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How to choose crampons

Whether you’re a mountaineer, ski tourer or alpine climber, you’ll need crampons. Without them, any patch of ice or hard snow becomes a nightmare. Here is a guide to the types available and how to choose them.

Automatic crampons, an essential tool for winter climbing.

We are going to talk about the kinds of crampons available and their differences to help you make the right choice for your next adventure.

By Daniel Vega, head of climbing and mountaineering, Barrabes Benasque

Some history

An ice-axe is a symbol of mountaineering, but without crampons it is incomplete.

Although designed at the same time as the ice-axe, crampons were replaced for some time, by nailed boots, until approximately, the appearance of the Vibram sole.

As long as water continues to freeze in the mountains (and we hope this will be for a long time), crampons are an essential tool.

Crampons are a must, even on the most gentle frozen slopes. With the exception of ski touring, where crampons are used in specific areas, they are normally put on when you come across the first icy patch and are not taken off until the end of the activity, which means they are used on snow, ice, rock and vegetation.

This means crampons suffer a great deal, whatever the activity they are used for, and it is therefore recommendable to purchase the best quality crampons available.

Highly versatile

Firstly, we would like to stress the main feature of a crampon: its versatility.

Unlike an ice-axe, a crampon performs well, even if used for an activity it is not specifically designed for, providing the points are sharp.

Try walking in crampons designed for climbing – they work pretty well! Now try climbing with crampons designed for walking – they also work pretty well! However, try using a climbing axe for walking or climb with a walking axe...it’s pretty uncomfortable.

We can suppose that this is due to the larger variety of ice-axe designs compared to crampons, which all have the same basic structure, number of points and size.

Crampon anatomy

Parts

Every crampon frame has two parts:

  • Back, for the heel
  • Front, for the metatarsal region and toe.

They are attached by a center (linking) bar or other regulation system.

The points are located on the bottom of the crampon, usually following the shape of the boot and organized in more or less symmetrical pairs (except the varying lengths of the front points). These are attached to some type of anti-bot system to prevent snow build-up underneath.

Bindings (which can be “straps”, “automatic” or “semi-automatic”) at the heel and toe ensure the crampon stays attached to the boot. Nowadays crampons are no longer totally symmetrical and follow the curve of the foot. The strap buckle is always on the outside.

Points

Geometry. Points

Although all points are basically for the same thing, to dig into snow or ice, each lateral point and its symmetry has a specific function.

The size and geometry of the points will vary, depending on the specific activity a crampon is designed for.

All the points work together, especially when using the flat footing technique. However, just like the lugs on a boot, each point is designed for a specific use:

  • Front points: The front points are essential for use on a steep slope ("front pointing" technique).
  • Secondary points: These work together with the front points when ascending a steep slope or vertical ice. As you dig in the front points, your weight is supported by the secondary points, which bite into the surface. When walking on less steep terrain, the points increase contact with the snow.
  • Row three: Placed on the side of the crampon, the tertiary points allow a lateral grip and are useful for edging.
  • Row four: These are positioned on the back edge of the front crampon section and help retain the user, especially facing down, on the descent.
  • Row five: The first pair of points on the heel section, these points work in the same was as the tertiary points.
  • Row six: The final points at the back of the heel section work in the same way as the fourth row of points. On the descent they are important as they are the first points to make contact with the terrain.
  • Barbed secondary points: Secondary points are often barbed, which means they point forward and have dual points to offer greater diversity when ice or mixed climbing as well as for edging.

Barbed secondary points on the Petzl Sarken LL Universel

  • Heel Spurs: Heel spurs were all the rage some time ago, but are rarely used nowadays. They have been banned for competition use and they increase the risk of a fall.

 

Crampon classification

1. By front points

We have classified these types of crampons by activity.

They can be:

 

  • Crampons with horizontal front points: For non-technical snow activities
  • Crampons with vertical front points: For technical mountaineering or climbing

Horizontal front points for walking and vertical front points, for climbing

What is the difference between these points?

    • When walking, the vertical points snag the ground and cause discomfort. Moreover, except for some T-shaped points, they have poorer grip when walking on the snow.
    • In contrast, vertical points cut into ice like butter, just like an ice-pick.

