TOP WINTER WALKING SAFETY TIPS FROM THE BMC
For many people, walking gets shelved in the winter, right next to the rock climbing rack and beach towels; but it doesn’t have to be this way. Winter and walking can go hand in hand; with a little preparation you’ll be outdoors enjoying the experience of a lifetime, not to mention the stunning views and vistas.
Hill walking in winter can cover a wide spectrum of difficulty and technicality, meaning that you can choose how hard you want your trek to be. In this guide, we’ll cover a few of the basics like choosing the right clothing and packing your bag, as well as looking at the major mistakes to be avoided.
Add Layers to Your Walking Wardrobe
In the summer time, most walkers can get away with wearing shorts and a t-shirt or thin trousers and a jacket. But thinking this is enough for winter will put you on the path to having a miserable time.
There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, but being prepared for the UK’s inclement weather boils down to having a clothing system that is made up of breathable layers. To top it all off, you may want to invest in a beautifully warm duvet like down jacket – it’ll soon become your favourite bit of kit.
Read our layering system guide to find out the best way to implement a layering system.
Pack Your Rucksack Properly
Before you set off, you should really think about what you’ll be packing in your rucksack. We’re not talking about technical specialist equipment, but basic things that could well save your life in an emergency.
When you’re setting off winter walking, it’s important to tailor your kit to the season with additions beyond the usual spare compass and map.
The days in winter are shorter, so take more than one head torch and include spare batteries for both. If you end up benighted, they’ll be invaluable for making your way back to shelter, or in an emergency to signal for help.
If you’re out for a day-trip and not taking a tent, consider taking at the very least a single-man bivvy bag, but preferably a group shelter, this way you can share body heat.
Don’t forget to double up on spare long johns, thermal tops, thick socks and gloves, and think about including something to protect your face – such as a balaclava or even goggles.
For the colder winter adventures, it can be necessary to invest in crampons and at least one ice axe. Without these, a slip in winter can turn into a slide, and before you know it you’ll be hurtling down a slope very quickly.
Crampons are designed to help keep you on a firm footing and to prevent slips and trips when walking on hard snow and ice. An ice axe or two can help secure you on steep slopes or when walking in deep snow, and can also be used to arrest a slide before it’s too late.
If you need to brush up on your techniques, check out our winter skills channel on BMC TV.
Major mistakes to avoid
Benightment – don’t get caught out by the dark!
We’ve mentioned this already, but this really is the number one mistake that winter walkers make. Even if you’ve planned your route with time to spare, you never know what obstacles you might encounter. From navigational error to unforeseen mishaps, anything could happen, and you may find yourself stuck on a hill when darkness falls.
The earlier you get started, the more time you’ll have before nightfall. Check the time at regular intervals and, if possible, have a shorter route planned. Before making a final push for a peak, check how the group is feeling, how much time you have left before sunset, and whether the conditions are getting worse or not. Don’t forget the headtorch and spare batteries, benightment can befall even the most prepared winter warrior.
Putting crampons on too late
You may think that crampons will cramp your style and avoid putting them on until the last possible moment, but this way often leads to accident.
Put your crampons on; it’s really that simple. If conditions are getting icy, or the way ahead looks treacherous, take the time to stop and be prepared. Remember the famous (not last, he miraculously survived) words of Adam Potter before embarking on a 1,000ft fall down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor: “It’s getting a bit icier now, let’s get our crampons on and our ice axes out.”
Be avalanche aware!
Avalanches can be deadly, and they do happen in the UK. Failure to think about the conditions and listen to forecasts before setting off could lead to calamity.
Winter skills courses (the BMC offers subsidised courses) are invaluable for quickly getting up to speed on your knowledge and awareness of avalanches. The tricky part is learning how to constantly be vigilant and check for the warning signs at all times. A quick tip is to be B.A.D:
B – BEFORE your ascent, check the terrain you’ll be walking on, the weather and avalanche forecasts and the snowpack, and the experience levels of those in your party.
A – On your APPROACH, keep an eye on the angle of the terrain, the conditions at altitude and the weather, the snowpack, and the people in your group.
D – DURING your ascent, keep considering whether you should continue the trek or turn back. Identify escape routes and safety locations, keep checking the terrain, weather and snowpack, and double-check that your group are happy to continue.
Don’t forget, it’s all about having fun. So don’t set yourself up for a gruelling and miserable day failing to prepare.
Still not inspired? Check out these six recommendations of winter ridges from British Mountain Guides James Thacker and Neil Johnson.
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