If you’re planning on mountaineering at high altitudes, you not only need quality gear but also the appropriate clothing. If you save in the wrong areas or take too much (useless) or too little equipment, the whole trip will seem cursed from the very beginning. So, what is the appropriate clothing for high-altitude mountaineering? What clothing is an absolute must and where could you save some weight or space in your pack? And finally, what should you wear when and why?
To answer these questions, we’re going to work our way systematically from your base layer to your mid and outermost layers all the way down to your shoes. Sound good? All right then. Allow us to present to you the dress code for the high mountains!
What to wear underneath – your base layer
At high altitudes and in cold weather, your lowest layer of clothing is incredibly important. It’s usually made up of what we like to call the Holy Trinity or more specifically a shirt, underwear and socks. And, these are not your ordinary garments you’ve had for years just lying around the house. Itchy wool underwear and terry cloth socks are not the best option here. Instead, mountaineers opt for functional, breathable and – most importantly – non-itchy fabric. These are constructed from either synthetic fibres or natural materials like merino wool.
When it comes to shirts, it’s always nice to have one that looks more like a regular shirt than an undershirt because, believe it or not, you might get hot and end up rocking your short-sleeved shirt on its own. This is not at all rare when mountaineering in the summertime. It can warm up quite a bit during the day or when you’re relaxing on a sun terrace at a mountain hut in the Alps.
You should also pay special attention to your socks, because these, too, can make or break a mountaineering expedition. The important thing here is that your socks fit as snugly as possible without being constrictive. They should never be too big or fold back on themselves, as this could end up causing pressure points and chafing. Standard walking socks with a high cuff are a great option, having proved themselves to be perfect for high-altitude mountaineering. But, don’t just go with any walking socks. It is generally recommended to try your mountaineering boots and socks on together so that you can be certain that they work well together and don’t end up killing your feet!
The middleman – your mid-layer
The middle layer of clothing serves to provide you with the necessary warmth. Depending on the temperature and the weather conditions, your mid-layer could be anything from a long-sleeved shirt to an insulated jacket – basically anything that traps warmth around your body. Oftentimes, two garments are combined. Which combo you choose depends on your personal preference. For example, you could go with a long-sleeved shirt and a synthetic jacket or a fleece jumper with a softshell jacket. The right combination always depends on your perception of warmth as well as the weather conditions.
As for the trousers, a pair of abrasion-resistant outdoor trousers is your best bet. Usually, trousers of this kind are made of a stretchy material that is both water-resistant and breathable. These trousers are often reinforced at the knees, inseam or seat to reduce the risk of damage caused by crampons, rocks, debris and the edges of skis. The trousers should also seal up nicely toward the bottom of the leg and have width-adjustable leg cuffs, if possible. This feature not only serves to prevent snow, water and dirt from penetrating into the interior but also eliminates the need for gaiters, which is nice.
Impenetrable – your outermost layer
Now that we’ve established that mid and base layers are functional clothes designed to shield you from draughts and cold air, we can move on to your outer layer. When the weather doesn’t feel like cooperating and it starts to rain, snow or just gets super cold, you need an extra layer that seals up the whole system. The icing on the cake, if you will.
The finishing touches to your layering system are waterproof trousers and a waterproof jacket. These are usually packable and provide reliable protection in all sorts of foul weather. It’s incredibly important to have a good jacket. In addition to waterproof protection, it is very important for the jacket to be breathable as well. After all, it doesn’t really make much of a difference if you get wet from rain coming from the outside or sweat from the inside. Because mountaineering expeditions require you to carry a big rucksack, it’s important for the jacket to be suitable for wear with a backpack as well. Make sure the jacket pockets are positioned a bit higher, so that they are still accessible when you’re wearing a harness.
If you have to climb certain sections or certain parts of the route are exposed, you’ll usually have a helmet on as well. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to find a jacket with a helmet-compatible hood.
Waterproof trousers are not always necessary, but definitely a plus on ski tours and at high altitudes. Even if you’re heading out in spring and anticipate large old snow fields, a pair of waterproof trousers on you or in your pack can definitely come in handy. As with the other trousers mentioned above, these, too, should close nicely toward the bottom of the leg. That way, snow won’t be able to get in at the leg openings, nor will you have to worry about your crampons getting caught on the fabric.
Let’s see your kicks! – Shoes
The number of mountaineering boots on the market is daunting. There are all sorts of different models designed for different applications, so it’s important to find the proper pair for your intended use. Crampons are among the plethora of aspects you need to consider when looking into buying a pair of mountaineering boots. For more information on the topic of mountaineering boots, you can have a look at our blog post on the subject (currently only available in German). Because you’re bound to come upon some glaciers and firns when mountaineering at high altitudes, you’ll often need to use crampons. These are available in various models and not every model is compatible with every shoe. So, when shopping for boots, it is very important to make sure the crampons are compatible with whichever pair you choose.
Much more important, however, is to ensure that your boots fit well and don’t chafe or put uneven pressure on your feet. A boot that doesn’t fit properly will automatically turn your adventure into a torturous nightmare. That being said, it’s a good idea to break in your mountain boots before heading out on your first longer mountaineering trip and to choose the appropriate socks. True, going for a stroll in your local park on a Sunday afternoon in your mountaineering boots might look a bit silly, but I guarantee you feet will thank you for it later.
Anything else? – Summary
Of course! But we’re not going to go into it here. The list of all the “bits and bobs” you may need on a mountain expedition is so long that we’ve decided to dedicate this post to the large and most basic articles of clothing. It almost goes without saying that you’ll need an insulated or UV-protective beanie, appropriate gloves and the best glacier goggles you can find if you’re planning such an excursion. A tube scarf and gaiters can be really useful as well.
Because of all these extra things you may need, we recommend determining well in advance where and how long you’ll be travelling for. That way, you can create a list based on your individual needs and alter you clothing choices to the particular demands of that trip, if need be. This often saves an enormous amount of weight and space in your backpack!