Ten mistakes winter walkers make – and how to avoid them

Posted by Carey Davies on 21/12/2014
Winter conditions on Helvellyn in the Lake District

Only ever hill walked in summer before? Welcome to big school. Here’s your heads-up to some of the most common winter walking mistakes and how to steer clear of them.

When the snow falls, it's fun out there in winter. Even diminutive British mountains take on a majestic Alpine appearance and while the challenges of being out there multiply, so do the rewards. But snow and ice increase the likelihood of error considerably and mistakes which would be minor in summer can have serious consequences. Here are some of the most common errors to watch out for in winter conditions.

  • Benightment

The short days of winter mean less room for maneuver when it comes to timing. Whether through poor planning, navigational error or an unforeseen mishap, many get caught out and find themselves stuck on the hill when darkness falls.

How to avoid: Get an early start, plan your day properly and always remember to bring headtorches, even if you’re planning a short day out – because you never know. The solutions may be simple, but you’d be amazed how often people neglect or forget them.  

  • Getting lost

In summer, a navigational error usually means, at worst, a longer, colder, more tiring walk than you planned. In winter it can be lethal, due to the risk of succumbing to exposure. The extra harshness of winter weather makes tiredness-induced errors more likely, while finding your way in the featureless vacuum of a whiteout is one of the most daunting – and accident-prone – navigational tasks there is.

How to avoid it: Many outdoor centres and providers run courses specifically in winter navigation. Check out the BMC's subsidised winter skills courses at Plas y Brenin to get the know-how you need at a cheaper price.

  • Lying in

Heartbreaking though it may to those of us who aren’t annoying ‘morning people’, lie-ins in winter are generally a bad idea. Late starts mean a reduced margin of error and a greater chance of having to walk in the dark, which can contribute to accidents.

How to avoid: Rise and shine! Set the alarm and give yourself as much time as possible.

  • Bad planning

Accidents in winter often stem from poor preparation; things like people biting off more than they can chew or not having decent escape routes frequently lead, domino-like, to many of the other errors listed here. The odds of error are bigger, the consequences more severe.

How to avoid: Remember the British military adage concerning the 7 Ps: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Be mindful that things often take a lot longer in winter. Have a plan B, C, D and E depending on progress and conditions.

  • Taking a bad trip

Winter presents more challenging and varied underfoot conditions – deep snow, hard névé, slippery verglas – often combined in unpredictable ways, making slips more likely. Forgetting you’re wearing crampons and tripping over your own spikes is another classic error, often towards the end of the day when people are relaxed, chatting and distracted.

How to avoid: It’s easy to let your concentration wander when you’re tired – don’t. Remember the gunslinging, wide-legged ‘John Wayne’ stance when wearing crampons.

  • Putting crampons on too late

Stopping to attach crampons can seem a faff, especially in sub-zero winds or howling blizzards. But don’t be tempted to put it off as long as possible – accidents often result from people leaving it too late.

How to avoid: Remember the words of Adam Potter, who fell 1,000 feet down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor, surviving but against all the odds. Immediately before falling, he said to his companions: “It's getting a bit icier now, let's get our crampons on and our ice axes out.”

  • Avalanche awareness

Avalanche risk is a complex thing. Avalanche forecasters can anticipate where the biggest areas of danger will be, but on the hill these areas can be dynamic and changeable. It’s also possible to fall into ‘heuristic’ traps (such as blindly following a group or leader), or be deceived by benign-looking gradual slopes. All these can and do contribute to accidents.

How to avoid: Knowledge, preparation and constant assessment on the hill are absolutely vital when it comes to assessing avalanche risk. Avalanche forecasts for certain parts of Scotland are provided by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, but avalanches can happen anywhere (the most deadly recorded avalanche in Britain, killing eight people, happened in the South Downs.) Winter skills courses are invaluable to get up to speed on your avalanche knowledge.

  • Seasonal confusion

The fickleness of the British weather means the transitions into and out of winter are rarely clear cut, and many get caught out in the shoulder months of autumn and spring by things they weren’t prepared for or didn’t expect.

How to avoid: Watch out for things like unexpected frozen terrain in the autumn, or snow patches in the spring. Even within seasons anomalies are common – dustings of snow in June, January thaws. In Britain we have to expect the unexpected.

