How To Stay Safe On The Hills In Winter

  • by Ryan McCann
How To Stay Safe On The Hills In Winter

Winter is here, and with it, comes new challenges. Your familiar landscapes are transformed by snow and ice, changing the very shape of the hills you love.

There’s a multitude of reasons to get out during the winter. The clear blue skies, the bright white snow, and the quiet. Unlike the summer, when you might find yourself sharing your favourite trails with hundreds of keen Munro baggers, you can walk for miles only seeing a couple of other intrepid adventurers as specks on a distant hillside.

However, winter weather increases the risks on any journey. It’s important to be well-prepared before you head out on any winter hike, with the right knowledge and equipment to stay safe on the hills.

How can you prepare for a winter hike?

You know that conditions are harsher than summer – you’ve felt the drop in temperature! But there’s more to winter hike preparation than finding your warmest coat. You want to be in control, not at the mercy of the elements, and that means doing your research.

  • Plan your route
    • Do you know the route you’re taking well? How might your points of reference look different in the winter? How much slower is your walking speed in the snow? Make sure you know your route back to front. You should also plan out a couple of alternate or escape routes in case you need to get off the mountain faster.
  • Bring a map and compass – that you know how to use!
    • With your trail concealed by snow, a GPS isn’t a huge help. The safest route might not be the straight line to your destination. Make sure you’ve checked your route on your map and can confidently use it in low light conditions. If you want to refresh your orienteering skills before you venture out, there are several helpful videos on YouTube.
  • Know what weather to expect
  • Pack extras
    • Our motto is ‘better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it’. Bring an extra layer, extra gloves, and yes, definitely extra food. You might thank yourself halfway up the hill.

What do you need to know about mountain weather?

Mountain weather is always more extreme than weather at lower altitudes. You can expect:

  • A drop in temperature of 1˚C every 100m of elevation
  • Higher wind speeds
  • More moisture in the air on the side of the mountain facing into the wind
  • Sudden weather changes

It’s never too late to change your route if the weather threatens to be rougher than you’re comfortable with. By checking regularly, you can stay aware and avoid developing conditions before they become dangerous.


What winter equipment do you need?


In the mountains, you’re likely to come across patches of solid ice that are almost impossible to walk across. Even on compacted snow, crampons are the difference between finishing your route or heading back with your tail between your legs.

These lightweight spiked footwear attaches to your boots to help you walk, and some models include front-facing spikes for ice climbing. You’ll want to choose crampons that fit your boots well, as you should always have consistent contact between the sole and the frame.

Ice Axes

Not just for mountain climbers, ice axes improve your control on uphill sections, steep downhills, and even narrow mountainside paths. For hiking, you’ll want a steel head and a comfortable grip – whether the shaft is straight or curved is up to you.

Ice axes make your life easier in so many ways. You can use them to cut steps into steep, slippery snow – and if the unthinkable happens and you slip, your ice axe acts as brake, digging into the ice to stop your fall. They can also be used for probing and digging through snow or ice, if you need to test the path ahead.

Winter Boots

Winter walking boots offer more support and sturdiness than those designed for other seasons. They’ll often feature a firm sole with deep treads for crampon compatibility and to maximise grip. You’ll want to look for waterproof boots to keep your feet warm and dry for as long as possible.  

Ski Goggles

On the coldest days in Scottish winter, you won’t see a single cloud in the sky. This means that ski goggles are an unexpected essential, as the sun reflects off the snow to make visibility poor even in the middle of the day. Grabbing a good pair of goggles also keeps the icy wind off your face.


What does good winter clothing look like?

The basis of your winter clothing system is layering. With the right combination of base, mid, and outer layers, you can handle even sub-zero temperatures without worry.

Wondering how to layer well for the winter? Watch our video on winter layering.

Mountain Jacket

Your perfect winter jacket should blend warmth, waterproofing, and breathability to keep you comfortable no matter what the weather. For example, our Munro Jacket is made with 3 layers of protection, designed to be hard-wearing in tough conditions. Buy now


Your ankles and feet will likely have the most exposure to snow. A sturdy pair of gaiters will help keep your feet dry and warm, adding another level of protection. The Cuillin Gaiters are tough, breathable, and fully waterproof, ideal for hiking in freezing conditions. Buy now

Head Torch

It’s tough to plan a long winter hike that doesn’t involve some time walking in the dark. With Scottish days becoming extremely short in winter, make sure you’re prepared, even if you plan to be up and down before the sun sets. The Deneb Torch is sensor-controlled, so it’s easy to use with thick gloves on. Buy now


How can you prepare for an emergency?

All your advance prep should have helped to reduce risk, but we can’t plan for everything. Sometimes things go wrong, and if something goes wrong in winter, your trip can get dangerous quickly.

If you do have an emergency on the hills, you’ll want to have these essential survival tools in your pack.

Survival Shelter

If you get stranded in the winter, staying warm is your first priority. A survival shelter is waterproof and windproof, so you can climb inside until rescue arrives or the storm passes. Weighing just a few grams, this should live in the base of your pack for emergencies. Buy now

Survival Blanket

A reflective survival blanket will also help you retain body heat in an emergency. You’ll lose less heat to your surroundings as the foil blanket reduces evaporation from your skin and reflects radiated heat back to your body. Buy now

Survival Bag

Your survival bag is a temporary bivi bag designed to keep you dry. The PVC is completely waterproof, so you can shelter in place until a rescue can get to you. Buy now

Hand Warmers

It is vital to be able to generate additional heat in an emergency. These hand warmers will produce quick, reliable heat when snapped, and can be recharged easily once you are home. Buy now

Emergency Whistle

In the worst winter conditions, even your bright orange survival bag might not be visible. That’s when you’d pull out your emergency whistle, to signal your position. Buy now

You might be wondering how you’re going to squeeze all of this into your rucksack! With a little planning, you can pack a bag that has everything you need (and a little more), but remains comfortable to carry. 


Before you go…

Now it’s time for you to find your route, pack your equipment, and enjoy the stunning views of Scottish winter. It is one of the best times to snap a new profile picture, but also to make memories that will stay with you year round.

If you’re unfamiliar with winter hiking or want to improve your winter skills, we’d recommend booking a winter skills course before trying any longer routes. This is a great way to make sure you have all the skills you need to safely start your winter adventures


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