Traction devices for ultralight backpackers

Traction devices for ultralight backpackers

Snow is back for the 2017 hiking season! Spectacular amounts fell this winter and spring in the Sierra. The hiking season, especially for PCT’ers and JMT’ers, will revolve around high country snowpack, swollen creeks and the difficulties associated.

What to do? First off, be careful. Steep snow takes experience to navigate. Steep hard snow, melted and refrozen thru the many warm sunny days and cold nights typical of California summers, takes even more experience, plus special tools.

Clear thinking pared with a humble attitude goes a long way in the backcountry.

Gaining this snow and ice experience, if not already second nature, is likely too late for this summer. Make the call. Stay at home, reroute away from notorious passes, or live dangerously. Not for me to decide. But I can discuss the gear and comment on its use. Pictures of the stuff I describe are at the bottom of this article.

My background is 35 years of mountain travel, including Himalayan ascents and wintry north faces in the Alps, frozen waterfalls and backcountry skiing. These days I happily avoid the danger of the above, and mostly seek out pleasant off-trail routes with the occasional mild challenge. I do need snow, however, and find steep icy chutes and high snowy basins deep into summer far more appealing than talus and scree. 

Coming up below are the levels of preparedness to consider if going at it on the crux PCT passes, the high routes and undertaking basic peak bagging. It ranges from a very basic kit to full on boyscout excess. It is assumed that the footwear of choice is a pair of trail runners, such as Altra Lone Peak, and that the guiding philosophy is UltraLight (UL).

Nothing. No extra devices, just shoes aided by fingers clawed and ready to dig into the crust. 0oz - $0


A set of UL trekking poles. 300g/10.6oz - $160.00

Better, but still foolish. Good assistance while crossing creeks high with runoff, false security on steep snow.

UL Trekking poles and Micro Spikes. 685g/24.1oz - $230

The standard setup for an icy summer season backcountry. Getting traction to the feet is a huge leap forward in terrain going efficiency. But just a minor shuffle in the safety department. Why? The improved grip allows easy progress onto the steeps, to places where traction-less feet would have no chance of going.  Suddenly the hiker is way up on an exposed and ever steepening slope. Retreat is difficult, proceeding higher seems simpler. 

Most people finally crest the pass, breathlessly scared and relieved, soon forgetting the event. Fine. 

The very real danger with foot traction only will become apparent if slipping, stumbling, fumbling, or having gear failure: those micro spikes are held on by rubber bands: Once traction is lost, you are without tools to try and regain it. No type of crampon will do anything to stop a an uncontrolled slide. Some may even initiate a far more damaging head over heals tumble.

One UL trekking pole, one Whippet style pole, Micro Spikes. 945g/33.3oz - $330

This is now approaching a legit setup. When the going gets steep the extra trekking pole goes on the pack, Whippet in hand, spikes on feet. With an ice axe looking contraption (the Whippet) one is prepared to attempt a self arrest should a slip occur. Doing this with success takes swift reactions and instinctive moves. Slowing down a fall might be the best one can do.

Off course, when there’s no snow and ice the Whippet, which doubles as the other trekking pole, is still out and looking weird. It’s heavier than the UL pole in the other hand, with a different grip and feel. On some models the pick folds away, but most still have it sticking out in full combat mode, even when strolling sunny low land meadows. An Issue? Maybe. 

A set of UL trekking poles, a UL ice axe, Micro Spikes. 835g/29.5oz - $400

In function this selection of gear is similar to the last choice above. But better on a few other fronts. The nicely matched set of UL poles are for hiking only, then neatly tucked away when the axe is needed, and vice versa. Also, in some cases the combined weight is lower. 

A UL axe may outperform the Whippet, depending on materials. The ones with aluminum heads does not hold an edge, then dull easily. Hitting pebbles and small rocks while self arresting may damage the soft pick. Thin steel is flexible and unpleasant to hold, but far stronger and more reliable. Titanium, while pricey and rare in this application, is likely the best choice.

The weight of the head is a factor if swung penetration is in play. Setting framing nails with a jewelry hammer is difficult. Likewise, chopping steps with the adze and sinking the pick for a reliable anchor is a chore with ultralight materials.

Most UL axes, and the Whippet alike, are not tested and approved for technical use. It’s akin to the carabiner that came with your last Walmart flashlight where it says ‘Not for climbing’ on the side. They are better at digging into hard snow than a titanium spoon, but don’t blame anyone but yourself if these tools of compromise fail or underperform.

