Autumn is definitely upon us, the clocks go back at the end of October, reducing the amount of available daylight in the evenings; and we have already experienced the first hail storm of the season as we climbed Lugnaquilla mountain recently.

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.

A head torch is essential winter gear

Head Torch

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

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.

Head torches are essential gear in the winter

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 confident in your map and compass skills, attend one of our mountain navigation courses, held regularly through the year.

Wrap up warm for winter hiking

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!

 

 

 

 

A grid reference is a series of letters and numbers that defines a unique square on a map, the more digits used the greater the accuracy and the smaller the square. Every country has its own unique grid, the lines are aligned north-south and east-west, forming a series of squares.

Irish grid system
Fig. 1 – The Irish grid system.

In Ireland the grid is divided into squares 100 kilometres x 100 kilometres (1 kilometre is a thousand meters).

There is a datum point set off the south west coast, which defines the 0 point, and each 100 km square is measured from here. The Irish grid is 500 km x 500 km and gives 25 squares in total.

Each square is represented by a one letter code, with the exception of I, which could be mistaken for a 1. See Fig. 1.

These 100 km squares are then subdivided further into smaller squares, each one being 1 kilometre across.

These 1 km squares are depicted on maps as blue numbered lines running north-south and east-west respectively. They are individually labelled using the ascending numbers 00, 01, 02, 03 etc… all the way up to 99.

Fig. 2 - 1 kilometre square on a 1:50 000 scale map, in this case the square 79 09.
Fig. 2 – 1 kilometre square on a 1:50 000 scale map, in this case the square 79 09.

The numbers along the bottom of the map, which increase towards the east are called Eastings , those numbers that are running up the side of the map and increase towards the north are called Northings.

When writing down a grid reference we first quote the Eastings then the Northings.

This can be more easily remembered by the saying along the hall and up the stairs’.

We can define a given 1km square by first giving the 100km square box letter and then the 2 numbers for the Eastings followed by the 2 numbers for the Northings.

In the example in Fig. 2 the highlighted square is in the Slieve Mish mountains of Dingle, in the 100km grid square Q (see Fig. 1), the Eastings are 79 and the northings 09. It is written Q 79 09 and is known as a 4 figure grid reference.

The 1 km box can be further subdivided into one hundred 100 metre x 100 metres squares, ( these squares are not shown on the map).

This now allows us to define an area of land 100 meters square, (see red box in Figure 3), and is called a six figure grid reference.

Fig. 3 - Dividing a 1 km grid square into smaller 100 metre squares.
Fig. 3 – Dividing a 1 km grid square into smaller 100 metre squares.

The extra numbers needed are not shown on the map and must either be estimated or obtained more accurately using a Romer, (found in the top right hand corner of your compass).

 The corner of the Romer is placed on the point to be identified and the numbers are read off where the Romer intercepts with the grid.

In the example in Fig. 4 the red dot has an easting of 5 and a northing of 7.

Grid references can be further used to accurately define a point on a map down to a 10 metre square, these are eight figure grid references.

Fig. 4 - Use the Romer scale on your compass to accurately read the grid reference.
Fig. 4 – Use the Romer scale on your compass to accurately read the grid reference.

A grid reference is important information, it allows you to inform others of where you are, (for example Mountain Rescue), and also allows you to locate features or a position on a map when given to you by someone else.

This article was written by Russ Mills of Mountaintrails, who provide navigation training and Mountain Skills courses in Ireland.

More information on our navigation courses can be found here: Mountaintrails Navigation Courses.

It seems as soon as the hot weather arrives in Ireland it has gone again. But it may return, and summer heatwaves do occasionally occur in our uncertain climate. In addition, many of us now head to hotter countries like Morocco, France and Spain to take hiking holidays.

