Many outdoor brands offer mountaineering designed gear and has taken me years to figure out what to wear mountaineering. I have found for my needs, most of my clothing can span across hiking, skiing, and other outdoor adventures. Though, some tips may be a little different for mountaineering due to the long hours exposed to the elements, like sun, elevational changes, and weather.
Use your judgement on what you’d add or remove based on your adventure needs and layering systems.
After writing about all the gear I use on my mountaineering adventures, I decided to divide the content into three posts:
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Things to consider
You’re making a transition from backpacking to alpine climbing. Goals are to be efficient with fast transitions and shorter breaks. Efficient packing helps a lot.
Having layers to protect you from the elements, like rain and wind, are crucial. I have lightweight shells that double to protect against rain and wind. Finding shells without insulation and with pit zips helps reduce the amount of sweat that collects inside the shell. I try to go at a pace where I don’t overly sweat to keep my layers dry. Reading the label and understanding the different waterproofing is important. I tend towards GoreTex, but it’s usually the more expensive option over eVent and other similar technologies.
I like to protect my skin from the sun exposure being on snow for hours so I don’t have to apply sunblock at every rest break. I tend to cover my skin with breathable layers that protect me from UV rays. Sun reflects off the snow increasing your exposure from regular hiking or outdoor activities. Check the product description to see if the shirt has UPF properties and what the rating is (example would be UPF 50), similar to the numbers you see on sunscreen bottles.
Even though I’ve worked for outdoor retailers, I’m a huge advocate for less is more. I use durability as a criteria when choosing my outdoor gear, specifically outer layers that will brush against rocks or vegetation. I also mend my own gear as most of the things that I see wear over time is the stitching from butt scooting or downclimbing.
For mountaineering, I like heavier weight materials because it’s normally not overly warm unless moving and the heavier the fabric, usually the more durable and my gear can last over years.
Stretch and flexibility
Finding pants for women and body types is difficult. As a mountaineer, my thighs are strong and I have a small waist. Wearing a belt with a harness tends to be clunky and uncomfortable and I’ve taken years to find the right fit bottoms. I test products to see if they check the stretch or flexibility box by moving, jumping, lifting my legs high, making my back wide for shoulder stretch or reaching high to make sure it keeps my stomach covered, and making movements I would have to do on the mountain.
Here are some tips for understanding how to layer.
Temperature management is key to moisture management. Stay warm by layering up, which includes not only a base layer but maybe adding a mid layer for a little extra warmth, like a down jacket or a fleece.
Moisture management is important. Try to move at a pace that you aren’t sweating through your layers because the drier you stay, the more comfortable you will be at camp than trying to dry out all your clothing. You can always change a layer at the base of a climb or even at the top. For stops, you’ll cool down fast when you’re not moving, so keep a mid layer and shell easily accessible in your pack for when you break.
It’s taken me a lot of trial and error when finding the right system that works. Below, I’ll provide some tips to help you make informed decisions on buying the right mountaineering clothing that can span many activities and be comfortable so you can focus on your climb.
Some golden rules for walking out of the parking lot include:
- No cotton.
- Read the weather and dress for the day.
- Wear a base layer that can cool you during the day.
- Keep food, sunscreen, lip protection, etc. in your pocket or close by.
- Keep an extra layer, hat, gloves, socks accessible in your pack.
Always start your approach cold or remove layers that will not be needed in 15 or 20 minutes once you start moving and getting the blood flowing.
Don’t forget the golden rule that cotton kills. The fit should be snug but not too tight. Avoid layering atop baggy base layers. The layer should be comfortable and you should be able to wear it all day because it will be next to the skin layer. It should be breathable and wicking so it dries faster. Do you run hot or hold? If hot, consider wearing a t-shirt as a base layer. Typical combinations are soft shell pants with a cheap hard shell pant plus long underwear.
Depending on the length of my trip, I might pack one to two base layer bottoms. One to sleep in that stays clean and one for my activity. Bottom base layers are good to keep you warm and dry. I like to try to layer with a good soft shell that the fabrics work together and doesn’t cause static or bunching.
