Along with an ice axe, crampons are an essential piece of mountaineering safety kit. They’ll give you much better security on snow and ice, making travel easier and faster and hugely improve your safety on steep slopes. As a general rule they should always be used in conjunction with an ice axe (if you’ve got your crampons on, you should have your axe in your hands too). For the ice axe gear guide click here
Crampons are in essence simply points or spikes that are attached to the soles of your boots. These points dig into snow and ice giving you greater traction over these notoriously slippery surfaces. The original crampons were developed by farmers living in the Alps in the 19th Century, with Farrier’s nails attached to crudely fashioned cradles. These evolved into a recognisable crampon design in the early 20th century and this has been refined ever since.
Nowadays there are a huge variety of different crampons available and these can be categorised into 3 main types. As with ice axes though, there is some crossover between the types.
C1 – These are the least rigid crampons available and are often referred to as walking or flexible crampons. Usually these will be 8 -12 point crampons (most commonly 10), and some may even lack ‘front points’ (the forward facing points at the toe) altogether. Walking crampons are usually attached to the boot with a strap and cage arrangement, which is the most adaptable and versatile sort of crampon binding, being easily adapted for different footwear.
The flexibility of C1 crampons comes from the connecting bar that attaches the front and rear sections of the crampon. This bar is made using flexible steel or alloy in a C1 crampon. Due to their inherent flex, C1 crampons are the easiest and most comfortable to walk in, making them the best choice for hill walkers looking for a general purpose crampon. They are ideal for none technical hill and mountain terrain. Their flexibility also means that these crampons will fit the widest range of boots of the 3 types. However the boots must still be relatively stiff soled and have a crampon compatibility rating (B1 at least).
C2 – Also called mountaineering, semi-rigid or 12 point crampons these are much more rigid than walking crampons. They are intended for steeper and more technical terrain than C1’s. They will usually have a minimum of 12 points, with 2 of these being front points, allowing the crampons to be used for climbing steep slopes (front-pointing). The centre bar will be rigid, although there will be some flex found at the pivot point, where the bar is connected to the front section.
Because of the rigidity of C2 crampons they must be used with stiff soled boots. These should have a B2 or B3 rating. The majority of C2 crampon designs are available with a rear heel bail binding system, making putting them on and taking them off faster and simpler than with a traditional ‘strap and cradle’ system. To use a heel bale system you will need suitable boots, with a dedicated heel notch. For boots without this notch, most manufacturers will still make a ‘strap and cradle’ model.
C2 crampons are the most versatile type, and can be used for walking, mountaineering, alpinism and easy graded ice climbing.
C3 – These are fully rigid crampons intended for climbing. Their stiffness when combined with a fully rigid boot, provides a very stable platform and less vibration when climbing, but this doesn’t allow for a lot of comfort when walking. They are also heavier and can be prone to ‘balling up’ (where snow gathers under the sole, gradually reducing the effectiveness of the crampon points), making C3 technical crampons a poor choice unless they are to be used purely for climbing. C3 crampons will usually have a heel bale and quite often a toe bale too, so it very important that they are teamed with fully compatible boots (B3 fully rigid mountain boots being the only real choice). Many C3 crampons use a modular design, allowing climbers to replace worn out front points or convert the crampon to a single point (or mono point) for greater precision.
Boot & Crampon Compatibility
You’ll notice there’s been a lot of references to C and B, 1, 2 and 3 used in the previous paragraphs. This is a fairly universal system of grading boot and crampon compatibility. Because there is a lot of crossover between these grades it should be seen as a guide rather than a rule, and of course it won’t guarantee a good fit between your chosen crampons and boots. The best option when choosing crampons is to talk to one of our experienced shop assistants, and even better if you bring your boots into the store we’ll be able to offer you a personalised fitting service.
|Boot/Crampon grade || |
|x ||x ||x |
|a ||i ||x |
|a ||a ||i |
|i ||a ||a |
|Key ||a= Ideal ||i = okay, but not perfect ||x = Not compatible at all |
Anti Balling Plates
Balling up is when in certain snow conditions, snow gathers under the crampons and soles of your boots, reducing the effectiveness of the points of the crampons, eventually becoming a dangerous ‘ball’ of compacted snow under your feet. To combat this crampons are often fitted with anti balling (AB or antibott) plates. These are very simple but perform a vital job. They are usually made of flexible plastic or rubber and flex up and down as you walk. This pops out any built up snow from under your crampons.
Anti-Balling plates whilst not essential, are highly recommended. Luckily most current crampon models come ready supplied with a set. The alternative if you don’t have them fitted, is tapping your crampons with your ice axe at regular intervals as you walk – tedious, time consuming and it can unbalance you.
Even if you have fully compatible boots and crampons, this doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to fit well together. Boots come in a variety of lengths, widths, sole depths and levels of ‘rocker’ (where the sole is curved to make walking more comfortable). All crampons should be adjustable for length, but you should also look to see if the width is also compatible with your boots.
When fitted there should be no movement between the sole of the boot and the crampon. The heel posts on the crampon should ‘hug’ the heel of the boot, nor should there be any gap under the front of the boot and the toe posts of the crampon should fit closely either side of the toebox. Too wide and the toe will be able to move around, too narrow and the front of the toe will be lifted away from the crampon. If the crampons have a heel bail, then snap this closed and see if they stay firmly attached to the boots without doing up any of the other straps. If it does stays put firmly then its a good indication that it’ll be a good fit
Be aware that some technical crampons may also have a shaped asymmetric centre bar, which will only be compatible with curved, asymmetric fit boots. Replacement asymmetric centre bars are available.
Other Traction Devices
Firstly these aren’t a replacement or a cheaper alternative for proper crampons. They are intended to give you some security on icy, yet easy angled ground (tracks and trails basically).
These come in variety of shapes and styles but the basic idea is the same; spikes or studs that fit under your footwear. Unlike crampons these ‘spikes’ will fit on any footwear, from shoes to wellies, making them ideal for a whole range of people. At the more technical end of these traction devices, the Kahtoola Microspikes are chains with spikes fitted that will fit over shoes or boots with a rubber cradle. They are designed primarily for winter trail and fell runners, so fit well over trainers and approach shoes. As they are easier to don and take off than crampons and are less bulky, they can be used for crossing snowfields or short sections of ice in marginal winter conditions. Other simpler models of traction overshoes include the Ice gripper and Snow gripper from Mountain King which are ideal for icy pavements, low level tracks and trails, but really shouldn’t be used on anything more adventurous than that.