Are you looking for more grip on your winter runs on snow and ice? Well, we’ve logged lots of winter miles in challenging conditions over many years to come up with the following guide to the best traction devices for winter running. Final evaluations were made in the copious snow of Silverton, Colorado and the freeze-thaw cycles of Colorado’s Front Range.
What are traction devices? They’re a removable item that goes over your running shoes to provide additional traction during winter running whether you’re running on snow or running on ice. The active portion of traction devices are a set of metal teeth, spikes, tips, or, in one case, coiled wire. Any of a number of materials connect those bits to a harness, usually at least partially made of an elastomer, that wraps the toe, heel, and, to some extent, the sides of your running shoe to keep the business end in place. Whether you call such devices traction devices, ice cleats, running grips, or crampons, this guide should help you find the right device for your next winter run.
Below, whether you’re trail running or road running, we lay out the best overall traction device as well as what we found to be the best traction devices in a variety of specific conditions, such as snow or ice, and scenarios, such as burly mountains or urban streets, so that you can get out there and enjoy your winter running safely, whatever the conditions.
Scroll through our picks for the best winter running traction devices of 2020-21 or jump to a category below:
- Best Overall
- Best Value
- Best for Mixed Snow, Ice, and Pavement
- Best for Mountain Running
- Best to Carry Just-in-Case
Best Overall Winter Running Traction Device: Black Diamond Distance Spike ($100)
Launched in Autumn 2020, the Black Diamond Distance Spike instantly jumped to the top of the winter running traction device pantheon. The Distance Spike takes its heritage from the crampon-like, chain-and-metal-spike style of traction devices but cuts the weight roughly in half without losing any grip. Where its predecessors used heavy elastomers and thick metal components, the Distance Spike moves to thinner metal, thinner elastomer, and a fabric toe cap. This easy-on, easy-off traction device provides outstanding traction on both packed snow and ice as well as supplementing traction in softer snow. These are now our go-to choice!
- Weight: 3.3 oz (93g) each (All weights are for traction device models compatible with US men’s 9 shoes.)
- Pros: Excellent grip on multiple surfaces, very lightweight for what they do, easy on and easy off, secure fit
- Cons: High price, annoyance of metal spikes on pavement, toe cap is a tight fit for bulky shoes
View the full Black Diamond Distance Spike review for more.
Best Value Winter Running Traction Device: YakTrax Pro ($30)
The YakTrax Pro (and the standard Yaktrax) are unlike any other traction device on the market in that their traction comes from metal wire coiled around an elastomer frame underfoot. The broad crossing pattern underfoot provides good traction on snow while the metal coils provide some bite when running on packed snow or ice, even if it’s less bite than traction devices with true teeth, spikes, or carbide tips. That’s the downside, but the upside is that without metal teeth, spikes, or carbide tips, YakTrax Pro are the most pleasant traction device for running on stretches of bare pavement. There’s no clicking, no odd high points underfoot, and no worry that you’re unnecessarily dulling your traction devices. In addition, the small velcro band across the top of the foot makes for a worry-free, secure fit. All in all, you get very good performance at a great price ($30)!
- Weight: 2.5 oz (70g) each
- Pros: Low cost, low weight, comfortable on stretches of bare pavement or trail, secure fit
- Cons: Less traction on ice
View the full YakTrax Pro review for more.
Best Winter Running Traction Device for Mixed Snow, Ice, and Pavement: Kahtoola EXOspikes ($60)
For some time, there’ve been traction devices that mounted carbide tips on flat panels that went under the outsole, but the Kahtoola EXOspikes literally raised the game by putting the carbide tips atop 5 mm lugs (8mm in total from TPU base to the tip). Those big lugs can make for an awkward ride atop trail shoes that already have 5 mm or longer lugs, but the EXOspikes are great for adding both lug traction for running on snow and carbide tip traction for running on ice to any and all road running shoes and trail running shoes with more modest lugs. While the Yaktrax Pro discussed are a great option for road running, the Kahtoola EXOspikes provide additional reassurance on ice.
- Weight: 3.6 oz (102g) each
- Pros: Good all-around, relatively light, very easy on and off, secure fit
- Cons: Can feel a little unstable (but plenty grippy) on uneven ice
View the full Kahtoola EXOspikes review for more.
