The days are getting shorter and temperatures starting to fall. These shouldn’t be reasons to hang up your hiking boots and turn up the thermostat a notch or two until Spring arrives! In fact, winter brings with it a whole host of new rewards just waiting to be discovered. We talk to mountaineer and remote expedition leader, David Love, about how to set out on your first winter walk.
It’s fair to say David knows a thing or two about icy adventures. At the age of 18, and having never even seen a pair of crampons before, he made a solo, unguided ascent of Mt Blanc and has since climbed the Matterhorn and the Eiger. In early 2017, he made a solo winter crossing of the Transylvanian Alps; a journey that involved permeant sub-zero temperatures, several nights in an emergency snow hole and a very close encounter with a hungry mountain bear! He’s just returned from leading his first expedition to the summit of Mt Blanc and wants to help more people GetOutside this winter.
First thing’s first, winter walking isn’t something to be nervous about if you’re a first timer. And, even if you’re not, you should have confidence in your abilities to tackle slightly more challenging winter walking routes this season. I promise, you really don’t need to be kitted out with technical ice axes and crampons to enjoy winter walking! Here are my top tips to get you started…
The best way to transition to walking in winter conditions is to pick a route that you already know and feel comfortable with. However, this really shouldn’t be anything as grand as Snowdon just yet, regardless of the number of times you’ve walked up it during summer; it really is a whole different ball game in winter. Instead, pick something slightly less ambitious. I guarantee, a covering of snow, a low cloud base and a gusting wind can make the most mundane of hills seem like an arctic expedition at times!
In winter, 1:25,000 scale maps are less useful because most of the detailed terrain features are covered by snow. Try using 1:50,000 scale maps and practice your navigation skills using larger and more obvious contour features. I still always take a 1:25,000 as a backup though, just in case the weather closes in and I need to do a bit of detailed micro-nav to get me back on track. The OS Maps digital 3D application is also a superb way of visualising the ground before you set off.
Keep a Weather Eye!
In the mountainous regions of the UK, weather conditions can change in an instant. Getting caught out in the rain in summer is a totally different story to getting caught in a white-out during winter, with significantly graver consequences. But this shouldn’t put you off. Just check the weather before you go and keep checking it while you’re out. If condition seem to be deteriorating, then it’s far safer to turn back early, particularly with far shorter days.
The old adage of ‘anyone can be uncomfortable’ is never truer than in winter. But like I mentioned above, you don’t need to be fully kitted out with technical winter gear to enjoy a hilly walk in the snow. Ultimately, you will need to pack appropriately. Cotton in winter is a particularly poor insulator, especially when wet. Look to have a number of fast wicking layers such as a thermal long sleeve base layer (and spare), insulated mid layer and waterproof shell. Good weather-resistant or soft-shell trousers are essential too, as are gloves, a warm hat and spare socks. Ski goggles and a thermal Buff are also a good idea, particularly if winds are likely to pick up; getting sand-blasted in the face by icy spindrift really isn’t that fun!
In terms of winter specific equipment, normal walking poles will provide much needed additional purchase on icy paths and there are several, relatively inexpensive snow and ice grips that attach to the underside of your boots. Clearly if your taking on something with a slightly greater gradient, then a long walking axe and basic crampons should be considered. For non-technical ground this really is as simple as walking with spikes on your feet and a pointy walking stick.
Unfortunately, winter never hangs around for as long as we’d like it too and, once it’s gone, you’ll have to wait a whole year for it to come back again. Hopefully some of these tips will make your first winter walk a little less daunting. However, if you’ve got slightly more ambitious plans I would unreservedly recommend a basic winter skills course. Above all, have fun and try push the boundaries of your comfort zone a little further each time!
You can find out more about Dave and his adventures on his blog: Love Adventures
By David Love
David Love is a British Adventurer, Mountaineer and Expedition Leader. He’s also an Instructor with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy and Officer in the British Army. David has also climbed most of the European Alps, as well as undertook unguided ascents of Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Eiger.