Emily Thompson shares her top tips for staying safe during adventures in the winter.
Who doesn’t get excited about the opportunity to get outside in winter? Fresh snow on the ground means even the most well-trodden mountains are suddenly a new adventure.
However, winter in the mountains of the UK can be a dangerous place, temperatures plummet, the days are shorter and that route you’ve done a million times before can feel like much more effort and be much slower in deep snow and moderate wind. Plus there’s additional dangers to consider.
Here’s my top tips for making the most of winter, for staying safe and having a great adventure:
1. Don't underestimate winter
You might be about to do a route you’ve done before in summer but the same mountain in summer is completely different. Paths are frequently buried by snow, the weather can be brutal and unpredictable, and there’s additional hazards of cornices, ice and avalanche danger.
You need to consider these things when planning your route and be confident you have the skills to undertake it.
2. Ensure you're fit enough and have enough food with you
Climbing mountains in winter is definitely more effort than summer. You’re carrying more kit, more spare clothing and food, as well as axes and crampons. Trudging through snow is hard work too. Make sure you’re physically fit enough before you set off. Take the opportunity now to get out and do some running, or cycling to increase your fitness.
Make sure you’re carrying plenty of spare food too, you’ll get hungry with all that extra effort required and your body is also burning more fuel to keep you warm so ensure you have a lot of spare food and that it won’t freeze. (I can tell you from experience any caramel chocolate bars freeze solid in winter!)
3. Get the skills
Walking in winter requires a range of new skills. You need to be able to move safely on steep snow, wearing crampons and using an ice axe. You’ll need to be able to cut steps with an axe and know how to self-arrest should you fall and the worst occur. The best way to learn these skills is through finding an experienced guide and get some practical experience.
You also need to have avalanche awareness and understand the risks. You can get avalanche reports from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
4. Have the right kit
Make sure you have the right boots to fit crampons to. If you’re only intending on walking and not climbing a B2 boot will suit you, ensure you get them fitted correctly and get C2 walking crampons to fit.
Get yourself an ice axe – for walking it needs to have a straight shaft and be somewhere between 50 and 65cm depending on how tall you are.
You’re definitely going to notice the cold so make sure you have a warm insulation jacket – although down is warmer if you get caught in the rain it won’t work as effective as synthetic jackets. You’ll definitely also need waterproofs.
Other bits you might need – multiple pairs of gloves (there’s nothing worse than when your gloves get wet so make sure you have spares), ski goggles, a hat, dry bags, a flask, and a torch with spare batteries.
All this kit is going to leave you needing a big rucksack – around 40litres should hold everything you need.
5. Make sure you can navigate well
Navigating in winter is definitely more difficult. Walls and fences can be buried by snow and even rivers can freeze over and be buried, leaving you short of features to rely on for navigating. The hours of daylight are also shorter and visibility is often reduced so make sure you can navigate by compass and contours. Brush up in techniques such as aiming off, counting paces and timing and be wary of cornices on ridges – give them a wide berth.
GPS can be a fantastic tool in winter and I love OS Maps for quickly relocating when I’m navigationally challenged on a snowy plateau, but don’t rely on this. Your phone’s battery can quickly drain in the cold weather. Always carry a paper map too.
You might also find yourself running out of daylight and needing to navigate in the dark – ensure you have the skills to do this before you head out in the mountains.
6. Know the weather forecast
In winter knowing the weather forecast is much more important when snowfall can leave you stranded as your planned descent path becomes too dangerous to use. If there’s been fresh snow, let it consolidate for a few days to ensure it is settled and stable before you head to an area. Mountain Weather Information Service is a good source of weather information for winter.