Maybe you've seen the Facebook meme of a girl ice skating in the street, its caption proclaiming that only in Alaska would school be canceled because it's too warm. Alaskans get it -- when temperatures stay low, we get snow. When things warm up, our world melts and refreezes, leaving us with literal skating rinks in the streets, sidewalks, parking lots and trails.
Driving on ice is dangerous but walking can be even worse: After all, you have only two points of contact to keep you stable, plus exactly zero crumple zones to buffer your impact with the ground. Even the most aggressive boots can't handle the type of rain-slicked ice we get at least a few times every winter.
Throw some ice grippers onto those boots, though, or invest in a pair of studded shoes, and you're getting somewhere. You can be "that guy" who goes running by as others perfect their best cartoon-character-on-a-banana-peel impression, his shoes never once losing purchase on the ice. You could be the person who actually makes it back out to the car with grocery bags and dignity fully intact, or the one who's not clinging to the bus stop sign to keep from sliding into the street.
Sure, properly girding your feet for slick winter surfaces is about safety -- but it's also about quality of life, or at least quality of recreation. Take it from John Clark, prime minister of purchasing at Skinny Raven: "There's a safety component, for sure; clearly, falling down and injuring yourself is an expensive proposition ... the other factor is pure enjoyment. You're going to have a much more enjoyable run if you're getting proper traction; you don't have to run stiff or chop your stride. You'll not only be able to run farther, you'll be able to run faster too."
The same goes for walkers, hikers and anyone in the grip of everyday business: more traction, less flailing. Fewer injuries. But not all ice grippers are created equal. Without fail, retailers steered me away from those ubiquitous ice grippers with metal coils and toward spikes or studs, which typically last longer and provide better traction. Here are their picks for the best ice grippers:
For runners: Clark reports great success with Due North ice grippers, which sport durable carbide-steel studs and stay put on your feet, even through the high torque of a runner's stride. If you don't want to risk losing a slip-on ice gripper or put up with some minimal play between ice grippers and your footwear, you can also opt for studded shoes.
Icebug may be the most ubiquitous brand of studded shoe in Anchorage. "We've sold thousands of those over the years," Clark said. "They have over a dozen carbide studs in each sole. Extremely durable, so that's a shoe that you're going to have for several years, just like your studded snow tire." You'll also find several models of studded Salomon shoes at Skinny Raven.
Finally, Skinny Raven can insert case-hardened steel screws into the outsoles of almost any pair of shoes for $10; it's free if you buy the shoes there or are more than 60 years old.
"We can put them in [almost] any shoe. They can be taken out at the end of the season if you want; they don't damage the shoe, and you can wear whatever shoe you're most comfortable with," Clark saids.
For hikers: "If you're gonna hike," said Toni Clark, a sales specialist at REI, "the most popular ice grippers are going to be Kahtoola." Kahtoola Microspikes aren't as expensive as full-on crampons, nor are they quite as aggressive, but their substantial, triangular metal spikes are enough to get most folks up and down local winter slopes safely. No wonder they're top sellers at both REI and AMH.
If you don't need instant gratification, you might also consider a brand that's not widely available in town: Hillsound's Trail Crampon Ultra, which is very similar to Kahtoolas but has a few multidirectional spikes (much like multidirectional lugs in a shoe) and a Velcro strap to help eliminate play from the foremost spikes.
For walkers: Jason Buttrick, climbing and ski buyer at AMH, also recommends Kahtoola Microspikes for surfaces that aren't regularly plowed and groomed. For in-town surfaces, however, he says small spikes are usually better (you don't want to look like you've suited up for Denali on the way to the coffee shop). He recommends Stabilicers from 32north, a recommendation echoed by Clark at REI.
Last but not least, John Clark of Skinny Raven suggests another particularly popular product for walkers: ICEtrekkers, which offers slip-on spikes and studded chains to help keep you steady.
Prices for slip-on ice grippers typically range from $20 to $65, and studded shoes can easily run $150 and up. That's cheaper than the time and money you'd lose from an injury -- and nobody can put a price on maintaining your dignity all winter long.
Where to buy
Where: 800 H St.
Hours: Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; closed Sunday
Where: 2727 W. Dimond Blvd.
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Monday
Where: 1200 W. Northern Lights Blvd., Suite A
Hours: Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where: 2633 Spenard Road
Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.
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