Learn Skills Ten things you need to know before you go hill walking in winter

Ten things you need to know before you go hill walking in winter


If you’ve enjoyed walking in summer and want to continue through the winter, here are ten things you need to know before you go:

Winter Skills

Hill walking in winter conditions requires a few extra skills that aren’t needed for the rest of the year. Before heading out into the mountains in winter, be sure to have the skills to deal with poor weather conditions, freezing temperatures and a few short hours of daylight. If you’re going up high, or there’s a forecast freeze you’ll need the skills and equipment for snow and ice, principally ice axe and crampon use, and avalanche awareness.

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In winter conditions moorlands and mountains can become disorientating, and navigation can be significantly harder than in summer. Even in clear conditions, snow can cover up paths and other ‘handrail’ features, so being confident in your navigational skills is a must. In harsh weather conditions the consequences of an error become much more serious due to the risk of exposure, so practice and efficiency become invaluable.

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A day out in winter is much more demanding than walking the same route in summer. Don’t underestimate the added physical toll it takes to venture into the winter hills. Even in relatively good winter weather conditions, the cold saps your body of energy as it tries to stay warm; add in the extra exertion of breaking trails through snow, carrying a heavier pack, or battling through wind and whiteouts, and you have an incredibly demanding physical – and mental – challenge on your hands. Bear this in mind and adjust your route if necessary.

Food & Drink

Strenuous winter walking burns a lot of calories, meaning you need to be properly fuelled up. It’s a good idea to have a hearty breakfast and take plenty of high-energy snacks for the day. Keep your snacks within reach, eat frequently while on the move, and choose snacks that won’t freeze solid and become hard to eat in very cold temperatures. You may not want to stop long for lunch, but a plastic group shelter can come in handy for huddling out of the wind.

Winter Walking Gear

Be aware of the extra kit needed to keep yourself safe and warm in wet, cold, and freezing conditions. It’s the accessories that make all the difference in winter; gaiters, gloves, spare gloves, hat, headtorch, some sort of emergency shelter like a bivi or bothy bag. The harshness of winter weather will expose any flaw in your equipment, however small. Forgetting or omitting items can also be very costly – not having goggles in harsh spindrift can effectively render you blind, while losing a pair of gloves can be disastrous. Pack spares and have a comprehensive range of emergency equipment. If you’re going to encounter snow and ice on your winter walk, you’ll need to consider an ice axe and crampons too.

Ice Axe & Ice Axe Arrest

Winter presents more challenging and varied conditions underfoot – deep snow, hard névé, slippery verglas – often combined in unpredictable ways, making slips more likely. Coupled with crampons, an ice axe is the essential piece of winter kit, used for balance on steep slopes, cutting steps and, in an emergency, arresting a fall. A straight-shafted axe of about 50 – 60cm with a neutral curvature is the most adaptable option for most walkers, but have a think about your aims, aspirations and personal requirements before you buy.

Learning the ice axe arrest technique – where you slide down snow slopes trying to stop yourself, but don’t let it give you a false sense of security. The speed and complexity of a real life slip-trip means there is no guarantee an ice axe arrest will actually work in practice; it’s better to focus your attention on not falling in the first place.


Crampons are spiked boot attachments enabling you to walk securely on hard ice and snow. Their grading system corresponds with walking and climbing boots. Crampons intended for walking can be relatively flexible, while more technical climbing requires greater rigidity. Stopping to attach crampons can seem a faff, especially in sub-zero winds or howling blizzards, but don’t be tempted to put it off – accidents often result from people leaving it too late.

Shorter Days

The short days of winter mean less room for manoeuvre when it comes to timing. Get an early start, know what time the sun is due to set, plan your day properly and always remember to bring headtorches, even if you’re planning a short day out. Whether through poor planning, navigational error or an unforeseen mishap, many get caught out and find themselves stuck on the hill when darkness falls. Late starts mean a reduced margin of error and a greater chance of having to walk in the dark, which can contribute to accidents, so set the alarm and give yourself as much time as possible.

Winter Route Planning

Thorough preparation and advance planning can increase the chances of a successful and enjoyable winter walk. Be mindful that progress can be much slower in winter, so it helps to know where the escape routes are and any options to cut the route short depending on the time and conditions. Check weather forecasts (and avalanche forecasts if available), and work out a plan B, C and D so you’re prepared for all scenarios. This doesn’t have to mean turning back, but could involve taking a different route if a ridge is too windy, a slope is avalanche prone, or if your start time has been delayed. Review your planned route before setting off, look at the map and break your journey into sections. You can then estimate how long your journey should take and identify any potential hazards or navigational challenges you will encounter.

Avalanche Awareness

Avalanches occur when one layer of deposited snow slides on another, or the whole snow cover slides on the ground. Avalanches can happen in the UK anywhere there is snow on a steep enough slope, and most avalanche incidents in Britain are caused by people triggering the slide themselves. In Britain the majority of avalanche hazards can be avoided by sensible choice of route, so it’s vital to have the right knowledge, plan well, and constantly assess conditions on the hill for yourself.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) provides information on snow conditions during the winter months.

Lessons on avalanche avoidance are included in most winter skills courses.

WATCH: The BMC Winter Skills video series