 Know Your Enemy

There are inherent dangers to hiking in hot weather and when the sun is beating down all day, and the most obvious of these are sunburn, dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Sunburn

Campaigns in recent years to alert us to the dangers of exposure to too much sun seem to have sunk home. Now almost everyone is aware of the risk of sunburn and skin cancer that comes with over exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

At higher altitudes the sun’s ultraviolet rays are stronger, as the air is thinner and less able to shield us from them, and this leads to an increased risk of sunburn.

Sunburn is at best painful, and at worst brings the increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.

Dehydration

When hiking in hot weather, particularly when working hard or moving uphill, the human body starts to sweat to loose heat and regulate its’ core temperature.  It is important to replace this lost fluid and the mixture of essential salts (electrolytes) that it contains, to maintain normal body functions.

One of the first and most obvious signs of dehydration is feeling thirsty, and this may be accompanied by a headache, dizziness and a feeling of weakness.

Your muscles need water to function correctly, and a further sign of dehydration may well be cramps in the legs.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is not as severe as heat stroke, but could be considered as a precursor to it. It is often related to dehydration, and the early signs are the same, headache, thirst, dizziness and dark yellow urine. These symptoms may also be accompanied by confusion, profuse sweating, cramps, rapid heart rate and fainting.

It is important to cool down, so seek out shade, rest and avoid exertion. Drink plenty of fluids and if possible wet the head and neck. Act quickly to avoid heat stroke, which is a serious condition requiring medical intervention.

Hiking in the heat

 

So how best to cope when the heat is on?  And what can we do to minimise the risks?

 

  1. Avoid hiking in the hottest part of the day.

Consider hiking in the early morning or evening and resting during the hottest part of the day, usually the afternoon. This is a good strategy in hot weather, and is important in avoiding the other risk areas, dehydration and overheating.

  1. Slap on the sun block.

The first line of defence against sunburn is to apply sunblock to exposed skin, the fair skinned and those not used to the sun should consider a factor 30+ or higher, and reapply during the day if you think you are sweating it off.

Remember to apply behind the ears and other awkward places, and if you are travelling over reflective surfaces, such as snow, apply below the chin and under the nose. I have seen some painful cases of under-nose sunburn in people travelling over snow for extended periods!

  1. Cover Up.

It’s important to cover exposed skin, wide brimmed sun hats are a must in strong sunlight, and wear long sleeve shirts and long pants to avoid too much exposure to the sun. Loose fitting and light coloured clothing will help you to stay cool when things heat up.

  1. Wet your shirt or buff to cool down.

Wearing a wet cloth (a light scarf or buff) around the neck, will help to cool you down, as the blood vessels run close to the surface here and a wet cloth next to the skin will help to cool the blood. If it’s really hot you can dampen your shirt in a stream for an even greater cooling effect.

  1. Drink to rehydrate.

To replace these lost fluids drink between 2 and 4 litres of water a day, though this is a generalisation as individuals differ in their needs. Drink when you are thirsty, which makes sense, avoid drinks containing caffeine and alcohol as these are diuretic and will make you pee more.

To replace lost salts mix water 50:50 with fruit juice or add shop bought electrolytes, such as dioralyte, to your water bottle.

  1. Modify your expectations.

Don’t take on too much in the day, rest more often when shade is available, and avoid the hottest part of the day. Take your time.

  1. Take care of your feet.

Sweaty feet pose an increased risk of getting blisters, take your boots off when you can and dry, or better still, change your socks.  Dipping your feet in a cool stream on a hot day is one of life’s finer pleasures, and is great for cooling the blood.

  1. Lighten your pack.

If the weather forecast is nailed on for a sunny day, consider leaving your waterproof pants or spare warm layers at home. You might need the space for extra water anyway.

  1. Check your pee.

Check the colour of your pee, if it is a dark yellow colour than you are dehydrated, in a normally hydrated person it should be of a pale straw colour.

  1. Beware of cold water shock.

This occurs when the body is suddenly subjected to a rapid drop in external temperature, such as you might get if you jumped into a river.  This sudden immersion results in a ‘gasp’ reflex, which can lead to water getting in the lungs, and to drowning.  It is accompanied by contraction of the blood vessels which puts a strain on the heart, leading to possible heart failure.