2. By number of front points

    Depending on the direction and number of the points:

Horizontal Dual-Point

The classic front points with a horizontal section and downward curving points. New wrap-around systems that improve the crampon’s grip in the snow are now available.

In general, horizontal front points end in a sharp point to provide a solid grip on the ice, but wider points shaped like a screwdriver are also available and provide a better grip on uneven snow.

Horizontal dual-point crampon

Vertical Dual-Point

It all started when the front points were added to crampons: suddenly, the myths of unclimbable terrain became a thing of the past.

If simply adding front points managed to do all that…what would happens when those points are shaped like the tip of an ice-axe? The grip on ice becomes incredibly solid and reliable.

Various combinations, such as secondary or T-shaped points, counteract the grip on the snow that is lost when changing direction.

Dual-Point Vertical Crampon

Vertical Monopoint

It didn’t stop there. A single point instead of two makes climbing with unprecedented precision and making moves that were traditionally impossible with dual-points, like pivoting laterally, possible.

Monopoint crampons are used when it comes to technical climbing. Many users buy modular crampons and use the dual-point design until they try out the monopoint; the wide range of technical possibilities with the monopoint compensates for the stronger grip of the dual-point.

As for stability, the second row of points come into play to compensate.

Vertical Monopoint Crampon

Modular Crampons

There are currently a number of modular crampons on the market which allow you to transform a dual point into a monopoint crampon.

Crampons for general mountaineering and walking usually have a fixed front point, while the more technical crampons have interchangeable front points. Some models allow you to choose between a vertical monopoint and dual-point and even a horizontal dual-point, depending on the activity in question.

Petzl has an innovative crampon design which uses the same heel section with different front sections (Irvis, Vasak, Sarken). Petzl sells the front sections separately, so that they can be combined according to your needs (horizontal, vertical, 10-12 points, etc.)

3. By activity

Although we have already classified crampons according to the front points, we are going to expand as there are several technical models with horizontal points that cannot be strictly classified as “for walking”:

  • Specifically for climbing, with vertical front points
  • For mountaineering, with vertical or horizontal vertical points
  • For walking, with horizontal front points
  • Ultralight for ski touring

In spite of having horizontal front points, some mountaineering crampons have a technical climbing design. These are not ideal for difficult ice or mixed climbing, but they do perform well on couloirs or on complex mountain sections. They also give improved performance walking on snow and some prefer them for this activity.

For this reason, on our website, the crampons suitable for climbing and mountaineering are classified as technical, even though some have horizontal points, and those for general mountaineering, glacier walking or snow hiking are classified as snow-walking.

Lightweight crampons are mainly used for ski touring. To reduce weight, some of these crampons even have no linking bar between the toe and heel sections and instead are tied together with a dyneema cord or webbing. Skiers only use these crampons on specific sections of the ascent or descent.

This is pretty much all they are used for. If skis are used to approach a climbing route, the appropriate crampons should be packed. Ski touring crampons are ultra-light but they lack durability, which means they are only suitable for wearing with rigid boots.

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When choosing a crampon, it is important to try it on with the boot it will be worn with.

Crampons used to fit all boots as boots were all based on the same design. However, nowadays, injected soles and the huge variety of lug designs means not all boots fit all crampons.

It is not uncommon to find that the heel of your boot is too wide to fit into the crampons or that the lugs cause the adjustment system to open.

We recommend thinking ahead when you choose a crampon: Crampons last much longer than a pair of boots!

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Some advice:

  • For use on rock or mixed terrain: short front points.
  • For use on snow or ice: long front points.
  • A long, sharp point for ice.
  • A short, 90º edge for rock and mixed.

4. By binding system

Crampons need to be attached to the boot and feel as one solid piece that won’t come lose during activity. Attachment systems can be:

  • STRAPS:

This is the classic attachment system. A strap joins the front and back to the boot.

The remainder strap is tucked away. This is a very simple system and is easy to use.

This is the most rudimentary system and is also the least solid. However, it is universal and can fit onto any boot shape, unless of course, it is too big for the crampon. Most strap crampons can even fit onto a snowboarding boot.

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Be Careful!!

