Great winter days in the hills are very memorable, although the hours of daylight are short and the weather is often extremely challenging. Being on the hill in winter conditions is a great and rewarding experience and one that is highly recommended.
Prior planning, as well as good gear, are essential to ensuring a safe and enjoyable day out. Extra care must always be taken to be aware of where you are and what is happening around you as the weather can change extremely quickly.
Here are a few tips which we think are useful:
1. Have a plan and leave a note of it
Plan your route and plot the distance, elevation and difficulty of the terrain. Having a clear idea of your route will save time on the hill. Always leave details of your plans (what time you are leaving and the estimated return) with someone in case of emergency.
2. Don’t overestimate your abilities
In winter conditions plan a route well within your abilities. Wind. Bad weather, particularly snow and ice conditions can seriously slow you down. Even with the best of planning.
3. Check the weather before you go
Check the forecasts and be prepared to change your plans if the weather is bad. The Mountain Weather Information Service website (www.mwis.org.uk) is an excellent resource and covers the main mountain areas of Scotland, England and Wales. When there is snow on the ground in Scotland check out the Scottish Avalanche Advisory Service (www.sais.gov.uk) which gives essential information on snow conditions and has good information on avalanche awareness. For more information about the weather and how to read it, please read our article about "How to read the weather"
4. Make an early start
With the hours of daylight short, plan to make the most of the day by getting out on the hill early. Don’t be afraid to do an easier part of the walk in the dark if it means you have daylight later. It might help you get a good parking spot too!
5. Keep an eye on the clock
Stay aware of the time, winter conditions can slow you down as mentioned above so don’t be afraid to shorten a route if you are behind schedule. Have escape options planned
6. Practice your navigation
This is absolutely vital if you are out in the winter hills where visibility is often poor and the days are short. Snow can cover the largest path in minutes so knowing where you are and where you are going is obviously important! Always carry a paper map and a compass and know how to use them. There are several phone apps around which are useful to back up your navigation, particularly the free app: OS Locate app - find where you are (ordnancesurvey.co.uk) which will give you a map reference of your current location which can aid your navigation and be vital if you are ever unlucky enough to need help. Other apps such as OS Maps 12 months recurring subscription | Ordnance Survey Shop which is a subscription service that gives you access to Ordnance Survey maps on your phone can also be useful but you should never rely solely on electrical devices for navigation as their batteries don’t like the cold! Navigating quickly and accurately on winter hills is part art and part science, it's good fun to practice and a skill that will serve you well.
7. Always, always carry a torch (and preferably two!)
Never go out on the hills without a headtorch, even when there is no intention of being out after dark. I always carry two headtorches just in case one is damaged or lost. Trying to change batteries in a blizzard is not fun. Many winter Mountain Rescue Team call outs are caused by people running out of daylight and not having a torch. Read here more about "How to hike safely in the darkness"
8. Hats and Gloves
Always carry spare gloves and a hat. I carry two hats and at least 4 pairs of gloves. Hats can be lost or get soaked. I wear both liner gloves and warm, waterproof gloves in winter. Spare gloves take up no space in your bag and it’s nice to have dry gloves to pop on if your first pair get soaked. Keep your spare gloves and hat in a small drybag so they are always where you can find them and always dry when you need them!
9. Stay cosy!
Always carry a spare warm jacket and odds and ends of spare clothing. It’s good to be able to layer up when you stop for a break or if you feel chilly. A lightweight insulated jacket is ideal. A dry bag is also useful to store your spare clothes in.
10. Food and Drink
A flask is a good option for cold days where a cup of warm soup, tea etc is always welcome. Something decent to eat like a sandwich and a few treats are vital too. My personal favourite is homemade flapjack which is full of fruit cereal and sweet syrup. Ideal for an energy boost. Always have a few extra ‘emergency rations’ along too in case you start to flag. Jelly babies are highly recommended.
11. Emergency shelter
Always carry an orange plastic survival bag. It won’t take up much room in your bag but is a potential lifesaver if you need to shelter from the elements. An emergency shelter like our 2-3 man emergency shelter or larger 4-5 man shelter, which can be used to shelter from the elements while having lunch or to keep someone out of the wind and weather if they need help.
12. Take a bigger bag
In winter you will need more space in your rucksack as you will be carrying more gear. Something around 40 litres is normally OK depending on your plans. Highlander offers a range of different Rucksacks, which can be found here
13. Stay dry with good waterproofs
A good waterproof jacket and trousers are vital, not only do they keep the rain/sleet snow off, but they also block the wind which is very important. A pair of waterproof gaiters keep snow out of your boots and help keep your feet dry.
14. Winter boots
A boot designed for winter walking will be stiffer and a bit heavier than a boot for summer use. Winter boots need to be stiffer to kick into the snow and to allow the fitting of a crampon.
15. Ice Axes and Crampons
Not fashion accessories but absolutely vital on the steeper snowy ground. An ice axe provides support when ascending or descending wintery slopes and is the only way to stop slipping on steep snow. Crampons strap onto winter boots and provide grip on ice-covered terrain. Crampons should always be adjusted to fit your boots before your trip.
16. Other gear
A small first aid kit should always be a part of your hill kit, just in case of minor injuries. Cable ties, gaffer tape and strong paracord string can help with any ‘gear malfunctions’, Walking Poles are excellent for approach walks in the snow as they aid balance and can make breaking trails much less fatiguing. (Always swap for an ice axe on the steeper ground). Goggles are very useful in driving sleet or snow. A power bank can be useful to recharge phones or other electronics too.
17. Plan well, take care, make good decisions, and have fun!