Hiking the winter hills:

The winter hills can be a magical place and offer some great rewards to the willing hiker, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped mountains are but a few of the delights to be experienced at this time of year.  But the Irish mountains can be a daunting place in winter too. With unpredictable weather, they can also bring inherent risks, such as icy cold winds, grey boggy hillsides, torrential rain, shorter daylight hours and low cloud with poor visibility.

To cope with the ever-changing nature of our Irish hills in the winter it is best to be well prepared. It is vital in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for essential grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter.  Couple these with a pair of gaiters, they will prevent snow, mud and debris from entering the top of your boots.

Protect your legs with good softshell pants, often made of a stretchy material for comfort, they are also windproof, will offer a degree of insulation, and may ward off the odd shower. Avoid jeans at all costs, they are made of cotton, will get heavy and cold when wet, will result in you losing a lot of essential heat and bring with it the risk of hypothermia.

Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation as it is easier to add or remove layers.   A good layering system should include a base layer, an effective base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and provide some insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino). Cotton should be avoided, as it will absorb up to 25 times its’ own weight in water, and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy.

Next comes the mid or insulating layer, this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layers to evaporate. They are generally not windproof so need to be used in conjunction with an outer layer or shell.

A shell jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and can be both waterproof and breathable.  Soft shell jackets are becoming increasingly popular, they are windproof, provide insulation, and will keep off the odd shower, though once it rains heavily you will need your waterproof jacket.

In addition to your clothing, there are certain essential items you should have with you when heading for the winter hills.

Hiking the winter hills


12 things you should definitely carry in your winter rucksack:

  1. Waterproof drybags. Put those items that you want to ensure stay dry into drybags for extra protection from the winter weather. Use a rucksack liner too, to ensure all your kit stays well protected from the elements.


  1. Waterproof Jacket & Pants. Invest in a good waterproof jacket and waterproof pants. These are essential items to ward off both rain and cold winds. Inadequate protection from either can make you uncomfortable at best, and at worst can lead to hypothermia, as the chilling effects of wet clothes and high winds are greatly increased in winter. Choose one with a breathable membrane to reduce moisture building up inside, and ensure it has either waterproof zips or storm flaps to cover the zip, this will prevent water ingress through the front. Make sure it has a good integral hood too, that is adjustable.


  1. Gloves & Hats. Take several pairs. You will often see lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares to use in case you lose one. It’s also great to change into dry gloves half way through a wet day. Fleece gloves are ideal for most conditions, but be prepared to upgrade to insulated and waterproof gloves when the weather dictates.


  1. Warm spare layer. You may have an enforced stop in the mountains, maybe a colleague has an injury, or perhaps you are stopping for lunch in an exposed spot. In this scenario a spare warm layer is ideal. A synthetic (primaloft) insulated jacket is best, it can be put over your existing clothing, including wet waterproofs, and will warm you up straight away. A fleece jacket could be an alternative, but they are not windproof, so you would need to put it on under your windproof layer.


  1. Food and Drink. Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, and bring extra in case you are delayed and have to spend more time outdoors. There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Take a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold.


  1. First Aid Kit. A bare minimum would be an ‘ouch-pouch’, this could consist of sticking plaster, antiseptic wipes and blister plasters, such as Compeed. You may feel you want a more comprehensive kit, but do get training in this case, and do not carry what you are not competent to use.

hiking the winter hills

  1. Survival bag. This is rather like a plastic sleeping bag, bright orange, lightweight and cheap, and everyone should carry one in their pack. In emergency situations you can climb into this bag and it will protect you from the worst of the weather. They have often been attributed with saving lives in the mountains. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some added insulation.


  1. A group shelter. Also known as an emergency or survival shelter, this is a plastic tent-like cover that a group of people can get into to give protection from the elements. They come in various sizes from 2 to 10 person, and would be used to protect a casualty or as a shelter on an exposed lunch stop. If you are hiking as part of a group then a larger one could be carried between you.


  1. Head Torch. Essential in winter, and a good idea all year round, a head torch will provide you with light to get off the mountain should you be caught out in the dark, it can also be used for signalling for help. It’s a good idea to carry extra batteries, or a spare torch in addition.


  1. Map and compass. Essential items for all hillwalkers, do not rely on smartphone apps as they can get wet and cold and then fail. Carrying a map and compass is not enough on its’ own, you need to be confident and competent in their use. If you are not sure how to navigate yourself around the mountains with a map and compass then go on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.


  1. Emergency whistle. Many rucksacks now come with an integral whistle in the chest strap. Six one second blasts on the whistle, repeated after a short break, is the internationally recognised emergency signal. The reply from the rescuers is three blasts. It makes sense to carry one.


  1. Duct Tape. This amazing versatile tape has a myriad of uses, from repairing torn waterproofs to temporary boot repairs. (Wrap some round your water bottle or walking pole).


hiking the winter hillsFinally, a word of caution.

If you want to experience hiking in snow conditions, then the higher mountains are the place to go, but unless you are equipped with ice axe and crampons, (and know how to use them), stay away from deeply frozen icy ground. Be prepared to back off if the conditions get very slippery with ice and consolidated frozen snow.

