Mountaineering opens up the great outdoors in ways that few other activities do. There may be a period of trial and error before mountaineering becomes truly thrilling and fulfilling. Compiling a mountain climbing gear list could easily become overwhelming for the new climber. Worry not!
Here is a quick and comprehensive look at all the most essential tools any aspiring mountain climber should have.
A mountaineer’s gear largely depends on where s/he is hiking: crampons are essential for alpine environments but unnecessary, and even risky to use, when climbing rocky terrains. However, there are some basic essentials that are vital no matter the terrain you’re tackling or the duration of your excursion. Always be fully stocked up on these basics:
Sun protection and Lip Balm
Sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip balm are all must-haves for any outdoor activity, and especially for mountaineering when you are exposed to the elements for hours (and sometimes days or even weeks) at a time. There are no exceptions either: please don’t think that just because you are dark skinned, tan well, in a colder environment, or under overcast conditions that these three basics aren’t necessary. You wouldn’t only be fooling yourself, but putting yourself at an unnecessary risk too.
Firstly, any one regardless of skin tone, can be exposed to cancer causing UV rays, and is at risk for sunburn. UV rays also penetrate through clouds – so an overcast condition doesn’t offer any sun protection either. Make certain that your sunscreen is SPF factor 15+ and is waterproof, as sweat alone is enough to reduce its effectiveness. Don’t forget lip balm that offers sun protection too, as your lips burn just as easily as your skin does.
Sunglasses should be chosen for eye protection alone – not fashion! That said, they should definitely fit comfortably. Choose tinted glasses that offer full protection against harmful UV-rays. This protects your vision in the long term, and also makes for easier and safer hiking, as hiking with a glare in your eyes can be frustrating and potentially dangerous. Don’t forget headgear! Read our tips on how to choose the best hiking hat for your protection.
Lastly, your dress offers the most protection. Cover up in long sleeve shirts made of breathable fabrics for the hotter weather. (See more on attire essentials below).
Water Bottle and Sack
Don’t go anywhere without having a full water supply. This isn’t only in the event of something going wrong, but rather as a preventive measure that follows common sense. Mountaineering is no picnic in the park: it pushes and challenges your body and mind, even if you are taking easier routes that allow for a slower and steadier pace.
The exertion will cause you to lose fluids via sweat, and that means losing important vitamins and minerals. It also means that you need to be drinking more water than the minimum two litres a day – up to six liters and sometimes more is often required. See our must read guidelines on how to choose the best water bottle to find out more.
It’s also not as easy as simply filling up a water bottle or sack either. Later – when you run out of water and need to refill – you may not have a clean water source. Knowing how to filter and purify drinking water is an important skill that you must know before embarking on any journey through the wilderness.
Maps + Compass
Being impulsive may be the spice of life, but that spice can be killer when it comes to mountaineering. It’s the furthest thing from wise to go out hiking when you don’t know the terrain, and have very little clue about the topography of the area. There are many things that can go wrong out there, but of the deadliest, getting lost/ separated is often top of the list. There are countless stories about adventurers steering off the path (deliberately or intentionally), and facing tragic consequences because of it.
One famous example is that of Christopher McCandless, a hiker whose ventures are detailed in the semi-biographical film Into the Wild. McCandless had ventured into Alaskan wilderness and wanted to live off the land. Approximately 3 months later – and not doing too well – McCandless tried to return to civilisation. The trail he was familiar with was blocked by the Teklanika River, so he returned to camp where he tragically died shortly after. Had he had a map with him, things may have worked out very differently: there was a tramway within walking distance of his camp that he was unaware of.
Ensure that maps are detailed and updated and keep them in waterproof coverings. Always let others know of your intended route – and stick to it unless emergency prevents otherwise.
Knife and Duct Tape
If there is only one tool you ever pack, let it be a good knife (though please don’t get yourself into that kind of a situation – always be thoroughly equipped!) Knives are any outdoorsmen’s best friend, as they come in handy in a number of safety and survival situations: hunting/foraging for food; putting together a shelter; cutting one’s way out of tricky situations; defense; and numerous other scenarios.
