What Gear Do I Need to Start Mountain Climbing? Our Definitive Gear Checklist to Get You Started

In Pro Advice, Skills by Pete

Something I’ve learned over the years is that it is absolutely crucial to have the right gear when mountain climbing. By the way, please keep in mind that much of the equipment and gear I’ll be talking about is also good for a fair-weather hike in the lower regions of an alpine environment, and not necessarily the best items for actually reaching the summit of Everest. Temper this article with the level of your excursion, and if it’s a major one, please consult with your professional guide and other pro authorities in the region of your climb instead of just this article alone. This is not an activity where you can easily run back into the house or camper to grab that critical piece of equipment you “forgot”! Sheesh! That mistake could cost you comfort, health, and yes, even a LIFE!

One thing, however, is for sure. I didn’t get all my gear and equipment right off the bat and all at once! I built on the gear I had bit by bit. I’m still building on it with every climb. Packing the right gear while keeping weight in mind is very important.
The right gear helps avoid injuries, relieve stress from my knees and ankles, and keeps me stable. With the right clothing I’m not adversely affected by weather conditions, be it snow, heat or cold.
Injuries and marks from insect bites, sunburn, and twig scratches are avoided and mountain climbing is a far more fulfilling and all around better experience every time when I’m prepared and equipped properly.
I’ve prepared a mountain climbing gear checklist that’ll guide you as you prepare for your alpine excursions. I’ve broken it down in categories so you won’t have a hard time going through it. Dive in! Oh, and remember, there is no “one-list-fits-all”. Some climbers have told me they “need” to bring a book – which I find completely unnecessary. You see what I mean? Use this list as a starting point and be sure to keep the important stuff, while massaging the rest to fit your preferences.

So let’s get to the point!  What gear do you need to get started climbing mountains?  We’ll start off unpacking some ideas for clothing options that fit a wider range of activities like cold weather (and even hot weather) hiking at both low or high altitudes, and then I’ll touch on some alpine-specific items crucial to traversing high altitude, steep terrain in cold weather. I’ll talk about things like trekking poles, crampons, ropes, and other camping gear.  I’m raring to go, so let’s jump right to it!

CLOTHING

Clothing should be practical. It needs to warm you up in the cold, keep you dry in wet conditions and keep you cool in the heat. Weight is crucial here, so having fewer items to meet the maximum number of needs and wants is key. Lightweight and comfort are important as well. Sound impossible? Well, it isn’t. Multiple layers of clothing instead of one thick layer helps me adapt to a wider range of weather conditions. It makes it easier to either remove layers of clothing to cool off or to add on extra layers of clothing to warm up. I find this to be a flexible way to do more with less.

OUTER LAYER
Insulating Down vest or Jacket

Down vests or jackets are ultralight, very warm and easy to pack. They are suitable for mountain climbing without rain. They do not dry fast and are weighed down when wet. In rainy conditions, I find water-resistant down or down-synthetics most suitable.

Insulating Soft Shell Jacket

These aren’t completely waterproof and so they’re perfect for damp weather. When I’m hiking in mild rains and winds, I go for a soft shell jacket. They are also pretty warm with added insulation with knitted or Velcro cuffs. Because it’s already warm enough, I need only combine it with a thin waterproof layer in case of severe rains, making my load lighter. As a jacket that stretches and can be adjusted, it’s truly the best choice for those cold mountain climbs.

Fleece Jacket

The fleece jacket is warm, soft to touch and comfortable. It is water repellent, highly breathable and fast drying. It’s my go-to jacket for dry weather mountain climbing.

Wind Pants Or Shorts

These I wear in cool and dry conditions. They are light and keep me cool in this kind of weather. They also keep the wind out.

Hiking Pants

The best kind of hiking pants are lightweight, have multiple pockets and dry very fast. Better still are my all-time-favorites, the convertible hiking pants. Why “convertible”? Well, because they actually zip off halfway and turn into hiking shorts! Brilliant, isn’t it?

Water Proof Hiking Pants

These, not surprisingly, are more expensive than the regular hiking pants. They have an added layer of water-resistant material that keeps the water out. They are still light and breathable and can convert to waterproof hiking shorts. They are ideal for mountain climbing in wet conditions.

