A woman uses an ice axe while ice climbing

Outfit for Ice Climbing Gear: How To Choose Crampons and Ice Tools

Photo: Jakub Cejpek

Tackle your winter climbing objectives with the right tools for the job.

Crampons and ice tools are the staples of every ice climbing kit. After all, when you climb ice or snow, the only interaction you’ll have with it will be via the tips of your tools and the points of your crampons. This can feel a little spooky at first, but high-quality equipment makes a big difference in how secure you feel on the ice. With the right crampons and ice tools, it’s easy to find your stride. 

Word to the wise: Because you can share tools and crampons with a partner, neither of these items should be first on your shopping list. Before you shell out for new hardware, first make sure you’re stocked up on other essentials, like warm gloves, a waterproof shell, and a good pair of mountaineering boots. But if you’ve got the basics and you’re ready to advance your winter climbing game, ice tools and crampons should be next on your shopping list. 

In this guide, we’ll cover how to choose crampons and ice tools for your climbing goals, including:

  • Ice tools vs. ice axes
  • Considerations for ice climbing vs. snow climbing
  • Ice tools: Features to look for 
  • Aluminum vs. steel crampons 
  • How to choose crampons that fit your boots

Ice Tools vs. Ice Axes 

If you come from a mountaineering background, you might be familiar with ice axes: straight-shafted tools with pickaxe-like silhouettes. Mountaineers usually carry a single ice axe as a safety precaution on steep snow in case they fall and need to self-arrest. 

While some people call ice-climbing tools “ice axes,” this isn’t exactly correct. Ice tools, which are designed for steep or vertical climbing in mixed terrain, have a more curved geometry and an aggressive pick designed for swinging into hard ice or snow. They also have ergonomic handles with pinky rests, which allow you to hang from your arms without slipping off the shaft. Ice tools are also made of different materials—often carbon or steel rather than aluminum—to make them more resistant to the powerful forces that vertical climbing can create.

Considerations for Ice Climbing vs. Snow Climbing

Ice tools come in all kinds of shapes, and the curve of the shaft is the biggest factor to pay attention to when selecting a tool. 

Steep Ice and Mixed Terrain 

On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find “aggressive” tools with heavily curved shafts and deeply recessed handles. These are ideal for climbing steep, overhanging terrain—think WI5 or WI6 ice routes or overhanging mixed routes. When swung, aggressive tools create a big arc, which provides more clearance to access ice above a roof or curtain. The geometry also positions your weight directly below the tool tip, which is ideal for balancing on small rock holds. 

Snow and Low-Angle Ice

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find tools that look like mountaineering axes but with their heads bent forward—the bottom half of the shaft is relatively straight with not much more than a pinky rest or two in the way of a handle. These kinds of tools are ideal for low-angle terrain where the handle of a more aggressively curved tool would whack against the ice with every swing, blocking your sticks. Straighter shafts are also more useful for plunging into snow in couloirs and gullies. They also tend to be easier to learn to climb with. 

Moderate Ice 

If you’re hoping to do a little bit of everything or climb mostly mid-level ice, look for a tool with a moderately bent shaft and a handle that’s recessed just an inch or so. You’ll get the best of both worlds: a comfortable geometry capable of swinging over obstacles, but without so much curve as to be awkward on lower-angle terrain.  

Ice Tools: Features to Look For 

In the mountains, your ice tool can be one of your most versatile pieces of equipment—if it has the right features. Here’s what to know and look for.

Adze: A metal fin at the back of the tool head designed for chopping steps and clearing snow. Adzes are useful for mountaineering and snow climbing but not typically preferred for vertical ice climbing.  

Hammer: A flat chunk of steel at the back of the tool head designed for hammering in pitons or snow pickets. Some hammers are built into the pick, while others are removable. 

Pick weights: Small metal wedges affixed near the back of a pick to give the tool more heft and power at the end of a swing. Tools with pick weights are heavier and can lead to arm fatigue, but usually result in firmer sticks. Pick weights are typically sold separately.

Steel spike: A metal point protruding from the base of the tool handle, usually with a large hole in the center. The spike improves traction when using the tool in cane mode for walking on relatively flat ground. The hole accommodates a carabiner, allowing you to clip to the tool for either resting or incorporating it into an anchor setup.

Molded handle: A handle that’s curved or ridged to more easily fit into the hand. A good, ergonomic handle improves grip and reduces hand fatigue over long climbs.  

Rubberized grip: A plastic or rubberized coating on the handle to provide a more tacky grip and some insulation between your hand and the cold metal shaft.   

Modular pinky rests: The crescent-shaped plastic protrusions at the bottom and in the middle of a handle are called “pinky rests” or “hand rests.” On some tools, these are movable to accommodate wider or narrower hand sizes. 

Ice-optimized pick: A pick with a sharp, narrow, and relatively straight tip, ideal for swinging into ice or snow. Look for ice-specific picks for ice and snow climbing, and “dry” or “mixed” picks for more complicated terrain.

The boots and crampons of an ice climber. Photo: Jason Hatfield/TandemStock

Aluminum vs. Steel Crampons

When selecting crampons, you’ll notice two main varieties: steel, which tend to have more vertically oriented, talon-like points; and aluminum, with more triangular, horizontally oriented points. 

Steel Crampons

Steel crampons, especially those with vertical points, are best for vertical ice and steep mixed terrain. These crampons are more durable than aluminum and tend to be very rigid, which provides better precision, reduces fatigue, and allows the crampon to withstand the forces created by kicking and standing on your frontpoints. Steel crampons are ideal for technical climbing, but are too heavy to be practical for most general mountaineering and snow- or glacier-walking. 

Some steel crampons have a singular frontpoint, or “monopoint.” Monopoint crampons are better for precise footwork in mixed climbing. The more common dual-point crampons, however, tend to provide better traction on vertical ice or snow. 

Aluminum Crampons

Most aluminum crampons have horizontal frontpoints, which enhance stability on flatter terrain and provide better traction on snow. They tend to be very lightweight and are ideal for general mountaineering, snow climbing, glacier walking, and other less technical alpine terrain. Aluminum crampons are less durable than steel crampons, so if you plan to edge on rock holds or encounter a lot of scree or talus, you may want to consider a pair of steel crampons with horizontal frontpoints instead. 

How To Choose Crampons That Fit Your Boots

There are several styles of crampon attachments, but each brand fits differently. (Always try them on your boots before you buy.)

If you have a rigid-soled mountaineering boot with toe and heel welts…

Look for an “automatic” or “step-in” crampon, which has a metal bail that fits into the welt, or groove, on the toe of your boot and a hard plastic lever that snaps into the welt on your heel. These are the easiest to put on and typically the most secure. 

If you have a rigid-soled boot with a heel welt but no toe welt…

Look for “semi-automatic” or “hybrid” crampons. These have a heel lever just like an automatic crampon, but instead of a toe bail they attach in the front via a flexible plastic “basket” and/or a set of straps. Keep in mind that some automatic crampons come with exchangeable baskets and bails to work with multiple kinds of boots. 

If you have a flexible boot or a boot without welts…

“Strap-on” crampons affix to boots via a system of webbing straps. These can be appropriate for snow-walking in lower-consequence terrain and have the benefit of fitting almost every boot out there. However, they tend to be less secure than either semi-automatic or automatic crampons.

Also keep in mind that flexible boots (and flexible crampons) are insufficient for frontpointing on vertical or near-vertical climbs. If you want to do more technical climbing, look for rigid-soled mountaineering boots with heel welts—and then buy crampons to match.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.