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The arrival of winter doesn’t necessarily demand that you forfeit your favourite physical pastime. That said, hill walking and rambling can be dangerous from time to time. Add sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall, without adequate preparation, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster!
That’s why this concise guide to prepare you for winter hill walking could prove handy. Winter walking is a fantastic experience and is something to be enjoyed, provided that you’ve taken the steps to keep you and the rest of your party safe. Here’s how you can do it…
Take it easy
While no one is saying that your walking books should be relegated to the back of the cupboard for the duration of winter, it’s advisable to limit your walking ambitions for next few months when conditions can be treacherous – let alone the fact that daylight hours are in short supply.
Challenges such as Ben Nevis or Snowdon for many should be left until the arrival of spring. While an ascent is possible, the threat of snow and fierce wind presents a danger for inexperienced walkers; what’s more, should you be injured and in need of help, bad weather could make it near impossible for rescuers to reach you.
Take a look at this guide to the 50 best winter walks in the UK, created by The Independent. If you’re craving the spectacular views that come hand-in-hand with mountain walking and lack some confidence, then you should follow The Independent’s advice and try the routes along the White Cliffs of Dover. The wind may be bracing, but on a crisp winter’s day, this is a location that will inspire and enchant you.
During winter the UK mountains look their most spectacular, and arguably more so once up on their summits. However, it’s important to remember that slopes may become avalanche prone or could become inadvertent slides down to fatal drops. Cornices are a danger too. Never walk close to the edge of a snow covered precipice. In such conditions the use of crampons and an ice axe and knowing how to use them are essential.
Check the forecast
It’s fair to say that you should be consulting the weather forecast every time you undertake a walking trip – not just during the winter months! The Met Office mountain area forecast provides detailed forecasts for mountainous regions popular with walkers and ramblers, such as the Scottish Highlands and the Yorkshire Dales. This service includes a three hourly weather summary, to ensure the greatest accuracy for walkers. It’s worth checking out NetweatherTV and MWIS too. Both provide adequate information when venturing out on to the hills.
However, the weather conditions around mountains can change rapidly and often without warning. Even if the forecast indicates that conditions will be clear, failing to equip yourself for a change in weather is reckless and extremely dangerous. Whereas it may appear only relatively chilly down in the valley bottoms, only a a couple of thousand feet up and it can be positively arctic!
If there’s lots of snow and it’s a sunny day, some form of eye protection is a must. The bright light of the sun reflects off the snow and can be blinding, and of course that (along with wind chill) will have an effect on your exposed skin too.
We’re used to windy conditions on the hills in the UK and in winter these demand respect. Once speeds picky up, the wind chill can soon bring the risk of hypothermia if you’re ill-equipped. So, always check the forecasts before heading out and remember not to rely on them 100% – conditions can surprisingly vary locally.
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You’ve planned a route and checked the weather forecast. Now you’ll need to equip yourself for your winter hike. If up high, you’ll likely require an ice axe and crampons. If low, you may wish to take along some ice grippers which slip over your footwear.
While common sense would dictate that you to wear as many thick layers as possible, this isn’t necessarily the best option. You might be comfortable to begin with, but as you clock up the miles your body temperature is going to increase, causing you to become hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.
When you begin your walk, you should feel a little chilly. As you pick up speed and pace, you’ll begin to warm up. Aside from the obvious additions to your normal walking clothing – such as a hat and gloves – it’s advisable to wear a baselayer beneath your clothes.
A baselayer traps a layer of warm air between the material and the skin, so it’s effective for keeping you warm. Take a look at the range of Under Armour ColdGear from Marine and Outdoor Clothing, which includes baselayer shorts and pullovers that are ideal for wearing underneath a walking outfit. They’re thin enough so as not to limit the movement of athletes and walkers, as perhaps a heavy jumper or fleece would. They also provide an effective layer of warmth that will make a significant difference on winter walks. And don’t forget, that spare clothing is a must for rest stops, or emergencies. And a head torch too – you may well need it if you’ve been out walking longer than expected. Hiking along icy paths as the night draws in can be asking for trouble that you need not encounter!
And it’s important to stay dry too. As we all know, if you’re wet through you’ll soon feel chilly and in winter this can prove fatal.
Walking in winter requires your body to work that much harder, as it fights to keep your body temperature at a safe level. And of course hiking through snow can slow you down and burn more energy. That’s why you need to ensure that your body has enough fuel to keep going and that your supplies include high-energy foods.
Good options for walking snacks include dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and peanut butter. They’re easy to transport, difficult to damage and bursting with energy – they’re the perfect choice for walkers. Admittedly, if it’s really cold then chocolate can prove quite a challenge to eat
It’s extremely important that you remember to stay hydrated too. Regardless of the outside temperature or the weather, you’re still sweating and your body needs to stay hydrated and operate efficiently. You’d be surprised how much moisture you can lose just by your breath alone when active! Take a look at this earlier post on keeping hydrated in the hills, for some advice about the best drinking options for hill walkers.
And try to keep your liquids somewhere wrapped up and possibly warm. Left exposed to sub-zero temperatures, your drink may soon freeze over.
And remember to use common sense. There’s no shame in having to turn back if things become difficult. Always take a map and compass and know how to use them. GPS’ are a great tool, but work best as backup or part of your navigation armoury. You don’t want to be lost during a blizzard or whiteout.