Mountaineering Equipment Essentials | Our Guide To Basic Mountaineering Gear
Looking for an introduction to mountaineering equipment? We've got tips on what you need to pack in your mountaineering gear bag
Choosing mountaineering equipment for the first time can be tough. As with all forms of mountaineering, packing depends on where you are heading to and how long you are going for.
Even if you are just starting out, it is always a good idea to be dressed appropriately when you are heading to the mountains. Whether you buy mountaineering gear or borrow off a friend, make sure it is warm, waterproof and fits you properly.
Layering is key to choosing the right mountaineering clothing. Rather than wearing one bulky jumper to keep you warm, it is best to layer with multiple thinner layers, so you can add or remove them, depending on the temperature.
As a starting point, mountaineering layering system is made up of:
Light Insulation Jumper
Medium Insulation Jacket
Hard Shell Jacket
Parka Jacket (depending on region/altitude)
MOUNTAINEERING BASE LAYERS
Base layers are a really important place to start when you are layering up for mountaineering. The key is avoiding cotton base layers. Cotton retains sweat and will make you feel damp and clammy.
It is best to choose a sweat-wicking material like merino wool or a synthetic material like polyester. It dries much faster than cotton underwear. Merino wool also naturally has an anti-bacterial quality to it, so you can wear it multiple times and it won’t smell as bad as your regular t-shirt.
Ortovox make fantastic merino base layers for men and women in a whole range of colours. They aren’t cheap but they are long lasting and will keep you warm when you are battling the elements.
MOUNTAINEERING LIGHT INSULATION JUMPER
Next, you want to wear a light insulation. This is usually a lightweight synthetic jumper made of fleece. It should keep you warm but also be made from a breathable material.
Most top outdoor brands will have a version of the fleece mid-layer. The North Face have a brilliant new technical fleece called the Fuseform Dolomiti which weaves two material properties into a single fabric.
It is lighter and more breathable than normal insulating layers but still warm.
MOUNTAINEERING MEDIUM INSULATION JACKET
Medium insulation is basically what is says on the tin. You ideally want this layer to be more insulating and less breathable than your previous layer. A down or synthetic insulation jacket would be perfect.
Swedish mountain brand Haglofs make great insulating jackets. The Barrier Pro III is lightweight, wind resistant and extremely packable, so you can easily stuff it in your backpack if you need to strip off some layers.
MOUNTAINEERING HARD SHELL JACKET
Shell jackets are a lightweight, waterproof, windproof layer with no insulation. The main purpose of a shell is to keep you dry and protected from the elements. It should be made from a durable waterproof material like Gore-Tex and it is good to pick one with a hood.
Arc’teryx make some of the best Gore-Tex hard shell jackets on the market. The Arc'teryx Men's Alpha FL Jacket and Arc'teryx Women's Alpha SL Jacket come with climbing features such as a helmet compatible hood.
For more information on mountaineering jackets, read our in-depth article.
MOUNTAINEERING PARKA JACKET
If you are really planning on taking on extreme altitudes, you will need to buy a whole extra layer of kit that can deal with extreme temperatures above 6000m.
Parka jackets like these form the upper end of your kit bag - they are big, bulky and very warm. These are generally worn at rest breaks on the mountain to keep your body heat in.
When layering your bottom half for mountaineering, the same rules apply as the top layering system.
First up, underwear, followed by a base layer (see above). It’s then best to wear a soft shell trouser as your next layer.
Soft shell trousers are great for climbing and mountaineering as they are made from stretchy material which allows for ease of movement, but they are also breathable and lightly insulated.
Hard shell trousers go on top of your soft shell. These are your ultimate protection from the weather - they should be durable, waterproof and windproof.
It’s a good idea to pick a hard shell that has 7/8 zips or full side zips on the side - it will make them much easier to get over your climbing boots and crampons when it is dumping with snow.
Mountain Hardwear have a good selection of soft shell trousers - like the Mountain Hardwear Men's Chockstone Trousers and Mountain Hardwear Women's Chockstone Trousers - and hard shell mountaineering trousers, as well as insulated versions.
