Walking in Wild Weather
As autumn heads inexorably towards winter, conditions on the hills tend to get more hostile. High wind, heavy rain, poor visibility, dropping temperatures, encroaching darkness, and the chance of sleet or snow (and sometimes all of the above) can make this a challenging time of year for hillwalking.
Low pressure influences Britain through most of the week. Unsettled and rain frequent, some prolonged heavy falls with a threat of flooding
Wind: Easterly, mostly in range 30 to 40mph, perhaps at times 50mph
Chance Of Cloud Free Munros? 10%
How Cold? (At 900m) 3 to 5C
That's far from an extreme forecast at this time of year, but though there's no denying how nasty it's going to feel on the summits, there'll still be fun on days like these for anyone keen to get out and do battle with the elements. As hardy outdoor types we don't tend to let a bit of weather put us off, but to make the best of the foul stuff you'll need to shift your thinking from carefree summer mode to a more prepared and focused mindset.
Work with the conditions on the day, not against them; make damn sure you're going properly dressed and equipped; and take time to sharpen your navigation - seasoned pros give us their top tips for weathering the autumn storms:
Dress for the conditions
Our weather is always changeable, but the bridge seasons of autumn and spring can make clothing choices particularly tricky. Warmer autumn days can feel almost like summer, and suit a wardrobe to match, but the next day could see storms or snow on the tops, demanding more of a winter outfit. If you're heading out for a few days, plan for the worst, and when deciding what to wear on any given day keep a close eye on the forecast, including vital info such as wind speed and temperature at height. With nights drawing in and temperatures on the slide, it's generally wise to err on the side of caution.
Now's the time of year to swap shorts for softshell trousers, mothball the midge net, and replace lightweight summer waterproofs with something a bit more substantial. Crack out the wooly hat and gloves (thinnies at the start of autumn, full-on insulated gloves by around November). Thinner summer weight insulating layers can make way for jackets with a bit more beef, a midweight down or synthetic jacket perhaps.
"Starting point with clothing is the base layer" says Winter Mountain Leader Kevin Woods, who made a full winter round of the Munros last season.
"Because it sits against the skin the base is the fundamental layer that all else protects. In bad weather, rule number one is to keep your base layers dry at all costs. Use synthetic fabrics as they are better at retaining heat when wet. They also dry quickly once wet, whether by ingress of water or sweat. It cannot be overstated that in really bad weather, good quality gear does make the difference to comfort, and by extension safety."
We're gonna need a bigger pack
A group shelter or bivvy bag should arguably find their way into your kit list throughout the year, but even if you tend to go minimalist in summer the case for this emergency gear is doubly strong once the weather starts to get more hostile. Add to that a headtorch and spare torch, extra warm layers, gloves, and more generous rations, and you're looking at a bigger load than will generally be the case at the height of summer. Towards late autumn - conditions, rather than the calendar dictating - an axe and crampons may also be needed.
With lightweight summer gear a daypack of around 20 litres might suffice, but for cold autumn days that demand all of the above kit, a rucksack closer to 30-40 litres will make packing a lot easier. Look for a fully winter-worthy model that can comfortably handle the extra weight, and can carry an ice axe.
When it's not being worn, keep your warm clothing in a drybag. This will prevent your vital insulation from getting soaked - never a good thing - and helps keep the pack neat and well organised.
Plan your route with the wind in mind
"We may experience strong winds at any time of year, but of course autumn tends to be stormier than sumnmer" says Kate Worthington of RAW Adventures.
"Stronger winds tire you out quicker – both physically and mentally. We burn more calories trying to deal with them.
"Knowing the forecasted wind direction and speed can help you plan a more comfortable day. In high winds you might want to avoid lengthy, high plateau crossings or narrow ridges.
"With snow in the air and on the ground, sheltering from winds on the lee side of a slope (out of the wind) can be hazardous, as that's exactly where the snow wants to accumulate – not good for avalanche risk. But if snow isn't an issue it's great to use the shapes of mountains to offer some protection from the incoming wind.
"Could you stay in a sheltered valley or on lee slopes for most of the day, and then make a windy summit dash before quickly descending back into relative shelter?"
"A strong wind may well get disrupted by mountain shapes on its journey, though, so you can't always expect winds to travel in a nice linear direction. Expect stronger winds to burst through cols as the air is squeezed through. Winds can speed up as they descend steep slopes from ridges above (like a 'katabatic wind' effect) or swirl around a valley bowl or coombe/cwm."
Know the effect of wind on a walker
"So how windy is 'windy'?" asks Kate.
"If you're seeing speeds of 30mph forecast, this wind will feature in your day. You will feel it on your body and it's enough to be annoying and tiring, even though this sort of speed doesn't tend to raise people's eyebrows. And it will feel 'pushy' on very exposed terrain."
