A Beginner's Guide to Winter Hiking with The Mountaineering Company
Written By: SportsShoes
Kathryn Roberts and Matt Cooper are Montane ambassadors who both live and breathe the outdoors. Their business The Mountaineering Company offers a wide range of courses and events from beginner navigation courses through to advanced mountaineering and overseas expeditions.
The winter mountains are a whole different game to the ones you encounter in summer - the harshness of the cold, the shorter days and the challenges you face trying to navigate in poor weather. It can either be a great day with perfect visibility, or the worst conditions you’ve ever encountered in the mountains. That being said, if you are lucky enough to experience a blue-sky day on a snowy mountain top, it could also be the best day you ever spend in the great outdoors.
Below you will find our top tips for winter walking in the UK. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list and we would always recommend getting professional instruction if you are unsure about your ability in the mountains.
You can also check out our Beginner’s Guide to Hiking here
PLAN FOR SUCCESS
Sounds like a business book from Dragons Den but the key to a good day out is highlighting risks and mitigating them where possible. Check the weather forecast (MWIS, Met) and choose an objective that is safe for the forecast. What are the wind speeds like? Can you go out in 40mph winds? Do you need an axe and crampons today? The answer to many of these questions is maybe, depends - Check, plan and stay flexible throughout the day. If you feel you don't know the answer to some of the questions above, consider hiring an instructor or attending a course to fill in any gaps in your knowledge. If you're heading into Scotland in winter, make sure you look at the avalanche forecasts (SAIS.org.uk) and make sure you understand how to read them!
PACK FOR THE CONDITIONS
The question I often ask my clients is "Do you have enough equipment/clothing to allow you to stand still for up to 4+ hours?". Mountain Rescue response times can vary from 15-20 minutes to 4-5+ hours depending on how remote you are, how many team members are available and how tricky the rescue is. Make sure you take suitable outdoor clothing, spare layers, hat and gloves so you can stay warm for long periods. Rescue shelters are certainly advised and from as little as £15 it's just not worth going into the hills without one. Don't forget a torch and spare batteries, you only need to be held up for an hour in winter and you could be walking back in the dark.
If you're heading out in the snow, consider taking an axe and crampons but more importantly know how to use them. Winter skills courses can be inexpensive, fun and will help you to develop your skills in the outdoors. Get in touch with The Association of Mountaineering Instructors for details about the providers who offer winter skills courses.
SKILLS FOR THE HILLS
Navigation ability is one of the many links in the chain and being able to navigate up and down a hill/mountain in bad weather will certainly help you have safer days in the outdoors. If you don't know how to navigate or lack confidence - consider booking onto a navigation course. Winter can bring very challenging conditions with whiteout and minimal visibility that requires a good level of navigation and systems/techniques to make sure you can move on a bearing and measure distance.
Check out our Beginners Guide to Hiking and Trail Running Navigation
Make sure you have a fully charged mobile phone, store it in a waterproof case and try and use a spare camera or friend’s phone to take pictures (saves battery power). Consider downloading the Outdoor Active maps app which is a great companion when used alongside a paper map. Another great App is the OS locate app which gives a six-figure reference that you can give to Mountain Rescue if you get in serious trouble! Remember that cold hands often don't work on touch screen phones so think about purchasing a stylus and attach it to your phone or case.
KEEP YOUR PLANS FLEXIBLE
Commitment is a dangerous trap and a common reason for people needing to be rescued. "It's taken me 7 hours to get here, I’m not sitting in the coffee shop and wasting my day off" - sound familiar? Keep your plans flexible and if you don't like the conditions, feel it's becoming too challenging, or you have that feeling in your gut – then bail off back to the car to fight another day. I've bailed on numerous plans over the years in and I’ve never regretted those sensible decisions, so don’t over-commit to a plan unless it involves cake!
KIT IS KEY
From Head to toe, this is our recommended kit list. Always wear or carry the following;
- A hat or beanie: E.g. the Montane logo Beanie hat - lightweight headwear with an internal fleece headband; a perfect winter head warmer. Or check out the Montane VIA Stretch beanie for faster-paced activities like winter trail running.
- Neck and face protection: Like the Montane Chief, which is a versatile microfibre. Fantastic protection for your neck and face from harsh winter conditions.
