Ice climbing is a one-of-a-kind activity in the world of winter sports. It alternates between being aerobic and anaerobic, wet and dry, and stop-and-go. Wearing the proper clothing to help regulate your body temperature in a variety of conditions is part of being prepared for an ice climb. You’ll need to stay cool during the active parts of ice climbing, warm during the inactive parts (typically belaying), and dry for the duration of your trip.
To that end, a strong layering system is essential.
What do ice climbers wear?
To battle the cold weather up there, ice climbers make the best possible use of layering.
Baselayers serve as the foundation of your layering system and are essential for staying warm and dry. Winter baselayers should have insulating and moisture-wicking properties to help regulate body temperature while you’re out in the cold.
Cotton, as always, should be avoided. Wear some long johns made of Merino wool or polyester to keep your legs warm. Another go-to baselayer item is a light-to-midweight top made of the same material. The choice between light and midweight for your next-to-skin top will be determined by the weather. In some cases, it may make sense to remove your heavier layers on top and only wear a baselayer on the approach and during strenuous pitches.
A mid-layer protects you from freezing temperatures. A mid-layer is not typically required for your legs, but it is an essential component of your upper body layering system. Midweight layers are commonly made from down fill, synthetic fibers, and hard-faced fleece. But which path should you take? This layer, once again, is weather dependent. Here are some things to consider when deciding on a mid-layer.
- Warmest insulated mid-layers available
- Extremely compressible
- Not as durable as synthetic mid-layers
- Does not insulate well when wet
- Highly durable
- Excellent for wet conditions or long trips into the backcountry
- More affordable than down options
- Not as warm as down mid-layers
- Heavier and less compressible than down
- Heat retaining and breathable
- Great for high-intensity winter adventures
- Not moisture resistant
- No insulated fill
After you’ve chosen a moisture-wicking base layer and an insulating mid-layer, it’s time to choose an outer layer to protect you from the elements. This decision is influenced by the weather. Another thing to think about is the difficulty of your climb. Planning ahead of time for your ice adventure entails selecting outerwear that is best suited to the weather conditions and the intensity of your climb.
One of the most important things you can do while ice climbing is to keep your feet warm. Cold toes cause poor footwork, which can result in a fall. You’ll want to make sure your feet are properly layered.
- There is no definitive answer to the question of what socks to wear when ice climbing. Some people prefer technical ski and alpine socks, while others prefer regular hiking socks from gear stores. However, there are a few pointers I can provide:
- Cotton should be avoided because it loses its insulating ability when wet (and trust me, your feet are going to sweat)
Extra-bulky socks should be avoided because they can restrict circulation to your feet, making them colder.
Aside from that, I’d say go with whatever makes you feel the most at ease. I’ve ice climbed in both hiking socks and ski socks and didn’t notice a significant difference in warmth or comfort, so experiment to find what works best for you. Double layering is acceptable as long as it does not add too much bulk to your foot.
You should wear either mountaineering boots or ski boots when ice climbing. Mountaineering boots will improve your footwork, but ski boots will keep you warmer and will cause less damage to your toes.
There’s also the issue of double-layered mountaineering boots. Double-layer boots are warmer, and those who suffer from cold feet may want to consider purchasing a pair. However, they will be heavier, and for shoulder-season climbing, this may be too much insulation.
Finally, we’ve arrived at your doorstep. These are necessary because you must be able to grip your ice axes and catch your climbing partner if they fall. I recommend having one pair of gloves for each of the following tasks: A lightweight pair for climbing and a heavier-duty pair for belaying.
Because loose-fitting gloves will slide around when lifting weights, you want these to be thin and well-fitting to your hands. You want enough insulation to keep you warm while keeping the gloves thin enough to allow you to feel your axes and make good placements.
Finally, we get to the belay mittens. You want these to be as warm as possible while still allowing you to feel the rope and belay well. They should be big enough to wear over other gloves. Wide cuffs that can be worn over your jacket to keep snow out are an added bonus.
What you need to bring on an ice climbing trip depends on where you’re climbing and how long you’re going to be gone. Always check with your guide before leaving for your destination to see what you need to bring. Happy Climbing!