I tend to only wear one base layer top that is super thin over a t-shirt because my arms tend to get cold with the slight bit of wind. I also like it for sun exposure so it’s less I have to worry about reapplying sunscreen. Base layer top’s purpose is to be wicking, warm, and breathable. Again, it should have a snug fit and comfortable. I tend to prefer wool layers. It’s important to analyze what your body needs when moving slow and fast or gaining elevation. Similar to my extra bottoms base layer, I normally bring another shirt or top to sleep in because my base layer is covered with wet or dry sweat and sunscreen.
For tops, keep in mind that if it is a lower neckline, you’ll want to wear sunscreen or make sure you have a neck gaiter. It’s the one place I always seem to forget to put on sunscreen and get burned for it later.
Pants and bottoms
For pants, many outdoors brands have alpine pants you can wear without gaiters that have reinforced or strong fabric at the bottoms. I like to stick with a pant and add gaiters as needed since I’m not always wearing crampons.
Soft shell pants serve as a great all-around outer layer. Look for ones that repel moisture except heavy rain and snow. Pockets are nice to have and you can find soft shell pants in many weights and fabric variations. Stretch in pants are very important to me and should be comfortable around the hips since a lot of the weight from your pack will be pressing, shifting, and rubbing on the waistline of the pants and you don’t want any more friction than required. I’ve had many hip blisters.
I’m not a leggings person, but I do know people who like it bring them as an option for the lower parts of the climb. If it’s later in the season, I sometimes wear running shorts on the approach since they are lightweight and pack small. Otherwise, I stay with pants.
You’ll only need one mid layer top that is worn atop your base layer(s) for warmth. Keep this accessible at the top of your pack. A nice-to-have is if it has some kind of light water repellent. Bonus if it is easy to zip with large zipper pulls when you’re wearing large mitts. This might be a light down synthetic (Patagonia Nano Puff) or comparable jacket, a heavier weight full zip layer, like a Patagonia R1, is one of my favorite layering pieces.
Keeps you warm in camps, cold, or at higher elevations. Ideally if you figure out your layering systems correctly, you shouldn’t have to pull this out unless you’re taking a long break or at camp. A hood is nice to have. If you choose a down jacket over synthetic, keep it dry as it takes longer to dry out.
Down jackets come in many fills and weights. I recommend finding a warm jacket with 600 to 800 fill. The higher the fill number, the more warm the jacket. Some puffy jackets have weather protection. I went without the weather added features since they make the jacket less packable and can always add my hard shell on top.
I bought mine on sale maybe five years ago and bought a size too big. Even though I could upgrade, I think the one that I purchased with my limited knowledge works perfectly. I normally wear sizes XS or S but my large puffy is a medium. It provides room for all my layers plus adds more room for the jacket to do its job: Warm my body heat and insulate.
On super cold nights, I’ll actually add my big down jacket over my cold spots like a blanket. I honestly keep this layer packed with my sleeping bag or at the bottom of my bag. However, if you get super cold when you stop, you may want to have it at the top of your bag, especially during the alpine night when the sun isn’t out.
The purpose of a hard shell jacket is to stay dry in rain and snow. Often a waterproof, breathable fabric like Gore-Tex, eVent, or H2no will work.
Hard or soft shell? Hard shell is great in precipitation and protects against high winds. Soft shell might be better because it is breathable and your sweat won’t bead up inside the shell.
Fit – the jacket and pants should fit well and have full range of motion. Does all your insulation fit underneath? Best to try on when there are many layers on. Make sure the zippers are waterproof. Can you put the shell pants on without taking your shoes off? Look for ones that have zips down the sides. At the minimum, the jacket should have useful pockets for storing food or other essentials so you don’t have to keep removing your pack.
A hard shell jacket can be your saving grace on a long climb. Consider finding a jacket that has pit zips to manage moisture, fits over mid layers and insulation, that is helmet compatible, and ideally fits over your puffy.
