Masterclass – Good in an emergency

Words: Paul Donovan & Dr Emma Edwards-Jones, Adventuresmart  l  Image © Alamy

A winter walk is wonderfully invigorating, but there's a good chance of finding yourself in freezing, wet, slippery or poor-visibility conditions. How can you be well-prepared and minimise risks? And what should you do if you or one of your walking companions gets into difficulty? 

Walking in winter brings challenges: air and water temperatures drop, winds increase the chill factor, rain or fog can close in quickly, snow may fall and streams freeze over. A winter walk can be exhilarating, particularly in the hills and mountains, but the days are short and weather conditions can change quickly, so you need to plan for all eventualities. Whether you're heading out for a walk with the dog or planning a hike along coastal paths or into the hills, ask yourself the following three questions before you set off:  

1. Am I confident that I have the right skills and knowledge for the day?  

2. Do I know what the weather will be like?  

3. Do I have the right gear?  

Wherever you're going and whatever you're doing, consider your skills and knowledge - and those of your companions. Navigating in winter can require technical skills and you'll need to take into account variables such as poor visibility, frozen ground, snow cover and avalanche risk.  

Improve your skills with specialist training. Mountain Training offers brilliant courses in hill and mountain skills: The Ramblers has an excellent e-learning course in Preventing & Managing Incidents for walk leaders (find it on Assemble). 

Knowing first aid can save a life. Download the St John Ambulance first-aid advice app:, and consider signing up for first-aid training with St John Ambulance in England (, St John Ambulance Cymru in Wales ( or St Andrew's First Aid in Scotland (  


Planning & preparation  

Time spent planning is time well spent! As the days shorten and temperatures dip, plan walks around the least able/experienced person in your group. Consider their ability, knowledge and fitness, and perhaps choose shorter, less demanding outings than you would at other times of the year.  

Gather relevant information about the area right up until the day of your walk and keep yourself updated during your trip. Set out in good time - remember it will get dark more quickly if skies are overcast. Carry a torch, even if you intend being back long before nightfall. Check your batteries and bring spares.  

Be flexible. If reaching a particular summit or destination is going to be a challenge, there's no shame in changing your plans. Choose a different route or turn back if the forecast takes a turn for the worse, the weather closes in unexpectedly, or conditions are more difficult than you'd expected.  

If you want to explore new terrain or try a more challenging hike, then heading out with a qualified guide or outdoor instructor is a great idea. You can also check the Ramblers website to see if there are any group walks planned in the area:  

top tip

Staying on track  

Sticking to your chosen route can be tricky in snow or fog, so follow our simple guide to making the right decisions.  

Before you set off . . .  

• Check the weather forecast for the highest point on your route, and for your start and finish times. Plan your walk for a day when good visibility is forecast and you have plenty of daylight hours.  

• Download the OS Locate app ( and all the digital maps you need. You can't always rely on a mobile phone signal in the great outdoors, so pack a paper map in a waterproof case as well.  

• Plot your route on the paper map and identify key features, such as paths, fences, walls, streams, ridges, valleys and buildings, so you can look out for them during your walk.  

• Fully charge your phone and pack a charged power bank in a dry-bag or ziplock plastic bag. Always keep some phone charge in case you need to make an emergency call.  

• Switch your phone to flight mode to make your battery last longer. You can still use it to navigate.  

• Before you start walking, align your map with what you can see to make sure you're heading in the right direction.  

• Keep an eye on how long you've been walking and the distance you've covered, so you know if you're on target to finish before dusk or need to change your plans. Note the key features (path junctions, streams, etc) on your map and the time you pass them, so you can check your progress.  

waves out at see lapping rocks with a lighthouse in the distance

image © Shutterstock

Unsure of where you are?  

• Stop, take a good look around you and use key features in the landscape to orientate yourself.  

• If there are others close by, ask for help - but don't follow them unless they are confident of where they are going and it's where you want to go, too.  

• If you still feel lost, backtrack to your last known point. Don't be tempted to take a shortcut across country as this increases the chance of becoming lost.  

