Do I need crampons? Planning your winter walk

Posted by Peter Burnside on 31/01/2018
Crampons are worth it for the views you gain! Photo: Shutterstock / Zakirov Aleksey

Do I need crampons for a walk in winter conditions? There’s no definitive answer, but if you’re going for anything more adventurous than a winter walk on the beach, then the answer is: ‘Yes, probably.’

Crampons were initially quite rudimentary – crude frames with horseshoe nails hammered into them, used by shepherds and farmers on steep slopes in the winter snow. From these humble beginnings evolved firstly the 10-point crampon in 1909, followed by the 12-point in 1932, hammered into being by Laurent Grivel, the local blacksmith in Courmayeur, Italy. The additional two forward-facing points were added for use on steeper terrain, and when couple with the correct technique, can make light work of hazardous, slippery slopes.

It’s easy to underestimate how fast ground conditions can change during a day’s trek, especially if you’ve only just stepped into the world of winter walking. When planning the day ahead and wondering if you’ll need crampons, consider these points:

Do I need crampons?

1. Where are you headed?
You can injure yourself slipping on an icy pavement, but would not wear crampons when heading to the shops on a winter’s day. Conversely, it would be foolhardy to walk up a snow and ice covered Ben Nevis without packing your crampons.
 
Non-mountainous upland walking areas like the Peak District or Dartmoor are popular in winter, and it would be uncommon to need crampons to enjoy a day out. However, a slip on a steep icy slope or step can always end badly, wherever you are. Therefore, route choice is an important consideration in winter, even if walking somewhere you know very well, as steep hazardous areas can often be avoided with some planning.
 
Crampons and an axe should be taken when heading to walk in the mountains of Wales, the Lake District or Scotland if the forecast or condition reports suggest freezing temperatures and extensive areas covered in snow and ice. Walking up a mountain may be fine; descending in fading light with the temperature dropping is often much more challenging.
 
Even in these mountain areas it’s possible to go for a great winter walk without axe or crampons. You’ll just need to be careful with your route choice, and mindful not to go too high and into terrain for which you are ill-equipped.

2. Forecast freeze
If there’s the potential for snowy or icy conditions in the hills, or there’s more than a dusting of snow on the ground, you should pack crampons and other essential equipment, like an ice axe and group shelter. Quite often they’ll never come out of your bag, but you’ll have them if you need them.

3. Getting technical?
How difficult is your day going to get? Keeping a firm footing is essential if you’re heading out for more than a tramp to the nearest pub. Non-technical terrain may not require crampons, but anything remotely technical or difficult should have you automatically packing them in.

Dan Middleton, BMC technical officer, says: “It's easy to underestimate how ground conditions can change both with altitude and slope aspect, or because of collecting features such as gullies. It’s also important to remember that descent can be much trickier than ascent in snowy/icy conditions, particularly if fatigue starts to set in.”

When should I put crampons on?

It’s a tricky line to tread, as wearing and walking in crampons can exhaust you quickly, especially if you’re not used to them. But inevitably you don’t want to be trying to put on your crampons after the situation requires them, which could result in an accident. Ask yourself:

  1. Is the angle of the slope you’re trying to ascend/descend steepening for quite a distance?
  2. Has the terrain become frozen, is there likely to be compacted snow and/or ice?
  3. Will a slip or trip likely result in a slide back down the slope? Or is there a sheer drop nearby?

If any of these is a yes, it’s time to put those crampons on. You should only be putting your crampons on when it increases safety, but deciding the exact spot takes experience. With a semi-stiff pair of boots you should be able to kick a small horizontal step as you walk in compacted snow, but once it gets harder to do so then it’s time to stop and find a flat spot to put your crampons on.

Remember, the best way to learn how to use your crampons and when to use them is to learn from someone more experienced, attend a course run by a qualified instructor, or failing that watch our series of winter skills videos online.

Elfyn, BMC access officer for Wales/Cymru, says: “Inevitably we all tend to put our crampons on too late and end up teetering on a steep icy snow slope trying to fit them onto our boots – well, I do anyway! So put them on before the angle steepens. Also don’t forget the other essentials in winter – especially a working headtorch due to short days and the likelihood of a walk/climb taking much longer than expected in winter and under snow conditions.”

What about an axe?

It is common to use your axe when not wearing crampons, and once crampons are on, you should have an axe in your hand too. Keep an eye out for our upcoming article on ‘Do I need an ice axe’ and watch Winter skills 1.3: How to choose an ice axe on BMC TV.

How to choose the right crampons

If you haven’t got any yet, read our Crampons for mortals guide on how to choose the right ones for you. Don’t forget, you can brush up on all your skills before hitting the snow with our series of Winter Skills videos. Start off with Winter skills 1.1: choosing winter boots and crampons, and make your way through them all via Winter skills 2.3 and 2.4: how to put on crampons and walking in crampons.

WATCH: Choosing winter boots and crampons on BMC TV

Rob Dyer, BMC access officer, says: “If there’s more than a dusting of snow on the ground or there has been extended cold temps I pack an axe and crampons if heading out into mountainous areas, that way you have them if you need them; worst case scenario is you carried a little extra weight.”

Live winter conditions

Check conditions from your couch! We now have three monitoring stations with live readings of air and turf temperature at different depths. One station is located at the Cwm Idwal crag in Snowdonia, Wales, and two are in the Lake District at Great End crag and on Helvellyn! 

CHECK NOW: live winter conditions in Cwm Idwal

CHECK NOW: live winter conditions in the Lakes


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