Learn Skills Hill Walking In Winter

Hill Walking In Winter


The hills in winter can be unpleasant, hostile places, but they can also be dazzling environments, with Britain’s mountains temporarily transformed into a sparkling white playground presenting exciting challenges for walkers. The number of people on the hills drops off dramatically over the winter months, but since hill walking in winter covers a spectrum of difficulty and technicality, there’s no reason to put your walking plans on hold. Sometimes the only extras you might need are an earlier start, some extra warm clothing and a thermos flask, while more ambitious winter routes require an ice axe and crampons (spiked boot attachments enabling you to walk securely on hard ice and snow).

Here we take a look at winter walking options, and what you’ll need to consider when choosing a route:

Winter Walking Clothing & Equipment

As it’s colder in winter you’ll need more clothes, so it goes without saying that a selection of warm layers is required. A good waterproof jacket and trousers are the main essentials, after that it’s the accessories that make all the difference in winter; gaiters, gloves (always take a spare pair of gloves or mitts), hat, headtorch, some sort of emergency shelter like a bivi or bothy bag, a flask of hot drink, and lots and lots of tasty treats to keep your energy and spirits up. Ski goggles will enable you to look forward when snow is being blasted into your face by strong winds. On clear days, sunglasses and sunscreen will protect the eyes and face. Finally, with this extra food, drink, clothing and equipment you will need a good-sized rucksack (between 40 and 50 litres) to carry it all.

A pair of winter walking boots will keep your feet warm and provide you with the required grip and support. Crampons are attached to your boots for safer travel over hard packed snow or ice. An ice axe is a key piece of winter equipment and has a variety of functions; it can be used for support and to stop you should you slip. You might want to think about giving your clothing and kit a winter MOT, as exposure to harsh conditions will really expose any damage or weakness in your gear.

Stay Low

Conditions in the hills can often get worse the higher you go, with temperatures dropping, winds picking up and a higher likelihood of encountering snow and ice. In the worst weather it’s sometimes a better option to stay low and plan a route in fields, valleys, woodland or coastal areas. With the risk of poor visibility and shorter daylight hours, good navigation and route planning skills are vital, along with appropriate warm and waterproof clothing. Hats and scarves are an obvious must, and it might be a good idea to invest in a warm insulating layer to prevent you cooling down when you stop.

Explore The Moors

The open upland terrain you’d typically find in places like the Pennines, Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons or the Scottish Borders provide beautiful and challenging winter walking. These open, wild, hilly expanses can feel the full brunt of the elements and pose significant navigational challenges, but they don’t tend to have unavoidable steep and rugged terrain, and are often closer to civilisation and easier to escape from. There may be circumstances, such as in particularly cold or hostile weather, when having ice axe and crampons is a sensible backup but much of the time, even when there is snow lying, it won’t be necessary to use them. The key factor is the conditions on the day. Moorland can be wild and savagely exposed, meaning good quality kit and good navigational skills are essential, as are early starts and the packing of headtorches – the moors are dark places when the sun goes down.


Winter can do incredible things to Britain’s mountains, the addition of a coating of snow turning humble hills into awesome Alpine spectacles. But with this transformation comes a step up in the level of challenge they present, and more challenging conditions mean that if something does go wrong, the result can be much more serious. Going into the mountains where snow and ice is lying requires specific equipment, skills, knowledge and awareness over and above those used in summer hill walking.

The key winter items are ice axe and crampons. These are typically required on steep ground when the snow has frozen hard. Provided you know how to use them correctly, crampons give you purchase and grip, and the ice axe provides balance and can be used as an emergency brake if you fall. As well as requiring extra kit the snow-covered mountain environment contains a host of extra dangers – avalanches, cornices, whiteouts or snow bridges, to name a few – which require a much greater range of knowledge and awareness to deal with than in summer.

One of the best ways to get yourself up to speed is to take a course in winter skills, either with a mountain instructor, or a centre like Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms or Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia. You’ll also get a great insight into what to expect, and how to cope, by watching our Winter Essentials DVD.

WATCH: BMC Winter Skills Film playlist