Winter, for some within the climbing community, is a welcome time of year.
Waterfalls form to ice, and the mountains become a new type of climbing haven for a few cold months.
If you're new to ice climbing or looking for a way to expand your climbing experiences, getting to know some of the ice climbing gear essentials is a great place to start.
For those just getting into the sport be sure to check out our beginners guide to ice climbing for all the key terms and techniques.
If you already have a basic understanding of the mechanics and technical knowledge of rock climbing, ice climbing will not take long to understand and could soon become a new passion.
Recommendation for beginners: for safety reasons and to ensure you genuinely enjoy the sport before investing a ton of money, consider renting gear and going with a more experienced climbing partner. Or better yet, sign up for an ice climbing clinic to get a handle on technique and safety right away.
Ice Climbing Gear Essentials
Gear is listed in no particular order of importance. All of the gear listed is essential for a safe and successful ice climbing experience.
1. Ice Tools
Ice tools are the quintessential gear most will have in mind when thinking about ice climbing.
Ice tools are similar to ice axes but are specifically designed to be used for ice climbing.
Ice axes have a slightly different design tailored more for the needs and demands of mountaineering.
Some climbers will consider ice tools slightly more technical as their design is intended for vertical ice climbing. There are specific design features that make ice tools and ice axes better suited for either activity.
Ice axes will most often have a longer shaft that is straight, whereas an ice tool classically is designed with a short, curved shaft.
The shaft isn't the only difference, though.
The shape of the pick on an ice tool has a reverse curve shape. This means that there is a slight protrusion on the end of the curve to aid the climber when removing the pick from the ice.
The type of ice tool, or ice ax, you choose will most often depend on the application and your budget.
Overall, it is best to look for a well-balanced tool that assists in a natural swinging motion when you are starting.
The handle's angle should prevent you from getting pumped too easily.
And if you're willing to invest more time into learning about the sport, look for a handle that is adjustable for dry tooling purposes.
It can help to try out a few tools before you buy your own, and many popular ice climbing areas will have gear rental shops that can outfit an adventure for you.
The good news is that you don't have to have an ice climbing specific harness to go ice climbing.
There are a few advantages to having a harness designed for ice climbing. Still, it isn't necessary, especially when you start.
One of the main things to consider if you are using a climbing harness you already have is adjustable enough to fit over multiple clothing layers.
Many ice climbing harnesses will have more adjustability to ensure you will be prepared for the elements. They will also usually have slots to put our ice tools, ice screws and will not use a mesh of any kind.
Mesh materials on a harness will easily collect snow as you go, so having a smooth material is preferred. Hence, it rolls off and will not stick.
Most modern mountaineering style boots will be effective ice climbing boots, but you can also get ice climbing specific boots.
In either case, look for boots that are stiff, insulated, waterproof, and compatible with crampons.
Although you want the boots to be stiff, they should still allow for ankle mobility while wearing them.
Mountaineering boots usually will have more ankle flexibility than ice climbing specific boots.
The boots should have a high top.
We recommend them having a removable liner to easily be dried after a day of ice climbing.
Be sure to try ice climbing or mountaineering boots on before an expedition! You want them to fit well and function for use all day.
Choosing the right boots will distribute your weight evenly when ice climbing instead of pushing all of your weight and pressure into your toes.
A helmet is an essential piece of safety equipment for any climbing.
Both the climber and the belayer should wear one. As with the harness, most mountaineering or climbing helmets will do the job for ice climbing.
You will likely be wearing a hat or buff to keep your head and ears warm.
So whatever helmet you choose, ABS hardshell or an in-mold foam construction with a polycarbonate shell, be sure it is adjustable enough to fit your head snuggly while wearing a head covering.
Foam construction helmets are often more adjustable than hardshell ones. Still, some ice climbers will recommend a hardshell as better protection from falling ice.
Either helmet type will function well, though, and it will come down to personal preference and fit.
To be sure a helmet fits properly, you can move your head around while wearing it. It should not move around when you shake your head forward and back or side to side.
