Hillwalking in winter

The unique landscapes of Great Britain can be magical in winter, but shorter days and severe weather conditions can present new challenges – particularly on high ground or in remote areas. Our expert shares her top tips for staying safe this season.

Words by Lucy Wallace, Ramblers Scotland President

A walker, with poles, looking out across a snowy hill view

Enjoying the view near Gaer Stone, Hope Bowdler Hill, Shropshire

There’s no better feeling than crunching through crisp snow, wrapped up warm against the wintry elements, confident that you’re well prepared and have all the right gear to take care of yourself on a walk.

Winter can be a difficult and stressful time for many of us, with the festive season delivering additional pressures. Getting outside, immersed in wild open country, can be the perfect antidote, keeping us happier and healthier through the coldest, darkest months. And the good news is that the number of people walking in the more remote areas of Great Britain drops off dramatically, as the masses retreat inside, unable to resist cosy sofas and central heating.

While winter walking can definitely present particular difficulties and hazards, the challenge is far outweighed by the rewards of enjoying a landscape transformed by the magical, icy grasp of winter. So if you’re heading to the moors or distant mountains, read on for some key pointers on how to make your winter walking adventures safe and successful days out.

Always be prepared

Knowledge is power, so before heading out, gather as much information as possible from maps, guidebooks and websites about where you plan to walk, including current conditions underfoot (such as snow or river levels). Get your gear ready the night before to save time, and be prepared to start and finish in the dark, making the most of the daylight. The weather in winter is very changeable, and equipment carried needs to be sufficient to cope with this. Depending on where you choose to walk, this may include some specialist gear such as an ice axe and crampons. Know your limits and skill level, and ensure you are physically and mentally prepared. If necessary, get some formal navigation and/or winter skills training before you head out on your own.

Watch the weather

If you’ve done much walking in the hills in summer, you’ll know that the weather can be very different on the summits. In winter, this difference can be extreme, hostile even. It doesn’t have to be snowing or icy, because strong winds and driving rain are also serious winter hazards and can be very difficult to deal with, even when experienced and well-equipped. ‘Wind chill’ or ‘feels like’ temperatures listed in forecasts help to give an idea of how the wind increases loss of body heat, making it feel much colder. Such strong winds and wet weather heighten the risk of hypothermia. You’ll need extra layers, spare gloves and hats, plus more food than normal to look after yourself in these conditions. Slippery, icy terrain and avalanches are additional hazards to be aware of, as these may require specialist skills or equipment to negotiate. Looking at the weather forecast before heading out is vital. It’s a good idea to monitor it for a few days before your planned adventure, keeping an eye on how conditions are developing. There are some great mountain-specific forecasts available from the Met Office (metoffice.gov.uk/weather/specialist-forecasts/mountain) and Mountain Weather Information Service (mwis.org.uk). 

Four people, dressed warmly in the snow

On Foel Goch, Snowdonia. 

Plan your route

This is a vital stage of every remote winter walk, as it’s the point at which you combine all your preparation and choose an objective that works for you, your group and the conditions. Look out for things like steep ground and river crossings, which may be trickier in winter. Include extra time for a change of plan, or unexpected problems such as bad weather, tiredness or injury, or a blocked path. Plan ‘escape routes’ – sometimes plan B is a better option if circumstances change. If you’ve familiarised yourself with your route in advance, it can really help when navigating in bad weather. Don’t forget to leave information about your  route with someone else, in case of an emergency – particularly if you’re going solo.

Carry a map and compass

Carrying a map and compass – and, crucially, knowing how to use them – is a must for walkers exploring mountains and moorland in winter. Paths and hazards can be concealed by snow, mist and fog – with visibility reduced, it is easy to become disorientated and lose your way. Batteries on phones and GPS devices can drain quickly in the cold, so don’t rely on these for navigation. The Ramblers website has lots of online resources for navigators (ramblers.org.uk/advice/navigation). Consider joining a navigation course, which is a fun and supportive way to develop these skills. Ramblers Scotland and Ramblers Cymru  both have training programmes.

Anticipate the unexpected

Having a plan and some basic kit to deal with emergencies in winter is essential. A simple slip or trip can become a complex, protracted situation. Bad weather will exacerbate this. A well-stocked rucksack should contain an emergency shelter, headtorch, spare food and water, and extra layers. Carry a first-aid kit with essential items, and a notepad to write down information for the emergency services. In the event that you need assistance, dial 999 or 112, ask for ‘Police’, then ‘Mountain Rescue’. Mountain Rescue teams recommend downloading the free OS Locate app to your phone. This provides a grid reference (even without a phone signal) based on the National Grid printed on OS maps, which all rescue teams use (shop.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/apps/os-locate/). It’s also a good idea to register your phone with the Emergency SMS service, so you can text the emergency services, if mobile coverage is patchy (emergencysms.net).

Be avalanche aware

Avalanches happen in Britain every year, most frequently in the Scottish mountains. Unfortunately, 90% of people caught in avalanches trigger the slide themselves. Identifying and avoiding avalanche territory is an essential element of mountain walking safety. Potential danger areas include overhanging cornices along the rims of cliffs and ridges, and places where ‘windslab’ (masses of wind-transported snow) builds up on sheltered lee slopes. Understanding how slope aspect increases the chance of an avalanche is particularly important. Finding safer routes, by avoiding avalanche terrain, is a good idea. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service produces forecasts and resources to help plan routes avoiding these and other dangers caused by avalanche problems: visit beaware.sais.gov.uk.

A sole walker, climbing a snowy slope

Lucy Wallace on her way up Gulvain in the Highlands.

Build your confidence

The do’s and don’ts can seem overwhelming, but there’s no substitute for getting out there and doing it. Team up with someone more experienced – perhaps on a walk offered by one of the 500+ Ramblers groups; many regularly head into remote areas (ramblers.org.uk/go-walking). Or join one of the training courses run by Ramblers Scotland and Ramblers Cymru. Preparing well will help you build skills to last a lifetime, and enjoy all that winter has to offer. 

Kit essentials

Boots

Invest in waterproof ones with a good grip. If you plan to use full crampons, you’ll need boots stiff enough to be compatible. Team ones graded B1-B3 with crampons C1-C3.

Crampons

‘Microspike’ types fit over most footwear and provide traction. On steep ground, a full crampon is necessary, but must be fitted correctly. See Mountaineering Scotland’s excellent advice

Drybags

Rolltop drybags or a rucksack liner will keep everything dry. 

Emergency shelter

A group shelter is a giant windproof bag that packs away small, but can accommodate small groups in emergencies. 

First-aid kit

Pack a waterproof pouch with dressings, blister plasters, pain relief and emergency hand warmers.

Headtorch

Essential, as shorter days mean walkers often start or finish in the dark. Can also be used to attract attention. Pack spare batteries. 

Layers

The secret to staying warm and comfortable. Flexible as conditions change, but avoid slow-to-dry cotton. 

Waterproofs

Pack both jacket and trousers. Look for a jacket with a roomy hood, and trousers with side zips so you can put them on over boots. 

Map and compass

Indispensable tools for winter walks. Include a map case if your map isn’t waterproof. 

Rucksack

Around 35 litres should be sufficient for carrying winter essentials. 

Ski goggles

To keep out stinging spindrift and insulate your face. 

Spare hats and gloves

These can get soaked through, so carry extras. 

Walking axe

Essential in ice and snow; often used like a walking stick, with a pick, spike and adze. 

Whistle

For use in an emergency. 

 

 

Part of Walk's 10 page winter walking special