What’s in your pack?
Mountaineering gear is complicated. Fancy fabrics, techy short-hand, and vague temperature ratings – no matter if you are just beginning to assemble your mountaineering kit or if you are merely looking to upgrade select pieces, you’ll have to do a lot of research before settling on what’s often a pricey investment. With the below details, we’re trying to make it easy and give general guidance, as well as examples of actual gear and brands that we here at AWExpeditions love and use. If you have questions after reviewing this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch: we’re here to help.
What type of mountaineering boots you need depends on the expedition that you are embarking on. Generally speaking, when we say "mountaineering boots" we mean rigid, full-shank boots that are crampon compatible. LOWA's Alpine Expert boots are a great example for a high-quality single mountaineering boot that will work well in most weather conditions on glaciated peaks in the Lower 48, and in warm weather on select 5,000 and 6,000 meter mountaineering peaks. The main elements to look out for in a mountaineering boot are: single vs double (double = removable inner/liner boot; much warmer, and appropriate for extreme altitude & weather); rigid vs soft (you need rigid boots for crampon compatibility);
- For Aconcagua, Elbrus, and the Himalayas, you'll need a double boot like the LOWA Expedition 6000 EVO Rd.
- For 5000 meter summits in Peru, and glaciated peaks in the US like Mount Shasta, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier, a warm single boot such as the LOWA Alpine Expert typically works well. If you are climbing in early season or are encountering unusually severe conditions, you may need a double boot which can be rented on location.
- For Kilimanjaro, you do NOT need a mountaineering (i.e. rigid, crampon compatible) boot. A sturdy, waterproof and warm hiking boot such as the LOWA Renegade GTX is generally sufficient for Kilimanjaro. If you know that you run cold and would like a warmer boot for peace of mind, you may enjoy the LOWA Tibet GTX.
Do not skimp on footwear; protecting your toes from frostbite is of utmost importance. At the same time, ensure that your footwear is appropriate for the type of terrain and conditions you are going into. A boot that is too warm can be almost as unfavorable as having a boot that is not warm enough: you'll be sweating in your boots, which makes you more prone to blisters and trench foot , and also puts you at risk of frostbite if you cool down with wet feet once you stop moving.
Equally important as choosing the right boot is to make sure that your boot has the right fit. Remember that you'll be wearing thick socks, potentially doubled with liner socks, and your feet will swell from activity and altitude. It is imperative that you have room for your toes to wiggle even under those exacerbated conditions. You can usually manage a boot that's slightly too big on you (or suffer through the blister that the extra space will create on the downhill), but a boot that's slightly too small will constrict blood flow to your toes and increase your risk of permanent tissue damage or worse from frostbite.
The cost for a pair of warm, rigid mountaineering (single) boots typically starts in the $350-$400 range; a good pair of double boots and cost $1000 or more. If buying a pair of mountaineering boots for your next climb is not within your budget, don't despair - you'll be able to rent appropriate footwear on location for most mountaineering expeditions. If you are new to mountaineering, it is in fact advisable to start with a pair of rental boots so you can test out boots prior to committing to the investment of a purchase.
Many high-altitude mountaineering boots do not come in women-specific sizes. Do not be shy to order a men's boot; you can convert a women's shoe size into a men's shoe size by subtracting 1-1.5 from your size.
For most expeditions you will only be wearing your mountaineering boots on summit day, for select skills practice sessions, and when added warmth or crampons are necessary for safe upward passage. That means you'll want to have a pair of comfortable, good quality approach shoes to wear when mountaineering boots aren't needed.
Depending on your preference, approach shoes can be a lightweight, soft hiking boot or a low-top trail shoe. We generally recommend GoreTex (better for stream crossings and snow fields) and a sticky rubber sole or for good traction on rock. Trail running shoes may be acceptable if they have good traction and you are confident that you don't need the added ankle support of a mid-top boot. If you choose to bring a low-top trail shoe, you may want to add a lightweight trail gaiter such as Ultimate Direction's FK Gaiter to keep rocks and dirt at bay.
