This is the time of year for crisp clean air, far reaching views and stunning sunsets, it’s a great time to go hiking in the mountains of Ireland and Britain. The days may be shorter, but the quality of the light and the golden russet colours of autumn draw us like magnets into the hills.
As autumn turns to winter the weather in the mountains becomes a lot more unpredictable, a cool autumn day in the valley can turn into an icy and windy blizzard on higher ground.
It gets considerably colder as you gain height, at a rate of approximately 1.5C per 100 metres of ascent. 5C in the valley can become -3C on the higher mountain tops, couple this with a stiff wind and the effect can be bone chilling.
Be well prepared, and in addition to your usual hiking gear be sure to pack the following important and possibly life saving kit:
Hat and Gloves
It’s a no brainer, right?
You’ve got your fleece gloves and warm hat at the ready, but remember to take spares of both as gloves are easily lost, (I am forever finding odd gloves lost in the hills). If your hands get really cold and numb you will lose dexterity and be unable to perform basic tasks, which can lead to potentially life threatening situations.
Consider taking a pair of insulated and waterproof winter gloves as well, they are a great help when the weather turns really cold.
My favourite combo would be a pair of light liner gloves coupled with fleece over gloves, and a pair of winter gloves in the pack just in case. With spares of the first two that makes five pairs of gloves in my kit! (I don’t like cold hands).
It can quickly turn wintry on higher ground, be prepared for snow!
Spare warm layer
Assuming you have adopted a three layer clothing system, you will be wearing a base layer, insulating mid layer such as a fleece, and a windproof outer layer, such as a soft shell jacket or waterproof shell.
It is a good idea to pack an extra warm layer to put on if there is an enforced or prolonged stop. This might occur if there is an injury to one of your party or if you are forced to rest in an exposed position.
This could take the form of a fleece jacket that could be put on under your shell. Most basic fleeces offer great insulation but are not windproof, so the heat you are generating may quickly be blown away by the wind.
Instead I prefer a lightweight insulated jacket with a windproof outer layer. In the wet winter climate of western Europe a down jacket will soon wet out and lose it’s insulating properties, so best to go for a jacket with a synthetic fill, such as primaloft. This works just as well when wet as it does dry, and can be put on over your existing wet jacket if necessary.
Some essential kit for safe and comfortable hiking in the colder weather
Waterproof shell clothing
Another no brainer. A waterproof jacket and pants are a must have item all year round, but are particularly important at this time of year. Make sure they are cleaned and reproofed ready for the hammering they will get.
Good quality shell clothing is a must to keep you dry in the autumn/winter as wet clothing is one of the major causes of hypothermia in the mountains.
You won’t get onto one of Mountaintrails guided hikes without your waterproof shell!
Boots and gaiters
The wetter weather of autumn/winter can take a heavy toll on your boots, make sure yours are up to the task.
Ideally you will have full leather boots and have put the fabric boots away until the spring, but either way ensure your boots are cleaned and treated with a waterproofing wax regularly, to keep them supple and watertight.
Wearing gaiters to cover the boot uppers is a good idea as it protects the boot and helps prevent water and debris getting into your feet over the ankle cuff.
Remember, in these islands daylight saving time kicks in at this time of year and the clocks go back one hour, as a result it gets dark earlier, at around 17.00 in late October. Every year this catches out unwary hillwalkers who don’t seem to realise that it gets dark so early!
Being caught out in the mountains in the gathering darkness can be frightening for the inexperienced. Don’t be the one surprised by the shorter daylight hours and be sure to carry a headtorch, with spare batteries, when out hiking.
Benign weather in the valley can turn icy and cold near the summit
Map and compass
You always carry a map and compass with you, right?
The chance of cloud free summits at this time of year is much reduced, and poor visibility at height should be expected, so carrying a map and compass is a must, even if you are familiar with the route.
It’s a good idea to take a spare map with you, in case it gets blown away when opened on that windy ridge. Ensure your maps are laminated, or keep them in a soft plastic map case, as protection against the weather.
I carry a second compass as well, as a precaution against dropping or losing it.
Be sure you know how to use them and practice those navigation skills before you need them in earnest.
If you are not confident in your map and compass skills, attend one of our mountain navigation courses, held regularly through the year.
Don’t rely on technology, GPS and phone apps have a place, but can and do fail when they get wet, too cold, or when the batteries fade.
A mountain shelter is like a big orange, pole-less tent. You throw it over your heads and sit on the ‘hem’, this keeps it stable.
Inside you can keep warm and dry, out of the wind and rain, eat your lunch, take a break, or attend to an injury.
They are a great addition to your cold weather kit, and come in various sizes for different sized parties. A ‘must carry’ item for those guiding in the mountains.
Head torches and mountain shelter deployed on this early morning ascent of Lugnaquilla mountain.
The extra gear above doesn’t weigh as much as you might think, and will keep you safe and comfortable when hiking in the autumn/winter mountains.
The reassurance gained from knowing you have prepared for the worst will make it all worthwhile!