Snowshoes vs ice cleats: which ones should you pick?


December 1, 2023


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Crampons or Snowshoes

In winter, conditions can change drastically, and at the drop of a hat. A slow winter walk in the woods can quickly turn into an exhausting, deep snow expedition. The best way to avoid this situation is to always carry your snowshoes. But then again, snowshoes may not provide the grip you need should you encounter steep or icy terrain. So, are ice cleats a safer bet? When it comes to winter traction, how can you determine which piece of gear to take with you? Expert Éric La Violette from Passionnés Rando weighs in on the never-ending “snowshoes or ice cleats” debate.  

This article was written in collaboration with Passionnés Rando

Passionés de Rando

In this article, you will discover:

  1. When to choose snowshoes over ice cleats
  2. When to choose ice cleats for a winter hike
  3. Preparing for a winter hike
  4. What to bring when winter hiking

When to choose snowshoes over ice cleats


Éric’s main tip is clear: as soon as winter arrives, always carry both pieces of equipment with you. However, snowshoes offer a clear advantage over ice cleats in many situations, such as when a trail has just been covered by a fresh layer of snow, when exploring less popular paths or when going off trail. Anyone going on a multi-day hike should also pack their snowshoes, regardless of the current forecast, as the weather could turn at a moment’s notice. As Éric mentions, a pair of snowshoes with good traction features (have a look at brands GV, TSL, Tubbs or SAIL for some good options) can often get you out of a bind if you don’t have ice cleats with you. However, the reverse isn’t true: ice cleats won’t help should you suddenly find yourself on a trail with much deeper snow than expected, and your snowshoes are in the trunk of your car!

It’s also worth remembering that while you may think you’ll be sticking to well-maintained trails or hard-packed snow, it’s often the case that only the first 100 metres of a trail are visible. You may hit a windswept valley further along the way which has been covered in fresh snow long after a snowfall or be the first person to walk a less-frequented section connecting two popular paths.

So, when can you leave your snowshoes behind? “When you’re 100% sure that what lies ahead of you is a well-travelled trail with solid, hard-packed snow without any steep or icy sections. Anything less than absolute certainty, bring them along with you,” advises Éric.

For some more tips on how to choose the best snowshoes for your needs, read our blog article.

When to choose ice cleats for a winter hike

Ice cleats

As mentioned, it’s always best to take both pieces of winter equipment with you, just in case. But can you ever leave the snowshoes in the car? “Yes, when there are no unknown factors. This could be a trail you have hiked several times before, and in various snow conditions,” says Éric. However, leaving your snowshoes behind is always a risky move. Most hikers wear them, and switch to ice cleats to tackle a particularly steep or icy section of the trail.

When choosing winter crampons, remember that micro spikes are unlikely to provide you with the level of grip you need on the trails. Any winter exploring that doesn’t take place in an urban setting is likely to require aggressive traction. Opt for a solid trail model, with 10 or 12 metal points. Have a look at brand Hillsound’s product range for a good quality pair of ice cleats.

It’s important to test your ice cleats before heading out, reminds Éric. You’ll need to make sure they fit well on your boots, as loose cleats may fall off during your hike. Anything too tight simply won’t go over your boots.

For additional tips on how to choose the right winter crampons, have a look at the article on our blog.

Preparing for a winter hike

Snowshoe Hiking

To carry both your snowshoes and your ice cleats with you, you’ll need a good backpack with plenty of compression straps. Use those to affix your snowshoes to your bag, while making sure you don’t position the straps directly over the snowshoes’ crampons, as they may end up cutting into the straps. Position your snowshoes vertically so you don’t get stuck in branches when traversing narrower sections.

Again, test your setup before heading off. Fall is the perfect time to check your gear. Have a look at your bindings to ensure they are solid, and experiment to find the best way to attach your equipment to your backpack. It’s best not to find out your straps have dried and snapped in the middle of a long frosty hike!

What to bring when winter hiking

The layering system is the best option when choosing what to wear for a winter adventure. Wear a quick-drying base layer, a warm mid-layer such as a fleece or a long-sleeve sweater, and a top layer. Depending on the weather and your chosen activity type, this could be a soft shell, or an insulated waterproof and windproof jacket. Bring plenty of spares, including a pair of Merino wool socks, mittens, a neck warmer and an extra hat.

Éric highly recommends wearing gaiters, as these will cover the top of your boots and stop snow from coming in. Hiking poles are also on Éric’s list, particularly when planning hikes with up- or downhill sections. Always carry with you something to start a fire (such as a good-quality lighter, or waterproof matches), a few pairs of hand and foot warmers and a thermal blanket in case of emergency.

A headlamp is a must, as winter days are much shorter and even a one- or two-hour delay could mean hiking back in the dark. Keeping the spare battery somewhere near your body will stop it from draining quickly in the cold temperature. Our hiking pro’s final tip? Take a couple of plastic bags with you. Should you happen to walk in a puddle and get wet feet, remove your boots, put on a dry pair of socks, and wrap your feet in the plastic bags. This way, the humidity from your wet boots won’t reach your feet.


Heading out into the wild during the coldest months of the year is always an adventure in itself. And if there’s one thing we can learn from Eric’s expertise, it’s the fact that it’s better to be “over-equipped” than under-equipped! To keep going, whatever the terrain, ice or snow conditions, snowshoes and a good pair of ice cleats are your best allies!


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