Crampons 101

cramponsCrampons are vital for mountain travel: they let climbers ascend vertical waterfall ice, walk securely on steep snow, travel across glaciers, and scale ice-covered granite. But because there are so many options on the market, buying your first pair can be confusing. Many aspiring alpinists don’t know where to start—but it’s actually simpler than you might think.

Material
When you’re looking at crampons, the first step is to choose the metal: stainless steel or aluminum. Stainless steel crampons are classics for a reason: they’re durable, corrosion resistant, can be re-sharpened, and hold up well in steep or technical terrain like ice, snow, and rock. They’re heavier than aluminum crampons, though, which are better for alpine climbing, ski mountaineering, and approaches that require short glacier crossings. But those saved ounces come at a cost: because it’s a softer metal, aluminum crampons tend to get dull and deformed quickly if used on rock or hard ice.

Bindings
Once you’ve decided which metal is best for your needs, it’s time to look at bindings. Crampons are generally sold in three binding variations: automatic, strap-on, and hybrid. Automatic (also called “step-in style”) crampons use levers and metal bars that fit onto specific notches on mountaineering or ski boots (called “welts”), and they’re by far the most secure fit, which makes them best for technical climbing, vertical ice, and high-consequence terrain. Some boots don’t have welts, however (think of regular hiking boots, approach shoes, snowboarding boots, etc.) For these, strap-on crampons (which use flexible plastic toe bales and nylon webbing straps) are best. For general-purpose mountaineering (e.g., Mount Rainier, the Haute Route, etc.), some climbers also use a hybrid binding style, which are made with a metal heel lever and a nylon toe strap.

Points (Spikes)
Most mountaineering crampons have either 10 or 12 points, or “spikes.” Crampons made for technical ice or mixed climbing may have a more aggressive design, which makes them better for vertical terrain but worse for walking on snow. You’ll also need to consider frontpoints, which are the forward-facing prongs on each crampon. There are three types of frontpoints: horizontal, vertical, and monopoint. Horiztonal frontpoints are preferred for alpine and snow/ice climbing, whereas vertical frontpoints and monopoint options are better suited for climbing steeper waterfall ice.

Research
There are lots of options on the market, but don’t be intimidated: at the end of the day, most crampons will work for most objectives. Before you buy your first pair of crampons, ask for help. Do some background research. And always bring your boots along when shopping if you can—because there’s so much variation, it’s always worth double-checking that your new spikes will be compatible with your favorite boots. For large boots, you might need to buy an extra-long center bar—and that’s something you’ll want to know before you get into the mountains. If your crampons don’t come with them, you’ll want to buy a set of anti-balling plates, too.

Read the Manual
Finally, read the manual. Learn how to make micro-adjustments to your crampons to make sure you’ve got a seamless fit. Then strap them on and head for the hills!