Although an essential tool for winter hillgoers, choosing crampons can be confusing given the vast range of options. Hopefully the advice below will help guide your choices.
As early as the 16th century, crampons made from horseshoe nails fastened to a wooden or metal frame were being used by shepherds in the Alps. Then, in the early 1900’s, Oscar Eckenstein produced a 10-point design that Henry Grivel manufactured for him. Finally, a few decades later, Laurent Grivel (Henry’s son) added the 2 forward facing front points and we got close to the crampons we are now familiar with. There have been many changes to the binding systems and the introduction of different base plates and materials, but the key elements of Grivel’s design have certainly stood the test of time. Current models are evolutions of the designs he produced.
The main issues when choosing crampons are to make sure the ones you select are compatible with the boots you are going to use them with. They also need to be suitable for their intended use. The trouble with both these considerations is there are now lots of variations on the theme. Indeed, a visit to your local outdoor shop might leave you with more questions than answers. You can gain lots of useful information from the internet. Alternatively, it is always worth a chat with a knowledgeable staff member at a reputable retailer. The following information should also help.
A simple aid to crampon compatibility came some years ago from Brian Hall. He produced a simple system that continues to make everyone’s life far easier. As technology and techniques have developed there are some additional considerations, but Brian’s system still offers a very useful framework.
His system splits crampon styles into 3 types:
|C1||– Flexible crampons designed to fit walking boots|
– Heel and toe units linked by flexible metal bar
– Usually 10 or 12 points (may not have front points)
– Typically fasten with straps or a plastic toe and heel cradle
|C2||– General purpose 12 point mountaineering crampons|
– Heel & toe units linked by a flexible metal bar
– 10 vertical points and 2 horizontal points
– Typically fasten with plastic toe/heel cradle & strap
– Sometimes feature a toe cradle & heel clip system
|C3||– Technical crampons designed for climbing steep ice|
– Rigid design offers stable platform for foot
– Will often have vertical front points for steep ice efficiency
– May allow changing to mono points-
– Will usually have 12 points (or sometimes more)
– Typically fasten with heel clip and either toe cradle or wire bail
and boot styles into 4 types:
|B0||– 3 season leather and/or fabric walking boot|
– Flexible sole means they are not suitable for crampon use
|B1||– 4 season hillwalking boots with a semi-stiffened sole|
– Durable and supportive upper
– Often made from leather or a leather and fabric combination
– Suitable for use with C1 crampons
|B2||– 4 season boots with almost fully stiffened sole & supportive ankle|
– Thicker, more insulating uppers
– Suitable for summer/winter hillwalking and easy climbing
– Suitable for use with C1 crampons but optimised for use with C2
|B3||– A totally rigid leather or plastic mountain boot|
– Suitable for all winter activities
– Optimised for use with C3 crampons but can be used with C1/C2
This certainly makes choosing crampons easier but, as is always the case with equipment choice, there is lots of blurring around the edges.
Firstly, the binding systems need a little elaboration. This is a crucial consideration when choosing crampons. There was a time when the main choices were a strap or ski style wire binding set up. Now there are various options.
The use of a plastic cage system at the front and rear (joined by a strap) is common for C1 crampons. It is far easier and quicker to put on and take off than crampons with a full strap system. It is also less likely to come undone and holds the crampon securely to the boot.
C2 crampons often feature a front plastic toe bale and quick release wire rear binding. This system has become very popular. It is a great option providing your boot have a suitable heel welt and the sole is stiff enough.
Finally, C3 crampons often have a full front and rear wire bale system. This works great with B3 boots that have a fully stiffened sole and a suitable front and rear welt. The problem with this system in the past was that the front bale could jump off. This often became more of a problem as the front welt on boots wore down with hard use. This was very disconcerting when it happened mid way up a steep ice pitch! Many manufacturers now get around this by having a strap that runs between the front and rear bale. As an alternative, some C3’s use the front plastic bale and rear heel clip which also works really well.
Different types and models come with different numbers of points and different point orientations. For everything from general mountaineering to steeper ice climbing choosing crampons with a minimum of 12 points is usually preferable. This will be 10 vertical points and 2 horizontal points. There are models that have less and some that have more. Some crampons are also designed to be used with a single front point (mono point). It is important to consider what is the best option for your purposes.
