Winter essentials for walkers
Don't let the elements stop you exploring this year. With this guide to essential gear for winter walkers, you'll be able to stay comfortable, safe and warm!
Don't get caught out by the rain, be prepared with this wet weather gear guide.
If you spend any time outdoors in the UK, chances are that at some point it’s going to rain. Especially as we move into autumn and the wet days substantially increase.
However, this does not mean that you have to stay indoors. Having the right gear can turn walking in the rain from a sodden trudge into an adventure, as well as allowing you to plan longer walks all year round.
The most critical item is clothing. Even the cheapest waterproof is much better than nothing, but if you are walking quickly or uphill, you will tend to sweat. Cheap waterproofs are not breathable, meaning that the trapped moisture will quickly become uncomfortable.
Breathable jackets allow some moisture to escape while still being waterproof. There are various brands available, but for maximum comfort you want to match the level of breathability to the activity – the more strenuous the activity, the higher breathability you need.
For jackets, some of the other features to look out for are decent size pockets (one that can hold an OS map is especially useful), integrated hoods with a stiff peak and adjustments to collar, cuffs and waist to prevent water leaking in. Whichever make of jacket you choose, ensure that with a rucksack on and the hood up you get sufficient protection, but still have freedom of movement.
For waterproof trousers you can either get ones that are designed to be worn all the time, with features similar to breathable jackets, or overtrousers. If buying overtrousers, it’s really useful if you can get them on without removing your boots, either because they are big enough or have full length zips.
You can also add gaiters which are really helpful if you are walking in areas with long grass or vegetation. Even after rain has stopped, the grass will stay wet and water will soak into your trousers and down into your boots. Gaiters cover the bottom half of your leg and the top of your boots, giving a decent seal. Like trousers, you get cheaper waterproof ones, and more expensive breathable versions.
Under your waterproof layer, you need a ‘wicking’ base layer and one or more layers for warmth. Avoid cotton, including denim, as once it is wet it loses its ability to insulate, and instead choose a wool or man-made fibre based layer. A thin technical fleece makes a warm layer directly under a jacket, and can serve as a top layer if the weather clears up.
Waterproof boots can either be traditional leather or more modern fabric materials with a waterproof membrane – both work well but I prefer traditional leather for warmth in cold weather.
If you are using leather boots, make sure they are regularly proofed and polished to maintain their waterproofing, and dry them slowly to prevent the leather cracking. With proper care leather boots can be almost entirely waterproof, and last for years.
Fabric boots need less care, but do need occasional cleaning and may need re-proofing – follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully as you may reduce the breathability by using unsuitable cleaning products.
An alternative is using non-waterproof shoes. Some people swear by lightweight, highly breathable trail shoes, so their feet get wet, but then dry much faster. You can also combine non-waterproof footwear with waterproof socks.
Most rucksacks are not waterproof, (although you can get some specialist ones that are). You have a couple of options to protect your gear. You can either cover the rucksack with a rain cover (built in to the bottom on some bags), or use a waterproof dry bag inside. A lot of people opt to do both, especially for sensitive items like phones, books and dry socks.
One other option is a waterproof poncho designed to cover both the wearer and a rucksack. These can be quite effective, but flap in the wind, leaving exposed bits that get wet. On the plus side they are generally quick to get on, and all that flapping makes them very breathable.
Even the heavy quality map paper we use will tear easily when soggy. Either invest in a map case that’s big enough for you to fold the map so the whole route is visible, or upgrade to one of our ‘Active’ maps that have a waterproof coating. This adds slightly to the bulk, but makes them both water and tear resistant.
Traditional compasses are generally waterproof, but wet weather is another reason for having a proper compass and not relying on one in your phone.
If you are taking anything electronic, you have to be especially wary of both direct rain and moisture. Most GPS units designed for outdoor use will cope with almost anything British weather can throw at them, but if you use a phone or tablet they can fail very rapidly (and expensively) when wet.
While you can use a sandwich bag, a better option is a proper waterproof case. The best, like these from Sea to Summit, still allow you to use your touchscreen phone or tablet when it’s in the case. Spare batteries should also be stored somewhere safe as well.
If you take an MP3 player, remember you will need to keep it dry too, and you may want to get a pair of waterproof headphones as well.
If you are getting a torch or head torch, check that it’s waterproof. Ideally, it should be rated to IPX6 or higher to survive steady rain. Spare batteries need to be kept dry too.
Even when planning a walk that will finish in daylight, at this time of the year I always carry a small torch somewhere for emergencies, as it can get too dark to read the map quite early, especially in inclement weather.
I don’t generally use one, but if you want to record route notes, wildlife sightings or even trains, you will find a standard notepad will disintegrate rapidly in wet weather even if you try to keep it dry.
Write-in-the-rain notepads are designed to be cope with almost anything, and can be written on with either a pencil or a special waterproof pen. You will want to let them air dry afterwards, but they are a great option for most needs.
The biggest risk outdoors in wet weather is generally hypothermia, which can set in even in relatively warm weather if your clothes are wet. It’s a good idea to carry an emergency blanket or survival bag in your rucksack to help anyone who is at risk. Even the best waterproofs won’t help someone who has fallen in a stream, or is forced to stay out over a cold night, so having a survival bag and a working (dry!) mobile phone is vital. It's a good idea to have a couple of emergency snacks as it will help fuel the body and regenerate warmth.
Other than that, rain can make rocky routes trickier while heavy rain can trigger landslides or make streams impassible. If significant rainfall is predicted, check your planned route for steep slopes and fords and plan alternatives if possible.