EXOspikes™: Designed to Change the Game

EXOspikes™: Designed to Change the Game

EXOspikes™: Designed to Change the Game

It turns out, creating a go anywhere, do anything traction device is easier said than done!

At Kahtoola, we’re known for our winter traction products. You’ve probably heard of MICROspikes®, our most capable traction product in steep mountainous terrain. Or maybe you’re a runner and you’re familiar with NANOspikes®, which have the durability and low profile to perform comfortably on flat hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete. Each is the master of its domain, but things get complicated when a hike or a run is on a mix of these surfaces. So what’s the solution? Design something to fill the gap. 

That’s the challenge that Kahtoola product designers Brad Lever and Chris Bunch were confronted with in 2018, but their road to designing our most versatile traction product—the go anywhere, do anything EXOspikes™—was anything but straightforward.

The Lightbulb Moment 

When Brad and Chris arrived at Outdoor Retailer—the largest outdoor industry trade show in North America—in 2018, Kahtoola was selling two traction products: our flagship MICROspikes® footwear traction, and our newer, highly innovative NANOspikes® traction. Both had their place in making the outdoors more accessible to more people and were well received by the outdoor community. But as the two designers began talking to people at the trade show, it became clear something was missing.

“We heard from a lot of people,” recalls Brad, “They would come up and tell us about their positive experiences with MICROspikes® or NANOspikes®, but a lot of them were looking for something they could use on both the road and the trail, and at that time they needed two different products.”

As they talked to more and more people it was becoming clear to Chris and Brad that Kahtoola needed an ultra-versatile product that would perform on mixed terrain. Now on a mission, they took the idea back to the team at Kahtoola.

“Everybody got on board quickly,” remembers Brad, “It turns out our sales and customer service teams were receiving similar feedback, so as a company we decided that if we could really knock this thing out of the park, then we should go after it”.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Mocking up the EXOspikes
Cat doodles played a necessary role in the success of the EXOspikes design process.

Great Minds Don’t Think Alike

As luck would have it, not long after the decision was taken to move forward, Chris had to leave Kahtoola headquarters in Flagstaff to attend The Running Event (TRE) trade show in Austin, Texas. Chris had been with Kahtoola for over a decade at this point, but Brad had only been on the job about a month. 

“Brad, being newer, was an advantage,” says Chris, “Because he would be able to approach the initial design from a new perspective”.

So, while Chris was away, Brad was tasked with putting together the initial prototypes for their new traction device. 

“I have to say, looking back, I made some weird stuff,” laughs Brad,” When Chris came back, he looked it all over and said something like, ‘hmm…that’s interesting,’ but I think what he really meant was, ‘these are bad prototypes’! He had the experience that I didn’t, so he knew exactly why many of the ideas didn’t work. But he also picked out some ideas he thought were interesting and unique. We had this cool dynamic starting to form between us, and we worked really well together from there.”

The two designers had found a path forward, and from that point on worked closely as a team, bouncing ideas off of each other for prototyping and testing.

Chris and Brad even came up with a code name for the project together. Knowing that the new product would have to incorporate so many different elements to be successful, they decided to call it, “Enchilada”—as in “the whole enchilada”.

“Things moved very quickly in the beginning,” recalls Brad, “We would make a prototype in the morning, and then we’d go out and test it in the snow together. That afternoon, we would talk about what worked and what didn’t, then we’d do it all over again the next day.”

That back and forth resulted in three main design elements that make EXOspikes™ traction uniquely capable: The perfect balance of road and trail, the mixing of materials and design elements from NANOspikes® and MICROspikes® and a lug shape that excels on challenging, mixed terrain.

Brad and Chris testing prototypes on the snowy trails behind Kahtoola HQ.
Brad (and Chris) testing prototypes on the snowy trails behind Kahtoola HQ.

Road vs. Trail—Let the Battle Begin!

Chris and Brad started out with the assumption that the yet to be named EXOspikes™ would borrow equally from NANOspikes® and MICROspikes® and would be equal parts trail and road. 