Winter weather conditions can change rapidly and, if you're in the hills or mountains, will also vary with height. Research what the weather has been like in recent days and the conditions for the day of your walk. The Met Office's dedicated mountain weather forecast site is useful:  

Snow, rain and hail can make ground conditions difficult. Frozen ground is especially treacherous and may require crampons. Make sure they are adjusted for your boot size and you have the knowledge and skills to use them. Hiking in deep snow is best avoided - it's hard work, slow, and increases your risk of becoming disoriented or suffering from frostbite or hypothermia. There are social media accounts providing real-time information about conditions in hills and mountains:  

• Lake District Fell Top Assessors: @lakesweather on Twitter/X.  

• Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon Weather Report @yrwyddfaweather on Twitter/X.  


In case of emergency  

Even the best prepared hillwalker can find themselves in difficulty. In an emergency, take time to assess the situation and decide on the best course of action. You should:  

• Stay calm and stay together.  

• Check that no one in your group is in immediate danger (you may need to move away from the danger).  

• Treat anyone who is injured. Check their airway, breathing and circulation (ABC) and look for blood loss.  

• Insulate the casualty from the ground. Add extra clothing, and if they are unconscious, place them in the recovery position.  

• Identify where you are on your map and consider your options:  

- Moving to safety: What will the conditions be like? How far do you need to go to be safe? Are you able to carry the casualty? Will the casualty's injuries be made worse by moving?  

- Finding shelter: Don't use up valuable time and energy on this unless you are confident of finding shelter. Consider using your group shelter.  

- Staying put: Will your situation be resolved if you stay where you are?  

• Call 999 or 112 and ask for Police then Mountain Rescue if in the mountains or hills, or Coastguard if on the coast. Conserve mobile battery life by having all details to hand before phoning. Bear in mind that emergency services may take several hours to reach you. You will need to give the following details:  

- your location (grid reference if possible)  

- name, gender and age of casualty 

- nature of injuries or emergency  

- number of people in the party  

- your mobile phone number.  

Search and Rescue teams may send a text message using the locator systems SARLOC or Phone Find to help find your location. Evaluate the phone battery life and coverage available in your group in case you need to make additional calls. Preserve battery life by closing other apps and keeping your phone warm in an interior jacket pocket. If all other forms of communication fail, the internationally recognised emergency signals are six blasts on the whistle or six torch flashes repeated every minute.  


Essential equipment  

Wear and pack the right things to ensure you enjoy your day, whatever the conditions ...  

Essentials to wear  

* Waterproof jacket and over-trousers  

* Warm/windproof trousers or leggings  

* Thermal leggings/ base layer  

* Thermal top/ base layer  

* Fleece/insulating top layer  

* Rigid-soled footwear with appropriate socks  

* Warm hat  

* Gloves or mitts  

* Sunglasses - sometimes the sun does shine in winter!  


Essentials to carry  


* Map and compass - make sure you know how to use them.  

* Fully charged mobile phone and powerbank - with your route and maps downloaded. Make sure it's easily accessible.  

* Rucksack and rucksack liner - a heavy-duty bin bag will do as a liner. Your stuff will get wet without one!  

* Spare insulating layer(s)  

* Headtorch - check the batteries and carry spares.  

* Whistle  

* High-energy food and a hot drink ) - it's important to stay hydrated even when it's cold .   

* First aid kit - a waterproof pouch with dressings, blister plaasters, pain relief.  

* Sunscreen   


If you’re venturing beyond the lowlands, you'll also need:  

* Emergency survival bag - polythene is OK.  

* Emergency group shelter or 'bothy in a bag'  

* Walking poles - optional.  

* Goggles - essential for navigation in some conditions.  

* Crampons - remember to check they fit your boots and are sharp.  

* Ice axe   


Paul Donovan and Emma Edwards-Jones jointly lead AdventureSmart.UK, a national strategy for safety in the outdoors. Find further advice at: 

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