Winter Hiking Advice | How To Be Well Prepared and Safe in Cold Conditions
In association with Lifesystems, we present our top tips for hiking adventures above the snowline
Winter in the British uplands can be absolutely epic. What was a pleasant hill in summer becomes a proper mountain after snowfall, its lower flanks molten in the waning sun and its upper ramparts snow-capped and resplendent. A landscape transformed by cold is a landscape that just begs to be explored. The prospect of being up among the white peaks, windblown spindrift and frozen cascades is hugely enticing.
However, winter brings a whole host of challenges that are of little or no concern during the warmer months. The weather can be much more extreme, with sub-zero temperatures, ferocious windchill and snowstorms that reduce visibility to naught. Navigation can be trickier to say the least and the risk of hypothermia is real if things go wrong. The terrain is more treacherous, often calling for the use of ice axes, crampons and – crucially – the skills to wield them effectively. The daylight window is shorter, your backpack will be heavier and there are also other hazards like avalanches to be aware of.
Far from putting us off, overcoming these challenges is part of what makes winter so rewarding. Teaming up with Lifesystems, a long-standing British brand that’s committed to developing cutting edge expedition gear, we bring you our top tips for the freezing season. From how to plan and what to pack, to what to do in an emergency, the following advice will enable you to enjoy your winter escapades safely.
Plan Your Route Based on the Weather
Many of the hazards associated with winter walking can be mitigated before you’re anywhere near a fell, mynydd, ben or stob by planning your route carefully. Study a dedicated mountain weather forecast daily in the lead up to your hike. The Mountain Weather Information Service and the Met Office Mountain Weather Forecast cover the major upland regions of the UK and both give a detailed forecast. Particularly important aspects to look for in winter are: windspeed and direction – plan your route so that you are sheltered from the worst of the wind for as long as possible; and freezing level – this will give you an indication of how high up you can expect icy conditions.
Be Avalanche Aware
Avalanches occur across the UK during winter but they are most common in the Scottish Highlands. As a general principle, the danger is greatest after a period of heavy snowfall and on slopes of between 30-45 degrees. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides a forecast on where avalanches are most likely to take place, enabling you to plan a route that avoids slopes that pose a risk.
There’s no getting around the fact that your backpack is going to be heavier in winter. You will need a larger pack than in summer, upwards of 40 litres is recommended. A waterproof jacket and waterproof overtrousers are essential for their rain and wind repelling qualities. Meanwhile, it’s better to have multiple mid layers than a single thick one, as multiple layers that you can easily switch in and out allow you more control over your temperature.
Pack the Winter Essentials
As with any adventure in the mountains, a fully stocked first aid kit is vital. Lifesystems’ founder Mark Cobham pioneered the UK’s first travel specific first aid kit way back in 1989 when, as a young traveller, he realised there wasn’t a compact kit available on the market. Today, the brand’s highly portable, durable and water-resistant Trek First Aid Kit has your needs covered, including a primary care leaflet with instructions for basic emergencies. Another item that we wouldn’t set foot on a hill without is a whistle for attracting attention in an emergency.
As well as the usual hiking essentials, additional gear that may be required in winter include winter hiking boots, an ice axe, crampons, snow goggles, gaiters, spare gloves and a spare hat. Rather counter-intuitively, sunglasses and sun cream are hugely important on bright days, especially once you hit the white stuff. Short daylight hours mean that carrying a head torch (ideally two) is essential. The security provided by a torch that can take both a rechargeable battery and standard AAAs – such as Lifesystem’s Intensity 500 – is ideal in winter.
Be Prepared for Every Eventuality
Even the best-laid plans can go awry, especially in winter. All it takes is a lapse in concentration or an innocuous slip to transform an enjoyable hike into an emergency. Movement is what keeps you warm on the hill in winter and becoming immobilised is a serious problem, with hypothermia becoming a real possibility if you remain exposed.
Once the alarm has been raised by dialing 999, asking for the “police” and then “mountain rescue”, staying warm and dry is everything. Always, always, always carry a bivi bag or blizzard jacket – Lifesystems’ lightweight and easily packable Heatshield Thermal Bivi Bag reflects and retains over 90% of radiated body heat, perfect for such a situation. We’d also recommend carrying a group survival shelter, which is basically a large piece of tent fabric that can provide cover for your entire group.
When starting out, stay within your comfort zone by choosing areas and routes you are familiar with.
Hiking alone in winter is asking for trouble. Share the trail with a friend and watch each other’s backs. Also, let someone else know your planned route and rough timings before setting out so that if, in the worst-case scenario, they have to call mountain rescue, they’ll have some idea of your location.
Don’t rely solely on technology for navigation, as batteries and cold aren’t the best of buddies. Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
Take plenty of high energy food and a hot drink in an insulated flask. One of the most effective ways to help your body maintain its temperature in an emergency is to eat. You can replenish your water supplies at a mountain stream and make the water safe from bacteria and viruses using water purification tables.
There’s no point having an ice axe and crampons if you don’t know how to use them and heading into the winter hills without the appropriate knowledge is potentially dangerous. Therefore, it’s a good idea to learn from the pros in order to take your fledgling steps above the snowline.
The national outdoor centres of Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia and Glenmore Lodge in Scotland’s Cairngorms provide excellent winter skills courses, with the option of accommodation too. These courses typically run for around 5 days and cover everything you need to know about how to enjoy adventures among snow-capped peaks safely. Scotland is the most reliable venue for decent winter conditions, which is why Plas y Brenin run courses in Glen Coe, as well from their home in North Wales.
There are plenty of other providers across the UK who can provide winter instruction too, often offering shorter courses if you don’t have time for a full 5 days. When selecting a provider, check to see that they have the Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor qualification and that they are a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors.
About the Author
Alex Foxfield, a regular contributor to this site, is an experienced mountaineer with a Mountain Leader qualification and numerous 4000-metre peaks to his name. Alongside his day job as an outdoor and adventure writer, Alex currently serves as the President of the London Mountaineering Club.
Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.