What to Wear Ice Climbing

Photo: vetal1983

A smart layering system can keep you warm and dry in any weather. Here’s what to wear while ice climbing.

When you tell family and friends that you’re going ice climbing, you’ll probably hear one common refrain: “Ice climbing? Sounds cold.” Well, yes and no. It’s winter, and you’ll experience serious cold while belaying a partner, but you’ll be working hard while climbing, generating serious body heat. Fortunately, you can keep cozy through an entire day of ice climbing provided you’re wearing the right layers and are proactive about managing them. 

Here’s what to wear ice climbing to stay warm, dry, and comfortable. Below, you’ll also find a few tips on how to get the most benefit from your layering system. 

Upper Body 

Baselayers: Warmth starts at the skin level. For warmer days or steeper hikes, a thin wool or synthetic T-shirt might be just fine. For colder days, your baselayer should be a synthetic or wool long-sleeve. 

Midlayers: Ice climbing midlayers are pretty similar to rock climbing midlayers: Any synthetic fleece, insulated vest, or technical outdoor sweater will help you stay warm without overheating as you climb. Look for sweaters or jackets with full zippers to help you vent heat. 

Insulated Layers: Many climbers bring both a midweight insulated jacket as well as a big down belay parka or “crisis puffy” in case temps really start to drop. For this, just look for the biggest jacket you can find and/or afford—nothing is too warm for an ice climbing belay. 

Softshell: Many ice climbers prefer more breathable softshell jackets over hardshells for climbing in cold, dry conditions. There are both insulated and uninsulated softshells. An insulated softshell can double as your midlayer, but uninsulated softshells give you more layering options and finer control over your internal thermostat. A thin, uninsulated softshell can also help you keep snow off your skin when you’re working hard in mild conditions. 

Hardshell: For temperatures right around or above freezing, you’ll need a hardshell jacket. Most ice climbs in the U.S. are frozen waterfalls—and they can become unfrozen pretty quickly if the sun peeks out. Always bring a hardshell in case of drips, sleet, or snow.  

climber climbing a frozen waterfall Photo: carles

Lower Body 

Baselayers: Wear full-length synthetic or wool baselayer bottoms under your climbing pants. 

Climbing pants: You’ll need a synthetic alpine climbing pant without any cotton content (cotton absorbs water and is slow to dry.) Water-resistant softshell pants are usually the best option. 

Hardshell pants: If you expect wet snow or drippy ice, you’ll need hardshell pants as well. Look for reinforced cuffs that will protect against crampon points. 

Insulated pants or skirt: If you run cold, do yourself a favor and grab a pair of these babies. Sometimes called “puffy pants,” insulated pants do wonders for keeping your legs warm while you belay. Some climbers prefer a knee-length insulated skirt instead, which is easier to put on and take off over a harness. Down and synthetic insulation are both fine, but synthetics are more water resistant. 


Socks: Myth: Thicker socks are always warmer. Truth: The warmth of your feet depends mostly on the quality of your mountaineering boots and the circulation in your feet. Avoid thick socks that make your boots fit too tightly. Thin wool socks without compression are usually your best bet. 

Gloves: Most ice climbers pack a pair of lightweight hiking gloves, a pair of medium-weight climbing gloves, and a pair of heavily insulated belay gloves. Smart move: Bring at least one extra pair of climbing gloves in case your first gets wet.  

Hat: Pack a low-profile hat that will keep your ears warm and slide easily under a helmet. (Read: No pom-poms.) 

Helmet: Believe it or not, your helmet is part of your layering system. The fewer ventilation holes, the warmer it will be. Make sure it’s sized to fit a hat underneath.  

Neck gaiter: A wool or synthetic neck gaiter is a great add-on for holding in warmth and keeping snow out of your collar. 

The 5 Rules of Staying Warm 

Your layers only work if you use them properly. Here are five tips for getting the most out of your ice climbing layering system.   


1. Don’t sweat. Moisture saps heat from the body. On the hike in, stop to ditch layers before you break a sweat, and avoid hiking in your hardshell if you can help it. 



2. Bring extras. If you’re prone to sweating even stripped down to your T-shirt, throw spare socks and baselayers into your pack. When you get to the base of your ice climb, immediately swap everything for dry layers. 



3. Hold in heat. It’s easier to stay warm than get warm. As soon as you stop moving to grab a snack, put on a harness, or flake out a rope, put on your insulated jacket. It’s tempting to let yourself cool off, but it can be very hard to warm back up once you do. 



4. Stay dry. Sweat isn’t the only source of moisture. Drifting snow and melting ice can both leave you soaked. Wear a softshell on the approach to protect against snow-laden tree branches, and a hardshell to defend against drips mid-climb. 



5. Mind your legs. You lose a lot of heat through your lower body. Wear baselayers beneath your climbing pants and bring a down skirt or down pants for belaying on extra-cold days.


All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.