You should also be able to look up and see the front of the helmet as it needs to cover your forehead as well.
We mentioned that your ice climbing boots should be crampon compatible, and that's because you need crampons too!
Crampons are attached to your boots to provide traction to the climber when ascending ice.
Crampons will be designed for either vertical ice climbing or mountaineering.
The primary difference between the two types of crampons will be the shape/angle of the front points, but the materials they're made from can differ as well.
Crampons designed for ice climbing should have vertically oriented points to make it easy for the climber to kick the crampons' front into vertical ice.
When choosing ice climbing crampons, you may also notice that you can get dual front points or a mono point design. Mono or one point is recommended for extremely steep and technical, mixed terrain.
6. Belay Device
Just as you do with rock climbing, a belayer is recommended.
While assisted locking devices like the Petzl Grigri are widely used for rock climbing, they are not ideal for ice climbing purposes.
The rope runs through this device, making it easier for a rope to ice up and become difficult to belay in this type of device.
These devices are easy to use and have versatile applications while ice climbing. Plus, they tend to be more affordable.
When you're choosing a rope for ice climbing, the one feature to always look for is that it is dry treated.
When a rope is dry treated, they have a dry core, sheath, or both. This dry-coating does not make the rope waterproof. However, it does help with water-resistance.
This is important with ice climbing because when climbing ropes absorb any water, the rope will get heavier and won't handle as much force when catching a fall.
When it is cold enough for the rope to freeze because it has absorbed too much water, it will become dangerously unmanageable.
Although untreated climbing ropes are often the most affordable option, they are not the safest option for ice climbing.
The diameter of the rope will be an important consideration.
This is often a personal preference, but if you are top-roping as most beginners do, a slightly thicker diameter (9.5-10.2) will work best. Rope length will also depend on the type of ice climbing you're doing, but a 70m works well for top rope.
8. Ice Climbing Rack
Just as you would build a trad climbing rack, ice climbing specific pieces of gear to include on your ice climbing rack.
Even if you aren't leading all of your ice routes and are primarily top-roping, investing in a few ice screws will give you an advantage when setting up anchors.
The essentials for an ice climbing rack will include ice screws, ice screw clippers, quickdraws, cordelette, slings, and locking carabiners.
Depending on the area you are ice climbing, a V-thread hook is recommended but not always necessary.
Ice Climbing Rack Recommendations:
- Ice Screws: 14 screws, including 2 long screws for the anchor and the rest in a variety of sizes
- Quickdraws: 10-14
- Slings: 4 120cm slings, so you have 2 to build anchors and 2 extras to use as alpine draws
- Locking Carabiners: 8 (4 for anchors and 4 extras)
For any climbing pursuit, having a proper backpack to carry your gear comfortably is a must.
When it comes to an ice climbing pack, it should be at least 50 L to ensure enough room for all of your gear.
If you are primarily doing short approaches, a more durable pack can be good. Still, it will be heavier due to its materials. So for alpine specific ice climbing adventures, lightweight packs are advantageous.
Some ice climbing specific packs on the market have areas outside of the pack to attach crampons and ice tools for easy access.
10. Other Items You Don't Want to Forget!
Our list above covers the essential gear you need when you're starting to build your ice climbing gear list.
However, when you set out for a day on the ice, there are some other things that you should not forget!
These are primarily safety items that help ensure that you have a great day climbing and are prepared in emergency situations. This brings peace of mind as well as a preparedness that is essential when in the wilderness.
Here are a few other items you should consider adding to your essential ice climbing gear list:
- First Aid Kit
- Bail Kit
- Sun/Protective Glasses
- Sunscreen (yes, you can get sunburnt in the winter)
- Avalanche Kit (location dependent)
No matter the type of climbing you are doing, safety should be a top priority.
That's why we recommend taking personal responsibility for being prepared when you're ice climbing.
If you are starting, we also recommend investing time and money into getting a guide or taking an instructional class to ensure that you are well equipped with knowledge and gear when you go out yourself.
This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.