Walking in Winter

Posted by Mariella Sullivan on 25/08/2022

‘Winter’ is an unpredictable term in walking. The hills and mountains can be snow and ice free over Christmas, but crampons and axes are often essential when climbing Ben Nevis in April. When venturing into the mountains in winter, the terrain underfoot is what’s relevant. Moving around in the winter environment requires specific skills, equipment and kit over and above those used in spring, summer and autumn.

Look up Make Winter Count on the BMC website to prepare yourself for the winter hiking season.

WATCH: BMC Winter Skills Films 


Winter clothing and equipment

As it is colder in winter you will need more clothes. Just as in summer, a flexible clothing system is required, along with some extra insulating layers. Good insulation for the head, neck and hands is essential. Always take a spare pair of gloves or mitts; if you lose one you can temporarily lose feeling and movement in your hands, or worse still, get frostbite. Ski goggles will enable you to look forward when snow is being blasted into your face by strong winds. On clear days, sunglasses and sunscreen will protect the eyes and face.

A pair of winter walking boots will keep your feet warm and provide you with the required grip and support. Crampons are attached to your boots for safer travel over hard packed snow or ice. Apart from knowing how to use them effectively, what is most important is ensuring the crampons are compatible with your boots, and then fitting them properly. An axe is a key piece of winter equipment and has a variety of functions; it can be used for support and to stop you should you slip.

Walking is more physical in winter, so more energy from food is required. Taking on enough fluid is important too. A hot flask provides a welcome winter warmer; if possible, fill your water bottle with hot water, to prevent it freezing.

Finally, with this extra food, fluid, clothing and equipment you will need a good-sized rucksack between 40 and 50 litres to carry it all.


Winter Skills Courses

Before heading out in winter you should feel confident in your hiking skills and prepared for the increased challenges from more extreme weather. Even as you feel more confident it is still a good idea to go out with someone who has experience of winter walking such as a friend, family or club member.

You may also wish to take part in a winter skills training course. There are few better ways to learn the skills you need than by having them imparted face-to-face by an experienced instructor.

One of the most popular ways of doing this is to go to book in to one of the UK’s mountain centres, which offer full board and accommodation to go with winter skills course itineraries which cover crampon and ice axe use, avalanche awareness and much more. The Plas y Brenin centre in Snowdonia is a great option, as is Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge, with the vast arctic plateau of the Cairngorms – and Britain’s most ‘reliable’ winter conditions – on its doorstep. See their websites for the full range of courses.



You can also find professional instructors local to you through the Mountain Training website.



Winter Hazards

In winter the wind can be strong enough to blow you over, a potentially very serious situation if walking on a steep slope or ridge. A forecast will help you plan your day appropriately. Don’t forget to take into account that winter days are short; in the Scottish Highlands in mid-winter there is less than seven hours of daylight.

Navigating in winter is more difficult. Snow cover can hide features, and the ground can appear different from indications given by the map’s contours. Winter white-out conditions or a cornice can obscure your view, and you may find yourself heading towards an edge without even realising. Before exploring the winter hills, sharpen up on your summer navigation so you can be more confident about what lies ahead.

In a single day you could walk over a variety of terrain, including: unfrozen and frozen ground; soft, hard packed or frozen snow; and patches of ice and ice-covered rock. You need to be prepared for sudden changes in terrain; a patch of ice on a path could catch you off guard. The points about movement skills noted on page [insert page number] are even more important in winter as the consequences of a slip can be more serious. You can leave a relatively safe spot for one with real objective danger in only a few footsteps. Feel confident moving around in summer first, and then progressively develop your movement skills in winter.

Avalanches occur when one layer of deposited snow slides on another or the whole snow cover slides on the ground.  90% of all avalanches involving human subjects are triggered by their victims. The evolution of the snowpack is determined by the weather; by studying weather information before setting out and observing snowpack conditions along the route hazard assessments can be made. On most hills in Britain, avalanche hazards can be avoided by sensible choice of route.

When snow is deposited on the leeward edge of a ridge or plateau, cornices are formed. These over- hanging banks of snow are extremely serious hazards. Cornices obscure cliff edges, and can collapse under your weight. Care should also be taken when walking underneath them.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) provides information on snow conditions during the winter months. www.sais.gov.uk

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Wild Horizons is our new BMC hillwalking podcast, hosted by Niall Grimes. With a new guests each week, we discuss the honey pots and the secret spots of Britain's wild places and uplands.

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