The Ten Commandments of winter walking

Posted by Carey Davies on 18/01/2017
Heed these words. Photo: m.mphoto / Shutterstock

A scripture-inspired guide to surviving and thriving in the British hills as a walker this winter. Go forth and play.

1. Thou shalt have the skills

Like its Biblical equivalent, this is top of the list for a reason.  Don’t worship the false gods of fancy gear, expensive clothing or the cocksure swagger of a winter warrior; none of these are of any use without that all-important winter knowledge, principally ice axe and crampon use, winter navigation and avalanche awareness. The best way to learn it all is to take a weekend or week-long course at the likes of Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia (where BMC members can benefit from subsidised winter skills courses when they are available), or a credible independent provider.

2. Thou shalt be avalanche-aware

Another biggie, this one. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service forecasts avalanche risk for six areas of Scotland, but remember that avalanches can happen anywhere there is snow on a steep enough slope. And ultimately, a forecast is just that – a guide. Most avalanche incidents in Britain are caused by people triggering the slide themselves; the responsibility to make real time judgements is yours alone. Luckily, lessons on avalanche avoidance are included in most winter skills courses, where you will learn how vital it is to have the right knowledge, plan well, and constantly assess often dynamic and changeable conditions on the hill for yourself.

3. Thou shalt know thy nav

As anyone who’s tried to find a way through the disorientating, featureless void of a Cairngorms whiteout will attest, navigating in winter can be levels of magnitude harder than in summer. Even in clear conditions, snow can cover up paths and other ‘handrail’ features, so knowing your navigational onions is a must. Even if you’re being cut to bits by spindrift or battered by winds, you still have to get that map and compass out, keep your head and properly work out where you’re going; this is when practice and efficiency become invaluable. Never be tempted to wing it.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.8: navigation tips on BMC TV

4. Thou shalt not eat all the pies

Don’t underestimate the added physical toll it takes to venture into the winter hills – good fitness is essential. Even in relatively clement conditions, the cold saps your body of energy as it tries to stay warm; add in the extra exertion of breaking trails through snow, carrying a heavier pack, or battling through wind and whiteouts, and you have an incredibly demanding physical – and mental – challenge on your hands, and tired people are more likely to make mistakes. Every workout helps.

5. Thou shalt eat all the pies

Just like the real Bible, this article has contradictions. Once you actually hit the hills, don’t be afraid to pig out – strenuous winter mountaineering can burn hundreds of calories an hour, meaning you need to be properly fuelled up. Have a hearty breakfast and take plenty of high-energy snacks for the day. You may not want to stop long for lunch, but a plastic group shelter can come in handy for huddling out of the wind.

6. Thou shalt have the right clobber

Buying clothing and kit for winter mountaineering can be one of the more eye-watering aspects of setting into the snowy hills. Boots alone can easily set you back £300 or so (less with a BMC member's discount, ahem). Do your research, buy with comfort and longevity in mind, and be realistic about your aims. Don’t get top-spec winter climbing boots, for example, if you will ‘only’ be walking. That said, nothing is more efficient at weeding out every tiny flaw in your clothing than brutal winter weather, so buy appropriately, but also buy the best you can afford. And as in summer, make sure you have the full range of emergency equipment and are aware of how to use it. It could save your life. 

WATCH: Winter skills 1.2: kit and what's different in winter on BMC TV

7. Thou shalt have the right axe

Coupled with crampons, an ice axe is the essential piece of winter kit, used for balance on steep slopes, cutting steps and, in an emergency, arresting a fall. A straight-shafted axe of about 50 – 60cm with a neutral curvature is the most adaptable option for most walkers, but swot up and have a think about your aims, aspirations and personal requirements before you buy.

8. Thou shalt have the right crampons

Crampons are spiked boot attachments enabling you to walk securely on hard ice and snow. Their grading system corresponds with boots – a bit of Googling will explain how. Crampons intended for walking can be relatively flexible, but more technical climbing requires greater rigidity. Again, think carefully about your activity and ambitions; buying the wrong kind of thing could be inappropriate for the activity, and this stuff ain’t cheap.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.1: Choosing winter boots and crampons on BMC TV

9. Thou shalt not rely on the arrest technique 

Learning the ice axe arrest technique – where you slide down snow slopes trying to stop yourself – is the bit about winter skills training that everyone looks forward to, but don’t let it give you a false sense of security. The speed and complexity of a real life slip-trip means there is no guarantee an ice axe arrest will actually work in practice; focus your attention on not falling in the first place.

10. Thou shalt not be cocky (especially if you’re experienced)

Forget what you think you know about who is most likely to get into trouble in winter. Think it’s only ‘the numpties’? The ‘T-shirts and trainers on Ben Nevis’ types? Wrong – according to the latest statistics, 62% of casualties in the Scottish mountains were people deemed to be ‘experienced’, with the most at-risk group being ‘experienced males’ (48% of all casualties). Novices should, of course, take things slowly and gradually build their experience, but no one should ever be complacent, especially in beautiful, challenging, often unforgiving winter.


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Watch and learn: BMC TV's Winter Skills Videos

Become a winter warrior with BMC TV's skills channel. Watch the first in our series of educational winter videos:

Series one: The Basics

Series two: The Basics Part Deux

Series three: Climbing Grade I/II

How to find the right climb

READ: Essential winter know-how


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1) Anonymous User
09/01/2017
excellent article.
2) Anonymous User
10/01/2017
Does the guy in the top photo have ski boots on??
3) Anonymous User
11/01/2017
Yes, a very good piece, well done

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