ViewRanger explorer Hetty is no stranger to tough winter mountains. She shares her tips with us for preparing well and staying safe in the mountains this season:
Earlier this year I had my first taste of proper Scottish winter; hiking, scrambling and skiing around Aviemore. My 2017 started on the summit of Cairngorm covered in a few centimetres of ice, braced against the wind, with a view not dissimilar to the inside of a ping pong ball! It was wild and utterly thrilling.
Since then the baltic adventures have continued, and from sliding down snowy descents on my mountain bike to midnight marathons navigating in a blizzard at 3am, I think it’s safe to say I get a particular kick out of being out in horrendous weather!
For me, one of the most important things is to be able to stay safe while doing so. Although I am still learning, over the past few years I have picked up some essential advice on heading out in winter conditions. So in this post, I’d like to share my top ten tips for maximising your adventure this winter:
1) Up your fitness
A tough winter’s day out will demand a lot from your body as it works hard to stay warm while you trudge through the snow. You want to make sure you have a good level of fitness and are used to long days out on your feet. Winter adventures can be unpredictable - often taking longer than expected. You'll also need to carry a rucksack with extra gear and food, so it's important you're in good shape before setting off.
2) Brush up on your skills
As well as being prepared physically, you also need to be prepared mentally and feeling confident in key winter skills. From navigating in tricky conditions to walking in crampons, you don’t want to be learning how to do things on the hillside in a blizzard! Whether you're just a little rusty or completely new to winter walking it’s worth taking a look at the numerous skills courses out there. Not only will this boost your confidence but it’s an excellent way to meet like-minded people.
3) Get familiar with your gear
Feeling comfortable is a vital part of having an enjoyable day in the hills. Make sure you find and test out quality pieces you can rely on in bad weather. Take the time to prepare your kit, thinking through everything you need. My three absolute essentials include full waterproofs (top and bottom), a solid pair of boots and at least one decent pair of gloves.
4) Have a backup plan...
...and a backup backup plan! What you are doing will very much depend on the conditions on the day, so make sure you have a few options. For each of these, you will want to estimate how long it might take you given the distance and terrain, look at possible escape routes or shortcuts you could take, and how accessible it is in poor conditions. That way, if the weather turns once you have committed to a route you will have already thought out the simplest and safest way to get home.
Communication is an essential part of staying safe. When the winds are howling and gusting around you with your hood up, you can’t guarantee you're going to be able to hear your partner. So before you get to this point establish a few key signals to use in these situations.
6) Take an active interest in meteorology!
In the run up to your trip or adventure check the forecast on a number of different sites and plan accordingly. Take note in particular to the visibility, wind chill and any avalanche warnings, making sure you understand these. Don’t be afraid to postpone or cancel. Sometimes Plan A, B, C and D just aren’t feasible due to the conditions. Although this can be disappointing, recognise your skill level and ability and make a sensible judgement call.
7) Get used to being an early bird
Prepare yourself for an early alarm; you want to be getting up at the crack of dawn! It may be tough to get out of bed, but you want to maximise the amount of daylight you are outside for. This also gives you better leeway for a bit of an epic! That being said always pack your head torch, spare batteries and a bivy bag just in case.
8) Stay toasty
Try not to leave it until you’re cold to put your next layer on as it can then be harder to warm up. Your priority is to keep your core warm and dry, so it’s equally important to avoid sweating. The key here is to have a good layering system made up of pieces you can quickly and easily take off and put on. Always pack a good ‘rescue layer’ that would keep you warm if you had to stop moving and a spare pair of gloves in your dry bag. That way, even if the ones you are wearing get wet you have a backup.
9) Get good at grazing
It is relatively easy to forget to eat and drink enough when it’s cold and you are focusing on the task at hand. So, make things as easy as possible for yourself by putting your food in reachable places and think about taking off any packaging that might be hard to get off with your gloves on.
10) Enjoy the moment!
Finally and most importantly remember to enjoy yourself - after all, you are doing this to have fun! There will no doubt be some tougher ‘why are we here’ moments but there will also be some spectacular ones. Plus, remember, when you are safely back, warm and dry in the pub or at home, it will make an epic story to tell!