"Much faster than that and you'll be buffeted around; and by about 40mph there's a real danger of being blown off balance, or even off your feet. To state the obvious, human bones and rocks aren't a good mix!
"Larger bodies could withstand higher winds speeds to a certain extent, but always think about the smallest/youngest/lightest person in your group. Walkers might not choose to head into strong winds, but sometimes we all get caught out. In this case linking arms, keeping low to the ground and supporting each other will help. But ultimately, high wind speeds are a significant (and common) hazard to mountain walkers."
People can be poor judges of wind speed, and will tend to exaggerate the speed on the day. The danger of this, of course, is that they then underestimate the possible effects of a forecast wind speed. This table from mountain safety expert Helen Howe offers a dose of realism :
|MPH||Effect of wind speed on a walker|
|4-7||Wind felt on exposed skin|
|8-12||Hair ruffled, loose clothing flaps|
|25-31||Steady walking difficult, knocked sideways by gusts|
|32-38||Walking with great difficulty and your foot not always landing where you intended. You may have to stamp your feet to walk.|
|39-49||People blown off feet, walking becoming dangerous|
|50+||You may be blown over, or blown several metres by gusts. Walking extremely difficult: progress may be crawling at times. Even lying down you may be blasted around by the wind. In these wind speeds it is worth linking arms as a group to keep smaller people anchored down.|
Allow for autumn's dwindling daylight hours
"We'll all miss the long summer daylight, but shorter days needn't stop us enjoying the hills" says Kate Worthington.
"If you're super keen for a long day, start in the darker early morning hours with a headtorch, knowing it will get light later, rather than starting late and losing the daylight just when you're feeling tired."
"A headtorch and spare batteries (or, better, a second headtorch) is a must for your kit list, as are robust tools for navigating, in case you are delayed and find you're losing the light trying to get back to the road.
"In autumn there is an increased risk of unplanned walking into darkness, as we've all got used to lighter evenings, and we may not have worked out how long a walk is going to take. There's always a spate of Mountain Rescue callouts around late October, as the clocks go back, and some people forget that it suddenly gets dark an hour earlier.
"When estimating your route time allow for a very general and generous average of 3km/hr. Ensure your routes are well planned to give you a less complicated end to the day, in case you are delayed or slower for any reason."
Given the daylight situation, this may be a good time to start planning a few about shorter hill days, perhaps on lower summits - with the added advantage that these can often also prove a better option in sub-optimal weather:
Make time estimates more generous, and keep checking your watch
"A huge part of getting around the mountains effectively is about estimating time" says Kevin Woods.
"That is, do you have time to get to the top and back before weather comes in? Will snow slow things down; and by how much?"
"It's interesting to think of the number of elements that play into the question of speed. If you are with a group, can you set your expectations in line with the least able? Are the underfoot conditions hard, and if so then how much longer will that leg take? Does poor visibility mean that you're navigating extra-closely, and how much could this slow you down compared to striding across the same ground on a clear day? If you're walking head on into wind and rain you might add substantially to your time, but on the other hand if you can get your back to the wind and move with it, you may take time off!
"Towards the end of a big day, particularly in wild weather, tiredness can slow you up. Try to factor this into your planning.
"It helps to work this stuff out early, and reflect after the event how the day went so you can learn from it. The first time I ever went out in deep spring snow, I foolishly assumed a summer time to the summit and back. It was a shock to see the clock slipping away and I quickly learned a lesson.
"On many hill days we have won't have much need to be on the ball with this stuff, but sometimes it really does matter. Wild weather is one of those times! With practise you might learn to enjoy cutting these margins fine, and crossing mountains against the odds. Whether in extremis or not, your awareness of timing can be nurtured on every hill day."
Get your navigation up to speed
"The clocks are soon changing, and the weather will follow suit" advises Ben Gibson, Mountain Safety Advisor at Mountaineering Scotland.
"It's getting darker, colder, wilder and there is the encroaching feeling of winter just around the corner! If you haven't much used a map and compass with real seriousness this summer, now is a good time to shake off the rust from these all-important skills for safe mountain travel."
"It is also a good time to sort out your personal admin and how you have yourself set up with map and compass, ready to deploy when needed, rather than it being buried in your pack."
"Below are a few simple tips to follow that can help in being prepared and ready to navigate through potentially grim and changeable Scottish weather.
"Keep your Map & Compass close to hand. Have a printed off map (OS Mapping) or one folded down of the area you're visiting in a good quality map case, which can easily fit into a coat pocket. Keep your compass on accessory cord attached to a zipper, which can be reached easily. IMPORTANT: Keep your compass and phone separate! Smart phones are basically a big magnet that can permanently mess up your compass needle."
