So you are heading on an ice climbing trip and you are not sure what to pack. Ice climbing is so much fun and when you have the right clothing and are suitably prepared the cold is barely noticable… however if you come ill prepared then it can turn an amazing experience into one with bitter memories of shivering, dam and being uncomfortable.
I will show you everything you need to bring with you or consider for your trip. Whether you are climbing on glaciers or frozen rivers, a half day trip or you planning on multiple days.
I used to work as in outdoor education leading groups in England and have a love for the great outdoors in all aspects including winter activities. I recently came back from another ice climbing holiday (this time in Lapland) and I realised that based we seemed to be more prepared for the trip than others in our group.
After some discussions over the trip, we also realised that even with us having extra gear, layers and lots of things that we didn’t actually need on this particular trip, we had also packed the lightest with each of us only packing 15kg and 13kg in our hold luggage(most of which were my cameras because i’m snap happy). With a few in the group only just getting their cases below the 23kg maximum per person for the flight and most seemingly missing some essentials.
This isn’t to be smug or patronising as such but just to highlight the difficulty in knowing what to pack for single and multi-day ice climbing trips like this. I only managed to get this trip right after learning from a few mistakes during previous trips where clothing hasn’t held up in the cold, rain or wind quite as expected.
Before You Pack For Your Ice Climbing Trip
Important Considerations When Packing For Ice Climbing
- Are You Going With A Guide?
- Are You going without a Guide?
- Are You Leading a Group?
- Are You Also Mountaineering?
The latter 3 will all need further consideration beyond this one article.
Consider if You Are Doing This Once Or Plan to Try Again
This may not seem like something you need to think about now but it will help you when you are budgetting to know this. Obviously buying something that is more durable and less wasteful is beneficial but there will also be a higher cost associated with this. Going in more extreme weather conditions and in remote areas may require you to fork out some of your hard earned cash. If you are only planning to try ice climbing as a one off or joining someone to do this, then it may be worth buying more budget conscious things that may not last. It may also be worth buying for dual use. For example 3 in 1 jackets used for skiing may provide you with your mid and outer layer (and also have a high level of waterproofing).
Considering the length of the trip
Some of the points made above also count here. If you are going for multiple days and in an an area that has more changeable weather (or in the shoulder seasons), then you may need extra accessories or outer layers to make sure you start each day dry.
Check With Your Guide What Equipment Is Included Or Not Included
It may seem obvious but check with your guides what they do an don’t provide as part of their package. This will help you to budget (if you need extra gear) and to help you pack.
- Make sure to ask what climbing equipment they include
- What climbing equipment they don’t include
- Are you able to rent clothing, footwear, and other pieces from them
- Ask specifically what is not included
- Is food provided or are you bringing your own
General with regards to equipment you wont be required to bring ice screws, axe’s or rope etc. as the guide would either set up a top rope or be running through this with you and need to bring this anyway.
Clothing For Ice Climbing
The key to successful packing for ice climbing is appropriate layers. Never underestimate the difference between good quality clothing and terminologies used in marketing that can trick unknowing shoppers into wasting money on clothing that doesn’t keep them warm or dry in harsh conditions.
- Base Layer
- Mid Layer
Base Layers For Ice Climbing
Chosing base layers is probably the easiest to navigate and get right and should never be neglected. See your base layer as your second skin. You will need a suitable pair of long johns or “thermals” (generally made out of wool or a thick flannel). They may look thin but will serve you well. For ice climbing in particular; don’t forget how dynamic the movements are. Some long johns tend to be unisex or restrictive even when they are not and I tend to wear a larger size for this. So I am currently a size 12 (uk), I went for a 14 and a 16 because of how snug they are. This also meant my lower back and top of my bottom are still warm and not riding down when I move.
What to wear on your feet for Ice Climbing
Footwear for ice climbing is arguably one of the key areas that can become very confusing and stressful when trying to find information on what to wear. Don’t forget the point I mentioned above to check with your guides about what is and isn’t included For this section. You will need to consider the following
I used my own boots for my recent trip and noticed a big difference. In previous trips, I wasn’t as comfortable or as brave with my footing as a result of this. I also ended up with lots of blisters. So this would be the point where consideration of your trip duration and wanting to do potential future trips come in.
The Boots need to be waterproof, have a solid sole with full ankle support, and would need to be compatible with crampons. Therefore your boots should be a B2 or above. B1’s can be great for walking through snow and on the ice if they are properly waterproof and high quality. However, they are limited due to the fact they can’t be connected to crampons used in ice climbing.
B2’s should have a ridge at the back of the shoe where both C1 and C2 crampons can clip in. The higher the rating (B1 – B3) the more rigid the boot. This means they don’t have much flex in the sole or the ankle.
A point to consider, if you tend to get blisters or sore feet, you may want to consider using B1’s for some of the approaches through snow and descent. But will need to switch once you hit the ice to have your crampons on. You may also want to get a size up or half a size up from normal. Take your hiking socks with you when you try them on. Move around in them. Make sure you break in any walking boot regardless.
