Outdoor Know-How: Walking On Ice

Ice Traction Under Foot – Ice Cleats and Crampons…

Traveling on foot, whether a few paces around the ice fishing hole, or trekking across a wind-swept, glass-smooth frozen lake, can be quite the balancing act sometimes. Those who purposefully step out onto the ice as part of their outdoor recreation fix, have at one time or another found out just how bone-shattering, hip-slamming hard solid ice can be. Yet, for all its slip-sliddin’ challenges, walking on ice can open a whole new door of exploration and enjoyment of the outdoors with proper ice traction under foot.

Mention winter foot travel and snowshoeing or cross-country skiing naturally come to mine. Both, of course, require snow.  Often, the very cold winters that turn rivers, lakes and marshes into thick, slick expanses of ice, do not always produce a white mantle cover as well. Even with repeated snowfalls, patches of wind-swept, cleared ice can form within the snowy layers along a route, especially when crossing a larger body of frozen water.

From a self-reliance standpoint, fatigue can often lead to slow or weakened response to critical situations. Basically the more exhausted, worn-out you are, the more likely you might let your guard down. Concentrating on walking on dangerously slick ice is like inching along a lofty tightrope without a net – and it can sap energy from you. Using traction aids for maneuvering across ice, not only reduces your risk of a bruising fall, it requires less mental and physical stress and energy thereby saving and stretching your stamina reserves.

When encountering long stretches of exposed ice you have the option of continuing along on that hard, bare surface or remove your snowshoes/skis and step-slide gingerly across the surface. If, however,  you’ve thought ahead, you can switch to some sort of traction soles and continue on.  With one of several of the ice traction aids made to attach to your footwear, a whole new aspect of winter walking lets you enjoy the ice right from that first slick-surfaced step.


Snowshoes – Snowshoe traction aids (crampons, cleats) make for loud, grating walking on bare ice and put pressure on the crampon/cleat over the long, continuous and hard-surfaced trek over ice. More practical snowshoeing involves carefully anticipating routes, finding alternate snow-covered corridors and carrying easy-to-slip-on traction soles that fits the particular snowshoe boots you are wearing.

midwest outdoors19-feb-snowshoe cleats

Traditional wood-framed shoes can also be fitted with two types of traction grippers: a bridge-like bar of “teeth” or individual, circular cleats that look like vicious bottle caps. Either can be affixed directly to the underside of the frame across the toe bar (right beneath where the ball of your foot would step). Cleats/crampons on snowshoes work well to keep your wood or metal/composite frames from skidding with each foot step while walking along the ice surface.

One environment where cleated or crampon snowshoes work well is on icy slopes and inclines where varying temperatures (typically in later winter/early spring on south-facing slopes at higher elevations) create changing surface conditions due to thawing snow crusts re-freezing as broad sheets of glare ice. Thinner crusts will collapse providing more solid foot for the snowshoe in the softer snow below. 

A heavier crust can be managed with the biting grip of cleats on a wooden-framed shoe or with the mountaineering-like crampon claws used with modern metal/composite-framed snowshoes. On modern style frames, the crampon claws are affixed below both the toe cross bar and the heel area of each shoe.

midwest outdoors19-feb-snowshoe on slopeFor slope trekking,  a proper-fitted snowshoe enables the wearer to pivot the toe of the
boot down through the toe hole in the deck of the snowshoe and dig into the surface. A heel riser bar on some backcountry models lets the foot align better to offset the angle of the slope for better positioning of your ankle/foot against the angle of the snowshoe’s orientation.

Traction Soles –  Whether you are checking several ice fishing rigs or walking the reeds along a frozen lake, secure traction underfoot is critical for safety and satisfaction. If you are a paddler, being able to walk along a frozen water corridor that was either too shallow or cluttered to allow passage during summer is yet another often-missed opportunity that an ice traction sole makes possible. Walking along the shore of a reed-lined bank might require way too much bushwacking for a winter walk. A few more steps out onto the ice, and the pathways to roam are as broad as the icy expanse before you.

Traction soles are available in three basic options, all utilizing either straps to fit around/over a boot sole, or a second, full-sized sole covering the entire bottom of your footwear like the double sole that it is.

midwest outdoors19-feb-ice traction soles-caption-horiz

Some ice traction soles are merely studded rubber pads attached to straps that align those studs over the ball and heel of your boot held in place with elastic straps pulled up and over your boot like you would put on an anklet stocking. Traction is typically provided by a hardened metal, rivet-like stud imbedded in the sole pads.

Other slip-on traction devices use wire coils or hardened cleated bead-like studs along a chain network (like tire chains for a car). These are slipped onto your footwear and secured with stretchable rubber toe and heel-grabbing loops.

The third type are a full-soled platform quite literally looking like a slab cut from an actual studded snow tire. Thick, sole-shaped platforms have a pattern of studded cleats installed throughout the entire surface, from toe to instep to heel to provide ultimate gripping, biting power. Short of being a full, claw-grabbing ice crampon, these heavy-duty cleated soles will have you dancing across the slickest ice as those you were wearing sneakers on a tennis court.

Some lighter units may not hold up as well as the stouter models, but will be easier to fold up and carry along in your pocket or stowed in the glove compartment of your vehicle. The heavier-made ice traction straps and soles can greatly increase you range of activities on ice throughout winter.

Walking on river ice is perhaps the most dangerous of all your options, but remember, no ice is every 100% safe, no matter where it is. Stick to frozen lakes, ponds and shallow backwaters while still maintaining a high level of caution.

Be Safe; Be Smart; Have Fun!



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