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Preview: Vargo Pocket Cleats v3 || Sub-3 oz traction for early-season backpacking

The Pocket Cleats v3 look very different than v1 and v2.

The third-generation Pocket Cleats from Vargo have undergone significant revisions since v2, which was tweaked from v1. They will be available in October or November in stainless steel ($40, 2.9 oz) and titanium ($60, 2.1 oz), each in just one size that will fit most running shoes, hiking shoes, and hiking boots.

Problems with v1 and v2

The first two generations of Pocket Cleats had a major problem: they did not reliably stay put. For example, while climbing low-angle (about 15 degrees) glacial ice in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, the arms on my Pocket Cleats rotated out of place, so that they were no longer underfoot.

This “swinging” problem wasn’t guaranteed to occur, but the possibility of it was unnerving in high-stakes situations. For example, recently I used the Pocket Cleats to climb the Northeast Gully, a 40-degree chute in Colorado’s Indian Peaks that was holding more snow in mid-July than I expected. The Pocket Cleats performed as intended (although I wasn’t confident that they would).

The squirelly fit was especially bad for shoes with thick outsoles (e.g. Hokas) or non-hourglass shapes (e.g. Altras), and during extended wear, due to stretching, slipping, and moving of the webbing straps.

The first- and second-generation Pocket Cleats were V-shaped and were insufficiently reliable — the arms had a tendency to swing outwards, out from underneath the shoe.

New design

Pocket Cleats v3 is no longer V-shaped, but a band of three square cleat pods that are centered under the shoe. The pods are connected with a heavy-duty rubberized nylon strap (i.e. Hypalon), and they can be shifted along the strap to concentrate or disperse the traction. Each pod has four triangular points, and its outsole-facing side features shorter tabs that will lock loosely into the shoe’s tread pattern.

Side profile of v3

Thin 2mm cord wraps over the top of the shoe to keep the pods in place. The front cord is tightened and secured with a cord lock. (It better be a damn good cord lock.) The rear loop must be tied, and for extra security the cord can be run through the shoelace eyelets. Relative to v1 and v2, which used side-release buckles, installing and removing v3 will be slower and require more dexterity.

The new lacing system. The front is secured with cord and a cord lock; the rear must be tied, and can be looped through the shoelace eyelets.

This new center-track design should stay put roughly in the center of the shoe. But, unlike the first two generations, it won’t provide any traction along the sides of the forefoot.

Targeted users

Vargo hopes that the Pocket Cleats will gain traction (pun intended) with early-season backpackers in the High Sierra, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountains who want additional traction for snowbound passes, as a matter of safety or efficiency. It’s also hoping to penetrate the running community, although its sales and marketing strategy sounded less developed.

The packed size is very impressive. And the weight, at 2.1 or 2.9 oz, is excellent.

Vargo clarified that the Pocket Cleats v3 are not substitutes for crampons, and are not appropriate for mountaineering. What is the difference between early-season backpacking and mountaineering? Sometimes, very little. Personally, I would discourage Pocket Cleats when ropes, belays, and ice axes are required, recommended, or reasonable. In those situations, the extra weight of more capable traction devices — such as the Kahoola K-10 or Hillsound Trail Pro — is a wise investment.


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What was your experience with v1 or v2? Care to speculate on the performance of v3?

Posted in , on July 28, 2017
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15 Comments

  1. Paul A on August 1, 2017 at 11:01 am

    It seems obvious that these are not a substitute for mountaineering crampons, but how do they perform in comparison to Kahtoola Microspikes? That would seem to me to be the main competition.

    From the photos, it looks like both devices feature the same number of similar-sized spikes. The Pocket Cleats weigh 9-10 ounces less, but the shoe attachment looks less secure. And concentrating all the spikes towards the front of the shoe could be a disadvantage in some situations, like while plunge-stepping downhill.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 1, 2017 at 11:41 am

      v3 vs. Microspikes:

      * No rear traction
      * Slower on/off and probably less secure
      * Lighter
      * Center-line traction, not dispersed across the forefoot
      * Bigger teeth

  2. U-Turn on October 5, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Do you think these would suffice for the March/April snows of a NOBO AT thru-hike? Thanks.