I try not to wear my hard shell pants unless it is pouring rain or if I’m glissading. I bought a cheap pair that doesn’t have side zips, so I can’t release heat and have to take my boots and crampons off if I want to wear them. As you can imagine, this slows me down significantly. Typical combinations are soft shell pants, cheap hard shell, and long underwear.
- Arc’teryx Alpha SV Jacket – I actually use my Arc’teryx ski jacket
- REI Co-op Rainier Full-Zip Rain Pants
As mentioned, you may have windy, blue-bird days out on the mountain. To maintain my temperature, I try to avoid wearing my hard shell but need a little bit of protection from the wind cutting through my base layers. I wear a Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoodie or a Patagonia Houdini.
Keep your boots, socks, and pant bottoms dry and protected. Walking on snow for hours isn’t dry, especially on a sunny day. Staying dry while mountaineering is crucial and adding a solid pair of gaiters is the trick.
Add gaiters over your boot but before crampons. You can buy the wrong size gaiters which causes gaps where snow can fall down into your pants and into your boots. Let’s keep the feet dry and adjust them according to the right boot.
I always pack two pairs of normal to heavy-weight wool socks. I normally use the extra pair to sleep in or to help dry the other pair. Dry socks can help prevent blisters. Some people swear by liner socks or a wicking layer to help keep the moisture away from your skin to prevent blisters. I only wear them early season when I’m training or before my feet are broken in. You can’t go wrong with Smartwool or Darn Tough sock brands.
Let’s keep those fingers warm!
Liner gloves are great when you’re moving. Also, in mountaineering, you’re normally holding something metal which can be cold and will take heat from your hands. You don’t need the most expensive pair of liner gloves because I normally go through a pair or two each season because I’m scrambling rock wearing them.
Winter gloves + overmitts
Winter gloves keep your hands warm in colder weather than liner gloves. Pair with overmitts to keep your winter gloves dry. Consider adding wrist leashes to tether your gloves so you can easily remove them but keep moving them without the chance of the wind blowing them away. You can usually find winter gloves plus over mitts sold as a system, and I highly recommend mountaineering activities that you find ones that have Gore-Tex treatment. I also use mitts versus ones with fingers because my hands tend to get cold. If I’m fumbling with knots or ropes, I will wear the OR Stormtracker gloves for dexterity.
- Outdoor Research Stormtracker Sensor Gloves – a hybrid glove and my favorite
- Outdoor Research Mt. Baker Modular Mittens
My ears tend to get cold even with the slightest gust of wind. Here are some tips on when to use and finding the right hat to wear.
Cold weather hat or headband
I wear a North Face hat I got as a gift for attending a climbing festival a few years ago. The huge benefit here is finding one that will keep your head warm while you can still wear your climbing helmet. I tend to always pack a headband because my ears get cold but I want heat to escape from my head.
A sun hat or a hat with a brim is nice to have to keep the sun off your face. Usually it is lightweight and fits comfortably under your climbing helmet. Some good options are running hats. I avoid anything with velcro size adjustments since my curly hair always catches and snags.
Balaclava or neck gaiter
Protect face and neck from the cold. The neck gaiter is more versatile though less warm. These little accessories have a surprising amount of warmth for the weight. You can also use the neck gaiter to protect against sun exposure.
Bras and underwear
Let’s talk about bras and underwear. You still want to stay away from cotton here as well.
For bras, I like to find a wool combination versus a straight synthetic option since wool tends to dry faster. I pack one bra for moving and one for sleeping. I like Smartwool or Ibex bras.
For underwear, I tend to buy dark or nude colors in case I am wearing my base layer bottoms around camp. I pack two pairs or more depending on the length of the trip. My preferred option here is an older version of ExOfficio bikinis but anything comfortable will do. BRANWYN also makes great sustainable bras and underwear.
Now I want to hear from you. What are your favorite brands or mountaineering products?