After packing a rope, rock protection, extra clothes and a base layer, and food, your mountaineering pack is probably pretty heavy. So heavy that you’re likely thinking about what gear you can leave behind.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve left behind a rain jacket or even sunscreen to save a few ounces. But the truth is, I’ve also regretted that decision a few hours later when the weather changed suddenly.
At the end of the day, safety trumps weight, and there is some mountaineering gear that should go into every climber’s pack. Even if the forecast calls for sunny weather and your plan is to be home by dark, it’s critical that you’re prepared for a storm or even to spend the night on the mountain.
So, whether you’re headed to Rainier or your local mountain, here are 10 essentials that you should pack for every climb.
If you’re only planning to be out for a day, it’s easy to rationalize not bringing a headlamp. But I can tell you from experience, the only thing worse than being in the alpine longer than planned is trying to find your way down from a summit in the dark.
In fact, a headlamp is so essential that I’d recommend bringing extra batteries along just in case. Even better, store those extra batteries in a second headlamp. It only adds an extra ounce to your pack, and having a spare light can make a huge difference if your climb doesn’t go according to plan.
2. Down Jacket
Another key item to have for any day in the mountains is a down jacket. Even if you’re stripped down to your base layer while climbing, it can get cold quickly once you stop moving or if the wind picks up. Down offers more warmth for the same weight compared to a fleece jacket or another insulating layer.
More important, a down jacket or insulated parka is truly essential if you get caught out for the night. In the absence of a sleeping bag, a down jacket is the warmest clothing you’ll have with you. You’ll still be shivering overnight in an insulated parka, but you won’t freeze.
3. Sun Protection
Even if it’s cloudy out, you can still get burned by the sun much more quickly than you might expect. That’s because UV rays bounce off snow, amplifying the amount of light that hits your face. In addition, there’s no shade in the alpine, so you’re getting blasted with UV radiation the entire time you’re climbing.
To protect yourself, it’s important to bring sunscreen and lip balm with SPF. Eye protection is also essential, so always pack a pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses. On sunny days, a sun hat or sun hoody is also a good idea.
Gloves are easy to overlook when you head out in the morning, especially if your climb starts below the snow line. However, once you begin climbing through snow, you’re going to want a pair of insulated gloves. Snow isn’t just cold, but it also leaves you hands wet - making you more prone to losing the dexterity that you need on the mountain.
For spring climbs when snow melts easily, consider a pair of water resistant fleece gloves. In the summer, a lighter pair of liner gloves will suffice.
5. First Aid Kit
Having a small first aid kit is critical for every trip. You don’t need to be able to fix a broken bone with just the items in your kit, but you should be able to patch a cut and deal with other minor injuries. In addition to bandages, it’s a good idea to pack medications like ibuprofen and electrolyte pills.
I also recommend throwing a small amount of duct tape, which works for everything from holding down bandages to blister prevention to repairing broken glasses.
6. Emergency Bivy Sack
An emergency bivy sack is both one of the heavier items and one of the items you’re least likely to use on this list of mountaineering essentials. But if you find yourself stuck in the alpine overnight, having a bivy sack with you can make the difference between life and death.
The good news is that ultralight bivy sacks really don’t weigh much at all. In fact, there are lightweight sacks designed specifically for emergency use that are under five ounces.
7. Rain Jacket
Mountains seem to attract bad weather, and that weather can often come without warning. So, you should always throw an ultralight rain jacket in the bottom of your backpack even if the forecast calls for abundant sunshine.
Gore-Tex fabric is a good option since it’s ultralight and highly breathable for the climb up. Your rain jacket can also double as a windproof soft shell climbing jacket if the wind picks up while you’re on the mountain.
8. Navigation Backup
I typically use GPS apps on my smartphone to plan routes and stay on track in the alpine, and many other climbers do the same. While having a GPS in your pocket is great, you need to have a plan for how you’ll find your route if the battery runs out.
The best backup is a traditional paper map and compass. Make sure to put the map in a Ziploc bag so it doesn’t get wet from snow or rain. Of course, a map is only helpful if you know how to navigate with it in the alpine. So be sure to practice on your next mountaineering trip.
9. Extra Socks
Climbing all day in wet socks isn’t just uncomfortable - it can also be downright dangerous. Wet socks are the main cause of blisters that slow you down and take your focus off the mountain. In addition, once you stop moving, wet socks can quickly leave your feet freezing inside your mountaineering boots.
It’s fairly easy to accidentally soak your shoes with a creek crossing early in the day. Thankfully, an extra pair of liner socks weighs almost nothing. Bring one along and keep your feet happy. Check out our page on the best sock to avoid blisters.
10. Extra Bars
Food is one of the heaviest things in your pack, but that’s for a reason. Getting hungry on the mountain saps your energy, slows you down, and impairs your decision-making.
Even if you think you brought the right amount of food already, it’s always a good idea to throw in a few extra protein bars or something similar. Yes, this costs a few ounces. But the benefit far outweighs the weight penalty if you’re hungrier than expected or your trip takes longer than anticipated.
Bonus: Personal Locator Beacons
It’s worth adding an 11th item to this mountaineering gear list: personal locator beacons.
Many of the 10 essentials are important precisely for the reason that if you find yourself in an unexpected situation, these pieces of gear can help you get off the mountain safely.
However, even the essentials aren’t enough to deal with some situations. For example, if your friend breaks their leg above treeline, a first aid kit, an emergency bivy, jackets, and extra food will help you get through the night. But chances are, you’ll still need a rescue to get your partner off the mountain.
That’s where a locator beacon becomes the ultimate essential - something you expect to never need, but that nothing else can replace if you do need it. If you can afford a personal locator beacon, I highly recommend bringing one on every single trip. Make sure it’s charged, and practice using it beforehand so you’re familiar with how it works when you need it.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.