Stay safe in the winter hills

Stay safe while winter walking.

Stay safe while winter walking.

How to be prepared for winter walking in the Scottish hills and mountains.

You could simply hang up your walking boots at the end of the summer and try to find them again (somewhere at the back of a cupboard) in the spring. And there is nothing wrong with being a summer hiker.

But then again, the experiences of walking through the winter are hard to beat. It’s a time of fabulous wintry views, amazing challenges and new rewards discovered by being out and about in a harsher environment.

If you are less experienced in winter conditions and would also like the comfort of knowing how to cope if the worst was to happen, sign up to one of the many winter skills courses that are run through the chillier season. Check out:

An avalanche awareness session is also a good idea especially if, like increasing numbers of people, you plan to go back country or off the beaten trail and carry an avalanche transceiver and rescue kit. There’s no point in having these in your rucksack if you have no idea how to use them.

The sportscotland Avalanche Information Service is a good place to start. Also see MCofS for avalanche awareness courses.

Winter scenes. Pic credit: Ben Bradshaw Flickr

Winter scenes. Photograph: Ben Bradshaw Flickr

More tips for winter walking safety

See the light: Check the internet for sunrise and sunset times. Remember that there are far fewer daylight hours in winter and it’s vital that you check your walking route and time with the length of day. Always carry a headtorch in case you are caught out.

Weather checker: There are plenty of weather forecast sites now, and several focused at winter walkers. MWIS is recommended, as is the Met Office.

Be flexible: Rather than sticking stubbornly to Plan A regardless of the weather be prepared to change your outing or route to suit the weather. And if it is going to be bad conditions across the country, stay at a lower level or head indoors to a climbing wall or gym instead. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Avalanche aware: As we have advised already, an avalanche awareness course is vital for high-level winter hikers and climbers. Also make use of the new avalanche forecast service, SAIS.

It’s cold out there: This might seem like an obvious thing to say but so many people are caught out by warmer temperatures lower down the hill. There can be a marked temperature change as you climb higher and are buffeted by wind, rain and snow. Always carry extra clothing and a survival bag in case you run into an emergency situation.

A mountain rescue spokesperson adds that walkers should be especially aware of sudden weather changes. He says: “In winter it can be fine at sea level and a white-out halfway up a hill. The changes in weather happen very quickly with height gain.”

Winterise you kit: In winter, it’s even more important that your clothing and kit are up to the job of keeping you warm and dry. Good quality, waterproof walking boots are essential. Wear three or four-season walking boots according to the conditions. Make sure that if you will need to use crampons that the boots are suitable for fitting. (Also, if you do not know how to use crampons and an ice axe book a winter skills course.)

Wear lots of thinner baselayers of clothing to maintain core body temperature. Several thinner layers will trap heat between the layers, rather than one thicker layer. A merino wool baselayer or similar should go on first, followed by other thinner layers. A mid-layer jacket can help to provide extra insulation and windproofing and can be usefully worn as an outer layer when it’s dry or a mid-layer under a waterproof jacket when it’s raining. A tried and tested high quality waterproof and breathable jacket as an outer layer is essential. Taking off and putting on layers is all part of temperature management while out walking in winter.

Waterproof trousers are also vital for winter. Choose trousers with zip sides so that you can easily put them on while hiking.

Go on and accessorise: Hats, gloves, beanies, buffs, socks, sunglasses and spares. Your head, hands and feet will feel the chill so it’s vital that you have the right kit for keeping your extremities warm. If it’s going to be wet make sure you add extra gloves in case your first pair become drenched. And keep all spares inside dry bags in your rucksack.

More to pack: Carry a larger rucksack in winter. You will need it for all the extra kit. As well as the extra clothing layers and accessories, you’ll need to pack an emergency blanket or bivi bag, crampons, ice axe, head torch, GPS device, map, compass, a mobile phone, first aid kit, food, snacks, water and a hot drink.


Be sensible: Before you go walking, check the weather and avalanche forecasts. Walk with a friend and tell someone else where you are going and your expected time back home. Leave a note of your planned route so that if the worst happens someone can call emergency services.

The MRT spokesperson said: “I’d advise walkers who are going off the beaten track and in snow to do navigation courses, avalanche awareness and a first aid course.”

Know your numbers: If you are caught in an emergency you can call 999 or 112. In areas where phones do not work so well, it’s useful to know about SMS texting in an emergency. Many people don’t know they can use their mobile phone’s SMS text messaging to summon help from the emergency services. SMS uses a different technology to communicate than voice and data so it doesn’t need the same quality of reception.

Transmission is also very fast and even with just a moment of poor reception, just as you press send, you could be able to summon help. However, to use the service your mobile phone’s number must be pre-registered with the emergency services emergency SMS service.

Here’s how to do it now:

Send a SMS (text) message, REGISTER, to 112. Wait a few seconds for the reply.

Read the reply in full (it isn’t very long) and reply with another SMS message, YES.

You’ll get a final response saying your number is now registered. Don’t reply to that one though or else you might find the emergency services swing into action trying to save you. Now you can use your mobile phone to send SMS messages in an emergency. Simple.

An emergency SMS message should contain all the basic data that the emergency services need to organise help. This should include:

  • Which service is needed: police, ambulance, coastguard or fire brigade. Note again that the police are responsible for organising mountain rescue, so always ask for the police if you need help in the hills.
  • What is the problem?
  • Where is help needed? (Some location information may be automatically generated by the mobile network, i.e. the location of the cellular mast that receives the SMS text message.)

Drive time: Most people will use their car to reach walking routes but roads can be tricky to drive and the cold weather can play havoc with motors. Always carry an ice scraper and de-icer, torch and spare batteries, shovel for snow, warm clothes, boots and a blanket, food and a warm drink in a flask, first aid kit, battery jump leads and a map for any unplanned diversions.

Read our feature on Hypothermia prevention and treatment

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