How to Get into Mountaineering (as a Beginner)

Have you had a lifelong dream of summiting Everest or K2? Or maybe just love a good challenge? Here's how you can get into mountaineering as a beginner.

For all of the acclaim that goes to the term mountaineering, it’s really just backpacking vertically, rather than over flatter topography. While it is far more physically exerting than backpacking across a country trail, many of the supplies and training are the same or similar. If you’re into hiking and want to escalate to the next level, how to get into mountaineering?

Getting into mountaineering, even if you are a fairly fit individual and an experienced hiker, requires training, classwork hands-on experience with a guide, finding some potential partners, purchasing extra gear, and picking out your first vertical voyage.

If you are already an experienced hiker, you probably have a lot of the gear that you will need farther down the road. However, there are some additional tools that you will need for mountaineering that you probably won’t need while out on the trail. 

Start by getting some hands-on experience

man in orange jacket climbing a mountain
Image credits: Luke Helgeson

Not everybody has a lot of experience hiking and some just want to take a high dive off the diving board before they learn how to swim. We made a point of saying that mountaineering is vertical backpacking and that’s mostly because it is. 

You don’t have to have a mountain in front of you to start learning the basics of hiking, survival in the wild, and just outdoor life in general. Unless you live in the center of New York City or a major metropolitan area, almost everywhere you go you’re going to find some hiking trails.

There are state and national parks scattered all over the country and most of them have trails. If you happen to live out in the boonies, then you have the wilderness in the palm of your hand. It’s one thing to watch videos and read books but there’s nothing like sleeping under the stars until you truly do it for the first time.

Get out there and start hiking; start hitting the trails and learning the ins and outs of how to take care of yourself in the backcountry. Of course, the added advantage of hiking is that you’re building your body, exploring your capabilities, and filling your brain with tips and tricks. 

Join your local clubs and use social media

You’re not the only one who is excited to get out and start something new, get closer to nature, and get your body into better shape. Your local communities are full of like-minded people and veterans of the great outdoors.

You can find them in online forums, local Facebook pages, the Next Door app, and many more. Your local and state parks are great places to meet people, pick their brains, and learn more about backpacking, light hiking, and mountaineering. 

Learn how to read a map

You might wonder why in the world you would need a map to climb a mountain. The fact is, most mountains have multiple routes and specific topography and some have guideposts along the way. You would be amazed at the information that a local map can impart. 

Maps are not just printed renderings of the local topography either. They include various symbols, each of which has a specific meaning. They also have distances that are represented in centimeters, millimeters, or in quarters or eighths of an inch. 

Being able to pick up and read a map is almost like picking up a book that’s written in a different language and being able to interpret it down to every last vowel.

Necessary experiences

Before you decide to tackle a mountain, it’s good to get out and start hiking first, get some experience under your belt, and test your mettle against the wild, unpredictable nature of, well, nature. 

Of course, that means that there are certain things that you need to experience because each one tells you a little bit about yourself. You may not like to be cold. If that’s the case, you really need to spend the night in a cold tent to see if it’s worth your time. You can bet your bottom dollar that when you are camping near the summit, it’s going to be bone-cracking cold. 

  • Experience adversity on the trail
  • Travel through moderate and then even harder elevation changes
  • Conduct several backpacking trips that exceed two days in length
  • Get cold or soaking wet
  • Navigate with nothing more than a compass
  • Navigate with nothing more than sun, moon, and shadows
  • Learn to read a map and then learn to plot one
  • Draw out several routes on a map and then follow each one to a T
  • Learn how to tie a variety of useful knots until you can do it in your sleep
  • Most importantly, practice hiking with a huge pack over long distances

Will you be able to do all of these things before you attempt your first mountain? Probably not, but it’s worth spending the time trying. If you decide that you want to get into mountaineering, you owe it to yourself to get a little experience under your belt before you tackle your first one, even a minor mountain of no consequence. 

Take a class on mountaineering

This is problematic for a few reasons but no less important. Obviously, not everyone lives within driving distance of a mountain where they can take hands-on classes in mountaineering. However, you can at least get the visual experience, if nothing else. 

The knowledge that you garner there may one day prove to be invaluable. There is an excellent book called Freedom of the Hills that is an invaluable fountain of knowledge on mountaineering. 

Youtube videos on mountaineering are also great, even though watching is not the same as experiencing. If you have the vacation time or the capability or if you just happen to live very close to either the Rockies or the Smokies, you should definitely take the time to drop in for a week-long mountaineering course.

There are tons available out there and depending on where you live (east coast, west coast, midwest on the eastern side or on the western side) you’ll have to look for courses that are covered in the Rockies or teh Smokies, Americas two mountain chains.

Fortunately, these two chains are reasonably extensive, running well into states that you wouldn’t think, so there is a good possibility that you can find something within a 7 or 8-hour drive from you. 

Finding the right gear for mountaineering

two men sitting on the side of a mountain
Image credits: Luke Helgeson

Gear is everything for this kind of excursion and even a moderate to a veteran hiker who is just getting into the idea of mountaineering will have to upgrade what goes into the pack. Footwear is extremely important and that includes both the hiking boots and your socks.

The most important thing to understand is that you can’t blow through this step, buying everything you see advertised by people on YouTube and TikTok who have probably never even seen a mountain before. 

If you are already heavy into hiking, then you already have a good head start. If you don’t already have them, you will want a rope and a trad rack, both of which you can either make on your own or probably borrow when you are at base camp. 

A couple of ice axes should also be on your list, depending on the mountain, of course. However, an ice ax is also something that you can probably borrow at base camp or from partners that are going up the mountain with you. Depending on the mountain, you may not need them. 

Outside of those things, the rest is going to be for your own, personal level of comfort. For instance, your choice in hiking boots, the type of harness you want, and your clothes, of course.

Choosing your first mountaineering outing

man in green jacket on top of a rocky mountain
Image credits: Hayato Shin

The first thing that you want to do is schedule a trip for a guided mountain expedition. Or, you can go with a mountain that is considered to be “beginner friendly”, such as a 14er in Colorado, Mount Rainier (considered to be one of the best beginner/basics mountain expeditions you can get involved in), or even Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Depending on your availability and funding amount, there are a ton of choices in the United States alone, including any one of the six variations of “the Thousanders,” which include elevations from 1,000 meters to 6,000 meters. 

Even Mount Mckinley, the tallest mountain in North America, is considered to be beginner friendly, so you shouldn’t associate height with expertise. In Canada, there is Mount Temple, which stands at 11,624’ of elevation. Canada is also home to another beginner mountain on the list, Mount Brazeau.

In the US, other than Mount McKinley, you have Mount Whitney, Mount Massive, and Mount Elbert. All of these mountains are considered “beginner” mountains and there are a lot more than we can compile here without getting ridiculously in-depth. 

Final thoughts

Getting into mountaineering is a lot harder if you have no previous hiking or outdoors experience and a bit easier for those who are familiar with backpacking and overnight in the wilderness. However, with time, patience, practice, and knowledge, you will make a mountaineer out of yourself in no time.

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Thomas Godwin

Thomas Godwin is a writer and Marine Corps veteran with a degree in Creative Writing from the Full Sail University. He has been writing content for HeadlessNomad since 2021. Being a veteran, Thomas knows pretty much everything there is to know about the use of paracord, how boots should fit, and nature in general.