Moving on to the layering system Please consider that each and every one of us feel the cold differently. And if you are someone who does feel the cold like myself (Kat) then packing extra layers is definitely the way to go. I personally will pack an extra synthetic layer for damper days and a down jacket on them cold crisp winter days. The Montane Anti-Freeze or, warmer Anti-Freeze XT are great packable Down options.
- A Base Layer: Personally, my favourite base layer to date is the Montane Dart Thermo Zip Neck Top. This offers next to skin comfort and boosts thermal insulation. Montane have treated the layer with a polygiene treatment which is great for multi day wear before you need to consider washing it. Multi-day Scottish walking adventures - sorted!
- A Mid Layer: The Montane Protium Hoodie manages moisture and regulates body heat with a beautifully soft pile interior. This will keep you warm enough when out in the mountains in wild weather.
- An Outer Insulated Layer: The Montane Flux Jacket is an insulated jacket that has been designed specifically for UK winter conditions i.e damp cold days. It is versatile, comfortable and provides maximum insulation and keeps you warm in the harshest of conditions. I love it!
- Hardshell: It is worth investing in a decent hard-shell, as it contributes massively to your decisions for the day ahead. I wear a size up which gives me enough room to comfortably fit all my layers under and doesn’t restrict my movement. The perfect jacket for UK mountains is the Montane Phase XT Jacket. It is durable, versatile and super reliable for long days in the mountains. It keeps the moisture out and stops the wind getting in, has underarm ventilation zips and a helmet compatible hood with a large, wired visor. Made using GORE-TEX technology, what’s not to love?!
Now we have considered what to wear on the top half of our body, now for the bottom half.
- Base Layer Pants: We both wear the Montane Power Up Pro Pants. They are stretchy, wick away any unwanted body moisture, durable against the elements and they help to keep you warm. I also use mine for overnight Bothy stays or camping as they keep me nice and toasty. Alternatively, if you prefer a traditional trouser over a tight, the Montane Terra Mission Pant is a robust, comfortable mountain pant that is ideal for the colder months.
- Hardshell Overtrousers and Salopettes: The main thing to look for in a pair of salopettes is a high back and held up by braces. Tuck all your layers into the pants and this stops snow from getting down your back. If you are not venturing into the highest mountains the Montane Pac Plus Pants are a great, packable alternative to a heavier overtrouser.
- Socks: You can’t go wrong with anything that is a mixture of Synthetic and merino. They are odourless and toasty warm.
- Winter Walking boots: B2 boots, from brands like SCARPA and La Sportiva , are 4-season boots that will set you up for pretty much most winter disciplines. They will take a C2 crampon and together these will last you for many winters to come. Again, it is highly recommended you allow room to wear a pair of thick winter socks. Shoe shape and size will vary from brand to brand and you will find that your feet will be more suited to a specific one.
I have saved the best until last…keeping your hands warm! Again, how easily your hands stay warm is very personal and different to the next. When it comes to winter, we always carry at least 4 to 5 pairs of gloves each. It may seem a bit excessive at first but on extreme winter days when everything gets wet and cold, I cannot stress how good it feels to put on dry gloves!
I recommend these gloves;
- A liner or thin glove like the Montane Dart Liner Glove for the walk in from the car or to sit under a more durable glove, if you’d like something a bit more substantial then the Montane PowerStretch Pro Grippy Glove adds more insulation and silicone grips on the palms.
- A thick, super warm waterproof glove like the Montane Duality Gore-Tex Glove for long days out on the hill; this is fully waterproof with a synthetic-fill insulation.
- I always carry 2 spares with me. The Montane Prism Glove or Mitt is the ideal back-up glove; really warm and they pack down into their own tiny stuff-bag.
The Mountaineering Company was established with the clear aim of helping people develop their skills for use in the outdoors so they can realise their dreams and ambitions. We offer instruction in navigation, climbing, mountain running and scrambling in all the main mountain and hill areas of the UK. We also offer overseas expeditions to Morocco, guided mountain walks and mountain running events.
Find out more about trail running and hiking on our Hubs, or head to our Trail store and Outdoor store to make sure you have all the kit and advice you need to get started. If you’re a trail runner, then you should check out our guide to what to wear when running in winter, where you’ll find plenty more tips and advice.