Best Winter Running Traction Device for Mountain Running: Kahtoola MICROspikes ($70)
Just one step down from true crampons, Kahtoola MICROspikes are the burliest traction devices fit for running… and they ARE completely fit for running. First launched more than a decade ago, for many of us long-time runners, the MICROspikes were one of our first winter running traction devices. They worked great way back when and, with three incremental updates over the past decade, they continue to work great. However, with lots of strong traction device options on the market today, the Kahtoola MICROspikes stand out for their bomber construction. The MICROspikes on my shelf are the same pair I bought more than a decade ago and, even if the teeth are slightly rounded at this point, I’ve never worried that they’ll fail me whether I’m running on the snowy streets of Silverton, Colorado or bombing down a 14,000-foot peak.
- Weight: 6.0 oz (170g) each
- Pros: Excellent traction, very secure fit, burly construction
- Cons: On the heavier side, can slightly curl toes upward
View the full Kahtoola MICROspikes review for more.
Best Just-In-Case Winter Running Traction Device: Black Diamond Blitz Spike ($40)
The Black Diamond Blitz Spike is the traction device you want to carry if there’s a slight chance you may need extra traction on your run. The same goes if you know there’s a mile or two or three out of a longer run for which you’ll want additional traction. Why? These are the lightest removable traction devices out there and they pack down to nothing. Heck, they’d fit in a waist pack or even tucked into the waistline of running tights or pants.
There are a couple notable downsides to the Blitz Spike, as they’re a bit of a pain to get on such that the toe strap is comfortable and the odds of them staying on are increased. Even with care, it’s not uncommon for the Blitz Spike to slide off every couple miles. In addition, the cleats on the Blitz Spike are located solely on the forefoot and may require heel strikers to foot strike more toward the mid- or forefoot to maximize their grip on snow and ice. These factors are enough to prevent these from being a daily, go-to option; however, they do work great as a just-in-case option.
Runner Up: At just a few grams more, but doubly bulky to pack, the YakTrax Pro are another great just-in-case option.
- Weight: 1.9 oz (54g) each
- Pros: Extremely lightweight, extremely packable
- Cons: More difficult to put on, come off unintentionally, forefoot traction only
How to Choose: A Buyer’s Guide for Winter Running Traction Devices
So, which winter traction device is best for you? To find out, you should consider a couple of factors.
Will you be running more on snow or ice?
To be honest, all of the traction devices mentioned above will provide plenty of grip when running on snow. However, if you’ll also be mixing in sections of bare pavement or trail and you won’t encounter much ice, you’ll want to consider the YakTrax Pro, as their lack of spikes, teeth, or carbide tips make them more comfortable when running on stretches of harder surfaces.
Running on ice is best done with traction devices that have distinct teeth, spikes, or carbide tips, with carbide tips being ideal in that they concentrate pressure in a small area to bite into the ice. The Kahtoola EXOspikes are a great offering with carbide tips. That said, the Black Diamond Blitz Spike and Kahtoola MICROspikes also perform excellently on ice.
Will you be running on pavement, cement, or bare trail?
If you’ll be running on significant sections of bare pavement, such as running a few miles to a trailhead, or climbing on bare trail up to snowline, you might want a traction device that’s easy to get on and off, compact to store, but otherwise performs best on the snowy or icy surface on which you’ll eventually run. If you’ll be running a mixture of patches of bare pavement, snow, and ice, you might go with the YakTrax Pro, which is more comfortable when running on bare ground than traction devices with teeth, spikes, or carbide tips.
Will you be running in dangerous or high consequence conditions?
Here, we’d recommend the Kahtoola MICROspikes. They’re bomber, secure, and work in a mix of the burliest conditions. That said, you’ll likely get away with Black Diamond Distance Spike if you already own them.
FAQs About Winter Running and Traction Devices
We thought we’d pass along some more know-how on winter running and traction devices while we’re at it.
Do I need traction devices for winter running?
No. Good technique for the conditions, such as increasing the vertical aspect of your push off while decreasing the horizontal aspect, increasing cadence, and avoiding sudden turns and stops when it’s slippery underfoot, can help keep you upright and under control. That said, a traction device can provide reassurance, increase safety, and reduce the need to concentrate on footing. We’ve written more extensively on techniques for running on snow and ice.
Are there other names for winter running traction devices?
Yes. Some folks might call traction devices: ice cleats, ice running cleats, snow cleats, traction cleats, running grips, ice traction devices, ice grippers, trail crampons, or even crampons, although the last more often refers to more technical mountaineering gear.