Gaiters always seem to be the thing that people forget to pack on winter hiking, mountaineering, or ice climbing trips. They are generally affordable and such a lightweight item that you will thank me for later. Gaitors act as a waterproof sheet over the top of your trousers and boots. They strap under the sole of your boot and usually hook into your laces or straps on the boot. They usually have velcro or drawstring tightened at the top to secure around your lower leg.
Common sense but… If your waterproof trousers are tucked in the boot you’re going to end up with rain, snow, and dampness seeping into the boot. If your trousers are over the top and lose then you risk some of the damp being absorbed over the day into the inner layer of the trouser and annoyingly the leg. This is only minor but when out on a whole day or multiday trip in the wild during extreme temperature or weather, comfort like this can make a big impact on your perception of the day and motivation to climb.
Crampons For Ice Climbing
Crampons are graded from C1 – C3. For ice climbing, C2’s and 3’s are generally used. For each ice climbing trip, I have either rented or had the crampons included. On both glaciers and waterfall climbs they have used C2 crampons.
C2’s are suitable for tough winter scrambles, ice climbing, and mountaineering. They are compatible with B2’s and B3’s. They have 12 points and a heel clip lever and a plastic toe cradle.
If you pack them make sure they are in their case properly pack to avoid cutting other items and pack them in your hold luggage if flying (not carry on).
C3 Grade Crampons
C3’s are suitable for aggressive ice on technical ice climbs and technical mountaineering. They have up to 14 spikes with two mid-foot vertical spikes and the spikes are much more aggressive which would be suitable for tougher ice and more wear.
What about C1 Crampons?
These are good for walking on ice but the spikes are less aggressive with missing medial and lateral spikes on the front. These have 10 points and are generally used for easier glacier hikes and compatible with B1’s, B2’s, and B3’s.
Suitable Socks For Ice Climbing
So this is where I typically make my mistakes. Most people will tell you to wear two pairs of thick hiking socks. I would suggest one thick pair of high-quality wool would be enough.
My personal recommendation would be merino wool or heat holder socks
I found that if I had two thick pairs on, I would find my feet were tighter to the boot, and as a result, I would feel colder. I noticed this on a previous trip where I needed to take a pair off and felt much better with one on. And when snowmobiling on this recent trip I lost feeling in my feet and ankles. When we stopped, I took off a pair of socks and felt that having the tiniest bit of room in my boots where my toes could slightly move and there was a bit of air with my body heat just really helped.
I would always suggest for a trip have more than one pair of thick socks for each day. I didn’t need all of them for my trip to Lapland but in Spain and Iceland, I got caught out by the damper conditions and wished I had extra pairs of clean thick socks to change into.
Accessories To Keep Warm During Ice Climbing
I’m sure when planning this trip you have already identified a need to have typical winter accessories like a hat and scarf but here are a few more and some recommendations that will keep you warm during the approach and between climbs.
Gloves For Ice Climbing
Now this one I found really tough when searching for answers and I’ve previously wasted money on gloves that just weren’t cut out so i spent a lot of time searching. And in all honesty, the best rated ones from friends who are mountain guides or through searching reviews just cost an arm and a leg. So I would suggest weighing up a couple of points. Where are you climbing? Are you climbing in peak winter conditions or shoulder seasons (between autumn/winter or winter/spring).
We recently went with Trekmates Winter waterproof gloves and they lasted all day each day without getting cold or damp at all. It was peak winter so lots of snow and up to -30 degrees Celcius. I absolutely rate these, as others in the group were getting cold hands more often or needing to borrow gloves from the guides. They also had two adjustments one around the hand/wrist and another past the wrist which meant I could pack them to my top layer to seal in the warmth and any dampness from playing in the snow or when the snow started to fall.
I haven’t tried these out in warmer conditions where the ice may have partial melt or the snow may be less dry.
I previously used a pair of black diamond leather winter mountaineering gloves on a trip when my own gloves didn’t work well enough to last all day and if I had the budget these would be my top choice for all conditions guaranteed.
Note: I also took an extra pair of gloves that are warm and waterproof but not to as higher a standard from previous trips as a spare pair. I didn’t end up needing them but I wanted to anticipate changeable weather and have an option to switch to a dryer pair should I need to when resting or finishing.
Scarf or Neck Gaitors
My advice would be gaitor over the scarf. Just for the practicality during climbing, other uses and lightweight. If you have been savvy with your packing or don’t mind extra layers on the plane, train, or drive then take a normal scarf as well for the walk or to use when resting.
The key issue I have with scarfs during ice climbing are:
- The fact they tend to have a loose tail (therefore a risk of getting in the way or catching if not tucked in)
- Their bulkiness (if that’s a word) can cause you to overheat when hiking to the climb or when climbing
- The material of the scarf can generally absorb water if you are on ice that is starting to melt or the area is a damper.
