Mountaineering can take you across snowfields and glaciers to explore the vast beauty of mountains high up in the alpine. It’s a niche sport where you walk for hours tied to other people on a rope.
I’ve volunteered with an organization that instructs basic climbing to offer the experience and the knowledge of technical skills needed to climb glaciated volcanoes and know how to perform rescue scenarios if needed. Most of my experience is localized to the Cascade Mountains, where mountaineering happens in the spring and summer months.
This technical mountaineering gear guide isn’t meant to be an instructional guide on how to use the gear but a high-level packing list of things to consider bringing along.
After writing about all the gear I use on my mountaineering adventures, I decided to divide the content into three posts:
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Meaning if you click and buy some of the products linked in this post, I may earn a small percentage at no extra cost to you.
Backpack – 50 Litre or larger
Depending on how many days and remote your trip is going to be, you may find that 50 litres is on the small side of things. My preferred size is a 60 litre because I like to bring extra layers to change into or have in case of an emergency, plus I have extra room to carry friends’ gear if they need it. If you prefer ultralight, it is possible to have a smaller pack.
Find a pack based on the structure of the pack. How you pack is more important if the pack has less structure. Less important if the pack has significant structure but usually weighs more. Do you need stuff in your pack to stay dry? You’ll need room for group gear, like rope, pickets, rock protection, sleeping gear, etc.
Things to consider when buying a pack:
- Volume: Does it hold all your gear comfortably? Outside features of the pack as well, like how you can attach or strap things to the outside of the pack that may not fit or need to be inside, like an ice axe or picket.
- Size and fit: Measure the frame of the pack to your torso. Don’t just pick up a pack for its color but make sure it fits your body type. Many packs don’t fit my frame because they are made for medium-sized men.
- Comfort: Is it comfortable to wear for hours when loaded? Are there any hot spots? If the pack is full, how does it feel when wearing a helmet?
- Weight: Decide on a pack based on not only its space and fit but also how much it weighs. It will add to the pounds you’re carrying on summit day.
- Durability: Will it survive the trip? Will you be able to scrape through brush (bushwhacking) or durable for the sharp mountaineering gear like crampons and ice axes?
- Mountaineering packs at REI
- Osprey Aura AG 65 Pack – Women’s (I have an older version)
- REI Co-op Traverse 65 Pack – Women’s
Though eye protection doesn’t seem like a technical piece of gear, I will say that making sure you have glacier glasses or clear glasses for alpine starts is crucial to protect from cold wind and bright sun. Sun reflects off snow brighter than when you’re on normal forest or desert trails and depending on your trip, your approach or descent may cover long days, so having a darker tint on sunglasses can make a difference.
The goal is to help you acquire gear to keep you safe, warm, and dry without breaking the bank.
Buying gear is often a trade-off between weight and price. Light often means expensive and less durable. Cheap often means heavier. You do have options. If you’re on a budget, you can try to borrow or rent some of the gear. Chances are you’re not going to buy all the right gear the first time and you’ll continue to update gear based on your personal preferences.
A good starting point is to buy gear that is a hybrid and can span multiple activities and you can specialize lighter and high performing gear as you learn your preferences and develop your mountaineering goals.
I can’t stress this enough to go to local shops and research the gear you need. Touch and feel the durability, know the weight and how it adds to your overall load. Read manuals on the tags or online and ask friends to give advice. You can even go down a rabbit hole and pose a question on a Facebook group geared towards the outdoor sport, in this case mountaineering.
Boots can be one of the most costly items you buy for mountaineering, and there are many things to consider. For some easy snow crossing objectives, hiking boots might work well enough pairs with traction devices. However, for longer snow approaches, investing in a solid mountaineering-specific boot will make all the difference. Boots first, crampons second.
First, fit matters and can make a trip more enjoyable if your feet are happy. If boots don’t fit, chances are you’ll get blisters. Try the boots on with the social you’ll wear. Kick the wall and see how your toes feel. Stiff boots work for edging on rock and with technical crampons. Soft boots are more comfortable on the trail and over long hours.
I bought my mountaineering boots from a second hand store and they have worked out pretty well for me.
Mountaineering boots come in three common types:
- Half shank – most comfortable option and ideal for PNW objectives.
- Full shank – stiff, good for vertical ice, less comfortable for long approaches.
- Plastics – very stiff, provide warmth for colder climbs.
Recommended mountaineering boots
The crampons come in either steel or aluminum. Steel is heavier but more durable if you’re traveling between ice and rock bands where aluminum is a lighter weight metal and isn’t as strong as steel. Ensure fit on your boots, so buy your mountaineering boots first. You can rent crampons depending on how many times you think you’ll need them.
There are different styles to keep in mind for crampons.
- Strap-on – fits most boots
- Hybrid – fits boots with rear bale
- Step-in – fits boots with front and rear bale
Now that you know the different types of crampons, it’s time to understand which one will work for your mountaineer boot type. First, identify the welts or the part of the boot where the sole of the boot attaches to the boot material, usually leather or suede.
Does the boot have welts?
- None – universal or straps to most shoes. Pro fits almost all boots, Con boot attachment is less secure.