Read more about AWE founder Sunny Stroeer's thoughts on strategic footwear choices over on the LOWA Boots website.
Camp shoes are an optional luxury item, but one that many expedition climbers (and even some backpackers, too) embrace with enthusiasm. After a long day on your feet, having a comfortable pair of shoes to change into at camp can do wonders for morale.
For high altitude and extreme weather conditions, the obvious choice of camp shoes is a pair of down booties which start in the $50 range and can be as pricey as $100-$120. The more expensive, the better the warmth:weight ratio will likely be. Make sure that the model you choose has an outer sole of some sort - if you are planning to walk around camp in these booties rather than just stay in your tent, a sock-type down bootie will get destroyed in no time.
For expeditions and adventures that take place in moderate conditions, a lightweight pair of sandals or even crocs may work well for camp shoes.
For most mountaineering adventures, you'll want two types of sock: a thin, synthetic or wool hiking sock for the approach and a thick, heavy-weight warm wool sock for summit day. For summit days in extreme temperatures or with boots that are slightly big for your feet, you may even want to layer your thin sock with the heavy-weight sock.
While you do not need a fresh pair of socks for every day on the trail, it is important to keep your feet dry, healthy, and happy. As such, many mountaineers choose to bring two pairs of summit day socks (one pair for the summit, and one to be reserved as nighttime socks throughout the expedition) and one pair or approach socks for every ~3-4 days on the trail. If you know that you'll have the ability to wash clothing during your expedition, you can save weight by bringing fewer approach pairs -- but you should never embark on a big adventure with fewer than two pairs of trekking socks.
A long-sleeve sun hoodie should be a wardrobe staple for mountaineers. This lightweight, full-coverage top doesn’t just help protect you from harmful UV rays, which are extra-potent at altitude and in snowy terrain; it also keeps you cooler than directly exposing your skin to the sun, allows you to derive benefits from evaporative cooling if you soak it in water, and – though it’s designed for breathability and not for warmth – can even serve as an extra warm layer in a pinch. There are several brands that make dedicated sun hoodies; we here at AWExpeditions like the Echo hoody from Outdoor Research.
Why pack a short-sleeve base layer when we recommend using a long-sleeve sun hoody for UV protection and staying cool? Two reasons: one, a short-sleeve tee may be welcome in situations where you’re not overly worried about UV exposure (say, for warm days in your tent); two, a dedicated base-layer has a more snug fit and warmer material than the long-sleeve sun hoodie, and will make for better layering for warmth on summit day. We recommend the Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Short Sleeve Shirt. Whichever base layer you choose, please steer clear of tank tops or halter neck designs as they are prone to producing chafing. A classic tee shirt style is ideal.
Note: we recommend bringing both a long-sleeve sun hoody and one or more short-sleeve base layer tops for most AWExpeditions adventures. That said, if you are packing ultralight and having to decide between a long-sleeve sun hoodie and a short-sleeve base layer: leave the short-sleeves at home; bring the long-sleeve sun hoodie instead.
Softshell pants are your workhorse trekking or climbing pants. They should be made of a durable, stretchy, water-resistant material and non-insulated (if you need added warmth, you’ll layer with a warm base layer or, in extreme conditions, potentially even down and hardshell pants).
We recommend SheFly’s GoThere pants. Not only are they made of a perfect softshell material and cut in a functional, active fit, but they also sport an ingenuous crotch zipper that allows you to go to the bathroom without having to pull down your pants – a true godsend if you are wearing a harness, and still a very nice privacy bonus even if you are “just” backpacking. We have put these pants to the test and find them to be a top quality piece of outdoor attire that every woman adventurer should have in her gear closet.
What about climbing & backpacking gear?
Check back soon as we are in the process of adding recommendations for sleeping bags, backpacks, crampons, ice axes, harnesses etc!
Have a question about gear? Send us an email.