A set of UL trekking poles, a regular ice axe, Micro Spikes. 1485g/3.3 lbs - $300

A real UIAA approved axe is a burly affair. Such heft tied up in a rarely needed implement will be unthinkable for most UL backpackers. However, this is the first occurrence in this discussion where some real world advantage is being added. An ice axe, and the true, ingrained feel for using it, has taken mountaineers to very difficult summits for centuries, even before crampons. 

It can be argued, however, that using flimsy Micro Spikes with a real axe is somewhat out of balance, and a better combination for the relatively mild passes and other icy obstacles met on the PCT/JMT, is to go with upgraded hiker crampons and a lighter handheld, such as the Whippet.

Exchanging Micro Spikes (380g/13.4oz - $70) for flexible hiker crampons (495g/17.5oz - $100).

Micro Spikes, with their tiny shallow fangs set in from the edge of the footwear, and rudimentary stretch elastic harness, are a study in minimalist function. They do the job: sticking soft running shoes to hard snow, and, equally important, comes on in seconds. 

The built-in design shortcomings may again serve as a safety net: they simply do not inspire enough confidence to send hikers out onto the really steep terrain, where the rest of the gear will be woefully inadequate in case of a fall or the need for a technical bailout. 

On the other hand, if carrying the far more advanced hiker crampons with their promise of almost real performance,  the chosen handheld should be able to penetrate hard snow and ice and do honest self arrest attempts. 

Are there passes on the popular big hikes needing real ice axes and hiker crampons? No. But if one chooses to go without experience, some additional equity in the gear department does help a little.

Additional equipment: 50’ of 5mm climbing accessory cord. 220g/8oz

This could prove to be a very handy 8 ounces, especially if traveling as a group. Send the gal/guy with the most experience up the crux, heroically risking it all. Have them trailing a line that can pull the rest up, once a rudimentary belay is established. 

Or, going solo but not exactly all-out UL, you can leave the embarrassingly heavy pack on a ledge, gingerly tip toe up the steep headwall, and with the line pull up the pack.

In camp use the rope to do the bear hang. 


The weight penalty is ever present, and like always in this game, we count the grams and watch in horror as they add up. 

Try to balance your skill level with personal acceptance of risk and needed gear.  Might be the hardest equation to solve since high school calculus.

And don’t be selfish out there: Crumpled up in the talus with a broken femur will greatly inconvenience anyone along with you.


The props used for this article are not the only options. Some are old and outdated, and the stated weight and price may be inaccurate. They are as follows:

UL trekking poles: Black Diamond carbon Z-Poles, 130cm, 2016 model. 300g - $160

Micro Spikes: Kahtoola Micro Spikes, 2016 model. 385g - $70

Whippet: Black Diamond Whippet, 3 part Flicklock, aluminum, 2001 model. 410g - $100

UL ice axe, bottom: Suluk46 TiCa, 70 cm, carbon-titanium, 2016 model. 140g - $175

Mountaineering axe, top: Stubai Manaslu, FRG shaft, cast steel head, 1982 model. 800g - $70

Hiker crampons: Kahtoola K-10 aluminum 10 point, old harness, 2001 model. 495g - $100


    • Avatar
      Apr 2, 2017

      What are your thoughts on the Camp Corsa ice axe? They seem to be the most common UL ice axe but by you post it seems like you're recommending either a heavier steel axe like the Petzl Glacier Literide or the lighter titanium/carbon Suluk46 TiCa. Also, how on earth could you use a 50' accessory cord for any sort of belay? Tie it to a big boulder with a friction hitch and pull up with your bare hands? Bring alpine harnesses? Do you use a static cord or a dynamic one like the Bluewater prussik?

      • Avatar
        Nunatak Admin
        Apr 2, 2017

        Thanks for the interest! On the low to mid-angle snow and ice the article is concerned with I don't see a need for anything more than a tight hip belay and bight around the waist on the followers. As a belayer you could straddle a rock, keep the line snug, even tugging a bit and you're good. It is meant as a confidence builder for a poorly equipped beginner on a slope where an experienced leader would take a deep breath and run up. The Corsa is UL, for sure, but aluminum. I'd use it if that's all I had and be fine. The Petzl GL is a really nice, actually, but at 50cm only way too short for me. My Suluk is 70cm, but I'm 6'2".