Cold weather kit for winter walks

Winter walking in Scotland

A guide to “winterising” your walking kit so you’ll stay warm, dry and safe yet still have fun in the Scottish countryside

This weekend, my partner and I are heading off for our first high-level winter walking adventure of the season. Being a person who doesn’t cope well in the cold – I have Raynaud’s Syndrome – I always need to make sure I’ve “winterised” my walking rucksack. Winterising my pack involves packing all the things I might need to keep me warm – and safe – in Scotland’s hills and mountains while walking in winter conditions.

Winter walking – and most specifically winter Munro bagging – requires a great deal more kit (and dedication!) than the same outing in summer. It’s usually a longer and more strenuous expedition, mainly because of the snow, ice, wind and cold.

Your rucksack for winter

You’ll need a bigger rucksack than in summer so that you can fit in all your winter kit. Something in the region of 40 to 60 litres will do the job well. My favourite winter walking rucksack is the Osprey Ariel 55l. To be honest, I try not to fill the pack because it’s a lot to carry when you weigh only 9.5st but it will be packed with all the essential winter kit. There are plenty of great men’s Osprey packs to choose from, too. I like the way Osprey make rucksacks to fit men and women and their attention to detail in terms of pockets, straps and carrying aids is amazing.

What to wear in winter

Stay safe in winter guide: Ropes are not always needed! It’s good to hear from the experts first. Heather Morning, mountain safety adviser with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, offers the following advice: “As the hills get their first dusting of snow, now is the time to put away those lightweight, bendy summer boots and change into a more rigid pair.

“Wear extra layers, too, and ensure you have a good-quality waterproof and windproof jacket.”

From my experience, I recommend you choose good quality winter walking clothing and kit. Don’t skimp on this because you’ll end up wet and miserable. Start by putting on a couple of baselayers (Merino wool will keep you warm and dry and prevent you from whiffing). I will be wearing the Patagonia all-in-one Capilene for all my winter outings this year. Add a mid-layer fleece or softshell jacket and also a highly waterproof jacket. If it is dry when you start out, you could stow the waterproof jacket in your rucksack. The same is true for your legs. If it’s dry wear your favourite walking trousers and carry a pair of waterproof trousers in your rucksack.

Winter-specific walking boots are a must. You need boots that can be fitted with crampons when you encounter snow and ice. I am a big fan of La Sportiva winter walking boots. Check out retailers, such as Cotswold Outdoors for La Sportiva Trango boots (mens | womens) and Nepal Extreme (mens | womens). I really like the Women’s La Sportiva Trango boots for winter.

Make sure you wear winter warm socks – choose natural wool such as Merino for warmth and non-pong – a hat with ear covers and gloves. The most important part of my winter walking kit is gloves. I layer my gloves, starting with a pair of thin silk under-gloves (check out Decathlon for cheap silk liner gloves) and then add a pair of ski mittens or “lobster” mittens on top. Gloves that work best for my “always cold” hands are the Mammut Gore-Tex Eigerjoch lobster gloves. See my review here.  I always carry a couple of spare pairs of gloves in case they get wet.

Add spare clothes to your rucksack. You might not need them, but if you do you’ll be very grateful for extra layers, especially if the clothes you are wearing get wet or you find yourself stuck on the hills in an emergency situation. Pack another two baselayers, a fleece, a lightweight insulated jacket that can be stuffed into a corner of your rucksack (check out our review of Mammut lightweight insulated jackets), spare hat, gloves and socks.

Other winter items for your rucksack include a map and compass (in case your GPS doesn’t work), water and food (always take more than you think you’ll need in case), an emergency shelter such as a bivi (Rab Storm bivi is a great lightweight bag to take on the hills in winter), hand warmers, balaclava, crampons, ice axe, extra energy bars, a flask of tea or coffee and a head torch with extra batteries.

Crampons and ice axes: These winter essentials are only useful if you know how to use them. Attend a winter skills session to find out how to walk in crampons in the mountains and how to arrest a fall with an ice axe. You’ll also learn how to keep yourself warm and safe if you get into difficulty on the hills in snow.

Words of caution from the experts

Far from discouraging people from going walking in the hills in winter, the Mountain Rescue experts believe that winter is a great time to be outdoors. But their motto is: Be prepared for the conditions.

Ian Dawson, a training officer with Lomond Mountain Rescue, based in Drymen, says: “The dangers of the winter hills and mountains are obvious, including less daylight hours, poor weather and avalanches. Every year our team are called out to people caught out by early evening darkness or those who are not dressed and equipped to deal with the cold. It’s vital that people wear the right kit and take all the right clothing and safety items with them.”

Mark Leyland, team leader at Arrochar MRT, adds that walkers should be particularly aware of sudden weather changes. He says: “In winter it can be fine at sea level and a total white out halfway up a hill. The changes in weather happen very quickly with height gain.”

Other tips for winter walking safety

Weather check: Before you go walking, check the weather and avalanche forecasts. Don’t take unnecessary risks.

Tell a friend: Walk with a friend and tell someone else where you are going and your expected time back home.

Learn to navigate: Using a GPS is all very well until it stops working or you need to double check where you are. Carry a map and compass and know how to use them. If in doubt attend a winter navigation course before heading off.

Now you’re ready to go out and enjoy the fabulous winter mountains and hills in Scotland.

We’ll be covering winter walking in more detail in our next issue. Subscribe today and make sure you don’t miss it!

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