"If the weather really turns against you and you really need to use your skills, breathe and relax. This will help in being able to think logically and keep navigation simple in order to relocate yourself. Don't say you're lost. This gives a sense of permanence about it; you're just temporarily misplaced!"
Here's a simple, logical checklist to run through - the Five Ds of navigation.
This is a great checklist to have for navigation and a great way to keep yourself in check when you feel a little misplaced if the weather goes bad and visibility is reduced:
This is the most important, helping you to set or orientate your map to the land and features around you. It can be too easy finding one feature (such as a stream) and making it fit the map and your possible location, therefore convincing yourself of your location. Challenge yourself to find more than four features, to help pinpoint a location more accurately.
Once the map is orientated and you can recognise features around you and find your location, you should know then cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). From here you can carry on your journey safely or look to where your next point of interest is, weather permitting. If it's poor visibility, then using the compass to take a bearing and finding the distance is a good step.
If you need to add another layer to your navigation to keep on track and not overshoot an important feature (such as a track, bridge, or escape route off), then timing the distance travelled works really well. Using Naismith's rule, which gives specific times for distance travelled at various walking speeds allows good accuracy for travelling in poor weather, helping you to avoid possible dangers if you wander off randomly in the hope of finding your way off the hill. An addition to this is knowing how far 100 metres is, based on your pace or stride (which is measured with every other footstep taken).
This aspect is how you go from points A to B. Looking at what features there are along your journey and what you expect to happen on the ground, along with the direction of travel, walking on a bearing, distance of travel, and timing, are all parts of how you design your journey to have success in getting from A to B. Top Tip: Have tick-off features along your journey and a catching feature to stop you from over-shooting and missing your point B.
It's always a good idea to identify features along your journey that are potential hazards or traps, which could get you into further trouble (30 degree slope of slippy grass, avalanche terrain, steep convex slopes, craggy outcrops). From this you can alter your journey accordingly, or utilise other skills (aiming off, attack points, boxing, handrailing) to help stay safe.
Remember: Keep your navigation simple, don't overcomplicate it!
Consider low level rainy/windy day options
Sometimes it's simply too stormy for high summits, or pointlessly cloudy on the tops, but even in the foulest weather all needn't be lost:
"Lower level walks can be a good way to get some value out of the day when it's really rainy or windy, or when the tops are hidden in thick cloud" says Kate Worthington.
"There are so many wonderful journeys that might not take in an actual summit. You can guarantee you'll keep clear of other people on busier mountains, too (if that's something you like to plan for!). Do we only walk hills and mountains to get to the summit cairn?
"What about a long walk that takes us through wonderful terrain, with views to high peaks, crossing passes as you go: an exhilarating linear journey that can incorporate catching a bus back to the start, maybe. Woodland wanders can offer some shelter from wind and rain (in anything but really storm force winds)."
"Finding your own lower-level routes, by poring over a map with a glass of wine the night before, will yield some memorable adventures" says Kate. "Choose a leg of the Snowdonia Slate Trail in North Wales, a traverse of the Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve in the Cairngorms, or crossing 'through' the Skiddaw massif instead of over it. With so many resources to find out about low-level walks or shorter walks in your chosen area, you will no doubt find something online or in a book or magazine to help you. And there are many UKH Route Cards that will do just that. Be intrigued and delighted by all the landscapes that sit under the summits – you won't be disappointed."
Watch out for swollen streams
"It is easy to underestimate the hazard of water crossings; we cross so many streams and rivers on the hills it becomes such a natural thing to do" says Kevin Woods. "But I also consider them as being like a vein of heightened risk running across the hill: opportunities for accident, essentially."
"Out-of-spate streams and rivers are usually not hard to get across. Of course, the risk rises with water levels, so during or immediately after very rainy weather, watch out! It's sensible to assume that water is always colder, deeper and more powerful than it looks from the bank.
"Swollen rivers should be dealt with in the prior planning of a trip, via avoidance, just in the same way as we use prior judgement in winter to entirely avoid avalanche terrain.
"Before you set out on your trip, or before making a risky crossing, interrogate the map (or Google Earth) for bridged crossings. If you really can't cross safely at a particular point, consider heading upstream even if it takes you away from the car. It can be a liberating sense of self-control to draw your line and decide not to take the risk.
"There may be just a few times in your life when you are out of options and compelled to cross a bad river. Usually it's because your planning was iffy. In this case stability really helps, whether through a pair of trekking poles or the great support of linking with a partner. But I would always begin with prevention. Water is really serious stuff and deserving of respect."
- More detailed advice on river crossings is available on the Mountaineering Scotland website.