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Gear talk: Microspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes
Kahtoola MICROspikes

Only a few years ago, there was little in the way of choice if you were looking to purchase a pair of microspikes. Today there is an almost bewildering choice. Some are good, some not so good. If chosen carefully, whatever you buy, should last many years.

Three Points of the Compass has little first hand experience of what is now available as most microspikes are quite expensive to purchase and actual opportunity to use ‘in the field’ is frequently, and increasingly, limited each year. I purchased Kahtoola MICROspikes years ago as harsher winters become the exceptionrather than the rule. For much of the year they simply sit on a shelf but each winter they get dusted off. Then, if we get a bit of decent snow or ice, I sigh, and resign myself to the additional weight and bulk potentially being added to the pack. If the conditions are right (wrong?) they can more than earn their place in my pack or preferably on my feet. Note that ‘microspikes’ is a registered brand name particular to Kahtoola but most hikers and backpackers will use the name for any similar lightweight traction device.

Kahtoola Microspikes (or are they!)
Kahtoola microspikes, or are they!

Microspikes are not in any way intended for mountaineering but can be a very welcome companion on ice, snow and frozen paths. They fill the niche between minimal slip-on traction aids that cover just the ball of the foot, or more stud like devices for the entire sole, and full on, strap on crampons. I continue to wear trail shoes through the shoulder seasons and winter rather than switch to boots, and my Kahtoola Microspikes work very well with my favoured footwear- Altra Lone Peaks.

Microspikes over forefoot of Altra Lone Peak shoes
Microspikes over forefoot of Altra Lone Peak shoes
Microspikes over heel
Microspikes over heel

The well known American brand Kahtoola was created by owner and founder Danny Giovale in 1993. Descending an icy gulley in the Italian Dolomites, he slipped on the frozen surface and slid 200m down a precipitous slope. Returning home to the US he researched the statistics of accidents on slippery surfaces and found it was the leading cause of death or injury while climbing. Likewise identifying a gap in the market, he took four years to finalise a design for a pair of packable crampons that could be used with flexible footwear for hiking. These were the KTS Hiking Crampon. Lighter and simpler microspikes, more suited to backpackers and hikers, followed in their product line. More on the supply of those later.

Mrs Three Points of the Compass hiking with Kahtoola Microspikes on the West Highland Way
Mrs Three Points of the Compass hiking with Kahtoola Microspikes on the West Highland Way

Each of my microspikes has ten stainless steel triangular spikes. Two 13mm on the heel and eight 11mm in front. The current version from Kahtoola now has twelve spikes per foot and all spikes are now a little shorter. These are attached to stainless steel chains that also provide a degree of traction. Chains are attached at the side of the foot to the eyelets of a TPE harness. They are a doddle to put on. Place the toe inside the harness against the curved bail and stretch the harness back under the foot and pull up to the back of the heel. There is a large tab at the back of the harness to aid in this when wearing gloves. Make sure the harness is properly pulled up all around the foot and that is it. No buckles, no straps. It takes less than a minute. My wife’s size Medium Kahtoola microspikes weigh 376g. Kahtoola lists a weight of 338g for their current Medium sized product. My Large spikes weigh 428g, current spec is 372g. We are all aware of how many manufacturers can massage their figures so I have no idea how accurate these currently advertised weights are.

The design of Kahtoola Microspikes has changed over the years. The model that Three Points of the Compass purchased feature a curved metal bracing bail at the front. This is absent from the current Kahtoola design. A retrograde step to my mind as this keeps the toe firm against the spikes and they are better prevented from sliding back on descents.

Another change to the Kahtoola design of microspikes is that the harness eyelets are now reinforced to prevent the likelihood of the chain cutting through the Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) harness that stretches under and around the foot.

Metal bail at front of microspikes stops the foot sliding forward and through the traction device on descents
Metal bail at front of microspikes stops the foot sliding forward and through the traction device on descents

Some microspike designs include a strap or velcro that passes over the foot to lessen the chance of the microspike being pulled off the foot. The Kahtoola design doesn’t have this. If it were a concern, it is simple to fit a length of velcro over the foot.

Because of the spikes and loose chain, it is almost essential to carry the purpose build drawcord stuffsack supplied with the microspikes to protect both pack and contents when stored. This is tough, waterproof and well made. The one shown here weighs 27g.
Because of the spikes and loose chain, it is almost essential to carry the purpose built drawcord stuffsack supplied with the microspikes to protect both pack and contents when stored. This is tough, waterproof and well made. The one shown here weighs 27g.

I am primarily a low level UK hiker. Residing in the warmer South East of England it is seldom that my microspikes have to see action. That is where they excel- affordable, adaptable, reasonable weight and fairly low bulk. They are not an overly technical and heavy piece of gear that would reluctantly be carried and is more likely to be left out of the pack at the last minute. That said, if the terrain was expected to be particularly challenging I would be looking at a more aggressive product. Also, while microspikes provide good grip on black ice on tarmac I can then feel them below my feet through the thinner soles of trail shoes. For those looking for something more suited to urban use, something like Kahtoola Nanospikes or Exospikes might be preferred. I had no issue with feeling my spikes through my soles when I wore them under similar conditions with stiffer boots.

It is interesting to note that there is another brand of microspike that bears strong similarities to my earlier Kahtoola model. This should not be a surprise. Korean manufacturer Jinheung Precision. Co. were founded in 1991 and launched their Snowline brand in 2000. Under that brand, it was Snowline that developed their own line of traction devices and released the world’s first chain type crampon- ‘Chainsen‘ in 2001.

Older version of Kahtoola Microspikes reveals the Snowline origin
Older version of Kahtoola Microspikes reveals the Snowline origin
Snowline Chainsen Rando
Snowline Chainsen Rando

Snowline began the export of microspikes to Kahtoola in 2004 and it was this product that I purchased under the Kahtoola brand. Snowline became independent of their Korean parent company in 2005 and there is now a quite wide range of their Chainsen traction devices available under the Snowline brand, each having a different degree of aggressiveness, suited to different conditions and expected use.

I think myself fortunate that I bought my microspikes long enough ago that they were still being manufactured by Snowline in Korea. Kahtoola took production of their altered microspike design to Thailand and many users have reported durability issues with the TPE and problems with the amended spikes following both the change in manufacturer and design. Whichever you might choose, microspike type traction devices are not confined to just these two companies, many outdoor gear suppliers have produced their own variant on a theme.

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