Mountaineering 101

Mountain travel is a complex but immensely rewarding endeavor. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

When most people think of outdoor adventure, they think about climbing mountains. Perhaps it’s no wonder: Mountaineering has held a special place in Western adventure mythology since the 18th century, when climbers first started vying for first ascents of big European peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. By now, most of the earth’s iconic mountains have been climbed, but there’s always been something special about reaching a peak’s summit, whether you’re the first or the 1001st to do it. The challenge, the sweeping views, and the unique sense of exploration have a way of making us feel small. Mountaineering has a unique power to humble us—and help us realize what we’re truly capable of—all at the same time.

The good news is that you don’t have to have a ton of gear or technical skills to experience that sense of awe and empowerment. Likewise, you don’t have to climb the Matterhorn or Mount Everest to call yourself a mountaineer. That’s because “mountaineering” is actually a fairly broad term. It encompasses peak-bagging, high-pointing, alpine climbing, and an array of other summit-seeking activities that take place in mountainous terrain. The sport’s wide range means that as long as you have some decent fitness and outdoor know-how, you’ve got what you need to get started.

This guide will cover everything you need to launch into your first mountaineering objectives, including:

  • The best way to learn mountaineering
  • How to understand mountaineering grades 
  • Essential skills for mountain travel  
  • 5 common mistakes new mountaineers make 
  • Essential apparel and gear

The Best Way to Learn Mountaineering

Many of the world’s greatest mountaineers got their starts in their own backyards. Like any complex pursuit, mountaineering is a progression. But good fitness and strong skills aren’t the only things you’ll need to develop. To be a competent mountaineer, you’ll also need good mountain sense, i.e., confidence with mountainous terrain, conditions, and risk management. Mountain sense can take years—if not decades—of experience to develop. That said, it’s never too late to get started. 

Start with basic fitness  

Begin with hiking and/or trail running in the woods or hills around your home. This will help you build an aerobic base and strengthen the muscles of your legs and core. Eventually you’ll progress to weighted training hikes, slowly increasing your weight and mileage to simulate what you hope to accomplish on your intended objective. 

Build confidence outdoors

If you’re looking to become a well-rounded mountain explorer, consider camping and backpacking to improve your emergency skills, layering acumen, and navigational abilities. If you hope to do some scrambling or light climbing, join a rock climbing gym. If you hope to cross glaciated terrain or do any snow climbing, book a mountaineering course in Colorado or the Pacific Northwest with a reputable guide service to learn the requisite skills.

Plan your first objectives 

When you feel ready to start tackling your first peaks, plan a trip for summer on the best-weather day you can find. If you’re traveling far from home, give yourself a several-day window just in case it rains one of those days. Also, consider reaching out to a certified guide service for your first few outings. You can learn a lot of technical movement skills on the trail or in the rock climbing gym, but there’s no substitute for in-situ instruction from a professional.

Progress slowly

It’s best to start practicing on smaller, less-technical peaks (like those in the Appalachians) before progressing to higher-altitude summits (like those in Colorado), or more technical peaks, like the small volcanoes and ridge traverses of the Pacific Northwest. Any time you venture somewhere with new terrain, flora, fauna, or weather systems, going with a guide—at least for that first outing—is highly recommended. 

How To Understand Mountaineering Grades 

Mountaineering can encompass anything from hiking up a level dirt trail to a summit, to tackling steep, icy terrain with ice axes and crampons. Because there’s so much variation, hikers and climbers use standardized grading systems to denote the difficulty of certain routes. There’s one for terrain and one for commitment level. (Technical climbing, snow climbing, and ice climbing all have their own grading systems, too, but you’ll learn more about those when you get into those disciplines at a higher level.) 

Terrain classes for hiking and climbing

  • Class I: Straightforward hiking on level trail. 
  • Class II: Steep hiking. A fall could result in injury but isn’t likely to be deadly. Ropes are generally considered unnecessary.  
  • Class III: Steep terrain with some exposure. A fall could be dangerous, but experienced mountaineers and climbers generally proceed without ropes.
  • Class IV: Near-vertical terrain with serious exposure. A fall here could be deadly. Ropes and/or expert-level climbing skills are often recommended. 
  • Class V: Vertical terrain. Falls are usually deadly, and ropes and serious technical skills are highly recommended.  

Commitment grades for mountaineering objectives

  • Grade I: The objective takes most parties a few hours to complete. 
  • Grade II: The technical part of the objective takes most parties a half day to complete.
  • Grade III: The technical part of the objective takes most of a day.
  • Grade IV: Expect a full day of technical climbing. 
  • Grade V: You’ll probably have to spend the night on the route.
  • Grade VI: Most parties take two or more days to complete the route’s technical portion.
  • Grade VII: Extremely remote objectives that take multiple days to complete.  

Essential Skills for Mountain Travel  

The skills you’ll need will depend on your objective and your goals as a mountaineer. Here’s a general list for each discipline.

