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.

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.

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.

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!