Mountain Education Resources
Traction Adjuncts For Icy Crusty Conditions
“I’m concerned that I will have to deal with icy trail and snowpack surfaces. Will I need to bring some sort of traction device for my shoes?”
This question comes up on every one of our free Snow Course skills training classes. Naturally, we are out there to teach the techniques needed to deal with just that and our students noticed that they weren’t asked to bring anything like traction devices to train with. So, what’s the deal? What is the reality of the situation?
Please read our perspective in “Let’s Talk Snowshoes in the Spring Sierra – or Not.” In a nutshell, you can make ample progress over snow through the use of timing. If that is insufficient, bring snowshoes so you can keep going without postholing. As far as icy conditions, anyone can walk carefully over flat, crusty snow with most shoes and do just fine. What we worry about is the “evasive action” maneuver which you will resort to when you lose your balance, through no fault of your own, place that quick step to regain things, just to slip again and fall because of your sole’s design and stiffness. It’s what we do after we find ourselves in trouble, learning from the event, and making sure that it doesn’t happen again that concerns us more.
What we find is that most trail runners and light-weight shoes have soft and continuous soles (compared to the lug-soled Vibrams that lasted 2000 miles before resoling and had separate, vertical heels). The soles roll and bend over hard items on the terrain to a degree based on which one you buy. When it comes to snow and ice, especially on any kind of traverses, like those just getting out of a creek bed, you want to place you foot flat on the snow, so your foot doesn’t slide sideways suddenly. You want to be able to grip onto any and every hard edge your sole can find rather than roll or slide over it, thus the stiff lug sole. The added benefit of the stiff and sharp-edged sole (think 90-degree edge at the side of the rubber sole) is that you can aggressively kick into the icy crust with the uphill edge of your boot just enough to obtain that flat footing you need for balance-assuring safety with each step.
The separate and vertical heel of the heavy-duty Vibram-lug soled boot works as a great brake surface when in soft tread material like scree and crusty, morning snow. Again, you can walk carefully through all this, even the steep downhills and plunge-steps, but what about that wild, emergency step you take when you suddenly slip and hope to land a new footing on a solid, strong surface? It is this situation where inadequately mounted traction devices or adjuncts will simply come off your shoe, then off you go. If you have decided that lightweight footwear is paramount over predictable safety, knowing the conditions you will be facing on descents and traverses in gravel, snow, sand, and mud, then go right ahead, but document for all those who follow your example all the times where you almost “lost it” (your balance and fell, that is), so they can learn from you and make informed decisions for themselves.
I can’t tell you how many times my boots have saved my balance, whether on a steep, crusty snowy traverse or a fast, gravelly, downhill switchbacking Sierra or North Cascade descent. They are my contact with the terrain and first line of protection. I want them to be durable and strong and provide predictable and dependable traction so I don’t get hurt and can get where I want to go. There’s no need for unpredictable traction devices on icy, crusty surfaces when I have hard lugs under firm mid-soles and uppers (great for all terrain, year-round) and I can even wait an hour or so for the snow to soften before proceeding.
What concerns us more is the summer hiker’s inability to recognize dangerous slopes and routes over snow and not know when to be more careful, when to stop and take the ice axe off the pack and put it in hand, before continuing on. This is where people get into trouble. They don’t have enough experience recognizing hazardous conditions to spot them before it’s too late. They can have all the “super-dooper” tools available to them and not know when and how to use them. Sure, some get through just fine and send the tools home, never having been used, but get out there and see for your self! What will work for your sense of safety, security, and peace of mind?
Therefore, the best thing you can do to make sure you have a fun, safe, and successful thru hike is to get out on the trail in every nasty condition imaginable and see what it takes to accomplish what you want, staying warm and dry, eating enough to stay strong, keeping from falling, crossing creeks safely, not getting blisters, how many miles a day do I really want to do, and staying happy with your footwear, then adjust your tools and plans to make everything work better, before you leave for that 5-month hike!