I really like Buff and have multiple patterned ones of these along with other brand versions of these. Some with an extra fleece layer for colder days. They are brilliant to pull up over the face or over the head.
This one is quite easy to choose and you can get some great budget-friendly options for this. My favorite are heat holder hats I have a bobble hat and a beanie from these that I absolutely love. I have previously used Thinsulate hats which are also good but just really appreciated these hats when the temperatures dropped.
Rucksack or Suitcase
If you are going on a week or weekend-long trip I would recommend using a backpack over a suitcase. Whist a suitcase may seem easier in the airport and wheeling to accommodation, longer day trips or where camping is involved may require you will want to have extra food, drink, layers and share carrying odd pieces of kit like a rope, ice screws, or carabiners.
- For a long weekend or week, we used a 75L Backpack
- For our day packs on previous trips, we had a 40L backpack but on longer days we took out 75 Litre but it didn’t end up full.
I do a lot of day hikes and multi-day hikes and really rate Black Diamond, Osprey and Low Alpine. Mammut, Montane, and North Face are also great brands that do a good range of waterproof rucksacks of various sizes.
Food and Drink For Ice Climbing
Much like most other sections here, check if your food is included in the trip by the guide. Regardless of what your guide is providing, I would suggest bringing a few snacks and an extra drink.
Drinks For Ice Climbing
I have had both instances where guides have provided drinks for the group or individuals and somewhere they have just said to pack your own. You will want:
- An insulated Water Bottle
- An insulated Flask
If they are providing you with one then you could get away with bringing just water and possibly a small flask of your chosen favourite hot drink if you are particular with what you like.
If you have a cold drink in there that isn’t insulated then use a pair of socks to cover or bury this between any extra layers you packed to keep it from freezing (rather than traditionally having this in the cup holder of your rucksack) you could do this with your flask as well to help minimise any heat loss if it’s a bit of an older flask. A good flask should last all day!
Food For Ice Climbing
- Consider the practicality of your choices here.
- Consider if it will be hot food cooked on route or cold food you will have with you.
I can’t really say specific food to bring, but I have chosen companies or guides that provide the main meals. This could be cooked on either a camping stove or fire on route or at a set ‘camp’ area or some premade sandwiches and lunch.
For snacks, it would be worth considering the fact that your body will be working harder to maintain homeostasis (the body’s physiological baseline) at extreme temperatures, and every movement like walking or climbing will require more energy (Kcals) than in the temperatures your normally accustomed too. The main thing I will say is…now is not the time to skip meals (cough**breakfast) or cut out food groups (cough**carbs). You will be working hard when climbing you will also want to consider your recovery and include some form of protein in your snacks or meals during/post the trip.
Snacks I Find Useful For Maintaining Energy:
- Kendal mint cake
- Various dried meats or meat jerky,
- Fruit (I quite like banana wrapped in foil then placed over a fire),
- Dried Fruits
- Trail mix (mixture of nuts and dried fruit)
- Some biscuits, sweets or chocolate (this is my personal preference as I tend to crash quickly regardless of my meal choices).
- Protein bars
- Roasted chickpeas
Extras To Consider For Ice Climbing
Hand Warmers or Toe Warmers
In all honesty, we didn’t need these on our Lapland trip but have used them in the past and appreciated them when we have had a lot of high winds and rain along with the cold.
Insulated Roll Mat
We had these provided for on each of our trips by the guides and thought it was a good idea.
I love taking pictures of my experiences. I will confess I am the annoying one that had my camera out on most trips. I try to be more discreet and not draw too much attention and I don’t both to be in the pictures too much, but for me, it’s my memories. I struggle a lot with my short-term memory and as part of my managing, it is to take pictures. I also enjoy taking pictures of landscapes and find great comfort in looking back at photos of landscapes and nature. Phones can work well but because of their limits of optical zoom and battery power running background applications you may find you are limited.
I would recommend a good action camera for ice climbing due to the cold and damp conditions. I have used a range of action cameras from low-budget options (faux pro’s as I like to call them) to Go pro’s and more recently I have been using an insta360. They are so versatile and have heaps of options for accessories.
Attachments you could use include a chest strap, helmet attachment, head strap or a wrist strap.
If you want to take a DSLR like I usually do then check out this post here written by international photography award winner, expedition guide, and travel filmmaker – Denis Elterman on How to take photos in polar regions. Most of these apply to these conditions whether you are in the arctic circle, the Andes, or the European Alps when there is snow, glaciers, and ice.
- Bring toilet roll just in case (for the toilet or nose)
- Bring bags to put waste in (biodegradable pooh bags can be useful for any waste you can’t find a bin for until you return).
- For women; a she wee or similar can be very useful but will take some getting use to, bring pads just in case (could also be used to pack a cut should an accident occur).
- LNT – Leave no trace is so important, any wrappers or used disposable items like hand warmers need to be taken back with you and disposed of properly).
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