(A selection of day packs from 25 litre to 45 litre.)

The two questions, “What size of pack do I need?” and “What features should I look for in a new hiking pack?”, come up time and again during discussions with our clients on our Mountain Skills Courses. Here I try to explain some of the more important features of day packs, (and one or two of the more frivolous ones.)

Size – This is possibly the most important consideration when choosing a hiking pack.  Pack size is measured in litres, and denotes the volume of the pack.  Mountain runners might get by with a small pack of around 8–10 litres, but a day pack that would carry the minimum you require for a day in the hills would more likely have to be around 25-30 litres capacity.  For longer trips, winter hiking, or possible overnight stops the size you will need might increase to as much as 45-50 litres to accommodate the extra gear.

Back System – The simplest of back systems will have two vertical ribs of foam to offer some padding and comfort, these might be held in place by a mesh material to give a degree of ventilation to your back. This system is ideal for smaller day packs and is a feature of lower priced options.

Many manufactures now offer a back ventilation system on their higher specification packs. This comprises a taught flexible mesh to support the pack on your back with a gap between this and the pack proper. This allows for good air flow between you and the pack and reduces the sweaty back issue that can mar your hiking in warm weather.

It has the disadvantage that the weight of the pack is now pushed out and away from your body and this can be an issue with larger packs as it can affect your centre of gravity and lead to discomfort. For this reason this system is rarely seen in larger, heavier load bearing packs.

Some of the larger day hiking packs now offer an adjustable back length, these take various forms but all allow you to adjust the pack to suit your own back length and are an important feature of larger models as this will make for a much more comfortable carry.

Try out several different packs before you buy, get the store staff to take out the filling and weight it with ropes or similar, then adjust the back length to get the most comfortable fit.

Rucksack back system             Rucksack hip belt

(Above left:   The ‘Air Zone’ ventilation back system)                 (Above right:   Hip belt pockets can store small items)

Hip Belt – These vary from a simple light padded belt on the smaller packs to a contoured and more heavily cushioned support belt in the larger models. Some are now designed specifically for women, with their more rounded hips. A useful feature of some hip belts is a little zipped pocket, this is great for small items like a snack bar or lip-balm. Hip belts are unnecessary in the smallest day packs, but become essential to spread the load between your shoulders and hips in the larger models.

Shoulder Straps – All shoulder straps have a degree of padding, some more than others, and some are mesh covered to improve ventilation and comfort. In some women specific packs the shoulder straps are shaped to fit the female form. When trying on the pack, fit the hip belt first and then adjust the shoulder straps.

Lid Pockets – If the pack you are considering has a lid (and some do not, instead having a simple zip closure), then it should have external and internal zipped pockets. These are very useful for frequently used items such as gloves, hats and maps.  Keep items you need to remain dry in the internal pocket under the lid, where they are less likely to get wet.

Rucksack side pockets               Rucksack cover

(Above left:   Deep mesh side pockets are a useful feature)                         (Above right:   Integral rain cover)

Mesh Side Pockets – A very useful feature found on almost all packs, placed low down on either side of the pack, they should be deep and of a stretchy material to hold in place items such as water bottles, extra snack food and gloves. They are also useful to hold the sharp ends of hiking poles firmly and safely.

Hydration System – Many packs now have an internal pouch next to the back to hold a platypus type water bladder; they also have a small outlet hole for the drinking tube to pass through. If you are a fan of this type of drinking system then a hydration pouch is essential.

Integral Rain Cover – This is an increasingly common feature of hiking packs, often placed in a small zipped pocket at the base of the pack. They can be quickly removed and pulled over the pack to help to keep the contents dry in rainy weather. They are not foolproof and should be used in conjunction with an internal pack liner to ensure your gear stays dry.

Chest Straps – These fasten across the chest and are designed to support and stabilise the load. They can be useful if you are hiking over complex or difficult terrain and where stability is essential. On the negative side, a chest strap can restrict breathing and become an irritation after a while, use sparingly.