Are there any DIY solution for adding traction for winter running?
There sure are. A time-tested approach is the screw shoe in which you screw a number of 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch hex-head screws into the lugs of each outsole. Here’s how to make a screw shoe. It’ll only take a trip to your local hardware store, a couple bucks, and a few minutes of your time if you’ve got a drill handy.
Do I need special shoes for winter running?
No, any shoes will work for winter running. That said, when there’s snow on the ground and it’s not rock hard, trail running shoes with decent-sized lugs can add traction without needing traction devices. On the flip side, it can be annoying to wear most traction devices over deeply lugged trail shoes, as the combination of external spikes or teeth and deep lugs can lead to a mishmash of very tall spikes and spikes recessed between deep lugs. (Note: If you’re interested in making screw shoes as described above, you’ll want your shoe to have distinct lugs with a bit of depth to place the screw in.)
A few running shoes do use winter-specific outsole technology, such as Vibram’s Icetrek and Arctic Grip, that increase outsole grip on ice. One such example of a shoe containing this technology is the Saucony Peregrine ICE+.
There is a whole category of running shoes (mostly trail running shoes) that have carbide tips embedded in the outsole. These generally provide outstanding traction on ice and can be quite good on packed snow if they’ve got some lug depth. The downsides are that the metal tips can be annoying (and wear down relatively quickly) on bare pavement and unless you’re into orienteering, you’ll only want to wear these shoes on winter runs where traction will be an issue. You also won’t want to wear your spiked shoes into your house, stores, or, likely, even your car. Examples running shoes with spikes include: many models of Icebug running shoes, the Salomon Spikecross, and La Sportiva Blizzard GTX.
Then, there are shoes with waterproof membranes. These can be great for shorter runs on ice or through an inch or two of snow. However, once you get into runs of an hour or two or longer, nearly all “waterproof” running shoes will become damp from sweat if not from snow entering the ankle collar and melting. Although uncommon, occasionally a winter running shoe comes out that has a water-resistant upper and this can be a nice middle ground.
Despite the fact even membraned shoes will eventually get wet on the inside, some people like to wear them for winter running with the thought they can help keep wet feet warm by reducing air flow through the shoe and holding in the heat generated by your feet.
How to care for winter running traction devices?
There’s little that needs to be done for these devices as all metal components should be made of stainless steel or another non-corroding metal. Still, it’s can’t hurt to shake them off and let them dry after an outing before storing them. For traction devices with elastomer portions, avoid leaving them in direct sunlight and hot temperatures to prolong their life. While an uncommon situation for most of us, stretching the elastomer at below their rated temperature can also decrease their lifespan.
What about using traction devices for walking?
While all of the traction devices we looked at would be suitable for running, check out this traction device roundup that’s more tuned toward walking and hiking, if that’s your primary use.
Other Winter Running Resources
Now that we’ve hopefully helped you stay upright, here are some additional resources for winter running.
- Finding Footing: Techniques for Running on Snow and Ice.
- Embracing Winter: How Do You Do It? – Lots of good commentary from personal perspectives in the comments.
- Winter Training: Making This Your Most Effective Off-Season Yet
- Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Power of Positive Self-Talk
- iRunFar’s treadmill articles, with Treadmill Training: Welcome to the Machine being a good start.
- Snowshoe Running Basics: The Why and How
- Snowshoe Racing
Fun Winter Running Reading
Finally, here are some entertaining stories about winter running.
- Why I Hate/Love Winter Running – An entertaining take on running through the winter.
- What a Drag: Joe Grant’s Susitna 100 Experience – Joe Grants writes of his struggles pulling a sled with mandatory equipment for 100 miles in Alaska’s Susitna 100 Mile.
- Geoff Roes’s 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational (350-miles) Report – Geoff Roes’s blow-by-blow report of his 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational run through the Alaskan winter.
- David Johnston, 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-Mile Champion, Interview – An interview with David Johnston after his record-setting win (4 days, 1 hour, and 38 minutes) of this 350-mile race through Alaska’s winter wilderness.
- Beautiful and Brutal: A 2018 White Mountains 100 Race Report – Bryon Powell shares the experience of running his first Alaskan winter 100 miler, the White Mountains 100 Mile, in 2018.
Call for Comments
- What’s your favorite winter running traction device or devices?
- What winter running advice do you have?