Mountaineering & Expeditions

Mountaineering | What Is Mountaineering And What Equipment Do I Need?

Want to learn how to get involved in mountaineering? We've got the lowdown for beginners on mountaineering equipment, mountaineering courses and much more

Mountaineering is the sport of climbing mountains – whether you are hiking in the Lake District, scrambling up Snowdon or tackling a tough multi-pitch climb in the Himalayas.

Traditionally, mountaineering referred to the sport of reaching the highest point of unclimbed big mountains. Many people think you need lots of expensive, technical mountaineering equipment – such as mountaineering boots and special mountaineering jackets – but this isn’t always the case.

Today, mountaineering is divided into many sub-categories which include hill walking, traditional and sport rock climbing, ice climbing and alpinism or winter mountaineering.

You don’t need to have expensive mountaineering equipment when you first start out

In Europe, mountaineering is often called alpinism, which refers more to difficult climbs at high altitude on mountains covered in ice and snow. If you want get seriously into mountaineering, you will need to take up rock climbing.

The Ancient Greeks believed mountains to be sacred as they physically brought you closer to heaven. However, it is thought the beginning of mountaineering started in 1492 when Antoine de Ville climbed the Mont Aiguille in France using ladders and ropes.

Mountaineering gained popularity in the 18th century and by 1857, mountaineering became a more competitive, popular sport in Britain with the founding of The Alpine Club, the first mountaineering club.

Mountaineering legend Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to summit Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, in 1953. Photo: Britannica

Today, there are two main styles of mountaineering: alpine style and expedition style. Alpine mountaineers travel light and move fast. They tend to climb mountains at intermediate altitude (2,100m to 3,700m) and some high altitudes (3,700m to 5,500m). They carry their gear between camps and try to do a single push for a summit.

Expedition mountaineers take a slower pace. They may use porters, pack animals, fixed lines and tend to make multiple climbs to bring supplies up to camps. This style of mountaineering is mainly used in high to extreme altitudes where mountains like Mount Everest can take months to climb.

There are plenty of mountaineering books and mountaineering documentaries available if you want to find some inspiration.


Mountaineering can start in the UK and Ireland. You don’t need fancy mountaineering equipment, just a passion for hiking and the outdoors. Photo: iStock

Hill walking or hiking is a great place to start mountaineering – as it is very accessible for most people. It will not only teach you how to be self-sufficient in the mountains, but you’ll also gain navigation skills and experience carrying your own mountaineering gear and food, plus camping out in the mountains. Why not try one of these mountaineering holidays in the UK?

After you’ve done for a few days summiting peaks in the UK, you could branch out to places in Europe and further abroad. The Swiss and French Alps are a really popular place to head in the summer to go hiking. Check out some of the best mountaineering holidays in the world here.

You won’t need ropes or harnesses if you are just hiking in the mountains – there are plenty of well-trodden routes to choose from that can be attempted without a mountain guide.

Once you’ve done a few treks in the summer, you might be interested in branching out into winter hiking. Scotland is a great place to transition from summer mountaineering to winter mountaineering before you take it to the steep gnarly ascents in places like the Alps.


If you are going winter mountaineering or ice climbing, crampons are among the essential pieces of mountaineering equipment you will need with you. Photo: iStock

It’s the same skills as you would use in the summer but you’ll be dealing with extreme cold temperatures, shorter daylight hours and risks such as avalanches. This is when mountaineering equipment such as ice axes, crampons and mountaineering boots are introduced – this gear will help you to move across ice and snow.

Scrambling is the next step. This is like hill walking but you scramble up sections of the route – often using your hands. Scrambling routes are graded from 1 (easiest) to 3 (hardest). Grade 2 or 3 usually require ropes in case you slip.

Rock climbing is a natural progression from here. In order to climb steeper, more difficult routes, you will need to learn how to rock climb. Indoor climbing walls can be found all over the UK. It is a great, safe place to start learning about climbing before taking your new found skills outdoors.

Finally, winter mountaineering and ice climbing are the pinnacle for every aspiring mountaineer. Here in the UK, winter routes are graded from 1 (easiest) to 10 (hardest). This involves camping, climbing and trekking up snow and ice covered mountains, using all the skills you’ve learned so far.

“Unexpected weather changes can be far more serious in winter than in summer”

When it comes to winter mountaineering, start easy, suggests Jon Garside, Safety & Training Officer from the British Mountaineering Council (BMC).

“Choose a straightforward route you know well from summer walking, but don’t head off up a scramble as your first winter outing.”

He also recommends educating yourself about how to approach hillwalking in winter, as snow can cover hazards such as rivers or could avalanche on steeper slopes.

“Unexpected changes in the weather can be far more serious in winter than in summer, and can catch out those new to the winter hills.”


Mountaineering equipment generally consists of mountaineering boots, gloves, jackets and other special mountaineering gear adapted to suit weather conditions and altitude. Photo: iStock

Choosing the right mountaineering equipment depends on how long and varied your trip will be. If you are just going on a weekend hiking trip in the UK, basic mountaineering gear would include a day backpack, water purification bottle, food, rain jacket, First Aid kit and a head torch.

However if you are heading off on a multi-day winter mountaineering expedition in the Alps, your mountaineering equipment list will be noticeably different. You will need to buy special mountaineering boots, mountaineering jackets, mountaineering gloves and other gear to suit high altitudes from a mountaineering shop.

Jon Garside from the BMC suggests boots with adequate support as well as crampons and ice axes in winter as essential pieces of mountaineering equipment.

The BMC have a great guide to winter mountaineering here plus online winter skills films on how to use equipment properly.

The best advice we can give is pack light. You won’t need a thousand pairs of pants and six electronic chargers if you are only heading into the wild for two days. Dehydrated food is great because it is really lightweight.

Forget showering, wet wipes are brilliant for a quick morning ‘wash’. Remember you’ve got to fit everything in one bag – and then carry it with you everywhere you go.


Mountaineering courses are a great way to get into winter mountaineering and learn about navigation, avalanche awareness and mountaineering gear. Photo: iStock

If you are already a keen hiker and climber but want to get into winter mountaineering, it is a good idea to book onto a mountaineering course. There are dozens of mountaineering courses to choose from.

Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore, Scotland run a range of programmes including summer alpine, rock climbing, scrambling and winter mountaineering courses. They have an amazing selection of winter mountaineering courses from avalanche awareness training to skills for coping with high altitudes, navigation and ice climbing.

This two-day winter mountaineering introduction course is a good place to start if you are already scrambling in the summer but want to move onto using ice axes and crampons to tackle terrain in winter.

The International School of Mountaineering are based in Cumbria, UK who offer some fantastic summer and winter mountaineering courses – both in the UK and abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to tackle the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route or heading on an expedition to the Andes, ISM are your guys.

There are plenty of organisations for that promote mountaineering, depending on which part of the UK you live in. For Scottish mountaineering, visit Mountaineering Council Of Scotland. For Irish mountaineering, click on Mountaineering Ireland.

If you want to know more, read our beginners guide to mountaineering courses in the UK here.

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