The strap material should have a degree of stretch to accommodate an expanding chest when breathing heavily.  Some are also adjustable up and down the shoulder strap to allow you to find the best position on your chest.

Some chest straps now also incorporate a whistle; this is a mixed blessing if you are hiking with young persons who might insist on blowing it constantly!

          Rucksack whistle                DSC_0253

(Above left: Chest strap complete with whistle)                                         (Above right: External map pocket)

Side Compression Straps – An important feature to allow you to cinch in a partly full pack and stabilise the load. Some models include a buckle for quick release and allow for the storage of hiking poles up the side of the pack, in conjunction with a mesh side pocket as above.

External Map Pockets – This is a feature of some packs and is useful for carrying maps and documents, though certainly not essential.

Walking Pole/Ice Axe Attachment points – You will find these at the bottom of the pack, usually on the rear facing panel. They can take several forms, but most often are a loop of strap material to secure the bottom of the pole. There is a corresponding attachment point higher up the pack to secure the shaft in place.

Most experienced hikers will use the outer mesh side pockets and compression straps to secure walking poles and axes as they are much more securely held here.

Some seasoned users will cut these loops off, as they never use them.

Separate Internal Compartments – These are a feature of the larger hiking packs. The bottom compartment is usually accessed via a zip, and is useful for storing waterproof clothing or a sleeping bag.  It is possible to zip out the divider to give one large compartment, which you would need to do if you are using a full size internal pack liner.

Elasticated Bungie Cord Attachments – Some packs have a criss-cross of cord on the back panel to secure a cycle helmet or to temporarily stow an item of clothing. Though not essential, this can be useful additional storage.

Price! – Larger day packs with a lot of the above features can cost upwards of €100.  But if you are working to a budget then it is possible to get a day pack with limited features from a supermarket for as little as €15.

This is not going to be the best option for carrying a lot of gear on a long day, but as a first pack for a young person or someone trying out hiking for the first time then it is perfectly suitable.

The more you are prepared to pay for your pack, the more feature rich it will be. Experience will show you which of the above you feel you really need on your pack, and which you do not.

Russell Mills owns and runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain skills training business in Dublin, Ireland

All the packs shown here are available from Basecamp Outdoor Store in Dublin and Kilkenny.

 

 

Setting the map is a fundamental navigational skill that all competent mountain navigators should be familiar with.

When you open out a map, you intuitively hold it rather like a newspaper, so the writing can be read the correct way up. The straight lines you see running up and down the map are the north/south grid lines and the top of the map points to grid north.

But north on the map is not necessarily lined up with north on the ground, in the landscape around you. By lining up, or orienting, north on the map with north on the ground you are setting the map.

But why do we want to do this?

When the map and ground are aligned together, then a hill to your right will be also be to the right of your position on the map; and a river to your left will be seen as a river to your left on the map. As long as your current position is known, this enables you to transfer your intended direction of travel on the map to a direction of travel on the ground, and can avoid costly errors and confusion.

It should be the first thing you do when looking to start a new navigation leg.

Setting the map can be done in one of two ways.

  • By aligning it with the features you see around you and can recognise on the map, such as hills, rivers, buildings and forests.
  • By using your compass, this method is useful when there are few visible features; if you are in a forest for example, or visibility is very low.

Setting the map using features

Stand with the map held in front of you and rotate your map and yourself together until features you see in the landscape line up with features you can identify on the map; a hilltop in the landscape with the corresponding hill on the map, or a lake with the corresponding lake on the map. You should be able to draw an imaginary straight line between you, the feature on the map and the feature in the landscape.

Setting the map using features in the landscape - in this case aligning with a lake.
Setting the map using features in the landscape – in this case aligning with a lake.

Your map is now set, and if you know your current position, you can identify your direction of travel on the ground.

If you are not sure of your position setting the map will also help you find your approximate location; by identifying several features on the ground and their distance from you, and translating that onto the map. This is a simple, but effective, re-location technique.