There is still a lot of exciting hiking to be had below the snow line, with clear crisp air, superb visibility and stunning sunsets. Yes, the hills in the winter can be a hostile environment, but by giving a little thought to preparation it is possible to experience some wonderful winter hiking in the Irish hills.

Mountaintrails provide guided hiking tours, navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland and the UK. To find out more go to www.mountaintrails.ie.




As summer advances ticks are becoming more active, and more outdoor enthusiasts are finding these unpleasant critters embedded in their skin.

To understand the importance of avoiding being bitten, here are our Top Ten things you should know about ticks:

1.  Ticks are arachnids, and related to spiders and scorpions. They have a 3-stage life cycle, larvae, nymph and adult. At each stage they need a blood meal to grow, ticks feed on small mammals, deer and sheep and will bite humans. They are most active in late spring and summer.

Ticks life cycle


2. Tick bites do not hurt, therefore you will not know if one has bitten you. They prefer warm and damp parts of the body, particularly the hairline, navel, waist, groin and behind the ears and knees.


3. Initially ticks can be very small, about the size of a poppy seed, but will swell as they become engorged with blood. If you find a tick on you or one of your children do not pick, scratch, burn, drown or squeeze it, as it will vomit it stomach contents into your blood stream and pass on any infections it may carry.



4.  Ticks generally do not feed for the first 24 hours, so you have time to check yourself in the shower when you get home.


5.  To remove an embedded tick use a specialised tick removal tool, either a ‘tick hook’ or a ‘tick lasso’. Narrow end tweezers will also help, but remember to grab by the head, and not the body.


6.  Ticks carry a bacterial disease called Lyme borreliosis, or Lyme disease, not all ticks carry it, they get it by sucking the blood of infected animals.


7.  Around 50 -100 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Ireland each year, if you think you are infected you should see your GP, who will run tests to determine whether you have Lyme disease and whether to give a course of antibiotics.


8.  Symptoms may appear after 3 or 4 days, but may take several weeks to appear. Common symptoms are a bullseye rash at the site of the bite, and flu like symptoms, headache, fatigue and fever.


ticks rash

9.  Regular campers, hikers and fishermen are most at risk, and these groups would be wise to carry a tick removal device with them.


10.  Ticks climb tall foliage and drop onto animals as they brush past. To avoid being bitten stay on tracks and paths and away from bracken and other tall foliage in the summer. Wear long sleeves, and particularly long trousers, and tuck trousers into socks or wear gaiters. Applying insect repellent to clothes will also help.

Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain skills training enterprise based in Dublin, Ireland.

To learn more go to our website at mountaintrails.ie.

It is entirely possible, as you are rushing up the M1 from Dublin towards the Mourne Mountains, to completely miss the magnificent hills of the Cooley peninsula. If you were to look up from the road between Dundalk and Newry you might see the wooded slopes of Black Mountain on your right, but you would miss the rugged beauty of Carlingford mountain further east, with the rocky summit of Slieve Foye and its undulating 6 kilometre ridge.

The Cooley peninsula juts out into the Irish Sea between Dundalk Bay and Carlingford Lough, at its northern end lies the border with Northern Ireland, but the Cooley’s sit entirely in the county of Louth.

For the hiker, the peninsula is marked by two northwest to southeast trending ridges, separated by the narrow Glenmore valley. The longer and more northerly ridge runs from Anglesey Mountain to Slievestucan and reaches its high point at Black mountain (508m). Overlooking Carlingford Lough is the shorter but more rugged ridge of Carlingford mountain that stretches from Foxes Rock in the northwest to Barnavave in the southeast. Its summit is Slieve Foye (588m), the highest point in this compact range and in County Louth.

The rocks that make up the mountain have a complex history, stretching back to around 460 million years ago when the region was a sedimentary ocean basin. The most recent activity being the emplacement of erosion resistant blocky granites around 50 million years ago.

Here too is the site of the legend of the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge in Irish), where the famous 1st century queen of Connacht, Maeve, and her warrior band stole the famous Brown Bull of Cooley in a war with the king of Ulster. To mark the event there is now a 40 kilometre (26 mile) waymarked trail, The Táin Way, which encircles both ridges and traverses Maeve’s Gap, a pass between Slieve Foye and Barnavave.

Slieve Foye guided hiking - view towards the Mournes
Looking north to the Mourne Mountains from Slieve Foye.

Our hike starts in the lovely small seaside town of Carlingford, with its 13th century Anglo-Norman castle and medieval town walls and gatehouse.

Walking inland from the town we quickly find ourselves climbing up a narrow stony path between two ancient field walls. Ahead are the grassy slopes of the common land that leads us up to the broad saddle of Maeve’s Gap.

From here we turn northwest to follow a narrow and rocky path that begins to climb steeply up through crags of weathered granite until we reach the summit of Slieve Foye (588m). Reaching the summit is really only the beginning, as we now follow a faint path along the undulating and rocky ridge, our first target being the prominent granite outcrop of Eagles Rock (528m). From the ridge we get superb views; north across Carlingford Lough to the beautiful Mourne Mountains, west to Slieve Gullion, and south down the coast as far as Lambay Island and the Wicklow Mountains. These outcrops are the home of upland birds, ravens, stonechat and wheatear; as well as small insectivorous plants, the bright red sundew and the distinctive banana yellow butterwort.