They believed that if they kept much of the original NANOspikes® harness and bottom plate, they could beef up the lugs so that it could be used off road. Problem solved. But that design proved to be less than ideal.

“Chris and I took one of our most promising prototypes out on a day hike, and we got into some really steep terrain,” recalls Brad, “Chris was wearing it at the time and we started traversing, and the thing just kept sliding off of his foot. He couldn’t believe it. It was acting in a totally different way than we had anticipated.”

“Once we got onto the traverse, we realized our feet were literally sliding out of the harness, we were basically seeing the opposite of what we had hoped for,” adds Chris, “It was a really mind opening experience.”

So back to the drawing board they went. Prototyping and testing, until they came up with a design that worked.

During this early phase of testing, Chris and Brad relied on others at Kahtoola to test their prototypes and provide feedback. And that included Kahtoola Owner, Founder and resident adventurer, Danny Giovale—if anyone could push the Enchilada to its limits, it was Danny.

“Danny tested them a ton,” recalls Chris, “He gave us lots of great feedback, and so did many other Kahtoola Associates. It was great to get an idea of what people wanted out of this product and what they expected from it and we tried to incorporate as much of the feedback as we could. Toward the end of the testing process, we brought in athlete testers, but we got it probably 90 percent of the way there through in-house testing first.”

With detailed user feedback in hand, Chris and Brad came to the conclusion that the trail side of things needed to weigh more heavily in the equation than the road side. The stresses encountered while hiking or running on mixed, uneven terrain are more than those on the road, and that had to be reflected in the new piece of gear if it was to stand any chance of performing well on both.

“We decided that EXOspikes™ needed to be durable enough for everyday use on the road, because that’s the most challenging environment for the spikes themselves,” notes Chris, “But it also needs to be capable on the trail, which meant that the harness had to be ready for changing, uneven terrain.”

In the end, Chris and Brad decided on a design that they believe is about 25% road and 75% trail. It was the ideal balance, but getting there meant borrowing from both of Kahtoola’s existing traction products in some unexpected ways.

The many prototypes on the road to EXOspikes™.
The many prototypes on the road to EXOspikes™.

Mixing Materials and Design 

When Chris and Brad put their heads together to work out a design for EXOspikes™, they weren’t starting from scratch. 

Kahtoola’s flagship traction product, MICROspikes®, had already been around for more than a decade and had undergone numerous tweaks and improvements over the years. A secure, lightweight harness stayed glued to hikers’ footwear and aggressive underfoot traction made up of 3/8 inch stainless steel spikes ensured it was capable on steep, challenging terrain. The spikes were divided up into pairs that moved independently from one another, and those pairs were linked together using stainless steel chains. Allowing the spikes to move independently meant they would conform to uneven terrain, and that more of them would make contact with the ground at any given time. The chains also provided added traction on softer surfaces like packed snow, as they would dig into those surfaces themselves, once the spikes had reached their limit.

At the same time, NANOspikes® hadn’t been in production as long, but they were making a name for themselves on the road as traction designed for running and walking on hard even surfaces. Ultra-durable tungsten-carbide spikes resisted wear on asphalt and pavement and were embedded in a pair of shock absorbing platforms—one at the toe, one at the heel— that would disperse impact forces and keep the spikes firmly in place.

Chris and Brad knew that they already had the foundation for their new product.

“If you want something that’s high performing, durable and comfortable on hard, flat surfaces, NANOspikes® are great,” explains Brad, “But as soon as you take them out of that element, they have limitations. It’s similar, but reversed with MICROspikes®—great on steep, uneven terrain, but not what you would want to use on the road. So the question really was, how do we mix these elements together to make something that performs on both?”

They settled on the best of both worlds. Using the materials from NANOspikes® and design elements from MICROspikes®

An early prototype of the EXOspikes™.
An early prototype of the EXOspikes™.