More and more, we are seeing strap crampons used for flexible hiking and trekking boots on steep terrain (summer 3,000m peaks, etc.) but we want to make clear that this is not recommendable. Flexible boots cause the crampons to come off during activity.

The fact that some strap crampons can be attached to any boot, does not mean that any boot is safe for mountaineering with crampons. Flexible boots cause many problems on steep terrain because the central bar is not flexible enough to adapt to flexible boots and consequently as the boot flexes, the length shortens in the crampon, resulting in it coming loose and falling off.

If you plan to walk on steep terrain, our advice is, for safety, use a rigid or semi-rigid boot.

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  • AUTOMATIC

 

These crampons have a steel wire bail at the toe for fitting onto a rigid boot (almost all rigid boots and ski boots are designed to fit this attachment system, except for some ultra-light ski touring models) and a rear lever that fits onto the specially designed boot heel.

Soles for automatic binding systems (rigid boot) and semi-automatic (semi-rigid boot)

Once the crampon length is correctly adjusted, when you lift the lever, it clicks into place and the whole unit becomes firmly attached. Then the heel leash is attached to prevent the lever from accidentally opening.

The unit should always be checked to ensure it is correctly attached and that the lever is tight and working correctly.

There are several benefits to this system:

  • A solid boot-crampon unit
  • Lightweight
  • Adjustment options (the boot can be moved forward or backwards for use on rock or ice, for example)

Most walking crampons do not have this attachment system and most climbing crampons do.

  • SEMI-AUTOMATIC

 

This hybrid system is a combination of the automatic and semi-automatic binding systems. It combines the front of a strap binding and the rear of the automatic system. Semi-automatic bindings fit all rigid boots and a wide range of semi-rigid boots, which offer greater comfort for summer mountaineering.

Be careful. Not all semi-rigid boots are compatible. Boots have to have a heel welt to be compatible with the heel lever.

They are versatile, as they can be used with both winter and summer boots. They are the easiest to attach and are therefore popular in cold climates (polar expeditions, 8,000m peaks) where big mitts reduce dexterity

Although they are technical, they do not allow the boot to be moved forwards or backwards for ice-climbing and the attachment is not as solid as automatic bindings. They also take up more space in your pack.

 

  • MULTIPLE

 

Some years ago, Edelrid brought out an innovative model called the Edelrid Shark: these are modular crampons with three systems in one.

Soon after that, Petzl brought out another modular crampon, with an improved design and applied the multi-function technology to their entire range. The crampon can be easily modified to suit your needs. The heel section is the same throughout and you can choose the binding system you want to use. Petzl sells the front sections separately – technical, walking, etc so that they can be swapped to adapt to the activity in question.

 

  • OTHERS

    Grivel also experimented together with Scarpa and the current Grivel SKI-MATIC range eliminates the need of the rear lever and instead has a front fastening system, which solves the problem with ski touring boots as the SKI-WALK system on boots such as the Scarpa Alien tends to get in the way of the classic crampon heel lever.

    CAMP also offers crampons for ski touring with a Low Tech heel piece to resolve this problem. They are ultra-light but are only compatible with ski boots with tech inserts.

    Another option is competition crampons, which have a minimalist design and are screwed into special boots (fruitboots) for difficult ice-climbs. Hyper-specific and non-versatile, they are mainly used for competition or dry-tooling.

 

To summarise:

  • All rigid mountaineering boots and ski touring boots can be used with automatic, semi-automatic and strap crampons.
  • All semi-rigid mountaineering boots are compatible with semi-automatic and strap crampons.
  • Walking and hiking boots are only compatible with strap crampons.

TEN OR TWELVE POINTS

It is still common to hear people recommend twelve points. This was a good piece of advice some time ago. The famous twelve-point crampon consisted of adding two front points to the ten-point crampon. This allowed the use of the new front point technique.

Nowadays this recommendation is not always so clear, since all mountaineering crampons have front points. Ten-point crampons are the same as twelve-point crampons but without the third pair of points (which are the least useful). The front section is much shorter and is much more packable, which is a benefit as it reduces weight and volume.

For those with small feet, twelve point crampons have very close fourth and fifth pairs and so a ten-point crampon is a better option. Ten-points are, in general, a good option for anyone looking for a lightweight and compact crampon for non-technical activity.

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