This is a relatively small mountain, but its rugged and rocky nature, coupled with the far reaching views; definitely give it a big mountain feel.

Slieve Foye guided hike -summit of Slieve Foye
Looking up to the summit of Slieve Foye on Carlingford mountain.

From Eagles Rock we descend carefully to the broad pass of the White Bog, before climbing again to Raven’s rock and finally onto Foxes Rock (404m). This hill marks the end of our 6 km ridge walk, and we reluctantly leave the marvellous views to the ravens, wheatear and skylarks as we descend gradually eastwards over tussocky grass and rock to pick up the Táin Way for our return journey.

Initially we follow a wall that marks the forest edge but then move into the trees to find a broad forest track that gently rises and falls before finally dropping us back at our start point.

There should be time enough remaining for a look around Carlingford, a lovely little town, and for a visit to one of the cafés for tea and cake! A well-deserved reward and a fitting end to a great day in the Cooley hills.

This hike is graded as hard in our itinerary and would suit those used to regular hillwalking with some steep ascents, it is 17km in length, with around 800 metres of ascent in the day, and takes between 6 – 6½ hours to complete.

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Scarr mountain, (the name derives from ‘Sgurr’ which means a rocky ridge or peak), sits on the eastern edge of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, some 5 kilometres north of the better known and much visited scenic valley of Glendalough.

In contrast Scarr offers a much quieter experience. It too has a magnificent glacial ribbon lake, Lough Dan; and offers wonderful all round views from its’ breezy summit.

Though only 641 metres above sea level, it has a reputation as a windy and exposed hill, and hikers can often find themselves having to change their plans to avoid the windswept elongated summit ridge.  However, its lower height means you can often stay below the low cloud on Scarr, when other mountains are draped in impenetrable hill fog.

Heading towards the Bracket Rocks
Heading towards the Bracket Rocks

The mountains here are predominantly of granite, emplaced some 450 million years ago when two great continents collided. The granite is surrounded by a rock called mica-schist, altered from the original mudstones by tremendous heat and pressure when the molten granite forced its way upward through the Earth’s crust. These monumental forces were followed by millions of years of erosion by successive ice ages to eventually expose the granites.

On Scarr the summit is a cap of the overlying schists, not entirely removed by the ice, with the granite beneath.

The vegetation here is sparse, the thin peaty soil is stony and very poor in nutrients, what there are will be leached out by the rains. This leaves a landscape of heath, moss, sedge and bilberry.  Deer and a few sheep graze these hillsides, and this prevents tree regeneration and keeps the vegetation short.

Deer graze the slopes of Kanturk
Deer graze the slopes of Kanturk

On the lower flanks of the mountain are commercial conifer plantations, dark and mostly empty of life, they act as a shelter for the deer in bad weather, as well as home to the occasional pine marten.

The mountain has an elongated summit ridge, maybe half a kilometre long and running roughly north to south. There are long broad ridges, or spurs to the north and to the south, with another shorter spur going east.

Our hike takes us past Lough Dan, a glacial lake in a beautiful setting, with a backdrop of woods and mountains. The lake follows the line of the hills, turning left, and we follow, gaining height as we do, heading up the long spur towards the Bracket Rocks, a series of rocky knolls that mark the northern end of the mountain.

In misty conditions these outcrops can take on a different aspect, menacing and brooding, and threading a way through them requires local knowledge and some navigational skill. It can be very boggy, and the wet peat can soon swallow a miss placed foot.

Our path now turns south and ascends more steeply as we head for Kanturk, a name that translates as the head of the wild pig, a prominent knoll on the northern flank of Scarr. As we climb past Kanturk the summit of Scarr is visible ahead, and within a few minutes we are climbing the last few steep steps to the summit.

At last we get a chance to take in the long reaching views, east to the coast and west into the Wicklow Mountains, valley following ridge following valley away  into the distance.

Scarr summit ridge on a breezy spring day
Scarr summit ridge on a breezy spring day

As we take the undulating ridge south the wooded valleys and rolling hills of east Wicklow lie to our left, whilst the starker and more rugged landscape of the mountains lie straight ahead and to our right.

Our path now descends a broad heather clad spur towards Paddock Hill, but before we reach it we go left on an old track, past coniferous plantations. Soon we meet up with the Wicklow Way, a 127 km long distance path that runs the length of the Wicklow Mountains.

We follow the Wicklow Way down a farm track, gently meandering past fields and houses, until we reach a minor road, which we then follow to retrace our steps back to the vehicles.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to know more, please follow the link to our website, hiking Scarr mountain.

Our next guided hike of this impressive landscape is on Saturday 26th March, why not join us?

Russ Mills is the owner and chief guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for nearly 40 years.





Mountaintrails hiking tours are devised to take you off of the normal routes and into the wilder and more rugged parts of the Irish mountains not often visited by other tour companies. They are all fairly demanding and need some thought as to the clothing and equipment required, so what do you need to bring on a hiking tour in Ireland?

Here are a few key points:

The importance of good footwear.

 What may be safe and acceptable will vary with the grade of the hike and the time of year. Having the right footwear is not just a matter of comfortable dry feet; there are safety considerations here too.

On a dry and warm summer day a route may only require some good training shoes, but in the wet and cold of winter you will need good waterproof boots with good gripping soles. Slipping on wet ground can easily result in injury, and wet feet in winter will leave you feeling uncomfortable and cold.

