Mountaineering vs. Backpacking: Small but substantial gear differences
Sometimes the differences are obvious, and sometimes they are more subtle. And sometimes they only make a small difference, will others can make or break a summit attempt. Many mountaineers start their outdoor lives as hikers and backpackers, and this article is going to go through seven different categories on how the two activities differ in terms of the gear you may bring along and why it will matter over the course of a climb.
This may be the most obvious difference between mountaineering and backpacking, and so we’ll go through it first and briefly. Mountaineering requires much more technical equipment than backpacking trips – from ice axes and crampons to ropes and helmets. These items will all increase the weight of your pack and thus it is important to remember to train with a heavy pack before your climb.
Mountaineering generally makes the water filtration topic easier, as collecting and melting snow from near camp is an easy way to keep water bottles full and climbers hydrated. This may mean that you can leave a water filtration device (like an MSR Gravity or pump filter) at home entirely and save yourself the weight. An efficient stove will make melting snow quick and easy without burning too much of your fuel. Conversely, in a backpacking environment, a pump filter can work well for getting water on the go, or a gravity filter is a great, labor-free method to replenish water while at camp. In either environment, you may still consider bringing water purification drops or tablets. If you are climbing a highly trafficked route and are not confident the snow will be clean enough, bringing some drops along can add confidence. While backpacking, purification drops can also be a good idea if you expect to be filtering water in an area known for less-than-clean water sources.
In terms of clothing for mountaineering versus backpacking, this may be the most critical difference. Most backpackers will not bring along a softshell jacket, as a base layer works well while hiking, and a good hardshell jacket will protect them from the elements without causing them to sweat too much. However, a softshell jacket while mountaineering is essential. High on big mountains like Baker, Rainier, Kilimanjaro, and others, it is very common to have weather that would be uncomfortable in a base layer (high wind, light snow, cold temperatures), but because you will be spending the majority of your time walking uphill, a hardshell jacket will just be too warm and cause you to overheat and sweat – a dangerous condition on a big, cold mountain. That’s where the softshell jacket comes in – while a hardshell will protect you from the elements but make you sweat going uphill, a softshell will still protect you from those harsh elements, but is a much more breathable fabric, and therefore allow your body to regulate its temperature more efficiently. So, having that softshell jacket readily accessible in your pack may not be something you need for backpacking, but will help you keep climbing towards the summit during a mountaineering trip. We’ve got more specific info on softshells here, check it out!
While there are exceptions, most backpacking trips are not going to encounter much, if any snow. Therefore, your trekking poles will not really have a need for big, wide snow baskets. But mountaineering is of course different. Most objectives will have quite a bit of snow, and you may be traveling on it the entire time. Because of this, it is important to always have snow baskets on your trekking poles. Snow baskets provide a larger surface area on top of the snow which helps them to stay “afloat” and provide more support for you and your heavy pack. Without snow baskets, your trekking poles will simply slice deep into the snowpack, rendering them mostly useless and unsupportive. In a place like the Washington Cascades, where snow can linger on many climbs all year round, keeping snow baskets on permanently makes sense. If you do want to switch your snow baskets out for smaller baskets during the summer months, remember to remove those and tightly screw on your snow baskets before the winter, or before a climb where snow is expected! For even more info on snow baskets, check out another blog video here.
Using the bathroom in the outdoors can always be a bit of an event. Whether it’s digging a six-inch hole in the forest, or using a Wag Bag, there will always be more complications than in a bathroom. One big difference here between backpacking and mountaineering is the lack of privacy that a forest can typically afford. While backpacking in most areas, it is generally not too hard to walk ways into the woods, and do your business without others around. But while camping above the treeline or on a glacier, or even tied into a rope on summit day – privacy is harder to find. This is where a few bathroom items can make a big difference while mountaineering. For the women – getting comfortable using a pee funnel will make a huge difference if you need to urinate while tied into a rope on a glacier. And for both men and women – having a pee bottle in your tent (and practicing beforehand) at night will mean not having to brave the cold winds and snow at night. This will help you hydrate more confidently before summit day, knowing that you will not have to get in and out of your tent multiple times.
Most backpackers will take a pair of gloves along with them for a cool night in the mountains, but mountaineers will want multiple pairs. Lightweight liner gloves with little to no insulation are perfect for sunny, windless days on a glacier where you want to protect your hands from sunburn. Softshell gloves are the go-to when the temperatures get cold or some weather moves in, but you still need to have the dexterity to use your ice axe, manage the rope, or eat some snacks on a much-needed break. Lastly, mittens or a heavy pair of waterproof, insulated gloves are a necessary insurance piece to keep your fingers from any frostnip or for bigger, colder objectives in the mountains. Having multiple pairs of gloves also allows a climber to dry out one pair that may have gotten wet, while still having another pair to wear and stay warm. More glove beta can be found here as well. Even in the summer in the mountains, multiple gloves are a must!
The Sun Hoody
Last but most definitely not least – the sun hoody. While a backpacking baselayer typically entails a short-sleeve synthetic t-shirt, mountaineers will want something more specific and versatile. That’s where the sun hoody comes in. Long-sleeved and hooded with UPF protection, the sun hoody will protect your skin while still keeping you cool and can perform well as the only “shirt” you will wear on a climb. It’s cool enough on a sunny day lower down, and you can pop the hood up to protect it from the sun and bump the warmth up a few notches while climbing higher. Check out a blog post specifically about the sun hoody here for more info.
Hopefully, this has helped you distinguish some of the gear differences between backpacking and mountaineering, and why you may choose to bring or not bring certain items. Getting into the outdoors is an adventure no matter what, so make sure to be prepared!