As the first proper Arctic blast of the winter season hits Scotland it is a good time to sharpen up your winter walking skills before venturing into the hills. Nothing beats a crisp day of walking the high tops with a brilliant blue sky and the crunch of snow underfoot. But winter’s combination of short days, fickle weather and snow demands more preparation at this time of year. Glen Lyon Coffee’s Jamie brushes off his crampons and gives our readers a few pointers to getting out in the hills this season.
Planning is everything
Take time to plan your walking route beforehand. A lot depends on the weather forecasts which are now much more reliable than they used to be. I use a combination of BBC weather, The Met Office and the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS). Always bear in mind that the temperature drops and the winds increase the higher you climb. Be sure to factor in enough time to make it back with plenty of light left as the nights creep in early this time of year.
When planning your route keep a couple of options in mind. I always have a preferred route and a shorter day planned just in case the weather comes in. Always keep an open mind and be ready to change your plans to fit the circumstances as it is a fluid and dynamic environment out there. The hills will always be there for another day, so there is no need to be fixated on getting to your chosen destination every time.
Get your kit out!
When deciding what to take with you there is always a fine line between being well equipped and handicapping yourself with too much weight. But in winter conditions even the most basic kit list has to be a lot longer than in the summer. I set out with warm layers, waterproofs, warm hat, two sets of gloves, sunglasses for glare and two torches as minimum. If venturing into snow and ice add an ice axe and crampons into the mix and even a snow shovel, probe and transceiver if there is a risk of avalanche. I also strongly recommend a bothy shelter that is big enough for you and your walking group, to ensure you can survive an emergency if caught out in the elements. It is important to consider food and hydration as our bodies need regular top ups of calories, salts and liquids in cold weather.
Navigation, navigation, navigation
Being able to confidently navigate through the hills is critical in the Scottish hills where the mist and murk can descend at any moment with little notice. Modern digital navigation tools have come on massively in recent years but there is no substitute for a good old-fashioned map and compass. I use digital mapping on my phone and GPS, but even the shiniest of tech is prone to software glitches, patchy mobile coverage and battery failure. I always take the right OS or Harvey map with me for the area that I am walking into and carry two compasses. Reading the contours on a map and walking to bearings takes time to get the hang of and it is worth doing a navigation course to learn the basics principles if you are new to hill walking.
Be Avalanche Aware
Most people don’t associate Scotland with avalanches, but they pose a constant danger in winter conditions and avalanches are hard to predict. The Scottish Information Avalanche Information Service (SIAI) has the most up to date reports on conditions throughout the winter. If you are inexperienced with journeying through snow and ice is a good idea to do a winter skills course with a local guide, or at an outdoor centre like Glenmore Lodge.
If something does go wrong…
If something does go wrong in the hills, help is at hand. Scottish Mountain Rescue is a national body that oversees regional teams of volunteers all over Scotland. Highly trained in specialist search and rescue techniques together with access to advanced medical resources, your local team can be mobilised within minutes of receiving a call out. To alert them call 999 and ask for Mountain Rescue. It is a big help if you can give them your location (preferably a grid ref) together with details of your group and why you need them. Never be embarrassed or reluctant to call in the Mountain Rescue if you think you or someone in your group needs their help. They always prefer to be contacted, even if it is a false alarm with good intent.
Jamie is a qualified mountain guide and specialises in taking small groups on themed walking tours in and around stunning Glen Lyon. Look out for spring dates on our Events page