Waterproof or Rain Jacket

Because of the unpredictability of weather, I always carry a rain jacket with me when I go mountain climbing. A wise man once said “To be forewarned is to be forearmed”. Wait, that doesn’t quite apply here, but you get what I’m trying to say.
I have a light waterproof jacket. It folds up neatly in my backpack without taking too much space. It also doubles up as a windbreaker in not so harsh conditions. Remember, layering off is the key to less weight when mountain climbing. Where you can get gear that doubles up and can serve more than one purpose. Diversity is what we’re looking for if possible.

INNER LAYER
Underwear

There are basically three kinds of underwear to use when mountain climbing. Those with a top and bottom and full length. These then break down into different weights depending on the temperatures you’ll encounter. There are insulated options and waterproof options. It all depends on the weather conditions and of course your personal preference. I always make sure mine are breathable and waterproof in the cold and snow. Comfort and wicking ability are key points of consideration as well.

Merino Wool Long and Short Sleeved Shirt

This has become the go-to base shirt for me because of its wicking ability, breathability and how soft and comfortable it is against my skin. There are different weights available depending on the climate. Merino wool shirts are light in weight and unlike traditional wool, not irritating to the skin. No odor is retained either, so I don’t end up smelling like I’ve been mountain climbing all year without a bath. There is a bit of a downside though. It is more expensive than the nylon or polyester shirts and takes slightly longer to dry. I find that it still continues to keep me warm even when it’s wet.

Polyester Long and Short Sleeved Shirt

A polyester shirt is light and breathable. It offers protection from the sun in the heat and offers warmth when the temperatures go down. It has average odor control compared to the merino wool shirts but is, however, more durable and less expensive. It dries fast and wicks off moisture well.

Nylon long and Short Sleeved Shirt

This shirt allows a little more of an odor build-up compared to the merino wool kind. Like the polyester shirt, it is inexpensive, durable and breathable. It also wicks off moisture extremely well and dries very fast. It comes in different weights so all you need to do is pick the right weight for the climate in which you’ll be climbing.

FOOTWEAR
Mountain Boots

Proper footwear comes in different styles depending on the kind of climb, weather conditions and climate. I own a number of pairs, each suitable for different climbs: light approaches, technical approaches, and light mountain climbing.
The right pair offers comfort, avoids injury, gives a better grip on ice, rocks or desert land, and gives comfort during the climb.
Basically, footwear should be breathable enough in hot conditions, keep your feet warm in the cold and dry in wet conditions.
Be sure to consider “socks allowance” space. Half a shoe size bigger is my preferred allowance.

Socks

I start off with thin liner socks made of merino wool. These are perfect for keeping feet dry. On their own, they are sufficient for a short climb in warm dry weather. In the cold I add on layers of socks – up to 3 pairs in minus zero degree weather.
Socks must be of the right height to avoid abrasion with footwear, have enough cushioning for comfort and fit well to avoid blisters.

EXTRA CLOTHING ACCESSORIES
Glacier Glasses

Glacier glasses protect the eyes from high reflections from the ice. To avoid permanent damage to the eyes I always have a pair with me. The covering on the sides of these glasses is very important so make sure to get eyewear specifically for mountaineering purposes rather than a pair of “shades” with no lateral light penetration protection. Regular sunglasses serve a purpose, but it’s not for longer excursions in high altitudes with lots of snow, wind, and sun.
Here’s a link with some reviews to help with a sound decision.
http://www.alloutdoors.com/best-glacier-glasses-reviews/

Snow Goggles

These protect the eyes from injury from snow particles and are mostly required in climbs in snow and strong winds. I always make sure that UV protection is included. My personal preference is factor number 4. The higher, the better, right?

Sun Glasses

Just like in the snow, extreme sunlight over prolonged periods will damage the eyes. To protect them, I prefer sunglasses made of special UV-proof plastic. These offer the protection I need with the added bonus of being durable. A pair that fits just right without gaps is the best for complete protection.

Gloves

There are more gloves on the market than rotten potatoes in Idaho (no offense meant to our Idahoan friends of course!) Pick gloves that suit the weather when mountain climbing. Thin liner gloves for warm temperatures, merino wool gloves in cold temperatures and insulated waterproof gloves for rain and snow.
My rule is having a pair that keeps me warm and dry and doesn’t get in the way of sensitive tasks such as tying knots when rope climbing.
Carry extra gloves in your backpack. In my experience, you’ll always need them.

