Mountain and hill walking

Woman in the mountains 

If you’re walking in mountainous regions, like North Wales, the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, be prepared for more challenging weather - especially in winter. It is important to be properly equipped as conditions can vary dramatically from valley to mountaintop, regardless of the season. Walking on an exposed mountainside, you can quickly become susceptible to wind chill. The combination of high winds and cold air can dramatically lower your body temperature to potentially fatal levels of hypothermia.

Essential equipment

Warm and waterproof clothing, a map, compass and good navigation skills are essential, and in addition to the standard equipment for country walks, you should also carry:
  • A survival bag - a heavy-duty bag that keeps your body insulated from the cold in an emergency. See an example on the Cotswolds Outdoor website
  • A torch and spare batteries
  • A whistle (six blasts of a whistle or six flashes of a torch is the international distress signal)
  • Additional warm clothing (including hat and gloves)
  • High-energy rations (such as mint cake, chocolate, or dried fruit)
  • Water purification tablets
  • first aid kit
  • An ice axe and crampons when there is snow or ice on the hills

If you are likely to encounter heavy snow or ice, wear a pair of heavy-duty winter walking boots that can be fitted with crampons (metal spike attachments that give a better grip on icy terrain) and carry an ice axe. It’s worth learning how to use them before setting out on your walk as they can cause, rather than prevent, accidents if not used properly.

Sensible precautions

Be sensible about not over-reaching yourself on a mountain hike. Don't push yourself or your party beyond your limits, and cut your walk short if you are tiring or the weather is worsening and you are not confident of your skills or equipment.

Leave a route card or other indication of your likely location with a responsible person, and notify this person immediately of your safe return.

If a real emergency occurs, the international distress signal is a group of six loud blasts of a whistle, to be repeated at one-minute intervals. The emergency number in the UK is 999 and you should ask for mountain rescue.

Additional equipment

If you’re likely to meet heavy snow or ice you should wear a pair of heavy-duty winter walking boots that can be fitted with crampons. These are metal spike attachments that give a better grip in icy conditions and not all boots are suitable for them. You should also carry and know how to use an ice axe.

You’ll need to learn how to use axes and crampons properly - in the hands of a novice they can cause rather than prevent accidents. For good advice on the use of crampons, ice axes and how to stop a slide on snow or ice, see the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Winter Safety Advice.

Many hill walkers also carry a kisu shelter, or bothy bag. This is rather like a tent without poles, made of lightweight waterproof nylon that’s big enough to sit inside. See an example of an 8-10 person kisu shelter and a bothy bag on the Cotswolds Outdoor website. They’re available in a range of sizes and you should carry one that’s adequate for the size of your party. When used by two people or more they have the advantage of allowing you to share body heat and can warm up very quickly.

Avalanches and emergencies

Every year there are avalanche accidents in the Scottish hills. Be aware of the risks - if snow is falling, conditions can change very quickly. To find out more about avalanches read the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Avalanche Safety Advice or visit the Scottish Avalanche Information Service website.

If an emergency occurs, the international distress signal is six loud blasts of a whistle, or flashes of a torch, to be repeated at one minute intervals. Call 999 and ask for the Police, letting them know your location, who will contact mountain rescue and ambulance services for you as appropriate.

More information

One of the biggest draws for walkers in Scotland is its many mountains. They even have their own classification system – a ‘Munro’ is a mountain topping 3000ft, a ‘Corbett’ refers to a peak reaching between 2,500ft and 3000ft and a ‘Graham’ one from 2000ft to 2,500ft.


Photo: © Ian Dickin