Different crampons also have different front point orientations. For general mountaineering use most crampons will have front points that lie horizontally. However, for climbing it is usually preferable to have vertical front points as they will cut into the ice better and minimise fracturing.
Most general purpose crampons are made from steel. This is a great material as it is strong, durable and cost effective. It is also reasonably light. It makes the perfect choice for most users.
You can also buy alloy crampons. Alloy is very light but less durable than steel. These are primarily designed either for occasional use or for users who will operate just on snow. They don’t make a great option for anyone using them a lot They work well for their intended use but the alloy wears far quicker than steel when used on rock.
There are some in-betweens. For example, the Petzl Irvis Hybrid model combines a steel front section with an alloy rear piece. This offers weight savings with the durability of steel at the front where it will get more wear.
Base Plate Systems
The other big factor in choosing crampons that varies with different types is the configuration of the base plate. There was a time when fully rigid crampons were popular for steeper ice climbing. This allowed a fully stiffened platform said to offer support for users relying heavily on the front points. It worked well, but also made crampons heavy.
This option is far less popular nowadays and almost all crampons normally have the toe and heel section joined by a metal bar. This bar allows some articulation and the movement it provides will make the crampons suitable for a wider range of boot soles as it will orientate better on boots with a curve to the sole.
One exception to the metal bar link is the Petzl Irvis Hybrid crampons mentioned above. These use an extremely strong cord which, although perhaps more prone to damage, works exceptionally well. This saves weight and also allows the crampons to be folded into a very compact package.
Making sure your crampons are well fitted to your boots is vital. It’s well worth taking the time to get this sorted and practice until you become slick. Better to practice at home rather than wait until you are on a wind swept snow slope.
The golden rules when choosing crampons are that they should be a snug fit around your boot sole and there should be no movement in the system when they are tightened up. Most crampons have raised posts in the corners and the boot should sit snugly against all of these when you step in. It must also lie flat against the base otherwise it won’t be secure and snow can also start to build up between the sole and crampon.
If you have any doubts about fitting the crampons to your boots it is well worth taking your boots into your local climbing shop or seek professional advice.
Anti-balling plates are vital with crampons. Some models may ‘ball up’ more than others and the type of snow is always a major factor, but this happens to some extent on all models. It can cause a significant risk. Most models now come with anti-balling plates included.
Many rucksacks designed for winter use come with some neat bungy cord or strap attachment points which will accommodate your crampons. They can be useful, but usually it is better to store your spikes inside your rucksack. This ensures they won’t catch on things or fall off.
In that case it is useful to have a crampon storage bag to protect your rucksack and the contents from damage and snow. An alternative is those little rubber crampon protectors that cover each spike. They do the job but can be fiddly to get back on once removed (especially with cold fingers).
Crampons are amazingly durable given the abuse they are subjected too. They also don’t demand much attention, but it’s important to give them some TLC and ensure they remain safe for use. Inspection of their moving parts, fabric strapping, nuts, bolts and rivets, binding system and the metal frame and points should be done on a regular basis. It is far better (and safer) to sort any problems in the comfort of your living room rather than wishing you had.
Most crampons come with very sharp spikes and whether you need to keep them that sharp once they start to get worn really depends on what you are using them for. If you’re using them for general hillwalking and mountaineering you can run them a little blunter without adversely affecting their performance.
If you are putting up a new steep ice route you will want them to slice into the ice with the minimum of fracturing. Either way, at some point you are going to need to sharpen them and a hand file is the way to go. Don’t use an electric grinder as it can affect the temper of the metal. It’s also important to hold them firmly while sharpening. While not essential, a vice or clamp will certainly help.
Even with regular inspections, crampons can break. Luckily it isn’t very often but if it happens your objective for the day might be impossible. It is well worth carrying a simple repair kit to deal with the unexpected. A long durable strap (a spare crampon ankle strap or bike toe clip strap work well), compact multi tool with pliers and screwdriver, duct tape, a few long cable ties, a few suitably sized nuts and bolts and a length of durable bendy wire are all worth considering.
Hopefully this information about choosing crampons will prove useful, but to gain more practical knowledge please consider one of our Winter Skills Courses. There is no better way to learn how to use crampons than by learning from a professional. We’ll even lend you some to try.