How to pack your winter rucksack

Common sense dictates that you will need more kit for walking in winter than in summer. But what, exactly?

With colder conditions, high chances of snow and ice and shorter daylight hours, Scotland’s mountains can be inhospitable in winter. Yet the opportunities for great winter walking and fabulous views are plenty.

After checking the weather and avalanche forecasts, the most important precaution for staying safe in winter is to ensure you have the right kit. This is a guide to winterising your walking rucksack.

Heather Morning, mountain safety adviser for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS), says: “A bigger rucksack, extra clothing and specific winter equipment should all be considered as essential for winter walkers in Scotland.

“To start with, walkers should wear extra layers of clothing and add more extra layers to their packs. I’d also suggest a synthetic duvet jacket and an emergency shelter stored in the bottom of a rucksack just in case you end up stuck on the hill for any length of time. And I recommend at least two pairs of gloves and two hats as well as some kind of face protection, such as a buff or balaclava.

“Other items on your winter kit list should include a head torch – with a spare battery – crampons, ice axe and a mobile phone or GPS device. Our winter weather is notoriously unpredictable and you won’t always wear this extra kit or use the equipment, but it should be there in your rucksack so that it’s available when you really do need it.”



More tips for winterising your walking kit

Three-season walking boots: Look for boots that are of good quality, fully waterproof and have stiff and grippy soles. Not only will it be wetter in winter but there will be a high chance of snow and ice. Your boots should also be crampon compatible. If in doubt, ask a professional at an outdoors store for the right kind of winter boots.

Winter waterproof jacket: The ideal waterproof jacket for winter will be made of a heavier and thicker quality of fabric. Lightweight summer jackets are not effective at keeping out the wind and cold. If you are wearing last year’s winter jacket you could give it some attention with a wash in re-proofing detergent.

Features to look out for when buying a winter waterproof include durable water repellent (DWR), high-grade Gore-Tex, eVent or similar, taped seams, a waterproof/water repellent zip, waterproof zipped pockets, an adjustable hood with a stiff peak, adjustable arm cuffs and hem and a brighter colour to aid safety on the hills.

Waterproof trousers. A pair of waterproof and breathable overtrousers are essential. Buy trousers with zips on the outside of the legs to allow you to pull them on over boots.

Baselayers: Baselayers are worn in layers, starting with one against your skin. They are made from a thin, lightweight material that keeps you warm but also allows sweat to wick away to the outside. The aim is to wear several layers to trap heat in between each layer.  You can then add or peel off layers, including short and long-sleeved tops and leggings, according to conditions.

Baselayers that are made from natural materials, such as merino or yak wool, and naturally warming and less likely to smell after a few days of walking!

Accessorise: Hats that cover your ears, gloves or mittens that are designed to cope with cold conditions (add a pair of silk liner gloves for extra warmth) and winter walking socks (merino are recommended) are a must.

Larger rucksack: In the winter months you will need to carry more spare clothing and safety kit, which means a larger rucksack. It’s even more important that the rucksack is comfortable because it will be heavier.

Make sure it has padded shoulder straps, a padded hip/waist strap and some way of remaining waterproof. If it does not have a waterproof cover, stow all your kit inside in drybags. There’s no point in having spare clothes if they end up soaked through from rain.

Winterise your walking rucksack

Add to your rucksack:

  • Spare layers, such as baselayers and mid-layer
  • Spare socks
  • Two pairs of spare gloves (thin and insulated)
  • Spare beanie hat
  • Buff or balaclava, or both
  • Emergency insulated jacket, such as a down or synthetic insulation jacket
  • Emergency blanket or shelter
  • Compass and map (and make sure you know how to use them)
  • Mobile phone (loaded with OS maps if you have the right app) and/or GPS gadget (and spare batteries)
  • Small first aid kit
  • Flask of hot drink
  • Bottle or hydration bladder of water (you still sweat in winter and need to stay hydrated)
  • More food than you think you’ll need
  • Emergency energy snacks
  • Crampons and ice axe (you need to know how to use these so attend a winter skills course)
  • Head torch (in case you run out of daylight or need to attract emergency attention)

If you plan to go walking, climbing or skiing back country (ie off main trails) if is also advisable to carry an avalanche rescue kit. There is no point in carrying this if you do not know how to use it, so it’s a good idea to sign up for an avalanche awareness course.

Basic avalanche safety kit includes avalanche transceivers, a snow probe and a shovel. See this avalanche kit blog for further information.

In addition, it’s vital that you have a common sense ticklist before setting out for a winter walk. Check the weather, learn to navigate, take a basic first aid course, understand how to contact Mountain Rescue, walk with a friend and always tell another person where you are planning to go.

Also see Stay safe in the winter hills and Hypothermia prevention and treatment.



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