Winter hiking can be an amazing experience. Unfortunately, for some, it can also be deadly. So, how is walking and hiking in winter conditions drastically different from summer conditions and what do you need to do to enjoy the hills, fells and mountains when the weather turns cold? Here’s some top tips…
As soon as the clocks go back at the end of October, adjustments need to be made. First among them is planning for the shorter days and longer nights. Make sure, when planning your walk, that you leave enough time for conditions to deteriorate. They often will during the winter months, believe me. It’s imperative that you set off early enough to make it back well before nightfall when winter hiking. Allowing yourself this time buffer will enable you to have an extra rest stop, if needed, or will allow time for your pace to decrease if, let’s say, the mist descends. Additionally, as you would when planning hikes at any time of year, make sure that you leave your planned itinerary with someone, including estimated finish times.
When planning your winter hiking route, you also need to check mountain weather services several times. Do not just rely on your phone weather app or the BBC website as these will only cover major lowland towns and cities. Consequently, these readings will be significantly more favourable due to the lowland nature of the area. Mountain weather forecasts, such as www.mwis.org.uk/ , will give you detailed information of major peaks and summits.
For instance, if I check the weather for Llanberis today on my BBC phone app I can see an estimated temperature of -2oC, wind speeds of 37mph and heavy snow showers. This certainly, wouldn’t stop me from taking a brisk walk around Llyn Padarn. However, checking the mountain weather service I can see that the Snowdon summit forecast is considerably worse. The temperature has now dropped to -7 which, when combined with the significantly increased wind speeds (70-80mph), result in a wind chill temperature of -30oC. These are just average wind speeds too. The mountain service forecasts gusts of up to 100mph! To make matters worse, the increased snowfall higher up the mountain will be exposed to these hurricane force winds, resulting in a probable white out. Hopefully now you can see the value in knowing where to get your weather from when planning activities in the hills and mountains. Don’t just check the forecast once either. Check a few days before your planned adventure, 24 hours before, and on the day that you intend to get outside. Above all else, go prepared for it to change.
That leads me conveniently onto my next point. Clothing and gear is the next thing to consider when planning your next winter hiking adventure. Only yesterday I read a report on the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Facebook page about a male being rescued after falling on Tryfan wearing summer walking gear. He had summer boots and clothing, no crampons, no ice axe or helmet, and yet Tryfan was in full winter conditions. He was only rescued after his cries for help were heard by other people on the mountain who were fully prepared for the conditions. He would not have survived the night had those calls not been heard!
Summer clothing is not up to the harsh environments of winter hiking, hillwalking and mountaineering. By summer clothing, please don’t think that I mean shorts and t-shirts either. Summer hillwalking clothing could be the difference between a fleece or lightweight insulated jacket and a down jacket as your insulating layer. If you get trapped up on Snowdon this weekend with just a fleece or lightweight insulated jacket under your shell jacket to insulate you, you could be in serious danger. Sticking with shell jackets and waterproof pants, lightweight summer variations will just not cut the mustard in bad winter conditions. Make sure your waterproof, protective layers are up to the job of dealing with the very worst weather.
Moreover, summer footwear does not mean flip flops. Summer hiking books are ideal in warmer, drier periods. However, for winter hiking, they will not be as robust, waterproof or insulating as 4 season boots. They will also, crucially, not be as stiff, meaning you cannot attach crampons to them. Now, picture yourself in 70-80mph winds, walking on steep terrain, hundreds of metres up a mountain, completely covered in consolidated ice, with gullies and other vertical drops only metres away. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that without crampons you are quite literally risking your life.
Obviously, it goes without saying, that if you don’t know how to use winter gear, such as crampons and ice axes then you need to get some instruction. There are loads of places that offer introduction to winter courses, where you’ll have bags of fun while increasing your knowledge and skill under safe and expert guidance.
Given the darker nights, another really important bit of kit to carry is a headtorch. I personally prefer the ones that take batteries (as opposed to the USB rechargeable ones) as I can then carry spare batteries in case of an emergency. If for any reason, you get into trouble and need light for an elongated period, such as to attract the attention of rescuers, you’ll be glad you carried those spares!
A paper map (either laminated, printed onto waterproof paper, or sealed in a transparent waterproof case) and compass is also essential. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and my OS Maps app but in winter they should not be relied upon. Simply put, phone batteries die in very cold conditions. You need to keep that phone, fully charged and ready to use should you need to in an emergency. You also need to know techniques for navigating in poor visibility such as mist and whiteouts.
Should the worst happen and you do find yourself in difficulty, an emergency shelter or bothy, will buy you valuable time until help arrives. These simple yet hugely effective shelters are cheap to buy, easy to use and will protect you from the worst of the conditions in the event that you sustain an injury or become disorientated.
People with the right skills, experience and gear relish the winter season. All too often, however, it catches many people out who are unaware of the dangers that lurk on trails that they perceive to be straightforward summer routes. Don’t make that mistake. Enjoy the winter. But enjoy it safely.