Choose a good quality knife that will last for a lifetime. A good sheath and carrier are compulsory so that your knife doesn’t easily get damaged or lost.
You can put a pretty neat repair kit together, but along with your knife, duct tape should be included in the bare minimums. Improvising is the name of the game, and a knife and some duct tape will work very well with your rope, cables, shoelaces, belt buckle, and fabric in a survival situation where creative is key.
Fire starter kit and Lights
Even if you were top of the scouts and can make fire using a stick and your skills, it’s wise to bring matches or a lighter with! It’s far easier and much more reliable. Some terrain won’t have much by way of materials that burn easily. Snowy and icy environments will hardly have the fire starting materials one needs lying around, and even more overgrown environments may pose problems if there is rain and most natural materials are too waterlogged.
In addition to your lighters/ matches, always have some materials you know will catch fire easily. For extra insurance, always have your matches/ lighter in a waterproof place, and have enough to spare.
While fires serve an undeniable survival purpose, they are no replacement for actual lights. Take a water resistant flashlight along, including extra batteries. Headlamps work best as they keep your hands free. Take the light along even if you plan to be back before nightfall – visibility conditions can change for a number of reasons and without any warning.
Basic First Aid Kit (Mountaineering Specific)
Have a basic, compact first aid kit in your backpack even if you intend for your climb to be a quick one. The kit should be designed for outdoor and wilderness scenarios.
Urban kits can sometimes rely on the fact that emergency medical assistance will respond quickly. You don’t have that luxury when your tens of miles from civilization. Find a comprehensive checklist of what should be included online! The best thing you can do for yourself and anyone that you hike with is to be trained in a mountaineering first aid course.
Attire + Equipment
Clothes have never needed to be more functional than when mountaineering, and it is important to put thought into every item you pack. Each item is designed to protect you from the elements. Here, safety and functionality take slight precedence over comfort, but comfort should not be overlooked either.
A hike can easily become nightmarish if attire and accessories are ill-fitting. Therefore, the first of the golden rules is to make sure that everything – from socks to belts and gloves to helmets – fit you correctly.
It is also important to know that although the weather conditions for a specific region may be well documented, mountains are notoriously changeable. What starts out as a pleasant and sunny hike may quickly change into week long rains and freezing conditions. People who carelessly disregard this fact and dress inappropriately could find themselves in a life-threatening situation.
The key is to always layer. This way you have garments matching all possible weather changes. Start with a good base layer. This layer is closest to your skin, and this means that it has to be able to effectively deal with moisture (from sweat). It should be made of appropriate materials for moisture management, and be stretchy but well-fitted. In warmer conditions, you’ll likely be stripped down to the base layer for most of the hike, so it should be long sleeved and light, to protect from UV-rays and heat exhaustion.
The middle layer is worn in cooler conditions, and so its main function is to prevent heat loss. The materials and design of the mid layer should therefore be fully insulating, and may even be made up of different layers itself!
Finally we get the outer layer that must protect against the elements – wind, rain, snow, water. The outer layer must clearly be waterproof and insulating. Depending on the average conditions of your chosen destination, it will be lighter or much thicker for warmth. The outer layer must have a hood that fits you well, and have functional pockets.
Your hiking shoes are what is going to see you through, as you are on your feet majority of the time. A sprained ankle or shoes that cause any pain or discomfort are going to cause your trip to be unpleasant and dangerous.
Your shoes should be sturdy, waterproof, and the correct fit. A good tip is to fit at the end of the day, after your legs and feet have had a work out and “swell up”. This is to get a more accurate idea of what their size will be when you are hiking.
Try your shoes on with good socks, and preferably have them fitted professionally, as there are different shoes better suited to different environments. Soles that are more flexible do well for shorter day hikes, while a sturdier sole is suited to longer climbs. You will also need shoes that are compatible with crampons. This is very important if you are hiking in icy, snowy mountains.
