Winter hillwalking places big demands on skills, fitness and equipment. There's a lot to learn, so get set for the snowy season with this three-part rundown of the basic essentials, from crampons and axes to skills courses and avalanche forecasts - the how tos, where tos and why tos... From books and websites to lectures and DVDs, there's a wealth of information available to help you on your way. Treat this series of articles as a first port of call.
Ice, snow, wild weather and long hours of darkness - it's a rigorous time of year, so every item of your clothing and kit has to be up to the task. However hostile it may seem in the valley, the summit will be far worse. T'is the season to be jolly well-equipped, and that inevitably means carrying more than you might at other times. Don't cut corners to save weight.
Clobber for a winter day out needs to cover you for all eventualities, from sweaty ascents in the sun to lashing rain, penetrating wind chill to unforseen periods of immobility in a howling blizzard.
As a whole the clothing system should perform several functions - wicking, warmth, windproofness and waterproofness. Mishap may be unlikely but in winter the consequences are potentially grave, so spare clothing and some basic survival gear should be considered essential. Go prepared to walk for hours in the dark too, and to navigate in profoundly vile conditions. Footwear needs to be winter-capable, and then of course there are the mysteries of axe and crampons, the selection of which could fill a whole article in itself. Skills features are fertile ground for cliche and one of the best is that axes and crampons are no use at all without the ability to use them.
It is difficult to deal separately with items of equipment and the skills that each requires, so this part of the series inevitably includes some how to advice. When it comes to gear choice there are key principles but no hard and fast rules. Experience will reveal what works best for you, but if experience is something you don't yet have much of then the following should provide a basic grounding.
Stand-alone garments are available but if you're new to winter and not sure of your clothing needs then adopt the traditional, old fashioned layering principle. Wearing several layers gives good warmth for the total weight, and more importantly the flexibility to add or remove layers according to the weather. The basic building blocks are:
Base layer: Moisture management is the key to all-day comfort. Any material that soaks up sweat - such as cotton - will leave you clammy and potentially very cold. Choose a long-sleeved top in a high-wicking material. A high neck is often welcome, preferably zipped for venting when you're on the move. Depending on your other legwear choices, and the weather, thermal leggings might also be used.
Legs: Tough, stretchy softshell trousers in a winter-weight material are a popular choice, often adequate without an additional shell in all but the wettest or windiest conditions. Alternatives such as Paramo combine waterproofing and a degree of insulation in a single garment, though some find them too warm and heavy in fair weather.
Mid layer(s): What's the weather like, how hard are you going to be working and how warm does your metabolism run? On a clement day when moving you might get away with a base layer and thin micro fleece, or a base layer plus lightweight wind proof shell, or even just a base layer alone. However in really perishing conditions it may be preferable to swaddle up in several layers - base, microfleece and full-weight fleece or softshell jacket. Go for a jacket with a full-length zip for maximum ventilation; a hood is a nice addition too.
Traditional synthetic fleece jackets give good warmth for their weight but not much protection from wind or wet, so a shell may be required on top even if it's not raining hard.
Alternatively consider the various breeds of soft shell. These offer greater weather resistance, so can in theory (or in America perhaps) be used as a stand-alone jacket without the addition of a waterproof shell. This is fine in light intermittent drizzle, or when it's so cold that any precipitation is falling as snow. But in practise our damp maritime climate often proves too much for soft shells in shell mode, so be a little wary of the idea that you can dispense with a waterproof altogether. Some soft shells can get a bit sweaty when worn under a waterproof.
Waterproof shell: Jacket and trousers/salopettes in a waterproof, breathable material. In the best case scenario these will remain in your rucksack all day, but they should still be considered essential. Waterproofs provide protection from wind as well as rain, plus some degree of extra insulation. Jacket features that particularly suit winter walkers include: a longer cut in the body; plenty of big pockets and a wired hood. For more see this UKH article How to Buy a Waterproof Jacket.
Waterproof pants best adapted to winter will have crampon-resistant patches at the ankle and long side zips so they can be donned without removing boots (do take off your crampons though). An articulated cut or some stretch panels make high steps easier.
Gaiters: You will never look sexy in gaiters but they are a must, either in November's thick mud or the knee-deep snow of January. Breathable fabrics are preferable and you can spend a small fortune if so inclined - but there are basic models that won't break the bank, and all do the same fundamental job. At some point most walkers will end up kicking crampon holes in their gaiters, which is a good reason in itself to wear them on the outside of your more expensive waterproof pants. It's only worth going without gaiters if you're certain of finding hard-frozen ground from base to summit.
