Autumn is definitely upon us, the clocks go back at the end of his week, reducing the amount of available daylight in the evenings.
Despite the gathering gloom and the cooler days, autumn also brings with it some great opportunities for the hiker and mountaineer. The quality of the light becomes magical, and the golden glow from the sun is reflected back by the russet yellows and browns of the autumn leaves. Descending a hill at sunset, with crisp clear air and a stunning sunset is a special moment to savour.
But as the seasons march on, and autumn turns cooler, the weather in the mountains becomes more unpredictable. It gets a lot colder as you gain height, and a cool day in the valley can become an icy blizzard on the high tops. To keep comfortable and safe in these conditions there are a few items of cold weather gear we need to add to our rucksack.
Remember, the clocks go back one hour at the end of October, and as a result it gets dark much earlier, at around 17.00. This seems to catch out unwary hikers every year, and the Mountain Rescue organisations are constantly reminding us to carry a torch. Being caught out in the mountains in the gathering darkness can be an unnerving experience for those not used to hiking and navigating in the dark. Don’t be the one surprised by the shorter daylight hours and be sure to carry a torch, preferably a head torch, with spare batteries.
Hat and Gloves
Seems obvious doesn’t it?
Lightweight summer gloves won’t cut it in the cold wintry winds that rake the summit ridges at this time of year. Make sure to upgrade your gloves to take account of this, a waterproof fleece lined pair are best. Remember to take spares too. If you lose a glove, (and I am forever finding odd gloves lost in the hills), your hands can become painful and numb and you will lose dexterity and be unable to perform basic tasks. I am often replacing clients thin gloves with warmer ones once out in the hills, as they begin to feel the cold.
My favourite combination 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 my spare fleece gloves that makes four pairs in my kit!
Don’t forget your warm beany hat; you can lose a lot of heat from your head on a cold day. Acrylic, ‘thinsulate’ or wool materials all work well, just make sure it’s brightly coloured!
Spare warm layer
It’s a good idea to pack an extra warm layer to put on when you stop for lunch or get delayed. This might happen if there is an injury to one of your party or if you are forced to rest in an exposed position. This could be a fleece jacket that you put on under your waterproof. Remember that fleece is a good insulator but is not windproof, so is ineffective as an outer layer in windy conditions.
I prefer a lightweight synthetic insulated jacket with a windproof outer layer. This works just as well when wet as it does dry, and can be put on over your existing wet jacket if necessary.
Waterproof shell clothing
You will be carrying your waterproof jacket already, but at this time of year it can be really put to the test, so make sure it is clean and re-treated before the autumn storms set in. Don’t forget to pack waterproof pants too, if the rain is running off your jacket it will soak your legs if they are not equally protected.
Boots and gaiters
Make sure your boots are up to the task.
Fully waterproof boots are essential at this time of year, fabric boots are popular as they are light weight and relatively cheap, but they won’t keep you dry over a prolonged period in the boggy ground of Ireland. If you can, upgrade to a leather pair, they will last longer and keep your feet warm and dry through autumn and winter hikes for many years.
Wear gaiters to protect the uppers of your boots and to keep the mud and debris off of your trousers.
Mountain shelter or survival bag
A mountain shelter or bothy resembles a large orange tent without any poles. You can throw it over your head and sit on the ‘hem’ to keep it stable. Inside you will be warm and dry, out of the worst of the weather. You can eat your lunch, take a break, or attend to an injury in relative comfort. They are an important addition to your cold weather gear, and come in a range of different sizes for group use.
For personal use a survival bag is essential, this is a large plastic bag that you can get into in an emergency to keep you out of the elements. For cold weather use consider a blizzard bag, which is mutilayered with baffles to trap warm are and provide insulation, keeping your warmer for longer.
Map and compass
You should always carry a map and compass with you, even if you are familiar with the route.
There is a greater risk of the summits being enveloped in cloud at this time of year, and poor visibility should be expected. Take a spare map too, in case one gets blown away, and ensure they are laminated, or protect them with a soft map case, as a precaution against the weather.
Don’t rely solely on technology, though there is a place for phone apps and GPS, they are great as a back-up to your map skills, and they should not be used in isolation. These units can fail when they get wet, or too cold, or when the batteries die.
If you are not completely confident in your map and compass abilities then join a Mountain Skills or mountain navigation course to learn the necessary skills.
The cold weather gear above doesn’t weigh as much as you might think, and will keep you safe and comfortable when hiking in the mountains during the colder months.
The reassurance gained from knowing you have prepared for the worst will make it all worthwhile!
Russ Mills is the owner and principle guide of Mountaintrails, a guidied hiking and mountain training business based in Dublin.