What is Glacier Hiking? Equipment, Best Season, Top Spots

Glacier hikingthe activity of moving across a glacier using special equipment – is a great way to discover a fascinating and remote terrain in a hands-on way. A glacier is a dense body of ice that is constantly moving, forming over long periods of time. Centuries of geology are deeply rooted in and around the ice, so trekking across it is a unique and exciting opportunity to take part in natural history.

Glacier hiking can be done as a stand-alone activity, or it can be a part of a mountaineering or hiking trip.

Glacier hiking on Mt. Cook, New Zealand. Photo: Elke Braun-Elwert.

Some glaciers are dry – which means that they lack snow and you are able to see the glacial ice. With this type of glacier, hikers are able to identify hazards more easily, like spotting crevasses in the ice or the rocks jutting out or on top of it. It is generally considered safer to hike along dry glaciers.

Wet glaciers – those that are covered either partially or completely in snow – have the tendency to hide their dangers. It behooves all hikers, climbers, and mountaineers to proceed with caution as perils are visually concealed.

Hiking across a glacier often involves roping a team of people together to make the hike safer. Never hike on a glacier alone. Smaller teams (two or three people) have more agility and efficiency in navigating technical terrain, whereas larger teams are better for preventing falls and limiting their severity. The location and duration of a glacier hike will determine the size of the team.

Exploring the Zinal Glacier in Switzerland. Photo: Pascale Haegler.

When using a rope, roughly 30 feet of it should be between each climber. Again, adjusting it for team size and ability may increase your efficiency across the glacier.

Glaciers can be found on every continent except Australia, and there are tons of programs around the world to fit your experience and abilities. A general level of fitness is necessary for this sport, though no special skill is required to enjoy it.

When is the Best Time of Year to Go Glacier Hiking?

The most comfortable time to go glacier hiking is during the summer months, though early morning expeditions increase the chance of freezing and thus make it safer. In the northern hemisphere, June through September are the best months to plan a trip, while December through March provide the prime season to partake in a southern hemisphere program.

Hiking the Jefferson Park Glacier in Oregon. Photo: Discover Oregon.

Access can be a big issue for glacier hiking, so volatile weather is not conducive to satisfying treks. Spring and autumn also offer great opportunities to enjoy a hike, though a greater chance of snow and snowfall can make a trip more dangerous.

What Equipment do You Need?

The necessary equipment for glacier hiking is relatively basic, but it depends on the level of the hike and if it will be accompanied with other activities, such as mountaineering or ice climbing. The general equipment required includes:

  • Helmet – Protecting your head in every activity is, of course, a no-brainer.
  • Harness – This attaches you to ropes and carabiners for safe and efficient glacier travel.
  • Crampons – Attach to your boots and make glacial travel much safer and easier.
  • Ice Axe – Cuts footholds and digs into the ice.
  • Rope – Connects hikers and climbers to each other and safety equipment.
  • Carabiners – A safe coupling device that attaches harnesses and ropes, among other equipment.
  • Ice Screws – An anchor point and belay device for safety and security that screws into the ice.

Slings, belay plates, Prussic loops, and pulleys also add safety and technical strength to your aresenal of gear.

A roped-up team in Chamonix. Photo: Sebastien Laurent.

Why Should You Hire a Guide for Glacier Hiking?

Never take a glacier hike alone. Hiking on glaciers can be a challenging sport. In fact, because they are always moving under their own weight, glaciers are replete with dangers that should be approached with care. Having a guide is crucial for the safety of a successful glacier hiking program. A guide ensures that precautions are taken, safety measures have been put in place and followed, and that participants can use more of there focus on the fun parts of the trip.

Following a guide adds a level of expertise to the program in both technical and environmental ways. They will know how to properly use equipment, and can show you the best places to walk, tour, and explore on the ice. A guide´s local knowledge of a glacier can exponentially enrich your experience and allow you to build on your understanding of glacier hiking.

Exploring the Patagonia Ice Field in Argentina. Photo: Manuel Quiroga.

7 Best Spots to Go Glacier Trekking in the World

1.      Southern Ice Cap Field (Argentina & Chile): As one of the largest ice fields in the world, notable for its access,  the Southern Ice Cap Field is the perfect place to enjoy some technically challenging glacier hikes.

2.      Bariloche (Argentina): There are many glaciers to hike here, including Alerce, and you honestly couldn´t ask for a more scenic and beautiful destination.

3.      Chamonix – Mont Blanc (France): Chamonix can do it all! If you were looking for great trips that incorporate other activities, like a mountaineering expedition on Mont Blanc, you can always do it here.

4.      Norway: The land of fjords does NOT disappoint. In fact, Hardangerjokulen and Steindalsbreen are just a couple of amazing destinations in a land full of glacial beauty.

5.      New Zealand: The remote glaciers are rewarding here, and offer additional activites to ambitious adventurers who find themselves hiking across Brewster Glacier.

6.      Iceland: If you needed an extra boost to your glacier hike, try trekking across a volcano that is completely covered by an ice cap – the Eyjafjallajokull Glacier.

7.      El Chalten (Argentina): With Perito Morena, Upsala, and the rest of the Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten has justifiably become a top spot for glacier hiking and associated activities.

Taking on the Dome de la Lauze in the Alps. Photo: Merlin Lipshitz.