Ice climbing is the best example of an adventure sport. Each outing on the ice is a unique journey into the unknown. Ice climbing requires solid judgment, improvisation, skill, and a boatload of technical gear.
In this article, I’ll cover the last of those requirements. That is, what ice climbing gear you need to bring with you to have a successful climbing expedition. So before you strap on your crampons, check this list to make sure you’ve got the right stuff to get the job done.
Any outing on the ice is demanding. Ice climbing is inherently dangerous and involves harsh conditions in remote places. It’s not the kind of sport where a flannel shirt, jeans, and a few ice screws will get the job done. You’re constantly relying on your gear to keep you safe. You need the right tools for the job.
When you head out ice climbing, you should always have a full pack. The specifics of what you bring will vary depending on what you're climbing. But you should be checking most of the same boxes every time. Before you take off, make sure you have the following:
Cold Weather Clothing
If it’s cold enough to be going ice climbing, you're going to need serious cold weather clothes. Extended periods on the ice will put your clothes through the wringer, so technical layers are a must.
But ice climbing is also hard work. While you want to bundle up, you don’t want to end up sweating bullets, either. A balance between warmth, waterproofing, and breathability is a must for all your clothes.
Base layers are indispensable on any cold weather outing. A thin merino wool layer, top and bottom, is the bare minimum.
If it’s colder than average, you may want to add something over your thin base layers like a Patagonia R1 with PolarTec or a similar grid fleece. Baselayers come in lots of different thicknesses and you can mix and match as need be.
When climbing, the amount of insulation you need is dependent on the conditions. You may want a synthetic or down puffy jacket to go under your shell, or a thicker base layer for your torso.
Unless you’re alpine climbing in very cold conditions, insulating layers usually aren’t as critical for your legs. A base layer or two under your shell should do the trick. But you can also buy down or synthetic puffy layers to go under your pants. If you’re in the elements for a long period, you’ll be glad to have them.
Being on the ice is cold. But belaying an ice climber is even colder. If you’re coming along primarily to belay, you may want to invest in an ultra-puffy belay jacket.
Your belay jacket is the warmest thing in your gear closet, designed to provide as much loft as possible. Belay jackets go on top of all your other layers so you don’t freeze while standing still.
How you insulate is all dependent on the conditions. But even if the forecast is showing warm conditions, you should still bring more layers than you need. The golden rule in the alpine is “expect the unexpected.”
Your shell layers, both jackets and pants, protect you from a lot. First, there’s water, which is abundant on the ice. Then, there’s all the sharp points you encounter when ice climbing.
Ice tools, crampons, screws, rock, and water ice are all very sharp. It’s important to get a burly shell that can put up with some abrasion.
Waterproof layers intended for mountaineering and ice climbing are usually designed with this in mind. For example, shell pants for ice climbing have Cordura kick plates at the ankles. These patches of thick nylon material protect your legs from your crampons while climbing.
When picking shell layers, consider ventilation as well. It’s easy to go from freezing to sweating while climbing, so ventilation is paramount.
Most jackets and pants have zippers at the armpits or on the outside of the leg to let air in. As a general rule, the more ventilation your shell layers have, the better.
There are lots of minor articles of clothing that can make or break an ice climb. Thin gloves, a good beanie that fits under your helmet, and a merino wool neck gaiter are all helpful.
Having good socks is also crucial. You need to keep your feet warm and dry while ice climbing. You also need something on the thin side that won’t cut off circulation to your feet in your boots.
To meet all these needs, I always recommend merino wool socks. Merino wool offers the perfect combination of warmth, comfort, and weight. It has natural antimicrobial properties, making it odor resistant. All around, you couldn’t ask for a better material to make socks and base layers out of.
Rope and Belay Gear
Like with conventional climbing, ice climbing requires a climbing rope, harnesses, and belay devices. Ice climbers often use thinner ropes in the 8mm-10mm range, because they’re easier to carry when not in use. But any dry-treated dynamic half, twin, or single rope will do the job.
A standard rock climbing harness will work fine for ice climbing, though an alpine climbing harness will be less bulky. Either way, just make sure it’s wide enough to fit over all your layers.
Your rock climbing belay device will also work fine for ice climbing. I recommend the Petzl GriGri, Beal Birdie, or Black Diamond ATC. Belay devices are hotly debated among climbers, but each has its own benefits and drawbacks. What you choose is largely a matter of personal preference.
The main thing you should think about when approaching an ice line is how to protect it. Methods for protecting ice routes are as varied as the routes themselves.