Choosing a pair of mountaineering boots depends on which terrain you will be tackling. It’s an important decision - possibly the most crucial mountaineering gear decision you will make.
First of all, what will you be climbing? Rock? Ice? Snow? Will it be vertical ascents or hiking long distances to get to a climb? Will it be a one-day excursion or a week long expedition? How cold will it be?
There are three primary types of mountaineering boots: single boots, double boots and super gaiter boots.
Single mountaineering boots have a single upper boot - which means it doesn’t separate in anyway way. There’s no inner or outer lining that comes apart. They are lightweight and best for climbing hard rock and ice. You would wear these boots to climb most peaks in Europe.
Double mountaineering boots have separate inner and outer boots. They are heavier and generally used in very cold climates because they are warmer and the inner boot can be taken out and dried when you aren’t wearing them.
Super gaiter mountaineering boots are a hybrid of single and double boots. You can’t remove the inner boot but it is covered in a non-removable outer boot, which provides extra warmth and weatherproofing. They are better than single boots in colder or wetter climates and lighter than double boots.
Mountaineering gloves again should be chosen depending on the conditions you will be facing. Are you climbing Ben Nevis in summer or trekking up Everest?
You want your mountaineering gloves to be: a) warm and b) waterproof. Needless to say, if you hands are dry, they are more likely to stay warm.
You do need to take into account how much dexterity you will need from your mountaineering gloves. The more technical the climb, the more dexterity you will need from your gloves (i.e. thin, fitted gloves).
If you don’t need to unhook carabiners and tie knots on your expedition, then pretty much any warm waterproof glove will do.
As with all clothing in mountaineering, it is best to layer. You will need more than one pair of gloves because they will inevitably get wet.
We would recommend starting with a fleecy softshell thin glove and wearing a mid-weight insulated waterproof glove on top during the summer. For winter mountaineering, you will need a heavier mitt on top of this.
For more information on choosing mountaineering gloves, read our in-depth article
MOUNTAINEERING ESSENTIAL ACCESSORIES
There are so many accessories you can take with when you go mountaineering, but we are going to stick to the basics here for first timers.
Wearing a helmet is essential when you go mountaineering. Helmets are more lightweight and comfortable than they were 20 years ago.
So what is the difference between a mountaineering helmet and say a cycling helmet? Mountaineering helmets are designed to protect against impact from falling rocks and ice and against a wall.
One of the most popular helmets for mountaineering is the Petzl Meteor Mountaineering Helmet. It is lightweight with lots of ventilation and it has a handy magnetic buckle so you can do the chin strap up with one hand. Read our full guide on mountaineering helmets here.
Crampons are designed to grip onto your shoes to help you walk or climb up slippery surfaces. If you are mountaineering in the winter, these are essential.
Crampons vary in rigidity and flexibility. You need to make sure you are wearing the right boots before you attach crampons to them - otherwise the crampons will fall apart.
B2 boots are a good place to start - they are good for summer mountaineering and low altitude snow routes but not ice climbing. B2 boots will fit both a C1 and C2 crampon.
For more information on crampons, read this excellent guide by Go Outdoors.
Mountaineering Ice Axes
Ice axes are used by mountaineers, ice climbers and mixed climbers. Which ice axe you choose depends on what activity you will be doing.
One way to measure which size ice axe you need is simply to hold it while standing relaxed. The spike of the axe should barely skim the ground.
Whether you go for a long axe or not depends on the terrain you will be using it on. Scrambling along low angle terrain requires a slightly longer axe, while climbing a couloir or tackling steeper terrain would require a shorter axe.
We would recommend going on a mountaineering course and learning how to use an ice axe first before buying your own. You can ask your course leader for advice on which axe would suit your level of mountaineering.
You can read more about buying your first ice axe here.
Other mountaineering equipment essentials include the following:
Headlamp (with extra batteries)
Knife or multi-tool
Duct tape (for repairs)
If you are looking for more detailed mountaineering packing list, the most well-known one is called the Ten Essentials.
It was written in the 1930s and is designed to answer two basic questions: Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Can you safely spend a night—or more—out?