Winter Traction Options and When to Use Them

December 12, 2019

Winter poses an annual dilemma for many outdoor adventurers in the winter months: Do I need some form of traction gear? And if so, what kind?

Whether you run, hike, snowshoe, ice climb, or simply want to make it home safely on a slippery sidewalk, a little extra grip can go a long way. And from plowed pavement to treacherous trails, every type of terrain presents its own challenges. So what’s the best device for your chosen activity? Let’s run through a list of traction gear and some typical uses.


Yaktrax (or similar lightweight traction)
These use stainless steel coils as points of contact between your boots and the ground and provide lots of surface area stability. They’re lightweight, portable, and easy to use. Best used on packed snow, trails, or pavement free of steep icy areas, consider this option for daily walks on slippery sidewalks and non-technical hikes on snow-packed trails.

Pros: compact, convenient, cartable
Cons: not suited for inclines, and coils can deteriorate with extended use


A great choice for hard-packed snow trails with moderate inclines and low angle ice. Similar to Yaktrax, these are lightweight and relatively easy to carry but offer more stability and traction on icy terrain due to their steel spikes. Microspikes are a safe go-to for winter hikes because they’re easy to get on and off, durable, and offer more grip than the coils.

Pros: lightweight, stabilizing, inexpensive
Cons: no front points for traction on steeper terrain


Think technical terrain and serious mountaineering. These ice cleats are ideal for digging into snow and ice at any angle and offer maximum stability on steep sections of trail. Added front points allow you to grip into vertical ice as well. Crampons are a serious piece of hardware, constructed to be exceptionally strong and durable in steep, hard terrain. These are definitely for experienced hikers/mountaineers and require training to use effectively.

Pros: sturdy, secure, altitude-ready
Cons: most expensive, and advanced ability (and proper boots) required


Unlike other traction devices designed for low-snow conditions, you should bust out the snowshoes before the snow becomes packed down. Snowshoes allow you to take advantage of fresh snowfall and prevent you from expending too much energy plodding through deep powder. With their large surface area, they’re designed to keep you afloat in the snow. Many snowshoes also have the benefit of added traction points for hiking on mixed surfaces.

Pros: easy to use, great on fresh snow, ‘floating’ feeling
Cons: bulky to carry, and not suited for technical or icy terrain

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Dede Sullivan

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.