Skills for beginner peak-bagging 

If you’re planning to tackle a summit in the summer and stick to dry, level trail that’s mostly below treeline, you’ll need to know how to:

  • Read a map and compass 
  • Operate a GPS unit
  • Layer properly 
  • Fuel and hydrate responsibly
  • Administer basic first aid
  • Make decisions as a team
  • Evaluate risk
  • Turn around when conditions or group dynamics dictate

Skills for peak-bagging at altitude 

If you hope to summit a peak above treeline (this is usually around 8,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, depending on where in the country you are) you’ll need to add the following skills for alpine travel. Make sure you know how to:

  • Evaluate symptoms of acute mountain sickness
  • Travel through scree, talus, and boulder fields
  • Navigate off-trail
  • Evaluate high-altitude weather  
  • Traverse summer snowfields 
  • Use crampons, chains, or other traction
  • Use an ice axe to self-arrest 

Skills for technical mountain climbing 

If the ropes are coming out, you’ll need a suite of other skills. Before you tackle fourth- or fifth-class terrain, make sure you know how to:

  • Belay
  • Place basic traditional protection
  • Build anchors
  • Clean anchors
  • Rappel
  • Rock- or snow-climb confidently at the route’s grade
  • Route-find in alpine landscapes
  • Check for loose rock
  • Assess rapidly changing weather conditions

Skills for winter mountaineering 

If you plan to tackle big peaks in the winter, add these skills to your list, in addition to any specifics you’ll need for the route at hand:

5 Common Mistakes New Mountaineers Make

The beauty of mountaineering is that it attracts people from a wide range of athletic backgrounds. Many mountaineers start out as hikers, rock climbers, or road runners. But no matter where you start, there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to venturing into mountainous terrain. Here’s where people most often go wrong.

1. Forgetting that temperature drops at altitude.

Temperatures drop by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet you ascend in altitude. Add to that the unpredictable weather and high winds that mountaintops usually experience, and you could be ascending into a totally different climate from the one you parked in. Always bring more layers than you think you’ll need, including a rain shell and a warm, insulating layer—even if skies are clear and sunny over the trailhead.

2. Waiting too long to turn around.

“Summit fever” afflicts almost every mountaineer or peak-bagger at some point in their careers. But while the drive to “push through” or “not be a quitter,” can be strong, it’s one of the biggest reasons new mountaineers get into trouble and end up having to call for rescue. Leave your ego at the trailhead. Before you start hiking, set a hard turnaround time. This could be calculated based on the amount of food you have, the time you know you’ll need to get back to your car before dark, or the need to get off the peak before the start of afternoon alpine thunderstorms (common in summer in the Rockies). Also keep an eye on your surroundings. If the weather looks like it’s turning, your energy levels are flagging, or other members of your group are having a hard time, turn around. The mountain will still be there. 

3. Bringing the wrong maps. 

Many new mountaineers skimp on the navigation, either assuming that the trail will be easy to follow or that downloading just a map of their specific route will be plenty. But trouble doesn’t happen until you’re off-route, at which point you’ll need a much bigger map area to reference. Always bring both a paper map and an electronic, GPS-enabled map (like those from Gaia GPS), and download routes for the entire national forest or park if possible. 

4. Misreading the weather forecast.

Mountains create their own weather, and the forecast for the trailhead or nearest city is rarely indicative of the weather at the top of the peak. Always reference mountain-specific forecasts like those available from MeteoBlue, NOAA, or Mountain Forecast. Then, pack for the lows (not the highs).   

5. Failing to eat enough.    

Hiking uphill with a pack burns a lot of energy, but altitude and fatigue can have an adverse effect on appetite. Many new mountaineers either forget to eat, try to ignore their hunger, or push off snack breaks out of fear of slowing down the group. This is a recipe for “bonking,” or experiencing critically low blood sugar and crashing right in the middle of an athletic objective. To avoid bonking, prioritize lots of carbs and fats, and stop regularly for snacks. Try to eat a few bites of something every hour, and keep sipping water and electrolytes throughout your day.

Essential Apparel and Gear for Mountaineering 

Successful mountaineering is more about solid technical skills and good mountain sense than it is about having the perfect gear. That said, warm layers and reliable safety equipment are a must any time you venture into mountainous terrain. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it should cover all the basics for a summer, high-altitude summit bid with terrain up to third class or low-angle snow.



  • 30- to 40-liter hiking or climbing pack
  • Pack cover or waterproof pack liner
  • Climbing helmet (for alpine routes or loose terrain)
  • Micro-spikes (if snow or ice expected) 
  • Ice axe (if snow or ice expected)
  • Water bottle (1 liter minimum)
  • Water filter
  • Sandwich (PB/J or ham/cheese)
  • Salty snacks (pretzels, nuts, trail mix, or chips)
  • Sweet snacks (gummies, chocolate, or candy bars)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellant
  • Lip balm
  • Headlamp
  • Phone 
  • Gaia GPS app (or similar) with downloaded maps
  • Guidebook or paper maps
  • Compass
  • External phone battery and charger 
  • First-aid kit
  • Pocket knife
  • Hand sanitizer
  • WAG Bag or cathole shovel
  • Personal locator beacon or SOS device
  • Extra socks
  • Extra gloves

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.