Generally, the less demanding a hike you choose, the less specialist the shoe you will need. For our ‘Easy’ grade hikes good running shoes or lightweight walking boots will suffice, but remember that if it rains you might still get wet feet!

 All our ‘Moderate’ and ‘Hard’ grade hikes venture off forest tracks and easy paths and onto hillsides and more demanding mountain routes. For these hikes good waterproof hiking boots are essential. Read the notes on each tour itinerary to see what we recommend for a particular hike.



Waterproof clothing, (remember, it often rains in Ireland!)

Bring a good waterproof jacket, preferably with a hood. Getting wet in the mountains is no joke, even in summer, and wet clothes lose heat fast, and can be a major contributor to hypothermia, a dangerous condition where the body loses more heat than it can generate and rapidly cools.

 Not only will a jacket keep you dry but it acts as a windproof layer too, helping to keep you warm on the often windy mountain ridges.

Waterproof pants, to cover the legs when it rains, are also a useful addition. We recognise that not everyone will have or would wish to invest in these, and so we carry a few spare which are available to loan.

Cotton clothing in general, and denim in particular, are poorly suited to wearing in the mountains. Dense cotton clothing gets heavy and cold when wet, and has very poor heat retention properties.  For this reason we ask you not to wear denim jeans on our hikes.  Instead choose comfortable athletic pants, stretch leggings are ideal, as are the polycotton hiking pants found in many outdoor stores.


It is essential to stay hydrated when hiking

 Our bodies need plenty of water to function properly when exercising, the amount of water an individual may need in a day will vary.

Factors influencing this will include the length and difficulty of the hike, the temperature on the day and an individual’s own metabolism. However, a good guide would be to bring 1½ litre of water per person for a full day hike.

It is important to remember to bring food too! We burn a lot more calories in a day when out in the hills, this is great for dieting, but we need to ensure our bodies have enough energy to get us through the day, particularly in winter when we are burning more energy just to stay warm.


Remember to bring warm gloves and a hat.

You should also add a spare warm layer like a fleece or a jumper, it is always colder in the mountains and often windier too, so don’t be caught out!

If you are joining us in the winter, gaiters are a good addition to your kit; they will keep you dry and clean below the knee, and keep snow out of your boots too. In the summer don’t forget your sunscreen and sunglasses.

You will need a small pack to put all this into, 25-30 litre capacity should be enough. We have a small selection of packs to loan if required, as well as walking poles and spare hats and gloves, just let us know!


Here is a final checklist of what you will need to bring on one of our day hikes.

  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Waterproof jacket and pants (moderate and hard hikes)
  • Comfortable athletic leggings or trekking pants (no denim jeans please)
  • Hiking socks
  • Warm clothing plus spares
  • Hat and gloves
  • 1½ litres of water (or a hot drink in the winter)
  • Food for the day
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses (in the summer)
  • Rucksack of around 25-30 litres capacity
  • Gaiters (optional)
  • Walking poles (optional)

If you need to know more about our guided hikes please email us at info@mountaintrails.ie or check the FAQ’s on our website.

We look forward to seeing you out on a Mountaintrails hiking tour very soon!



This is the second of two articles that aim to encourage a healthier lifestyle through hillwalking and hiking.   The first, ‘Walking for Wellness – getting started’, can be found on our website blog.


1. Love your feet

Getting the right footwear is possibly the most important factor in determining the success of your hillwalking career.

For tracks and low level routes when you might have only a light pack, then lightweight flexible boots would suffice.  More demanding ground, such as rocky, high mountain paths would require a more rigid boot, with a stiffer more aggressive sole for grip and perhaps a higher level of ankle support.  Fabric and leather mix boots are now very popular, they are a good for general hiking use and would be an ideal first boot purchase. These boots combine comfort and lighter weight with a good sole unit for grip; they should also have a waterproof membrane.

Feet comp

Invest in some waterproof hiking boots, and ensure you get the right fit.

For rocky mountain trails you will need a more durable boot that has a semi-rigid construction, higher ankle cuff, toe protection and a high grip sole for security on steep ground.  These boots were traditionally made of leather, a durable and waterproof material when treated properly; they are now also available with synthetic uppers and a waterproof lining.

All this means little if your boots are not comfortable, and getting the right fit is the primary consideration. Firstly, forget your shoe size, unless you are used to buying hiking boots, it will be of little use to you, get the store to measure your feet to determine the size and width that you need.  Secondly, wear hiking socks when trying on the boots, if you don’t have any the store should give you a choice to try. Once you have the boots on walk around the store, try some stairs if possible, good outlets will have a ramp to walk up and down to check for heel lift and toe squeezing.  Finally, try on several different pairs from different manufacturers, go to other stores if necessary, and get the best fit you can.

Buy some comfortable and cushioning hiking socks while you are there.

You will need to wear your boots in, work up to half day hikes before using them for a full day’s hillwalking.  For more information check out our blog on buying your first hiking boots.

2. Dress for Success (Think like an Onion)

Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation. Cotton shirts should be avoided as they have poor heat retention when damp. Jeans are definite out, they are heavy, cold and slow to dry when wet, choose trekking or hillwalking trousers instead.

