Preparing for Winter Hill-Walking

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Preparing for Winter Hill-Walking

Though the snowy peaks look beautiful from afar, those that are medium level walking become downright hard in winter conditions.

Even if you aren’t planning on seeing your favourite landscape in the snow, but want to keep your walking habit going through the year you need to be prepared for low visibility that can leave you in danger.

Over this article we will break the preparations you need down into digestible sections, starting in the summer months, so you can properly prepare for a good walk in the hills and mountains safely come winter.

Preparing in Summer

Yes, navigation in particular is something you should get to a high standard in summer.

By this we mean map and compass navigation – not using your smartphone or GPS device.

Although technology has improved considerably with ever more powerful mobile devices making navigation a breeze in summer, batteries still hate the cold.

Batteries will have their temperature range for optimum operation, and this sits between 7 degrees C and 50 degrees C.

Below 7 degrees C or so the amount of time that the battery has before bombing out can fall considerably and in subzero temperatures you could find an iPhone that usually operates for 5-7 hours on GPS could give you three or less.

Considering you will be carrying more gear and trudging through mud and snow, you will take more time to do the same walk you might be able to trot off in 5-7 hours in summer.

It’s not nice when your only nav system dies and you aren’t clear where you are/how to get home.

If you are using the Viewranger app for nav normally, keep your phone somewhere nice and warm and set up the Buddy Beacon with a friend so they always have an idea where you are.

The Buddy Beacon and emergency calls are the phone’s sole purpose on the hill.

Now, let’s look at some navigation skills using map and compass.

Paper Navigation Skills

The traditional means of navigation on the hill uses as high a resolution Ordnance Survey (OS) map as possible in a waterproof case.

For many areas there’s the OS Explorer series that offers 1:25,000 scale (4cm to 1km) but for less trodden routes the OS Landranger series is 2cm to 1km (1:50,000 scale).

This should cost no more than £20 all in. The compass will cost another £15-£20.

These could save your life!

Plot the route using pencil and learn the key on the OS so you can relate the world on the map to the real world in front of you.

Peaks, forests and churches are shown, as are paths, roads, rivers and everything you need to relate to your position on the hill.

Hazards such as known bogs and fencing is often marked too.

Walking to a compass bearing is also important.

From the map you will set a course and then using the compass, keep heading in that direction. Sound simple? It isn’t!

That’s why you need to learn in broad daylight in good conditions.

The next thing to learn is distance covered.

On average we stride around a metre per footstep (though this changes in snow and mud) so get used to counting your steps and following the compass.

Your buddies may not enjoy your company so much but if they too are doing the same then you can discuss your route – the average may get you home!

Once you are competent in daylight, choose a safe, familiar route and either do it at night or when there’s low cloud.

It’s the low cloud that could catch you out, and with snow in the mix you could have visibility at most in the tens of metres – often less in winter.

As a final note, remember that snow buries things like cairns and footpaths – snow walking, even without the stuff falling from the sky requires confident and competent nav.

Clothing & Accessories

Time and again we reinforce the idea that for trekking you should have boots on – those beefy trainers don’t cut the mustard, especially for winter walking.

Find some cash for a pair of winter-rated boots.

They aren’t cheap but nor is the rest of the gear here!

They will be waterproof and less flexible than summer boots.

The waterproof bit is the important factor as you don’t want moisture around your skin in low temperatures.

Decent socks are next. Though they can end up stinking rather ripely, artificial fibres are good at wicking away moisture.

That said, wool is still a decent material as it is at least as good as the newer materials and doesn’t get so smelly.

For the rest of you you should be thinking in terms of layers.

Thin, early removed layers will keep you warm without sweating too much.

Do think of whether you can unzip/zip something with gloves on – you don’t want bare skin on freezing metal in colder conditions.

Use your judgement – you overdress and you will overheat and the sweat could give you hypothermia!

Underdress and could end up in trouble thanks to having nothing to warm you up.

It will help to keep a big jumper and waterproofs at the top of your backpack for stops so you can stay warm during coffee/hot chocolate breaks.

Where it comes to outer layers, have waterproof layers ready but quick drying outer layers for those spells where there isn’t precipitation.

Gaiters are something to be considered to prevent water going over your boots.

These can be used for moorland walking and snow alike – you don’t know how deep puddles or streams are until you have stepped in them.

Don’t forget gloves! Your fingers are often the first to go with frostbite and hypothermia so have condition-appropriate gloves on for the walk.

Take a friend

You may be going on the hill because you hate people but it pays to have a walking buddy in inclement conditions.

Don’t worry – in snow and low cloud you’ll be too busy counting metres and focusing on your compass course to talk to them!

Focused on the task on Ben Nevis

Even if you are using the Buddy Beacon reporting system it is better to have a real buddy to pull you out of the bog than having to hope that the emergency services will get you home for an otherwise recoverable incident.

While we laugh at this, it is better to share an experience than it is to do it alone.