  • Flawed kit

The harshness of winter weather will expose any flaw in your equipment, however small. Forgetting or omitting items can also be very costly – not having goggles in harsh spindrift can effectively render you blind, while losing a pair of gloves can be disastrous.

How to avoid: Do you research to make sure your kit is up to scratch. Pack spares of lose-able items like gloves and hats. Have a comprehensive range of emergency equipment.

WATCH: Emergency packing for hill walking on BMC TV

  • Forgetting to have fun

Reading this list might seem a bit onerous and scary. But the added dangers of winter go with added rewards: hill walking in the colder months can often be more spectacular, rewarding and memorable than its ‘summer’ counterpart. Stay safe, know your limits, and be prepared – but remember, above all, to enjoy it.

 

READ MORE: Essential winter know-how

  • Essential winter know-how: Heading for the hills this winter? Whether you're a seasoned winter warrior or just taking your first icy steps, we've got a mountain of essential skills and equipment advice for you right here on the BMC website.

GO ON A COURSE: Learn from professionals

  • BMC Winter Skills in Wales: Want to learn all the skills you need to be a confident hill walker in winter at a bargain price? These affordable weekends for winter beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia aim to give you the skills you need for less. Scotland's Glenmore Lodge also runs a wide variety of winter skills courses in  the Cairngorms.
  • Hill and Mountain Skills: Looking for something more basic? The BMC's partner organisation Mountain Training has just launched its new Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the fundamental knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK. More info here.

 

WATCH ON BMC TV: If They Only Knew: A film about the joys of the winter mountains

Cairngorms in Winter: Moine Mhor

BMC Winter Essentials DVD trailer

How to do an ice axe self arrest

The BMC's Winter Essentials DVD shows the essential skills and techniques for winter mountaineering. Order it in the BMC shop here.

Essential links

Mountain Weather Information Service - www.mwis.org.uk.

Met Office Mountain Weather - www.metoffice.gov.uk/loutdoor/mountainsafety.

Scottish Avalanche Information Service - www.sais.gov.uk.

Lake District Weatherline - www.lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk.

 


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1) Anonymous User
23/12/2013
Increase the margin of error, considerably.
2) Anonymous User
06/12/2014
Just remember that, if you're an asthmatic, setting out early, i.e. pre-dawn, is probably a bad idea as your chest won't thank you for that extra-cold air! I've found that to my cost a few times in winter. Now I just do a shorter day than I would in summer which enables me to set off at my normal times.
Carol.
08/12/2014
I think these are very sensible ideas to make your day an enjoyable one in such conditions

Peter Rutherford - Access Officer Snowdonia National Park
4) Anonymous User
18/12/2014
Whilst crampons are essential in appropriate conditions, I'm a bit concerned that there is no caveat in the "put your crampons on in time" point. The likes of Striding and Swirral Edges, for example, are getting horribly scratched up by the Regatta brigade believing that they need crampons as soon as the temperature drops to around freezing.
5) Anonymous User
19/12/2014
To add to the 'when to put crampons on' debate. I was always taught that it is when you can no longer kick steps. That's worked for me for years! See so many putting them on in soft snow which adds to the danger of slipping as the snow forms a ball under your instep!
6) Anonymous User
21/12/2014
Basically If you go into the hills in the winter without doing a winter skills course, or being taken by people who know how to deal with the winter condition, your putting your life on the line through total stupidity.
7) Anonymous User
12/01/2015
Yet again another BMC article on winter walking safety which overlooks the obvious precaution of carrying a survival bag. 3 'experienced' walkers from Teeside perished in the Sierra Nevadas a few years back when with just one group bag they would have survived. The bags weigh next to nothing. Wake up BMC!
8) Anonymous User
14/01/2015
Well done for a good general article on winter trekking. If you are new to snow and ice conditions, it's not a bad idea to go for a play in the snow in a nice safe location near to civilisation - preferably with someone who has done some winter work - and spend some time becoming used to an ice axe and crampons. However, there are no short cuts to being safe in the hills in winter and even a weekend course on basics and not being too ambitious helps. As Carol wisely says, just plan for a much shorter day to at least be back down on the level by dusk.
9) Anonymous User
23/01/2015
And do not go into the mountains wearing trainers!

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