Setting the map using a compass

If there are no suitable visible features to align with the map, if you are in a forest or visibility is poor, then it is possible to set the map using a compass.

The red end of your compass needle points to magnetic north, and by lining this up with the north/south grid lines on the map you will have set the map to a reasonable degree of accuracy.

For complete accuracy you would need to take account of the magnetic variation, the difference between grid north and magnetic north at your location. It will change with time, and depending on where you are. The magnetic variation for your location will be found in the margins of your map, usually with the legend, and should be added or subtracted from the 0° bearing accordingly.

Setting the map with a compass - the three steps
Setting the map with a compass – the three steps

Setting the map in this way can be done in three straightforward steps.

  • Rotate the housing (dial) of the compass until the red orienting arrow in the housing is aligned with the direction of travel arrow on the compass baseplate. The bearing should read 0°, or north, adjust for magnetic variation at this point if you feel it necessary.
  • Place the compass on the map and line up the edge of the baseplate with the north/south gridlines on the map.
  • Carefully holding the map and compass together, and keeping them horizontal, rotate them together until the red end of the magnetic needle is aligned with the red orienting arrow in the compass housing, (also called putting red in the shed!).

The map is now set, (facing north), and by taking away the compass and holding the map steady you can now determine your direction of travel on the ground.

Mountaintrails are a guided hiking and mountain skills training business in Dublin, Ireland.

You can find out more about their navigation courses by checking out the Mountaintrails website.

 

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.

Other useful links:

http://carlingfordandcooleypeninsula.ie/index.php/carlingford-activities/carlingford-hill-walking

Boots are often cited as the most important piece of hillwalking gear to get right. But what goes between the boot and the skin of your feet is very important too, your hiking socks….

I am, and always have been, a big fan of merino wool socks. They are soft, comfortable, antibacterial, and for me at least, wicking and not sweaty. I have tried several different manufacturers over the years, with mixed results, so when I saw a new brand to me recently I had to give them a try, and here are my thoughts.

Made in Vermont in the USA, ‘Darn Tough’ socks feel great to the touch. Soft but robust, with a dense knit, and with seams so flat and well stitched you hardly notice they are there at all. There is a reasonable degree of stretch, which means they should adjust to fit a wide variety of foot shapes without bunching, slipping or pulling the material.

darntough-1908-gtea-p_01

The merino socks I have used in the past have had a high percentage of wool in them, often with a little nylon or lycra included. However, Darn Tough socks are made with 65% Merino wool, 30% nylon and 5% Lycra to give them that stretchy but firm hold on your foot. The nylon is there for its’ strength, and doesn’t take anything away from the performance of the merino wool.

They come in a bewildering array of types and weights, but I chose to try their Via Ferrata Boot Sock and the Via Ferrata Micro Crew from the HIKE/TREK range. (Details of the full range can be found on their website at darntough.com.)

                                                                                                                                                       The Via Ferrata Boot Sock is a heavier sock, and seemed more suited to mountain hiking in cooler weather. I tried them inside full leather boots on three consecutive cold March days in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland.

It was immediately clear that these were lovely to wear, cushioning my feet and keeping them warm. There were never any hotspots, no slipping or bunching; and as with any good socks, I never noticed them on my feet after the first few minutes. Despite being warm, my feet were never too hot or sweaty and the wool wicked away any moisture leaving my feet snug and happy all day. After three days of hiking they felt as comfortable as day one, and showed little signs of odour. They turned out to be a first class mountain boot sock.

The Via Ferrata Micro Crew is a lighter weight sock with a lower ankle cuff, there is a bit less cushioning to the sole of the foot as a result, but this did not seem to affect the performance at all.

 I used them for lower level walks in a pair of fabric and leather boots with a Gore-Tex lining. Again, they were warm and comfortable with a slightly tenacious feel that holds them gently but firmly on your foot.  Ideally suited to hiking in warmer weather with lighter boots, the micro crew’s would also be great for general wear, walking the dog, or taking a stroll in the park.

