Learn Skills Hill walking in winter: do I need crampons?

Hill walking in winter: do I need crampons?


One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘Do I need crampons for walking in winter?’ It depends on the location, terrain and weather on the day, but ground conditions can change quickly during a winter walk. When planning the day ahead and wondering if you’ll need crampons, consider these points:

Where are you headed?

Non-mountainous upland walking areas like the Peak District or Dartmoor are popular in winter, and it would be unusual to need crampons to enjoy a day out. However, a slip on a steep icy slope or step can always end badly, wherever you are. Therefore, route choice is an important consideration in winter, as steep hazardous areas can often be avoided with some planning. Crampons and an ice axe should be taken when heading to walk in the mountains of Wales, the Lake District or Scotland if the forecast or condition reports suggest freezing temperatures and extensive areas covered in snow and ice.

Is There A Forecast Freeze?

If there’s the potential for snowy or icy conditions in the hills, or there’s more than a dusting of snow on the ground, you should pack crampons and other essential equipment, like an ice axe and group shelter. Quite often they’ll never come out of your bag, but you’ll have them if you need them.

How Technical Is Your Route?

Non-technical terrain may not require crampons, but anything remotely technical or difficult should have you automatically packing them in. Walking up a mountain may be fine; descending in fading light with the temperature dropping is often much more challenging. Even mountain areas it is possible to go for a great winter walk without axe or crampons, you’ll just need to be careful with your route choice, and mindful not to go too high and into terrain for which you are ill-equipped.

When Should I Put Crampons On?

Don’t leave it too late. Ask yourself:

Is the angle of the slope you’re trying to ascend/descend steepening for quite a distance?

Has the terrain become frozen, is there likely to be compacted snow and/or ice?

Will a slip or trip likely result in a slide down the slope? Or is there a sheer drop nearby?

If any of these is a yes, it’s time to put those crampons on. With a semi-stiff pair of boots you should be able to kick a small horizontal step as you walk in compacted snow, but once it gets harder to do so then it’s time to stop and find a flat spot to put your crampons on.

How To Choose The Right Crampons

Your choice of crampons will be dictated by your current pair of boots. If you’ve already got a pair of stiff 3 or 4 season walking boots, then take these along to a shop and get a suitable pair of crampons fitted. The importance of this cannot be overstated - boots and crampons must be suited to each other and adjusted accordingly. If you haven’t got any yet, read our ‘Crampons for mortals’ guide on how to choose the right ones for you.

If you're buying new winter gear, don't forget that BMC members get 15% off at Cotswold Outdoor.

Do I Need An Ice Axe?

Many winter walkers use an axe when not wearing crampons, and once crampons are on, you should have an axe in your hand too. Winter climbers use two short, technical axes, but for more general use you’ll just need a “mountaineering axe”. A good outdoor shop will be able to advise about the best length for you.

WATHC: Choosing boots and crampons