Extremities: Though it's an urban myth that 80% of body heat is lost through the head a warm hat is still essential winter kit. Choose a cap or beanie that pulls down over the ears (or with ear flaps), close fitting enough not to be blown off in strong wind. Gloves are a much-discussed topic, and it's fair to say that no 100% ideal glove has ever been made. Bear in mind too that 'waterproof' gloves are only nominally so, thanks to the hand-sized hole via which moisture inevitably leeches in. It's customary to carry a number of pairs to suit different conditions, and so that wetted-out gloves can be replaced part way through the day. A decent selection would be: a thin base pair for minimal insulation and wind protection when working hard, or layering onto in really cold weather; a warm pair with a degree of windproofness either fleece/softshell, felted wool or insulated ski glove style; and a waterproof overmitt, roomy enough to wear over the rest.
For more on different types of jacket and what to look out for see this UKC article.
Find Mountain Clothing Gear News and Reviews on UKC and UKH here.
Shorter days inevitably mean some walking in darkness, with pre-dawn starts and evening finishes being the norm on longer routes. Even if you don't intend to be out after sunset it's essential to go prepared for that possibility, since fumbling blind on a winter mountain is a nightmare scenario. Modern top-of-the-range torches can boast all sorts of complicated functions, but the primary needs are simple enough. A worthwhile torch should be: sufficiently powerful to pick out the path ahead and highlight any immediate hazards; robust, weatherproof and reliable; operable wearing gloves; and not too power-hungry. Make sure the batteries in your torch are fresh or fully charged, and always bring spares too. Total electronic failure might be unlikely, but since its consequences would be unpleasant it's worth also packing a backup torch perhaps a smaller lighter model.
One of the pea-less, ear-splitting variety for signalling your position in the event of a mishap: six short hard blasts repeated every minute is the signal for 'help'.
Imagine you're immobilised with a broken leg in a winter storm. You're not likely to last long without some form of shelter from the elements. This could be as cheap and cheerless as an old fashioned polythene survival bag. Their non-emergency applications are limited and nights spent in them will be clammy, but they're certainly affordable. Alternatively a decent breathable bivvy bag will be much more comfortable and offers the added protection of a hood; you can use it for fun too, not just in a life-or-death emergency. Another option is the over-the-head bothy bag or group shelter; models big enough for several people are good for team morale and shared body heat. Or you might prefer the Blizzard Bag, a souped-up survival bag whose cell walls of heat-reflective foil offer a degree of insulation; these aren't cheap and will not bear repeated re-use, but how many unplanned nights out on top of Creag Meagaidh in February do you anticipate having anyway?
Aside from whatever you're wearing, an additional warm layer in the bag is a no-brainer. This can cover you for both the chilly summit lunch stop and any unpleasant what-if scenarios. In a screaming blizzard you don't really want to be unzipping shells and fumbling with layers, so an insulated belay jacket that can be pulled over everything else you're wearing waterproof shell and all is arguably as handy for walkers as winter climbers. The cut needs to be generous enough to allow this over-layering, and of course since it may end up on the outside the jacket has to be pretty weatherproof (if not fully waterproof though some are). In our damp climate synthetic insulation is generally preferred over down since it retains more (not all) of its insulating ability when wet. When not in use it's a good idea to keep this emergency layer in a dry bag, or at least a poly bag tied up.
Because hats and gloves are easily lost and essential to a frostbite-free experience it's wise to secrete spares of both somewhere in the bottom of the pack. I generally go for a balaclava and some sort of mitts on the basis that they'll provide the best protection should they ever be needed. They rarely - if ever - are, but they don't weigh much either.
When your face is being sand blasted by hail or spindrift it can be painful or even nigh on impossible to see where you're going. Staggering around a summit plateau with your eyes closed has obvious drawbacks. Spendthrifts might experiment with plastic safety eyewear, but for anyone with sense ski goggles should be considered essential, preferably a double-glazed anti-fog model. In our typically murky weather a high category lens would be overkill, but a light tint can actually help you discern the lay of the land in flat light or near-whiteout conditions.
Food and drink
Calories mean energy and warmth. You only get out what you put in, so on long winter days pack plenty of grub, over catering a little in case of delay or benightment. Eating little and often is sensible; for this it helps to carry snacks in your pockets. Carb-rich and easily eaten food is best sandwiches, pies, cereal bars, trail mix etc. Sweets and chocolate are a morale boost but generally only good for a sugary energy spike; some types of chocolate and indeed cereal bar can quickly freeze to tooth-breaking solidity.
Carry plenty of liquid too, and take pains to stay well hydrated throughout the day. It's surprising how much you can sweat while working hard, even in cold weather. Running water won't always be available for a refill. Sucky tubey hydration systems have a habit of freezing up, but a thermos or insulated water bottle filled with something hot will ensure at least partially warm liquid for most of the day - a lot more appealing than jaw-aching super-chilled water. Hint: when you're not wearing it, that emergency jacket can fulfil a useful function keeping the drink warm in your pack.