A good layering system should comprise:


Layering up for comfort; baselayer, mid (fleece) layer and water/windproof outer layer.

Base layer – a good base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and offer a degree of insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino).

Opt for a front zip, as this will help with temperature regulation.

Mid/Insulating layer – this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, though wool mid layers are available, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layer to evaporate.

Outer shell – a jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and should be both waterproof and breathable. Jackets with full length zips are ideal as they are easier to take on and off.

3. Bring the right Gear

Apart from your boots the most important items you buy should be your waterproof jacket and trousers; these are literally a life saver in Irish mountain weather.

Don’t skimp here, get the best you can afford, jackets that use breathable membranes such as Gore-tex or Event work best, other manufacturers have their own brand of breathable materials.  A good article on choosing a waterproof jacket can be found  on the UKHillwalking website: http://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=4090

You will also need a hat and gloves, map and compass, a spare warm layer, small first aid kit, headtorch and bivi bag in case of emergency, and a small rucksack of around 25 litres to put it all in.  Some folk like to use walking poles when hiking, but they don’t suit everyone, try to borrow some at first to see if they are for you.

This seems like a lot to buy, but you can compromise on some items and some supermarkets now offer a range of decent budget gear.

4. Learn to Navigate

It is important for any hillwalker to be able to navigate across open and mountainous country. Most Mountain Rescue call-outs are as a result of poor navigation.

Learn how to use a map and compass, perhaps get a proficient friend to teach you, or better still, enrol on a course, you can find details of Mountaintrails navigation courses on our website.


Finding their way across open country on a Mountaintrails navigation course.

GPS technology is a great navigational aid, but should only be used as a backup to map and compass skills. Batteries fail when they run down or get cold and you may lose the signal in deep valleys and in forests. Smartphone mapping apps using the inbuilt GPS are very popular too, but are notorious for running down the phone battery, and may fail if the unit gets wet.

 5. Don’t go it Alone

Heading out alone can seem a daunting prospect, and can be risky. Unless you are experienced and proficient it is best avoided.  Why not join up with a few friends and enjoy those shared experiences, or join a local hillwalking club?  Mountaineering Ireland have a list of all the walking clubs in Ireland, and would be happy to help you find one nearby:  info@mountaineering.ie

Meetup groups are also becoming increasingly popular, and there are bound to be some hillwalking groups in your area.  http://www.meetup.com/

6. Stay Fuelled and Hydrated

When we exercise we burn calories, and the same is true of hillwalking, indeed, on a full day hiking in the hills you can burn in excess of 3,000 calories. Part of the reason we go hiking may be to lose weight, but it is important to have enough energy to get through the day too.

breakfast pic

Fuel up with a good breakfast to start the day

Fuel up at the start of the day. Don’t miss breakfast, and eat complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly, porridge with honey is good, as is muesli with dried fruit and nuts. A cooked breakfast will also give you plenty of fuel for the day, bon appetite!

At your lunch stop refuel with more slow energy release food, oatcakes, bananas and peanut butter sandwiches are all good examples. Chocolate bars and jelly babies make great treats too!

It is essential to drink plenty of fluids, especially in warm weather, dehydration is very debilitating, and can be life threatening. It is generally recommended to drink 2 litres a day, but in reality this varies with individuals, the weather, and the severity of the walk. Try to avoid caffeine rich drinks, like tea and coffee, as these are diuretic. For a warming drink in cold weather try hot chocolate, or a fruit tea with a spoonful of honey.


7. One Step at a Time 

When you start out, consider your ability level, don’t try to take on too much initially, start small and build it up steadily, gradually increasing the severity of the walks.

Think about the proposed route, and ask yourself these questions, ‘how far is it, how much ascent is involved, how long will it take me, when does it get dark, can I comfortably complete this walk?’ Once you have decided on the hike, leave a plan of your route and the time you expect to return with a friend or family member, so you can be found in an emergency.

8. Be Weather Aware (And other Mountain Hazards)

Mountains have their own weather patterns, you don’t have to be a scientist to know it gets colder as you get higher. In fact it gets colder at an average of 1.5C for every 100 metres of height gain, so if it’s 10C on the coast it could be below freezing on the summit of Lugnaquilla!

Check the weather forecast and look out particularly for temperature, wind speed and precipitation. A combination of low temperature, rain and wind will produce a wind-chill much cooler than the air temperature, and can lead to hypothermia, so be prepared. After heavy rain, mountain streams quickly become torrents and become very difficult to cross, avoid crossing water if at all possible, and especially during or immediately after, wet weather.

On a brighter note, don’t forget your sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat in hot sunny weather, and take extra drink too!

9. Respect the Mountain Environment

The hills and mountains are home to many plants and wild animals, as well as providing a livelihood for many farmers and landowners. We have a responsibility to protect this environment and to treat it with respect. Avoid harming livestock, wildlife, birds, plants and trees, and leave nothing behind when you leave.

When out hiking with a dog, keep it under control and on a lead when near farm animals and other people. Remember to act responsibly and ‘Leave No Trace’ of your visit: http://www.leavenotraceireland.org/seven-principles


10. Remember to Smile (It’s fun after all).

Hillwalking can seem really tough at first, wet cloudy days, long and sweaty climbs, aching limbs and heavy packs. However, the more you walk the easier it gets, and the rewards are many.  Stunning mountain views and wonderful days out you will remember for years to come, increased fitness coupled with a tremendous sense of achievement. All enjoyed in the company of friendly and likeminded people.

