The What, When, and Where of Traction Devices

By: Tarin O'Donnell

danner hiking boots with footwear traction

Footwear traction is probably one of the the most underrated pieces of gear out there. We all want to tough it out and say we don't need it, until you are lying on the ground really wishing you would have taken that extra minute to put them on your shoes. 

Maybe it's an age thing, or just a tolerance thing, but I certainly appreciate footwear traction far more than I ever did before. It helps cut out the bracing and tiny steps you have to take through icy sections of trail, allowing you to keep your cadence, or at least keep moving forward! 

Chains VS Studs

There are tons of different options out there between brands and styles, but this will focus on the two styles which are a chain/spike or a more rubber and stud design. Often, I compare the differences of the two styles to car tires. Depending on where you are going, you may need to chain up. Other times, studded tires along the relatively clear roads will suffice. 

Chain Control: R3 Status

close up of snowline chainsen trail light on a boot

If you are heading out onto a trail of packed snow or ice, traction like the Snowline Chainsen Pro, Snowline Chainsen Trail Light, Kathoola Microspikes, or Black Diamond Distance Spikes are great options. Each of these is a chain/spike design. The spikes dig into the snow/ice to allow for better grip and stability through uneven terrain making them the perfect choice for hiking or trail running. 

In order to decide which of these will be the best for youthink about the distance you usually travel and what footwear you will be wearing. Are you wearing a heavy duty waterproof boot? Or running with a lighter weight trail shoe? 

The differences between all of these to take note of are:

  • Length of spikes
  • Number of spikes
  • Spike material
  • Overall weight

All of these options have some type of elastomer upper that allows them to fit on a variety of shoe types and sizes. They typically come in sizes from XS-XL, each corresponding with a shoe size range. Most times, the brands will have their own sizing chart and some even specify measurements of boots vs trail runners to ensure the best fit possible.

If you are right on the edge of a size, usually you can pop them out of the bag/box and put them on your shoe with the shoe off so you aren't standing on a retail stores nice, hardwood floors with spikes on. This gives you an idea of how easy or hard they are to get on your shoe and if the chains/spikes fall in the right place underfoot. Hint: ask an employee nicely to try them on your shoe and take your shoes off

Road Conditions: Paved or Mixed Trail

close up of kahtoola nanospike on a shoe
Kahtoola NANOspikes

When you are hitting a trail that may have some light ice/snow but is mostly pavement, you'll want something a little more low profile. Traction like Kahtoola NANOspikes are perfect for this. They are also great just for walking around town on a slick day! These are your "studded tires" for the times you need a little grip but nothing too intense.



 close up of Kahtoola ExoSpikes on a shoeKahtoola EXOspikes


If you are hitting a trail that may be a mix of road/trail plus snow & ice, the and Kahtoola EXOspikes are great. They are slightly more aggressive than the NANOspike and work well on a variety of surfaces. 

Save the Slip N Slide for Summer

person who slipped on snow

Moral of the story is some kind of footwear traction is highly recommended to have handy in the colder months. Most options have handy carrying cases and are lightweight so it's easy to stuff in a small bag, running vet, or even a pocket so you can deploy them only if/when needed!

Check out TMS ambassador, Rachel's, review on the Snowline Chainsen Pro and Trail Light Traction
Author: Tarin O'Donnell

Tarin considers herself a Jane of all trades, dabbling in a little bit of everything. She is the TMS marketing director, has a remote personal training business, and a hosts a podcast. You can find her outside mountain biking, paddleboarding, snowboarding/splitboarding, snowmobiling, and on her bc nordic skis with her dogs.

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