- Heel – Semi-automatic or hybrid or clip. Pro: fits mid-weight, half-shank mountaineering boots, more secure heel. Con requires boots with a heel welt, less secure than fully automatic crampons
- Heel and toe – fully-automatic or step-in or pro. Pro most secure attachment to boots. Con requires heel and toe welts and usually requires heavier, stiffer boot.
Ice axe with leash
Many companies manufacture ice axes and they have come a long way since it was a wooden shaft with a metal head. Steel is stronger than aluminum but heavier. I tend to prefer a steel head on my ice axe. Don’t confuse a technical ice tool or ones with a curved shaft as those are used for vertical ice and not for glacier travel.
It’s important to choose the right length of ice axe. Make sure the bottom of the shaft comes close to touching your ankle when hanging in your hand and no shorter than mid-calf. Add a leash using ⅝ inch tubular webbing or buy a pre-made one.
Glacier rope is group gear. Depending on your climbing partners, you may be able to get away without buying a rope. Ropes are made in various lengths and diameters. For glacier travel, find one that is dry-treated so it doesn’t soak up the moisture from the snow. A wet rope is a heavy rope you have to carry. The length can be anywhere from 40 to 60 meters with a 8mm rope diameter. The lower end of the length would be for smaller group sizes 2 to 3 climbers where the longer lengths are for 3 to 5 climbers.
Harnesses are made for various uses. If you’re just starting to mountaineer, most gym or rock climbing harnesses will work until you know mountaineering is for you. The harness must have gear loops and should fit over insulation layers and pants. Test or imagine the steps you need to do to pull your pants down without taking off your harness.
Helmets should be CE/UIAA approved and not be the helmet you use for biking or skiing. There are different types of helmets: soft shell and hard shell. Soft shell is lighter but usually can only take one big impact. The hard shell is heavier but more durable and can take multiple impacts.
I find it easiest to keep my general climbing gear together, so it’s easier to pack. Gear can be racked on your harness, clipped to a sling, or packed in its own back or kept loose in a pack.
Don’t forget to mark your gear. When climbing with small groups, it may sometimes be easy to tell gear apart, but you’ve made an investment and shouldn’t have to go replacing gear after each trip. Use nail polish (tape can also be used but tends to rub or peel off and can litter the mountain). Don’t use the nail polish on fabrics as the chemicals can affect the materials.
Belay devices aren’t used on all mountaineering climbs but if there is scrambling or potential for belaying a climber, a belay device is good to have. For multi-purpose use, I suggest one that has guide mode, or one that you can top belay a climber.
A pulley is used in glacier rescue, or extracting a climber that falls into a crevasse. A pull that is self-tending or prusik tending works the best. The more expensive the pulley, the heavier and easier to pull compared to inexpensive pulleys which are lighter and harder to pull.
I always bring four locking carabiners. Two out of the four are larger and are HMS type that works with a Münter hitch and has a large gate. Carabiners use different locking mechanisms, such as a screw lock, auto lock, or magnet lock which will all work and tend to be climber’s preference.
Non-locking carabiners are useful for not only attaching things to your pack but also for noncritical components and when you want to save weight. I tend to pack four. Most have wire gates and are oval in shape.
Tip: Add nail polish to your carabiners and other gear.
A Hollowblock, size 13.5”, is used as a backup when you rappel.
Build your own personal prusik using a 6-foot cut of roughly 6mm perlon. The size of the perlon can vary depending on your glacier rope size. Find a perlon with a soft sheath as it will be easier to manage the more you use it. I do not recommend buying the REI cord as it tends to kink the more you tie your prusik.
There are many ways and systems that can be used for ascending a rope out of a glacier. I have used perlon cut between 16 to 22 feet in length to make foot and seat loops for glacier rescue. The length is based on your height. I suggest using a different color than your personal prusik, find a cord with a soft sheath.
Tubular webbing can be used for an impromptu anchor using a water knot or to make a chest harness. Chest harnesses can be used to keep you upright if you fall into a crevasse.
Pack two single runners, or slings, of nylon or Dyneema material. Nylon is heavier weight but less expensive. Dyneema is lighter in weight but more expensive and less versatile and more brittle.
Similar to single runners, you’ll find the same materials with the same pros and cons. I only carry one double runner.
Personal anchors are used to secure you to an anchor and used for extended rappels. It attaches to your harness with a girth hitch and shouldn’t be made with daisy chains.
Snow pickets are used as an anchor in snow whether you need it for a rescue or to stake down your tent. Pickets come in different lengths. I use a 24-inch length. Pickets also have holes along the length used for runners for anchors.
Wands are used to mark routes in low-visibility weather. They are easy to make at home from garden stakes and tape.
A compass paired with a map is crucial for navigation, especially if you’re out in the backcountry for days and your batteries are drained. Make sure the compass has an adjustable declination, which alleviates calculating between true north and magnetic north. Bonus if the compass has a mirror.
Note: Some of the gear listed may not be needed for every climb depending on the type of climb.
Optional: Pack collapsible trekking poles to save your knees when descending or stabilizing for river crossings. I tend to not pack them unless the ascent and descent include many miles of steep trails or terrain where my ice axe isn’t optimal.
Now that you have all the basics from clothing to camping to technical gear, it’s time to learn how to use and mountaineer. I highly recommend taking a long, extensive class through a local climbing group or guide company before you adventure off on your own.