OK?  Let’s go.

DSC_1718 comp

Great views across the Wicklow mountains from above Glendalough.

Mountaintrails run a ‘Hillwalking for beginners’ course in April each year, this combines two guided training hikes and three informative training evenings in central Dublin, into one package. It is heavily discounted to encourage participation: Introduction to Hillwalking course

When you’re out and about in the hills and mountains at this time of year, you would be forgiven for thinking the brown, bare and seemingly lifeless hillsides offer little to see in the way of wildlife, but think again, you are surrounded by some of the most fascinating living organisms on Earth, the lichens.


Lichens are everywhere in the outdoor environment, they give colour and texture to much of the bare rock in the mountains, to tree bark in the woods, and to fence posts, graveyards and walls in the countryside.


They are ubiquitous, but largely ignored. So here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about lichens:

  1. Lichens occupy around 8% of the land surface of the Earth. They are often the first species to occupy bare rock, and act as a source of nitrogen for other species, such as birds. They are an essential component of many food chains.
  1. They are a composite, symbiotic organism, comprising a fungus, (a bit like bread mould), and an algae, (related to seaweed). Sometimes they are combined with a third organism, cyanobacteria. The fungi give protection and support, whilst the algae and cyanobacteria are photosynthesizers and produce food from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight.
  1. Ireland is very rich in lichens, having over 1,160 recorded species. There are around 20,000 lichen species on the Earth.
  1. Lichens fall into 4 basic types. Crustose, which form a crust on surfaces like rock and bare metal. Foliose, which have a distinctive upper and lower surface, and resemble foliage. Fruticose, which take the form of cup lichens (pixy cups), bearded (old man’s beard) and shrubby lichens (reindeer moss). And finally, Squamulose, which take scale or plate like form.

    Crustose lichen, possibly Ophioparma, clinging to bare granite rock.

  1. Lichens grow very, very slowly, less than 1mm a year, and a believed to be some of the longest living organisms on the planet, some have been found to be 4,500 years old.
  1. Lichen like forms of life have been identified in the fossil record as far back as 600 million years ago.
  1. Most lichens are very vulnerable to air pollution, as they absorb heavy metals from their environment. This makes them good indicators of pollution levels, and in this way they act as biomonitors.


    A foliose lichen, with its leaf like structure.

  1. Lichens with known growth rates have been used to date geological events, such as the retreat of glaciers in the North American arctic.
  1. Lichens are able to shut down their metabolism during periods unfavourable to growth, such as extreme heat, cold and drought.
  1. Having adapted to life in marginal habitats, lichens have produced more than 500 biochemical compounds, some of which have been used as dyes, poisons and medicines by traditional native societies. Today they are used in the perfume industry.



Cladonia coccifera and Cladonia diversa, Pixy cup and Devil’s matchstick lichens. These are both fruiticose forms.


If you want to discover more about lichens, and specifically those found in Ireland, join one of our Wicklow guided hikes this winter at: http://mountaintrails.ie/guided-hikes-and-mountaineering-courses/

If you wish to read more, check out ‘ Lichens of Ireland’ – by Paul Whelan (Collins Press)

Or go to his website: http://www.lichens.ie/

Accurate navigation in winter is all the more imperative.

With the shorter daylight hours comes the increased likelihood of you having to descend in the dark. There is the increased risk of poor visibility, or even white out conditions when windblown snow particles can blur the boundaries between earth and sky, (known as the ‘white room’).  Paths, streams, boundaries and even lakes can disappear under a blanket of snow.

Good navigators know where they are at all times, and can follow their progress on a map. This is so important in winter conditions, when icy snow slopes and corniced edges can increase the hazards you face.

The essential tools for winter navigation are the map and compass, an altimeter can be useful too, (more of which later).

Keep your map in a soft plastic map case, folded so the area you are hiking in is shown. This should be kept handy, inside your jacket or in a secure pocket, it’s no use to you in the bottom of your rucksack, get it out and use it.

Your compass should be of a high quality, the mountaineering bodies in Ireland and the UK recommend the Silva 4 Expedition model. Use the lanyard to fix it to your rucksack strap or a toggle on your jacket, so you won’t lose it, and remember to keep it away from electronic devices, as these will deflect the needle and give inaccurate readings.  In the windy conditions often experienced in winter maps and compasses can easily be blown away and lost, so practice good map management, (and carry a spare just in case).

Don’t be tempted to rely on GPS or phone app systems for your navigation, they can be a useful back up, but cold kills batteries and your unit may fail, leaving you stranded.

Hollyhike 3
Winter conditions experienced in the Wicklow mountains, Ireland.

Preparation is the key. It is important to check the weather forecast several days before you go, if there is a risk of snow check out any available avalanche forecasts too. Do not try to take on too much, progress is slow in winter and daylight hours are few. Plan your ascent and descent routes taking into account potential hazards and plan an escape route in the event of abandonment. Draw up a route card and break down your journey into a number of navigation legs, try to keep the legs short to reduce inaccuracies when navigating in poor visibility.

