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Traction and Comfort in Winter Hiking

The last day of January felt like it should throw up challenging hiking in New Hampshire. In fact the temperature read a solid -4 degrees at the start. But the truth is that if you aren’t breaking the trail it’s comparatively easy. The snow pack on popular trails covers up a lot of the erosion and exposed granite ankle biters that are a normal part of hiking in the White Mountains. You simply trade the pounding on your lower extremities for a different pair of challenges: traction and hours of walking with your toes pointing up.

Think about a groomed ski slope, all corduroy and pristine. Perfect for skiing down, but imagine walking to the summit straight up that slope. How do your feet grip? How does that angle feel on your ankles and calves after about an hour? That’s the dilemma of the hiker on a snow packed trail. Snowshoes and descending butt sliders press the snow down into a version of that groomed slope, albeit it two feet wide. Step six inches off trail and your foot plunges down two feet into the abyss.

Overcoming such challenges requires mechanical assistance. On the one hand you have micro spikes; one of the best inventions ever for handling winter traction issues. I’ve gushed about micro spikes before and generally they’re perfect for frozen packed snow. They become more challenging when the snow softens and begins to ball up under your feet. Walking on snowballs is just as enjoyable as it sounds. Another consideration is ice. I feel comfortable walking on ice with micro spikes on, but not walking up a slide with them. Trusting rubber bands with your general well being has limits. And this is where an upgrade is in order.

A step above micro spikes are crampons, which offer more traction with a deeper spike designed to linger in your nightmares. I see crampons and think about those times I accidentally kicked myself in the back of the leg hiking in tight terrain and shudder. But then I recall a story I read about a guy who stepped out of his tent to take a leak hiking Everest or some such place. He made the unfortunate decision to not put on his crampons and promptly slid down the mountain screaming to his death. Crampons are made for comfortable late night relief in such conditions. Truthfully, I tend to avoid most “icy slide nightmare” hiking, but sometimes you run into spots where it would be the better choice. On Mount Liberty a couple of days ago I wished I’d had them a few times as I kicked my micro spikes into frozen snow hoping for footing.

And then there are snowshoes, used by generations of people trying to get from point A to point B without post-holing every step along the way. Snowshoes have come a long way, and the best of them have crampon-like steel spikes protruding from them and a wonder for the sloped uphill hiking conditions: the heel lift. A heel lift is a metal hinge that flips up to offer welcome support for your heel. It effectively levels your foot on a slope, creating a more comfortable hiking angle. Snowshoes come in different sizes based on your weight and the type of snow you’re hiking it. I have a great set of Tubbs snowshoes that are perfect for fluffy powder walks in open terrain. Being a tall clydesdale my shoes are 36″ long, which makes them a challenge on tight trail hiking. And with the trail compacted it’s simply easier to stick with the micro spikes or crampons. Using shorter snowshoes for compacted snow would offer the best of both worlds.

There are times when you might put all three on in the same hike. I didn’t bring crampons on my last hike but wore the snowshoes for an hour during a steep ascent in packed powder. My hiking partner that day chose to stick with micro spikes on the ascent and flew up the hill with me gasping to keep up with the extra burn of snowshoes. When I conceded and switched back to micro spikes our hiking speed equalized again. He wore his crampons on the descent while I wore micro spikes. In softening snow broken down by many hikers at that time of the day it was a toss-up. Had it been frozen and compacted as it had been in the morning the crampons would have been better.

Ultimately accessories are successful when you start with a great pair of boots, pick the right accessory for the terrain, and are willing to switch on the fly when things change. Another truth is that if you don’t get out there in it, none of this matters. Winter is meant to be lived in fully. Being shut up in the warm house might be comforting, but don’t we spend way too much time in our houses now? Step out there. Just wear the appropriate gear.

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