  3. U-Turn on October 6, 2017 at 12:43 am

    Nevermind, I see that Varga isn’t even selling them now. And I think I’m going with the Nanospikes. Thanks though for this info, and for all your other info, which I’ve been reading for quite a few years now.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      I’m not sure that Nanospikes will be the best option. They are best for icy surfaces, when those spikes can dig in. But for looser snow, I think you’ll want something with more bite, like the Microspikes. Depending on the conditions this spring, you might not need anything at all. Always a crapshoot at that time of year.

  4. Timmy D on November 27, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Any new update as to when the v3 will be available?

    • Andrew Skurka on November 28, 2017 at 8:39 am

      If Vargo works on the same timeline as other manufacturers who show at Outdoor Retailer, then v3 will be a spring 2018 product.

      They’re not a big company, and I bet that if you called they would tell you.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 5, 2017 at 9:14 am

      I just got an email from Vargo that the v3 is now available.

  5. Patrick on December 4, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    I use the V2 hiking around in the Blue Ridge or Smokies. Not unusual to run across icy Trail. They are light and I have been happy with them. I may switch to the v3 for PCT NOBO.

  6. Yirg on January 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks for the interesting review!

    Can these be used with size 13 hiking shoes? (I own Asolo Horizon GV and North Face Hedgehog Fastpack Mid GTX)

    Also, how do they compare with something like Yaktrax Pro?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 20, 2018 at 5:23 pm

      You would need to contact Vargo about the size 13. I don’t remember that detail. Seems like they should — size 13 is not mutant territory yet.

      I have not used Yaktrax in 15 years, but my impression was that they aren’t for “real” conditions — not enough bite and not durable enough. On the trails in Boulder in the winter, all the runners are in Yaktrax Microspikes, if that tells you anything. I sure as heck would not trust them while on a steep snowfield. Not sure I should trust the Pocket Cleats either, but I’ve used them enough to know they are durable and that they are a viable “just in case” option to give you more traction than a bare shoe.

      • Yirg on January 20, 2018 at 5:32 pm

        Thank you, this is helpful! I’ll check the sizing with Vargo.

  7. Khyal on April 3, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    If you havn´t checked until now, they fit easy on size 13.

    I tested it today with my Hanwag Banks Wide 13 and there was still some space.

  8. Matt S on July 24, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    My V3’s failed spectacularly on Forester Pass. The stitching completely came loose.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-tBaLN1rHM

  9. saunter on September 19, 2019 at 11:53 am

    I purchased a pair, and they broke the first time a I put them on. The stitching where the strap is folded over to make a loop was poorly done. The design has many flaws, mostly due to the fact it’s difficult to figure a way to attach them to the back of a variety of different footwear and there is nothing to keep them from sliding laterally when walking on a slope. The current design of keeping all attachments in the front and mid-foot, does not allow for traction on the heel, and creates a situation where it’s nearly impossible to keep them secure in real world conditions. Even after beefing up all the stitching so they wouldnt break, they cut off the circulation to the toes and tended to slide off laterally. I tried them for my PCT thru hike this year, through approximately 400 miles of snow/ice covered terrain, much of it steep, so was able to really see what they could do. When they would stay on, they were slightly more effective than microspikes. Putting them on is time consuming so much so that often it’s not worth the trouble. They’re very uncomfortable when tightened down enough for actual use. Conclusion: As sold, they are practically worthless, and even after strengthening the stitching, are uncomfortable, mediocre in effectiveness, and at worse dangerous, when a sudden failure happens in steep terrain with high consequences. I ended up using two pairs to build an improved design, with a cleat under the heel, an additional attachment at the back of the shoe, wider strap over the top of the toes, and they still performed poorly. I would recommend K10s instead.

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