Hats

A hat offers protection from direct heat which can cause sunburn, redness and more severely, skin cancer. I always wear a wide rimmed hat when mountain climbing in hot, dry conditions.

Balaclava

In extremely cold, wind or snow conditions, the balaclava is my headgear of choice. I use a merino wool balaclava which offers extra warmth while also covering my neck, ears, and nose.

Insoles

Unlike the insoles found in a typical drugstore, the insoles we’re talking about are stiffer with more volume. High-volume insoles with a high arch are what I use for mountain climbing. Insoles provide structural alignment to avoid discomfort. Contrary to common belief, this discomfort doesn’t only affect the ankles and knees. I found that my hips, back, back or even head would pain and naturally it took a while for me to connect the dots. Blisters, hotspot aches, and discomfort during climbs are now a thing of the past with the use of proper insoles.

Poncho Trap

The best kind of poncho is light, waterproof and breathable, keeping you dry in the rain. It goes all the way down to the knees keeping your backpack dry too! A Poncho trap won’t do well in heavy rain but is perfect in thick forests where the trees break the wind and rain. I’m always careful not to wear one where it can snag on bushes and branches.

 

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING GEAR
Gaiters

Leg gaiters are a very important part of my gear. They offer not only warmth in cold and snow conditions but also protect me from insect and snake bites and those annoyingly painful scratches and wounds from twigs and bushes. They also keep sand and stones where they belong, which is specifically – out of my boots!
I use gaiters made of breathable, waterproof fabric that is also comfortable.
Make sure they are of an adjustable fit and have a strap going under your boot to keep them firm.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles increase stability and give added support in all terrain types when mountain climbing. The best type of trekking pole is one that is of adjustable length. A 90-degree angle bend at the elbow is the normal length it should be on level terrain to avoid neck, shoulder and back distress during the climb.
Instead of sitting down when I’m exhausted during a climb, I find that leaning against my trekking poles or hiking staff allows me to catch my breath. Not a bad added advantage, right?

Crampons

Crampons are used for climbs in snow and ice. With my crampons on I’m confident crossing glaciers, climbing snow slopes, frozen waterfalls scaling rocks smeared with ice. It’s best to match your crampons your specific activity. Check out this guide:

https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/crampons-snow-ice-climbing.html.

Make sure your boot and crampons are compatible.
I use the aluminum 10-point crampons. These I find them to be better and lighter for a climb in the snow. In rocky terrain, however, they tend to wear out faster than their steel or stainless steel counterparts.

Harness

Harnesses are a safety type of gear and they come in a variety of shapes for different uses. My harness, for the longest time, has been the traditional one. It’s a water repellent harness that fits over my bulky mountain climbing attire in cold, wet and snowy conditions. The detachability of the loops for the sake of that oh-so-unavoidable toilet break was an important consideration when purchasing this harness.
Overall, I’d suggest choosing a strong, comfortable and not too heavy harness.

Ice Axe

Trust me when I say that you do not want to climb in the snow or ice without an ice axe! I have used it several times, and using it to dig into the snow as my life-saving anchor was an experience I won’t soon forget. It’s also handy when cutting hand and footholds into ice, making the climb much easier.
The general rule of thumb when considering a purchase is this; the shorter the ice axe, the steeper the climb and vice versa. In other words, if you plan on trekking in lower altitudes like glacier travel, use a longer axe. If you plan on higher terrains like technical mountaineering, a shorter axe is best. We’ll get into more details in our article about axes.

Head Lamp

Because it’s hands-free, a headlamp provides illumination as I carry on with the task at hand. A waterproof, comfortable, durable and light headlight is invaluable when I’m mountain climbing. Who wouldn’t appreciate the convenience! As usual, get the best you can afford. WalMart or Sam’s Club headlamps won’t cut the mustard in rough conditions and.

Backpack

The wrong type of backpack can ruin your mountain climbing experience. This I learned the hard way, unfortunately.
The right frame, size, weight, and fit are extremely important factors to consider when purchasing a backpack. Adjustability in the strapping is important as well. My backpack has a mechanism that allows my back to air out and breathe and has a sleeve for my hydrating system so I’m always as comfortable as one can be under the circumstances.

