MAs with every winter sport, the key to dressing comfortably for ice climbing is dressing in layers. There’s a lot of “stop and go” when ice climbing, so proper layers are especially important to prevent overheating while climbing and freezing while belaying. Here are some suggestions and tips to help you be as comfortable as possible on your next ice climbing trip.
One could argue that a proper base layer is the most important part of any layering system. Material choice is particularly critical here; when picking out your long underwear for the day, do not choose cotton! While the waffley cotton long johns and tops of yore (do they even still make those?) were certainly cozy for wearing around the house or ski lodge, they’re no good for actually doing anything active.
Instead, it’s best to go with a midweight synthetic or merino wool baselayer. These materials offer what we like to call “superior moisture management,” which means that they don’t soak up your sweat and hold onto it the way cotton does. With a synthetic or wool layer next to your skin, your perspiration will be wicked away to the surface of the material to evaporate rather than staying on your skin and making you feel cold and clammy. EMS Techwick, Icebreaker, and Smartwool base layers are all excellent choices.
When choosing a mid layer (or insulating layer...whatever you want to call it), there are a lot of options. You could go with a light- or midweight fleece, a (thin) down or synthetic down jacket, or a lightweight Powerstretch. What you choose will depend mostly on your personal preference and a little bit on what the weather will be like throughout the day.
On a warmer day, a lightweight fleece or Powerstretch mid layer should keep you plenty warm. On colder days, you’ll probably want to stick with a midweight fleece or down/synthetic down mid layer. You also have the option of wearing a vest instead of a jacket, with the obvious benefits of less bulk and better range of motion (which is kind of important when your arms will be spending a significant amount of time above your head).
Unless you tend to get very cold, you should be able to forgo a mid layer on your bottom half. The combination of midweight long underwear and proper shell pants is enough to keep you comfortable in most cases.
Your final layer when ice climbing should be lightweight, waterproof, and easy to move around in. Whether you choose to go with a traditional “hard” shell jacket and pants or a softshell jacket and pants, you need to have as much range of motion as possible in order to climb efficiently.
You may be wondering, How do I decide between a softshell and hard shell? Maybe this chart can help you out:
Not completely waterproof
Other things to keep in mind when choosing your outer layers:
Your jacket should have a helmet-compatible hood. This goes an especially long way in keeping your climb enjoyable if the route is dripping—just pull the hood on to prevent drips from getting in your helmet or, even worse, falling down your neck and back.
Your pants should have a reinforced scuff guard on the lower legs. Walking around in crampons can be tricky, and it’s all too easy to tear holes in your pants with the points (especially when you’re just starting out); scuff guards keep your pants a little bit safer.
If your pants don’t have these reinforced areas—or if you tend to be extra clumsy—it’s a good idea to have a pair of gaiters to protect your pants.
Pit zips on jackets and thigh zips on pants are a huge bonus, since they allow you to ventilate if you start to get too hot mid-climb.
Your shell won’t do much to keep you warm when you’re sitting still—make sure you pack along a puffy coat (either down or synthetic down) to wear while belaying, eating lunch, or just hanging around.
Head, Hands, and Feet
It’s never a bad idea to pack along a few hand warmers and toe warmers when you go ice climbing, especially on really frigid days, but with the right accessories to keep yourself warm, you may not need to use them...
Hats: Although losing the majority of your heat through your head has been found to be just a myth, there’s no denying that covering your head makes you feel warmer...even if it is, well, all in your head. Your climbing helmet will help out a little bit when it comes to keeping your head warm, but a lightweight beanie is definitely a great addition to your ice climbing outfit. (Ladies, you may want to go with a fleece headband instead, especially if you have thicker hair.) If it’s going to be particularly cold out, a balaclava is an even better option since it will also help protect your face from the elements.
Gloves/Mittens: While you’re climbing, dexterity and grip are obviously crucial. For this reason, a light(ish)weight glove with a durable, grippy palm is best. Since you’ll be moving, you’ll likely be generating enough heat to keep warm anyway and won’t need much additional insulation. Wet hands quickly turn into cold hands, however, so it’s important to make sure that the gloves you climb in are waterproof or, at the very least, highly water resistant.
All ice climbing trips inevitably involve some periods of little movement. Whether it’s your turn to belay or you’re in an odd-number group and are stuck literally just sitting around, it’s important to have a heavier pair of mittens or gloves to wear during this down time. (Just make sure that if you are belaying, you still have enough dexterity to keep your partner safe!)
Socks: Your ice climbing boots should do a decent job of keeping your feet warm, but it’s still a good idea to have warm socks on your feet. Like the rest of your layers, you want to make sure to stay away from cotton and stick with a synthetic or wool sock. Everyone’s feet are different, so how thick the sock needs to be will vary from person to person (you know your feet best and know how hot or cold they tend to be), but a midweight hiking sock with a little bit of cushion should do the trick in most cases.
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