Effective Clothing Layering Systems for Ice Climbing

 A collaborational article with The Outdoor Gear Exchange (Written by Alex Frost)

Ice climbing is an activity unique in the winter sports sphere. It is, by turns, both aerobic and anaerobic, wet and dry, stop and go. Being prepared for an ice climb means wearing the proper clothes to help regulate your body temperature in a variety of conditions. You will need to stay cool during the active portions of ice climbing, warm during the inactive portions (typically belaying), and dry throughout your entire excursion.

To that end, a solid layering system is paramount.

 

 

Baselayer

Baselayers form the foundation of your entire layering system and are the key to staying warm and dry. Proper winter baselayers have insulating and moisture-wicking properties to help regulate body temperature while you’re out in the elements.

As ever, avoid cotton. Keep your legs covered with some long johns made of Merino wool or polyester. A light-to-midweight top made of the same material is another go-to baselayer item. Choosing between light and midweight for your next-to-skin top will depend on weather conditions. In some cases, it may make sense to shed your heavier layers on top, and rock a baselayer exclusively on your approach and during strenuous pitches.

Pro Tip: Though both merino and polyester baselayers will wick away moisture from your skin and keep you dry, once merino wets out, it takes a long time to dry.

Midlayer

A midlayer is your insulation from freezing temperatures. You typically won’t need a midlayer for your legs, but it is a very important part of your upper body layering system. Down fill, synthetic fibers, and hard-faced fleece are commonly used materials for effective midweight layers. But which option should you choose? Again, this layer is weather dependent. Here are some things to keep in mind when making your midlayer selection.

Down Fill:

  • Warmest insulated midlayers available

  • Extremely compressible

  • Lightweight

  • Not as durable as synthetic midlayers

  • Does not insulate well when wet

Synthetic Fill:

  • Highly durable

  • Excellent for wet conditions or long trips into the backcountry

  • More affordable than down options

  • Not as warm as down midlayers

  • Heavier and less compressible than down

Fleece:

  • Quick-drying

  • Heat retaining and breathable

  • Great for high-intensity winter adventures

  • Not moisture resistant

  • No insulated fill

 

Outer Layer

Once you have a moisture-wicking baselayer and an insulating midlayer, it’s time to choose an outer layer that will protect you from the harsh winter elements. This decision too depends on the weather. Another factor to consider is the intensity of your climb. Do you foresee yourself getting mixy? Stemming in some soaked, jagged chimney? Planning appropriately for your outing on the ice means choosing outerwear that is best-suited to handle the weather conditions and intensity of your climb.

Jackets: Hardshell or Softshell?

A softshell jacket offers more abrasion resistance than the delicate face fabric of a hardshell jacket. A softshell is also the more breathable option, and the nature of their stretch-woven fabric means that your freedom of movement will be unrestricted.

However, if the weather is fierce and precipitation is in forecast, you’ll be thankful for the windproof and waterproof performance of a hardshell outer layer. Look for a hardshell with a climbing specific cut that provides mobility in the arms, harness compatible pockets, and a helmet compatible hood. 

Pants

As for pants, softshell is almost certainly the way to go. The freedom-of-movement and abrasion resistance provided by softshell pants is especially beneficial for your lower half. Crampon patches on the instep of your pant legs will guard against errant kick-steps, but if you want to guarantee you won't slice up your pants, consider adding durable alpine or expedition gaiters to your layering system.

The Insulator

Posting up at the belay ledge means you've stopped moving. That means you've stopped expending energy, and your body heat is going to plummet. A large, down or synthetic parka, sized to fit over all your other layers, is a surefire way to keep that heat from being blown away by the cold.

There are specific features you'll want to look for when opting for a heavy parka: large mesh pockets to keep an extra pair of gloves or mittens warm and dry, a 2-way zipper to allow for easy manipulation of your belay device and harness, and a helmet-compatible hood.

Gloves

You'll be bringing multiple pairs of gloves with you on an ice climb. From liners to wear under mittens to softshell or leather gloves with sticky palms, you won’t want to skimp on this piece of your layering system.

So how many gloves should you bring? Your primary pair of gloves, the ones you'll be climbing in, will assuredly get soaked. Unless you want to make your day a suffer-fest, you'll want to bring an extra pair.

You’ll also want to make sure your hands stay warm when you're belaying. Mittens are a good choice here, with liners underneath for doing any rope work.

Socks

Wool socks are king. You probably already knew that. But what thickness will you need? Generally, a very thick mountaineering sock like Darn Tough’s Over the Calf Extra Cushion should be your go-to. But depending on how your boots fit, a thinner sock may be in order. Remember, boots being too tight will inhibit circulation and make your feet feel that much colder.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alex Frost is a content writer and editor at Outdoor Gear Exchange. He is an avid backpacker, trail runner, and gear enthusiast. When he's not on the trail, or getting soaked and scared during a late-season ice climb, he resides in Burlington, Vermont with his lovely wife, Dharma.