When beginning any navigation leg, or trying to determine your position, the first thing to do is to orientate the map. This is also called setting, and involves lining the north south grid lines on the map with north on the ground. In good visibility this can be achieved by sighting features in the landscape and lining them up with the corresponding feature on the map. In poor visibility you may need to orientate the north south grid lines with north by using the north (red) end of the compass needle.

Sometimes this may be all you need to do to determine your direction of travel and to identify your objective, but in poor visibility it may be necessary to walk on a bearing.

Navigating at night is the ultimate in poor visibility navigation and requires skill and accuracy.

When navigating in poor visibility consider the 5 D’s before each leg; Distance, Direction, Duration, Description, Destination.


Measure the distance to your next target using either the compass romer or the measuring scale on the edge of the housing. To know how far to walk you should use either pacing or timing, or both.  Pacing is the technique of counting the number of double paces to your objective. Knowing how many paces you take to walk 100 metres in different conditions and terrain, you can then count out the multiples of 100 metres until you reach the distance measured. Pacing works best over shorter distances of several hundred metres, for greater distances timing is often used. Timing relies on knowing how fast you are walking, say 4 km/hr, and doing a calculation to determine how long it will take you to reach the objective.

These techniques may sound complicated, but they are one of the cornerstones of good navigation, and become easier with practice.


To determine which direction to walk in you must take a bearing from the map with your compass. Estimate it first, this will help avoid errors, particularly the often made 180 degree error, where south is mistaken for north on the map, or you have the compass pointing from the objective to your current position instead of the other way round.

Once you have your bearing you must adjust it to take account of the magnetic variation between magnetic and grid north, check the map before you set out as the information you need is in the legend. Sight along the compass to an object in line with the bearing and walk to it, repeat this process until you reach the objective.

If visibility is so poor you cannot see anything ahead, send a companion ahead of you and adjust their position until they are in line with the bearing, walk toward them and repeat the process.

Taking and walking on bearings can seem daunting, and requires training and practice, but there are a number of online resources to help, some useful sources are listed at the end of this article.


What do you expect to see when you reach the objective? You should have at least 3 features or characteristics of the target to enable you to confirm you have arrived in the right place. When you reach the objective ask yourself the question, ‘Do I see what I expect to see?’

To avoid overshooting, determine what feature will tell you that you have gone too far, this is a catching feature, and could be a stream, a change of slope, or a boundary.

It is a good idea to identify features you might see or cross on route, by noting these features as you pass them you can confirm your position. These are called tick features as you ‘tick’ them off as you go, they also give a good deal of confidence that things are going according to plan!


How long will it take to reach the objective? This is linked to the timing mentioned earlier, and again you need to know how fast you walk and the distance to the objective.

The winter mountains bring challenging but wonderful days out. The south ridge of Snowdon, North Wales.

Altimeters are a very useful tool in winter navigation. It can be important to know how far up or down a slope you are, particularly if you have to make a change of direction when descending a spur. By reading the contour height from the map and relating it to the altimeter reading it is possible to accurately determine your position. Remember to calibrate the altimeter regularly at spot heights and summits, as they often rely on barometer readings, which can change rapidly in winter.

Finally, if it all goes horribly wrong and you can’t recognise anything in the landscape, don’t panic. Take a breather, have a warm drink or a sugary snack. As long as you have been walking on your bearing and know how far and how long you have been walking, you can always turn your compass by 180 degrees and return to your last know position, the beginning of the navigational leg. This is a back bearing and can return you to a place you can identify on the map, from here you can re-calculate the 4 D’s and begin the leg again.

Winter hiking carries it’s risks, but the rewards can be immense

Navigating in winter will test the skill of the best navigators, and requires all the above techniques and a lot of practice to become completely proficient. However, when you have learned the skills and gained the experience the winter mountains are open to you in all their magical beauty.

If you want to learn to be a competent and self-reliant winter navigator you can join one of our Mountaintrails navigation courses.

Other useful resources:

British Mountaineering Council: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/articles/Walking/Skills

Mountaineering Ireland: http://www.mountaineering.ie/TrainingAndSafety/SkillsVideos/default.aspx

A land where sea, sky and mountain meet, and the inspiration for CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the Mourne mountains in County Down, Northern Ireland, are the provinces only significant mountain range.  They sit on the east coast, 50km south of Belfast and around 100km north of Dublin, the Mournes are one of our most popular day hiking tours, starting from our base in Dublin.


Descending the southern flank of Slieve Donard, and looking into the Annalong valley.

The Mournes are comprised of granite, and many of the tops are crowned with statuesque granite tors. They have steeply sloping flanks, vegetated with rough grasses, sedges, cottongrass and heather.  In places the slopes give way to imposing crags and cliffs, and here you will find the ravens and possibly see peregrine falcons. Look out also for buzzards and stonechat as well as the more common meadow pippit.

The range can be divided into the eastern High Mournes and the western Low Mournes, and in the far northeast corner can be found the highest peak and the highest point in Ulster, Slieve Donard, at 850 metres (2790ft).  Named after St. Domangard, a 5th C follower of St. Patrick, Donard is the anglicised version of his name, Slieve translating from the Irish as mountain.


Slieve Donard and the Mourne wall.

Slieve Donard looks rather like an upturned pudding, with its’ eastern flank reaching down to the sea, and is topped by two large ancient burial cairns, and by the more modern tower, (one of three), of the Mourne Wall.