As an added bonus ‘Darn Tough’ socks come in a dazzling array of colour combinations, particularly in the women’s range, so you can look stunning when out in the hills! There was a slight issue with the sizing, these socks are made for the larger American foot, so if your foot measures on the border of medium (uk  7.5 – 9.0) and large (uk  9.5 – 11.5), for example, then consider the smaller size.

They come with a lifetime guarantee, the packaging stating, ‘If you can wear these socks out, we’ll replace them. Free of charge. No questions asked.’ I’m sure they mean it, but I’m also fairly sure you won’t need to ask them.

‘Darn Tough’ are the best merino wool socks I have found to date.  A great fit, moisture wicking, warm, colourful and antibacterial, I won’t be looking anywhere else for my hiking socks for a good while.

They are available in Dublin from Basecamp Outdoor Store and retail at €23.95 – €25.95.

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.

 

 

 

 

Accurate mountain navigation in misty conditions is one of the most important skills you can learn as a hillwalker. Mountain Rescue teams are regularly called out to hikers who have become disorientated by poor visibility in the mountains.  Always carry a map and compass, and have the skills to use them.

However, even the best navigators can make mistakes. By following the tips given below you can avoid making some of the common navigation errors and minimise the chances of becoming disorientated in the mountains.

  • In poor visibility, always take a bearing from a summit to determine your direction of onward travel. You may think you know the right direction to go, but a short distraction for a photograph or a rummage in your pack and you can quickly become disorientated and head off the wrong way. Taking a bearing from the map will ensure you leave the summit in the direction you intended to.
  • Always estimate your bearing first. For example, if your intended direction of travel is approximately due west, then the bearing will be in the region of 270°. If it is not then you know you have made an error, and need to check it again.
  • Remember to allow for magnetic variation, this usually means a small adjustment by adding a few degrees to your bearing. The magnetic variation differs depending on your location, you can find it somewhere in the margins of your map, usually in the legend. Check it out before you leave home and remember it, or write it down on your route card.
  • Write down any important bearings that might be needed during the day. This will avoid fiddly compass work in a possibly wet and windy location, and will reduce the chance of errors. You can write them into your route card. This is your overall route for the day, broken down into a series of ‘navigation legs’, with the essential information such as distance, bearings, height gain and escape routes, written down in the form of a chart.
Introduction to Navigation course - Route card
Route card for Moel Siabod in Snowdonia.
  • Make sure you keep your compass away from magnetic and metallic objects at all times, and especially when taking and walking on a bearing. They will deflect the needle in the compass and lead to navigational errors you won’t be able to correct later. Long term exposure of your compass to a magnetic source, such as your mobile phone, can result in permanent damage and reversed polarity of the needle, so store your compass in a location well away from your phone and other electronic devices.
  • When placing the compass on the map to take a bearing, remember to face the direction of travel arrow on the base plate AWAY from your current position and TOWARDS your target. This will avoid the classic error of the bearing being 180° out.
  • Accuracy is everything when taking a bearing, a small error in your measurement can lead to you missing your target completely in poor visibility. This is especially true over longer distance ‘legs’ as the error margin increases the further you travel.
  • Keep your map and compass flat (horizontal) when taking your bearing. Better still, go down on one knee for a more stable position with some protection from the wind and rain, rest your map on the none kneeling leg.
Introduction to Navigation course - Brockaghs
Accuracy is paramount when taking a bearing, even a small error can lead you a long way off route.
  • To ensure you are not wandering off your bearing it can be useful, while your start point is still in view, to take a back bearing. Turn to face your start point and line up the white end of the needle with the orienting arrow, rather than the red The direction of travel arrow should now be pointing at the start point. If it is not move sideways until it does, you are now on the right bearing and can turn back to face your travel direction.
  • Remember to measure the distance from your start point to the target. You can now pace this distance, or time it with your watch, to know when you should be at the target point.
  • It’s a good idea to keep a timing card in your pocket or somewhere handy. This has written on it the time it takes to walk over a range of distances at a variety of walking speeds. It will speed up your calculations and help eliminate errors when you might be cold and tired on the mountain.
Introduction to Navigation course - timing card
A timing card will make distance calculations easier and avoid errors.
  • Make sure the orientation arrow of the compass is pointing north when you are taking a bearing, have the top of the map, which always points to grid north, facing away from you. If you inadvertently line up the orienting arrow pointing south, the bearing will again be 180° out, an estimation of the bearing as above will soon pick this up.
  • If you struggle to manipulate the compass housing when wearing bulky gloves, try wearing lightweight liner gloves underneath. You can then remove the outer gloves and use your compass while still giving your hands some protection from the weather.
  • You should try to have up to three features of your target location that you can identify to help you confirm you are in the right place. A further feature, called a ‘catching feature’ should be identified from the map, and will tell you when you have overshot the target.
  • If things don’t look right and you are entirely unsure about your position, you can line up the white end of the needle with the orienting arrow. The direction of travel arrow on the compass housing will now point back the way you have just come. You can follow this back to your starting point, (your last known position), and begin the process over again.
DSC_1198
Navigating across open country.

