindings are good for mountaineering or snow walking activities.
Points and Frontpoints
A crampon isn’t a crampon without any points! In general, points are the basic spikes that are on the bottom of your crampon. Specifically, you want those points to be under your instep and to follow the shape of your boot. This will provide the most traction and offer the most stability. But, how many points do you need? A guideline is to look for 10-12 points per crampon. If needed, you can usually adjust the points in order to get the proper point extension for your chosen activity. If you happen to snag a pair of fancy crampons, you might even notice that the sides of the crampon are serrated, like a steak knife. This means that point will “grab” the snow, even where it isn’t directly penetrating the surface. Of course, this feature is saved for super technical, more expensive crampons. That said, 10-12 points is a range. In general, more technical activity like ice and mixed climbing requires more points. Ten points is usually enough for ski touring or glacier and/or snow travel. The two extra points come into play when you enjoy more technical activity like ice climbing. Those two points (called frontpoints) are the forward-facing points on a crampon. These frontpoints offer additional purchase when standing on steep ice or rock. In fact, standing on these frontpoints is frequently how an ice climber will “rest” on steep terrain. Dual frontpoints come in two styles: horizontal and vertical.
- Horizontal: This type of frontpoint almost looks like a flat extension of the crampon itself. In fact, the edge of horizontal frontpoints appears to be bent slightly downward. These points have more surface area to grab the snow, so they are typically used in alpine and mountaineering conditions.
- Vertical: These frontpoints look like a steak knife or ice axe jutting forward from the crampon. These are meant for the user to kick the frontpoints into a hard object (like ice) to gain purchase while avoiding bending that would happen with horizontal frontpoints. As such, vertical points are commonly used for steep waterfall and mixed climbs.
There is one other type of frontpoint known as a monopoint. Rather than dual frontpoints, the monopoint is a single point meant for technical waterfall or mixed route climbing. Your final consideration for frontpoints is whether you want to go with modular or or non-modular points. Modular points can be replaced if they wear down or reconfigured in order to accommodate a different activity. For example, if you know that you will be doing a fair amount of mixed and ice climbing, chances are good you will wear down your points. But replacing those points is going to be a heck of a lot cheaper than buying entirely new crampons. Non-modular points can’t be replaced like modular points can. You can sharpen them if they dull from use, but they will continue to get shorter after every sharpening. Before you write off non-modular points, consider this: they are lighter than modular crampons. Additionally, they are very sturdy since there are no moving parts to shake loose while climbing, so non-modular points do give you added peace of mind.
These days, most climbers and alpinists wear leather or synthetic-leather boots rather than the plastic models of days gone by. However, you still need to make sure your boot is compatible with your chosen crampon. First, take a look at what type of boot you have. For example, does it have toe welts? If not, you won’t want to purchase step-in bindings. Second, consider your chosen activity. If you know you will only be glacier walking (as opposed to climbing waterfalls), you won’t need as technical of a crampon. Finally, match the flexibility of your crampon with that of your shoe. After all, you don’t want to wear pliable running shoes with a sturdy crampon on a near-vertical ice climb. When in doubt, bring your boots with you when you choose your crampons. The salesperson can help you find the proper match.
Anti-balling plates: These come standard on almost all crampons and are essential if you are traveling in the snow. These prevent snow from collecting inside the bottom of your crampon while hiking. Crampon Cases and Point Covers: As we’ve mentioned, crampons are sharp! You don’t want to merely chuck a crampon in your backpack with your favorite insulated jacket. Chances are good that puffy won’t return unscathed. Instead, snag yourself a case. These are made from puncture-resistant nylon and provide easy storage and packing since they are like a mini-suitcase solely for your crampons. If you want to go even cheaper, look for point covers. These rubber covers pop on top of your points, protecting your gear from the sharp edges. Gaiters: You may have a pair from previous winter adventures, but a quality pair of gaiters is vital to help protect your legs and gear from getting slashed by the sharp points. Spare Parts: Consider buying an extra center bar for your crampons. Not only can these make your crampons more or less flexible, but a spare is good to have if you travel to a remote area.
There are three main steps to consider when caring for your crampons.
- Inspect your bindings before every adventure. Tighten loose screws and check for worn straps. Replace anything if needed.
- Sharpen your points. In particular, take a look at those points if you know you’ve been traveling on rock. Use a hand file to sharpen any points that need it, but don’t use a grinder. The heat generated from the machine can weaken the metal. Also be sure to straighten out any bent points you find.
- Storage. Be sure to dry your crampons before storing them to prevent rust or corrosion. If they’re feeling sticky, it’s not a bad idea to spray on a little WD-40 before packing them away for the season.