Find Rucksack Gear News and Reviews on UKC and UKH here.
Boots for winter should be warm, waterproof, supportive, stiff soled and crampon compatible. These attributes tend to make winter boots a little heavier and more expensive than their summer equivalent. It's not generally a good plan to marry a more flexible boot with a stiffer crampon. There's an unofficial industry scale that helps match boots (B) with the appropriate crampons (C); B1 boots are best paired with C1 crampons, B2 boots with C1 or C2 crampons, and B3s with Cs 1,2 or 3. If you're new to all this bear in mind that the B-C system is just an approximate guideline, and that the only way to be sure a particular boot shape will fit a certain crampon design is to try them both together. People with larger feet should also note that increased leverage can make a big boot flex more than a small one in the same model, somewhat undermining the notional B ratings.
For UK winter walking below the level of climbing grades, B1-type boots are ideal. These will have a sole stiff enough to hold an edge when kicking steps into snow without crampons on - and for this purpose the tread will have a square-cut edge too. But the sole will still have enough give for the foot to flex a little while walking. Moving up the difficulty scale slightly, those into both hillwalking and winter climbing in the lower grades should consider a B2 boot. These have a stiffer sole for more secure use of your crampon front points on steep ground, and should have a welt at the heel to fit a step-in rear crampon binding. If they feel clumpier than a B1 for walking long distances in that's often offset a little with the use of a curved rocker underfoot to give a reasonably natural rolling foot action. At the top of the technical tree are B3s. These are adapted for the vertical (or near-vertical) and less suited to the merely pedestrian; fine if climbing's your main thing and hillwalking only an occasional indulgence, but overkill for most hillwalkers.
A review of winter boots in all three categories is coming soon on UKH.
For more info on boot choice see this article by the BMC.
Find Mountain Footwear Gear News and Reviews on UKC and UKH here.
Walking confidently in crampons is an acquired skill, and many novices will mistakenly try to 'edge' in them rather than tilting the foot to engage all the crampon points. With soft snow crampons may be redundant or even a liability, but in hard icy snow or even some snowfree icy conditions they're essential to safe progress. Deciding when and where to strap them on takes a little judgement. It's worth going on a course or at least practising somewhere safe before using crampons in anger.
Forget radically bent shafts, ergonomic grips and the deadly-looking reverse-curved picks favoured by climbers; for hillwalking and bottom end mountaineering you need a single axe of the classic sort, with a fairly long shaft (see below) and a gently curved pick (again, see below). Axes come in two ratings, cheaper lighter weight B-rated models for walking and ski touring only, and tougher T-rated models with picks strong enough to cope with the hard abuse of mountaineering and shafts able to be employed as a belay anchor if necessary (shafts and picks are actually rated separately, but there's no need to go into that here). When and where are axes used? On a snowy stride over rolling moors an axe would be comical-looking dead weight, but if there's any chance of encountering steep and snowy terrain then it should be considered essential. Ground conditions high on the hills aren't always obvious from the valley, so if in doubt then bring the axe.
This is a multi-purpose tool. The primary use for walkers is to aid support and balance on steep snow where the axe is employed almost as a glorified walking stick, plunged spike-first. For this reason traditionalists may favour a long-shafted model. However as the ground steepens the axe can be swung pick-first, climbing style, and in this case a shorter more wieldy shaft and slightly heavier-duty head is preferable. You're unlikely to do this often on non-graded ground, but anyone venturing onto grade I gullies or ridges needs a T-rated axe that's tough enough for prolonged use in 'climbing' mode, with a pick that droops a little more than basic walker's axes for better penetration and purchase in snow and ice. The photo above shows the difference between a walker's axe and an axe more suitable for lower grade winter/alpine mountaineering. Both these models are actually T-rated, but one performs much better on steep ground thanks to the shape of its pick.
Should you accidentally slip or trip then try preventing a slide by immediately checking yourself with the axe. If this fails then you'll be on the move in a downwards direction, and fast. Here the axe's secondary purpose is immediately obvious the famous self arrest or ice axe brake. Fall on glassy neve slopes and you'll build up speed alarmingly. Only a quick and efficient arrest is likely to prevent injury, or worse. This isn't a skill you can just improvise in the heat of the moment, but takes practise. For self arresting a shorter-shafted axe is obviously preferable to an unwieldy alpenstock. Check out this video for some tips:
The era of step cutting predates the widespread routine use of crampons, but even today there are occasional moments when cutting a quick couple of steps in a small icy patch is less faff than stopping to don crampons. This is why all walking axes have an adze as well as a pick. Well, there adze to be a reason.
As with crampons, learning to wield an axe properly takes time and practise; total beginners should book a course or find a more experienced friend.
For more tips on choosing an axe and crampons see this BMC article.
Find Winter Hardware Gear News and Reviews on UKC and UKH here.
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