If you want know more about poor visibility navigation, you can join one of our navigation courses for novices and improvers. Held at weekends throughout the year you can find out more on our website at: Mountaintrails Navigation Courses.

More and more of us are taking up hiking as a way of getting fitter, enjoying the fresh air, (a moot point perhaps when it’s grey and raining), meeting like-minded people and exploring the natural environment.  For some, heading out into the mountains for the first time can seem daunting, and it can be reassuring to join up with others in a club setting, or go with a more experienced friend or a guide.  Once you have ventured out a few times and listened to conversations about different clothing and equipment, the best routes to take, the secret of good navigation and even what’s in the sandwiches, you realise there is a lot more to this hiking business than you first thought.

Perhaps you feel you don’t want to be just one of the followers in a group any longer, maybe you want to plan and choose your own routes, and to have the confidence and the ability to take to the hills independently.

This is where the Mountain Skills scheme comes in.

Mountain Skills is a comprehensive navigation and personal skills course that will equip you with the basic knowledge and skills to enjoy the mountain environment in safety.  It is administered by Mountaineering Ireland, who appoints individual ‘providers’ to deliver the courses.  It is divided into three parts, Mountain Skills 1 and Mountain Skills 2 are the two training modules, and they each take two days to complete. The third part is the assessment, also over two days. There is no obligation to take all three parts, but you should clearly start with Mountain Skills 1 and progress from there.

Mountain Skills course with Mountaintrails

Navigation is an important aspect of mountain travel, and poor navigation is the single most common cause for calling out a Mountain Rescue team. No surprise then, that navigation features as a large part of the Mountain Skills syllabus. It’s not all about being able to use a compass; reading a map, relating it to the ground, estimating distance and recognising topographical features, these are all important parts of the navigators ‘tool box’.  Mountain Skills teaches you when and how to use each one to move safely and proficiently through the mountains.

The Mountain Skills scheme will also teach you how to recognise and deal with mountain hazards; the environment, weather, hypothermia and terrain hazards are some of the topics covered.  Personal equipment, movement skills and what to do in the event of an emergency are also looked at in detail.

Mountain Skills is not a leadership qualification, but it is a prerequisite if you wanted to move on to higher qualifications such as the Mountain Leader award.

To quote Mountaineering Ireland, “Mountain Skills is a foundation for personal mountaineering proficiency”.

Night navigation on a Mountain Skills course

Many hikers are now taking part in the Mountain Skills scheme, and see it as a great way to acquire the basic skills for safe and enjoyable mountain days, or to fill the gaps in their hillwalking knowledge.

More details of the scheme can be found on the Mountain Skills page of our website, or on the Mountaineering Ireland website.

Mountaintrails has been accredited by Mountaineering Ireland to deliver Mountain Skills courses.