In the next section we will show you that even for a single day walk you will do better to have a buddy with you as you will be literally sharing the load.

The final point is that you won’t always be in range of a mobile phone mast so if one of you ends up in trouble the other can run for help.

Other Gear for the Walk

The first thing to remember about winter walking in latitudes like the UK is that there are going to be fewer than nine daylight hours a day.

Up in the Scottish Highlands there are fewer.

Many of the walks we cover in our Top 10 are nine miles and more, and on steep hills you could be leaving at dawn with the hope of making it back for dusk on a hard nine miler.

If you are in low cloud or light snow showers already and it gets dark your visibility could hit zero.

This is why you need to pack some sort of shelter in the bottom of your backpack.

Essentials for your summer training hike

If you have a buddy or two they will carry an equal amount of the disaster kit with you.

Ideally this will be a tent capable of handling snow, but if on lower moorland you will still need something to sleep in that will keep the weather off you.

Carry a survival sleeping bag with you for once in the shelter.

A stove, cooking pots, utensils and a water supply are next.

Headlights should go next in the bag – you can get extremely bright ones these days that cost about £50 that will let you see the world in detail.

The next level in the bag should contain a one pot stew in a bag – high calorie food is essential with lentils, potatoes and other root vegetables that will release energy slowly – don’t be afraid of fat either.

Antarctic expeditions have been known to eat butter in chunks as that fat will be burned quickly enough!

Above that should be a big flask of coffee or hot chocolate. No one has ever moaned about having too much hot fluids on a mountain.

Energy bars are another thing to take. You will lose weight faster than you consume these things when slogging against gales, through mud and snow so don’t worry if you are on a diet!

A final thing to remember is that though you may not feel thirsty you will need to remain hydrated, and that means you should have around a half litre for every hour on the hill + some in case you’re on an unplanned stay out there.

Weather-specific Gear

Will you need walking poles or an ice axe?

On lower slopes when you are confident there won’t be snow, have a pair of walking poles for the walk. These give you an extra pair of legs to walk with and to lean on.

If you are deliberately going above the snow-line or are expecting snow during the walk, have an ice axe ready. The shaft of the ice axe is used as a walking pole for the lower slopes.

Ice Axes on Ben Nevis

The pointed end of the axe can help you scramble up steeper slopes but more importantly will act as a brake should you slip.

Not all ascents are in straight lines and you could slip and slide down a slope above a cliff.

You should practice sliding down a hill and smashing the ice axe into the deck to stop you sliding in advance.

For snow conditions buy crampons for your boots. You can buy flexible ones for flexible boots and rigid ones for articulated boots.

Practice using these, perhaps on the same slope you’re going ice axe sliding!

The technique is to walk flat footed and with your legs slightly wider than normal to prevent the spikes from damaging your outerwear.

A final thing to consider for snow is a snow shovel.

This is to dig a snow hole for you to sleep in should things get too exciting.

You can buy lightweight ones that will easily fit in your pack.

Again, on the day you’re practising walking with crampons and ice axe sliding, dig yourself a snow hole as part of the fun.

Weather Forecasting

One of the first classroom skills new yachtsmen learn is how to watch and monitor the weather.

Walking is so far more democratised that people don’t learn.

It may help to do a night school meteorology course or one online even for walking in the summer as if you can understand the detailed forecast you can work out the variables to it.

In the days running up to the planned walk you should be watching local weather forecasts for the area you are planning on assaulting.

Places like Cairngorm and Snowdon have their own dedicated micro-weather forecast websites where you can assess the weather closely in advance.

The summit of Snowdon in Winter

Keep an eye out for avalanche information too. The first thing to remember is that the further away the forecast from the actual day the less accurate it will be.

The BBC Countryfile Five Day Forecast is not to be relied on if you watch it on Sunday for potential weather next weekend.

You should keep a winter walk a possibility – and not a nailed down certainty – until the night before you are due to leave.

Only then will you have a reasonably accurate forecast of what you’ll see on the hill.

Generally under a high pressure system things will be calm and steady for a few days.

That depends on what the jet stream that drives the weather is doing, and in winter months the jet stream can be feisty so you will see that a still-slow moving high pressure system could just trundle off and open the doors to low pressure system gales again.

Ultimately it is for you to make the judgement whether the walk is within your ability in given weather conditions.

If you’ve been blown off a mountainside in 70 mph winds the helicopter may refuse to pick you up thanks to the dangers involved!

They don’t like blizzards either, in both cases leaving it to mountain rescue teams to put their lives in danger to pick you up.

Ready now?

That’s an awful lot of things to remember where it comes to going up on the moors, fells or mountains in winter!

The fact is even an ordinarily benign landscape is full of risk in winter.

Though even experts get rescued the rescue team would far rather find you wrapped up warm in a tent than blue with cold on the hill and about to fall unconscious from hypothermia.

Proper preparations however should give you an adventure to share with friends for time to come.

The hills and mountains in snow are quite something and if you prepare well and make it home it’ll be an unforgettable experience!

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