There are a number of different materials to choose from, from leather to vegan friendly options.
Crampons cannot be skimped on if you are hiking alpine like conditions. If there is any chance of snow or ice at your intended destination, crampons must be a top investment. They are strapped on to your shoes to help you safely navigate these slippery, dangerous conditions. For a review of the top crampons, see our article for more options.
Have an expert help you select your crampons, as there are many technical factors and preferences to consider. Some are lighter, others are more durable. Your crampons could be more rigid or flex more easily. Whatever you decide on, ensure that they are adjustable to be suited to your needs.
It’s possible that you haven’t given gloves much thought, maybe even underestimating the importance of their design and function! However, climbing means that your extremities are exposed to all sorts of risks from jagged edges to frostbite. It’s crucial to add a good pair of gloves to your mountain climbing gear list.
Like your other attire, layering is good practice. There are times when you will need gloves that are very dexterous. Think about situations that require nimble and quick fingers like tying knots or working around camp. Other times, your gloves must protect against harsh elements like extreme cold, and so you need mittens that are warm and insulated, but bulkier. All gloves should be waterproof, and it is good practisc to always have a spare pair. See our article on how to choose the best ice climbing gloves for more information.
Another essential if you are hiking snowy, ice regions. Choosing an ice pick can be slightly daunting at first, and it’s recommended that you consult a professional who can determine the best ice pick for you; based on your height, the region you’ll be hiking, weight and durability. Check out our top picks for the best ice axe you can use in the winter.
Here’s one pro tip on generally knowing the correct length your ice pick should be: when you hold an ice pick at the shaft, with your arms relaxed at your sides, the tip of the pick should just barely touch the ground.
Having a good head on your shoulders means protecting it! Helmets are worn to protect against falling rocks, falls, and other possible injury. A sturdy helmet that fits well will do the trick. Helmets should also be fitted with headlamps so that seeing conditions can be improved under reduced visibility, and for longer hikes. This way, your hands remain free and you are unhindered.
It’s good to have some sort of communication system in place, especially if you are hiking as a group. Having a communication system in place does not eliminate any risks, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. You should still hike with a good knowledge of the region, have topographical maps and navigation tools, and follow all safety protocol.
Cell phones are only so useful in the majority of the regions you’ll be hiking. You are likely to struggle to find signal, but they can sometimes connect or tracked. It is best not to rely on your cell phone when you pack for hikes, although some of the components may came in hand in emergency situations, like needing to start a fire.
Satellite Phone with GPS locator
A satellite phone may be the best sort of device for combinations because they connect to orbiting satellites rather than signal towers – very helpful when the place you are in is devoid of signal towers. This has the potential to be lifesaving in a rescue situation.
High tech gadgets have their advantages, but sometimes the simple things are most effective. Consider packing in whistles when doing group hikes, even if you do have satellite phones or radios. They are simple to use, don’t add weight to your gear, do not rely on signal, and are quick to get anybody’s attention who is nearby. Why not check out our top review of the best satellite phones you can use. With that being said, they only work within shorter distances, and won’t be any use for connecting to the outside world in emergency, rescue scenarios.
Two Way Radios
Two way radios (or “walkie talkies”) are also good for keeping in touch with your group. They have limited range, but also have the potential to be effective over distances as much as 40 km (25 miles), and that may be all you need to reach help. Some radios have features like weather scans, but it’s more important to choose water resistant radios with rechargeable batteries.
Just like the mountains we try to momentarily conquer, mountaineering as a whole is vast and requires patience and skill. No two climbs will ever be the same, and even experienced hikers will sometimes find themselves in tricky scenarios. Your mountain climbing gear checklist must be centered around safety and survival at all times.
Make sure that everything you pack has a vital function, and always be sure to maintain your gear. You’ll soon familiarize yourself with the basics, and have your list refined in no time.
So what do you think of our mountain climbing checklist? Any other items that you think we should add? Sound off in the comments!