Like MICROspikes®, the underfoot portion would consist of independent spike pairs, which would allow them to conform to uneven terrain. But instead of stainless steel chains, the pairs would be linked using a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) matrix that would better resist wear on hard abrasive surfaces like asphalt and concrete. 

“The road really has no give like a trail or uneven terrain does,” explains Brad, “So the problem with stainless steel is the asphalt acts like a file and wears it down quite quickly. But in order to keep the spikes moving independently, so they could conform to terrain variations, we had to link them somehow—we opted to keep design elements from MICROspikes® but swap out stainless steel for TPU. It would essentially do the same job, but provide better protection from abrasive surfaces.”

And because the matrix was open, it exposed the lugs of the footwear, allowing them to aid with traction when conditions were very soft.

“Most people who are wearing traction are wearing footwear with a beefy tread, like trail runners or boots,” notes Brad, “We thought, why not use that to our advantage? An open design would allow snow, rocks or other terrain features to go all the way up into the footwear lugs. If you think about it, the spikes themselves are only a third of an inch tall, but if you go all the way up into the tread, it’s almost an inch.”

In order to further increase durability and comfort on hard, abrasive surfaces, the spikes would be made from tungsten carbide, rather than stainless steel. This also allowed them to be lower profile.

“When you wear MICROspikes® on hard surfaces like a road or sidewalk, it’s like you have 12 metal spikes poking up into your foot;” adds Brad, “The rigidity of the steel creates a focused pressure point, whereas tungsten carbide on top of a softer TPU lug has some give. And because tungsten carbide is so durable, it stays sharp and can provide great traction on hard surfaces as well.”

By combining elements from both NANOspikes® and MICROspikes®, Chris and Brad were making their way to the design finish line. They had a traction device that could conform to the uneven terrain and that was durable enough to withstand use on the road. But in order for this to truly perform on the trail, small tungsten carbide spikes weren’t going to cut it. The spikes would need to be part of a larger, more versatile and aggressive lug—and for this, there was nothing Kahtoola had in its existing design arsenal.


Design new traction products

The Lugs That Broke the Mold

While EXOspikes™ borrowed heavily from MICROspikes® and NANOspikes® for much of its design, one thing truly sets this new product apart: the lugs. 

“There were some advantages to really carefully designing those,” recalls Chris, “And that began right from Brad’s early prototypes. They had large lugs that, because they weren’t sharp, didn’t provide much traction on hard surfaces, but they would punch down deep and really grip snow and other soft terrain.”

With that initial concept in mind, Brad and Chris refined the lugs to provide even more traction. The base—or widest part of the lugs—became roughly square shaped, with concave sides that provide the ultimate surface for pushing back against soft snow. At the tip are the tungsten carbide spikes and those are anchored to the square base by a slightly wider, round piece of aluminum. 

Essentially, the lugs form a traction pyramid that begins sharp and pointy at the tip for grip on hard, icy surfaces and then widens to the point where it can provide excellent traction on soft surfaces like snow, or even mud. And because they’re able to move independently of each other, the lugs can provide traction over a variety of surfaces, all at the same time. 

Although they had been in development in some form since the first EXOspikes™ prototypes were produced, the lugs were the final piece of the puzzle. In their final iteration, they were able to provide grip on a wide range of surfaces and terrain types—perfect for off road use—while remaining low profile and durable enough for use on roads or sidewalks.

Testing traction products in the snow

EXOspikes™ Comes Full Circle

By the end of their design journey, Chris and Brad had a product they believed would live up to the expectations of those that are looking for a go anywhere, do anything traction device. They had designed an exceptionally versatile traction product that excelled on both the road and the trail, without compromising durability or performance. 

In 2020, Chris returned to The Running Event, and although Brad wasn’t with him again that year, his part in the design of Kahtoola’s newest traction product was on full display—EXOspikes™ had won the show’s New Product Showcase Award! The two designers had taken a simple idea, and through a not so simple process, designed something that would make the outdoors more accessible and rewarding for countless people. EXOspikes™ had come full circle.