The views from the summit are spectacular, on a clear day the Isle of Man is clearly visible to the north east, and in clear air the mountains of the English Lake District and Snowdonia in Wales can be seen on the horizon.  If you can draw your eyes away from the coastal panorama and look inland, the whole of the Mourne mountains are laid out before you, valleys, crags and tors.

This compact range of mountains comprises 6 mountains over 700 metres, including the majestic looking and tor topped Slieve Binnian and Slieve Bernagh.


Looking across the Mournes from Slieve Donard summit cairn.

The area is very popular with hikers, and is crossed by many paths, making navigation relatively simple. To assist further with navigation is a wall, the Mourne Wall, one of the ranges most distinctive and iconic features. Sometimes referred to as a miniature Great Wall of China, the wall is over 35 kilometres long, goes over no less than 15 tops, and encloses 36 square kilometres of land.

It was built between 1904 and 1922 as a dry stone wall, without mortar, and averages 1.5 metres high and 0.9 metres thick. Constructed by the Belfast Water Commissioners, it was designed to protect the water supply for city of Belfast from cattle and sheep, and at its’ heart lies the Silent Valley dam and reservoir, completed in 1933. A later reservoir, Ben Crom, was added in the 1950’s.DSC_1949

On the Brandy Pad.

Water from a second river enclosed by the Wall, the Annalong river, is diverted via a tunnel through the mountain of Slieve Binnian, to drain into the Silent Valley reservoir.

A clearly recognisable route through the mountains is the Brandy Pad and the Trassey Track, this was an old smugglers route from the 18th and 19th century, where ponies would bring contraband such as tobacco, wine and spirits from the coast inland.

Today this track sees only enthusiastic hikers, enjoying the mountain air and taking in the wonderful scenery.


The mountains of southwest Ireland hold many treats for the hiker looking for a great day out, and none more so than Purple Mountain, (An Sliabh Corca), a superb peak on the boundary of the Killarney National Park, in County Kerry.

The mountain has twin summits, joined by an impressively narrow and rocky ridge, studded with cairns and with precipitous drops either side.

High on its flanks lie steep scree slopes of broken rock, red sandstones shattered by millennia of frosty winters, which give the mountain its name.


The misty summit of Purple Mountain, take care when the cloud is low!


Purple Mountain has two satellite peaks, Tomies to the north and Shehy to the east, both are only a little lower in height, and attached to the parent mountain by broad cols.


Though not a giant, (it stands at 830 metres or 2723 ft), Purple Mountain offers stunning all round views.

To the north is the large and impressive Lough Leane with its scattered small islands, like so many green jewels set in the silver and blue waters.

To the south the mountain descends rapidly to the Black Valley, which lies almost at sea level and is surrounded by a phalanx of it’s own steep sided mountains.

To the west lies the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow glacial valley, with inaccessible ramparts of rock and cascading streams.


A narrow road runs into the 5 kilometre long Gap, which is a popular destination for tourists, who often take in the sights in horse drawn carriages known locally as ‘jaunting cars’.

Beyond the Gap rise the narrow ridges and stunning peaks of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, here are the highest mountains in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, Cather and Beenkeragh, and the views across to this wonderful multi-peaked range are magnificent.


A traverse of this fine mountain is best undertaken from north to south, this gives the easier and more gradual ascent, whilst giving the best views of the valleys and mountains to the south in descent.


Looking south from Purple Mountain towards the Black Valley, with the Gap of Dunloe below us.

If travelling by car, park at Kate Kearney’s Cottage, here there is a carpark, cafe and facilities.  Head back down the road and take the first right into a narrow lane, at the end of which is a gate into farm land. Follow the obvious track and some waymarking arrows to gain a low ridge that rises to the right.


Once on the ridge head uphill on a muddy footpath that becomes a narrow sheep path. Continue ahead onto a rounded hill immediately north of Tomies mountain, from here the path can be followed up onto Tomies, the summit of which has a large cairn and a circular rock built shelter to protect hikers from the elements. Head due south across a broad col and on to Purple Mountain itself.

(Be aware that in low cloud the way ahead is rocky and by no means clear and you will need a map and compass and the ability to use them).


Descending towards Lough Glas


The lofty summit ridge of Purple is a great place to have lunch on a fine day, take shelter next to one of its three large cairns.

Take time to enjoy the superb views as you descend Purple Mountain, following a narrow path that leads down to the secretive and tranquil setting of Lough Glas. Stop here to reflect on its natural beauty before continuing down the rocky and rugged path to reach the Head of the Gap.

This is the highest point reached on the Gap of Dunloe road and here you should head north down the road and back towards the start point.


As you walk, take time to look at the impressive rock walls and the tumbling water, and to enjoy the series of small loughs that occupy the valley. Soon it will widen out to rough pasture and a few scattered dwellings before you find yourself back at the busy cafes and car park.


Gap of Dunloe.


The hike will take approximately 6 hours; has 890 metres of ascent and covers a distance of approximately 16 kilometres.

As with any hiking, check the weather forecast before you go, and consider an alternative day if the weather is very windy and the clouds are low.

Suggested map: OSI Adventure Series – Macgillycuddy’s Reeks 1:25000