OTHER GEAR
Tent

It’s important to have a tent as part of your gear for those multiple day mountain climbs. Conditions in an alpine environment might be too extreme and a little shelter can be the difference between freezing to death and staying alive.
The best kind is waterproof, light and liveable. My tent is resistant to different kinds of weather and setting it up is not a complicated task. It’s also resistant to snow loading and has great ventilation.

Sleeping Bag

The weather in the area I’m climbing determines the type of sleeping bag I’ll use. General guidelines dictate that they need to be durable, light, comfortable, water-resistant and have some sort of temperature regulation ability.
Remember a lighter backpack is a very big concern when mountain climbing.

Umbrella

Umbrellas are perfect in a terrain where trees break the wind and rain and not in exposed terrain. In hot dry regions, it will provide the perfect shade and allow you to breathe.

Cooking Set

Apart from canned foods and dried foods, you might want to have a warm meal made from fresh ingredients when possible. For this, I always carry a light and complete cooking set. Folks at www.theadventurejunkies.com/best-backpacking-cookware-sets/ talk about where and how to get just the right set to suit your needs.

Sunscreen

This is another must-have on my list. The sun rays in direct contact with your skin can cause irritation, reddening, sunburn and worse still, skin cancer.
Every time I go mountain climbing, in addition to my protective gear, I smear on a layer of a high SPF-UV sunscreen for extra protection and then continually monitor my skin as the day wears on since sunscreen can definitely lose its efficacy over a few hours of sweating and wiping.

SPF-Rated Lip Balm

I know, I know. I sound very petty right now but your lips will thank me later for this tip. Believe me. Pack some of this and you will not regret it. I can’t tell you how many National Geographic photos I’ve seen of a darkly tanned mountaineer with glacier goggles in bright sunlight, with extremely CHAPPED lips. It’s such an easily preventable issue!

Waist Pack

I use this for the items I’ll need to access fast and frequently. It’s a handy add-on for me.

Toiletries.

Well, we all know we need these to stay clean, fresh and sanitized to mention a few uses. They include but aren’t limited to: –
• Toilet paper
• Hand sanitizer
• Soap
• Waste bags
• Sanitary towels or tampons
• Toothbrush
• Toothpaste
• Wipes
• Body oil
• Insect repellent (probably not necessary on a summit climb on K2)

Map or Compass

These guide and direct you the old-fashioned way. There are newer, more modern ways to perform this same function but I’m a sucker for the old ways. A GPS is fine, but batteries have a funny way of not working the moment you need them. That’s especially true in sub-zero temperatures.

Electronics

If you choose, you can pack any or all of these electronics. Memories are sometimes best kept in still form, aren’t they? Communication and location have also been made easier today, so if you so please, carry these along too. I always have a camera with me on all my climbs.
They include:-
• A multi-function watch
• Camera and accessories
• Personal locator beacon
• Two-way radios
• Waterproof cell phone and case
GPS

First Aid Kit

I believe this is pretty much self-explanatory and agreeably a mandatory add-on to everyone’s backpack. Do not go mountain climbing without it! It has and will continue to save lives every day.

Matchbox or Lighter

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all rub two stones together and voila! A flame! Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, so remember to carry a matchbox or lighter with you if you intend to have a cooked meal at some point in your climb. There are lighters (ie. dollar store) that are 100% useless in cold temperatures and a little breeze, so don’t skimp on this potentially life-saving item.

 

Super Brief Outline and Intro to Basic Gear

Before you set off for the mountains, do some research on your intended destination and prepare accordingly. Pack as light as possible, keep you and your extremities warm at all times in the cold, and most of all, enjoy the experience. I always do!

I hope you’ve gleaned a bit of goodness in this summary of some of the more common and important items you’ll need in this soul-satisfying sport. Remember to consult local experts when packing for a serious alpine excursion. Our list is helpful, but not exhaustive, nor too specific. Be sure to check out our reviews for a variety of items mentioned in this article, and as always, we welcome your helpful comments and suggestions!


What Gear Do I Need to Start Mountain Climbing? Our Definitive Gear Checklist to Get You Started was last modified: March 21st, 2018 by Pete