Protecting a route is almost never as simple as placing ice screws every few meters. Technical gear like ice screws, ice pitons, rock pitons, cams, nuts, and alpine draws are all options for building anchors, depending on what the route requires.
Each of these pieces of gear has very specific applications. When you head out, you need to make sure you have everything you need. The key to making sure you have the right tools is research.
Different routes have different demands, and with ice climbing, conditions can change by the minute. Improvisation, proper gear, and the knowledge to use it correctly, are all crucial.
The piece of climbing equipment that makes ice climbing possible is the ice tool, or ice axe. Ice tools come in a lot of shapes and sizes, each with a different job.
Some feature straight shafts and a flat, spade-like adze opposite the pick. These axes are best used for snow climbing and mountaineering.
On the other end of the spectrum are ice tools for vertical ice climbing. They feature curved shafts and usually have a hammer on the opposite side of the pick, rather than an adze.
In some cases, ice tools may only have a pick. This cuts down on weight. It may not seem like much, but every ounce counts, especially with your ice tools. This is because when you're climbing a vertical frozen waterfall, you have to hold your ice tools over your head for long periods.
Boots and Crampons
When you get started ice climbing, you’ll be able to rent or borrow most of the gear you need from partners. But the first thing you should buy for yourself is your boots. This is because you want your boots to fit your feet perfectly.
You want boots that are stiff, warm, and waterproof. You also want a boot with both heel and toe welts for automatic crampons.
Automatic crampons limit slippage and are easy to put on and remove. The other option is screw-on crampons, which are much lighter and more specialized for vertical water ice climbing.
Technical ice climbing crampons usually have aggressive, vertically-oriented front points. This might seem like a minor detail, but it makes them much better at sticking in solid ice.
Crampons may have either one point in the front (mono-point) or two front points (dual point). Some dual point crampons have modular points, which you can take off and switch out.
Mono-point crampons are the most specialized for climbing technical ice. Dual point mountaineering crampons work better for mixed climbing and lower-angle ice.
Modular points are the most versatile, as you can switch one or both of the vertical points out with horizontal points, or swap in a single mono-point.
If your ice climbing adventure involves an “alpine start” before dawn (as most alpine adventures do), you’re going to need a headlamp. Ice climbing and alpinism are activities that need lots of light. So find something with a powerful bulb and lots of lumens.
If you’re going to be out for a long time, it’s important to think about backup power as well. The best option here is a headlamp that uses both rechargeable and disposable batteries.
Any time you’re on snow or ice for a long time, your eyes are going to be taking a beating. Ice and snow reflect light and increase its intensity, which can cause permanent damage to your eyes.
If you’re climbing in full sun, you will want to invest in category four glacier glasses. Category four lenses block out all but 8% of visible light. Glacier glasses also feature side shields to block out as much direct sunlight as possible.
If the conditions are cloudy or shady, category four lenses may not be necessary. You might want to opt for glacier glasses with category three lenses, which let in more light. Or, you may look for polarized sunglasses with good side-to-side coverage.
Your helmet is one of the most important pieces of safety gear in your rack. Plainly put, ice climbing is dangerous. There are lots of options for protecting your brain in the alpine, and lots of features to weigh.
Most ice climbers will go for a standard rock climbing helmet. The main factor that influences what your helmet looks like (and costs) is the balance between weight and protection. More protective helmets are heavier and cheaper. Lighter helmets are more costly.
Regardless, I always advocate for buying a helmet with MIPS. MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) provides added protection in rockfall scenarios. MIPS redirects the force of angular impacts, preventing concussions and injuries to your neck.
Like any outing into the alpine, you should always have your bases covered in case of emergency. In the 1990s, the Seattle-based group The Mountaineers devised The Ten Essentials to reduce accidents in the alpine.
The Ten Essentials are ten systems that prepare you for all kinds of survival situations in the wilderness. They are:
- Navigation (GPS, map and compass, etc.)
- Illumination (headlamp)
- Sun protection (clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen)
- First aid
- Knife (and any other tools you may need)
- Fire (lighter, matches, flint and steel, etc.)
- Shelter (or something you can improvise to make one)
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothing
When you’re isolated and out of cell reception, you should always have The Ten Essentials on you in some form. As the old saying goes, “I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” The ten essentials ensure that whatever happens, you can hole up and wait for help or get yourself out safely.
To sum this all up, before you leave on your next ice climbing trip, make sure you have:
*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.