What are Ice Cleats?

Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk
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Woman shopping

Ice cleats are a form of attachable outerwear for sports shoes or boots that are used for a variety of winter-based sporting activities. They are usually designed to have an array of short metal spikes on the under sole of the shoe, which will penetrate slightly into an ice-covered surface and provide the wearer with increased traction during movement. The most common use for ice cleats tends to be in hiking and mountaineering environments, where sure footing is important to avoid injury and to progress at a moderate rate.

There are a variety of designs for ice cleats and they have been around for well over 100 years. The first official patent for ice cleats was in 1873, but, even at that point, the patent on the current version was just a refinement of earlier ideas. The traction element to ice cleats was the first area of change in the design. Initially cleats were made of iron, with the spikes centered near the toe region of a boot and not adjustable. Later refinement to the idea introduced pins that would allow movement of the location of the spikes without taking the cleats off, as well as switching to steel, which was lighter and easier to work with, and adjustable heel components.

Limitations to the protection and usefulness that ice cleats offer often involve terrain. Cleats are not ideally suited to mountain climbing itself, as they are awkward to make precise movements in and the spikes are not long enough to offer a sure grip on an angled surface. For such terrain, crampons are more appropriate foot gear. Very rough terrain can also be hard on cleats and cause the spikes and the housings they are mounted in to break. Deep snow also poses a problem for them, as they are not true snow shoes meant for trudging through heavy drifts, but instead meant primarily for a normal walking gait.

Running is possible in ice cleats, but it requires more effort than in standard winter boots and is best done on softer ground than hard pavement to prevent damage to the cleats. It is also important to keep in mind that steel is an excellent conductor of heat, so ice cleats on the soles of boots tend to make for a greater loss of body heat from feet while walking. Thick-soled boots are recommended for cleats in very cold environments.

The idea of spikes on the bottom of shoes as a stabilizer to walking, running, and climbing has been around for a long time. The technology continues to be refined with each passing year to provide more traction while reducing the weight of the cleats. Durability varies greatly with cleats, with some lasting just one winter season if used repeatedly, and some capable of lasting for many years.

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