The wacky freeze-thaw cycles we’ve had this winter have left some trails bare, while others are ribbons of hardened ice. That makes ice grippers — spikes or studs attached to a flexible harness that holds them in place on your boots — a must-have commodity. Ice grippers also come in handy for hiking on hardened snow and even slippery mud, so they’re pretty much required gear for any Alaska hiker.
With that said, not all ice grippers are created equal. The small spikes and metal coils intended for in-town use aren’t always enough to keep you steady on thick, hard and sloping ice, especially if the sun has created a slick of meltwater atop the ice. Ice grippers with metal coils are especially dangerous on water-slick ice because you might find yourself suddenly ice skating by mistake.
You could use full-on mountaineering crampons — and if conditions are bad enough, you really should — but most crampons have a rigid frame, which means you have to wear a rigid-soled boot that’s not much fun to walk in.
For 99 percent of the hikers up here, the best compromise between flexibility and traction is something like Kahtoola MICROspikes or the Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra. The two products are almost identical, with many substantial steel spikes mounted on a flexible chain framework and a stretchy polymer harness that holds the whole thing against the sole of your boot.
Kahtoolas are by far the most popular ice grippers on the trail up here, and I’d recommend them to any hiker without reservation. But with that said, I actually prefer the Hillsound TCU for a few reasons. The harness fits my boots a little more securely than the Kahtoolas (your mileage may vary), and the hook-and-loop strap that passes over your instep helps snug them down a little further. (The less play there is between your ice grippers and your boot, the steadier you’ll be on your feet.)
I also like the layout of the Hillsound spikes a little better; the way they’re clustered seems like it should give a little more multi-directional grip and stability, just like the multi-directional lugs you’ll find on serious hiking boots.
So: Either brand is great, and if you see a significant difference in price, you should go for the cheapest. (You can scope out prices via the affiliate links above, or most major outdoor retailers.) But given that they typically retail for about the same amount, I’d opt for the Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra for the minor, but still relevant, differences described above. Here’s a closer look at the spike layout so you can see what I’m talking about:
P.S. If you’re shocked by the idea of paying $50 to $70 for a pair of ice grippers, consider this: They’re a lot cheaper than paying for the hospital bills or private rescue efforts that might result from a bad fall. In certain exposed terrain, you might even pay for that fall with your life. Add in the fact that either brand of ice grippers should last for at least a few years of steady use, and they both start to look like a bargain.
Photos (c) Hillsound