In this webinar we discuss the upland flora of Ireland.

Starting in the valleys (Lowland Zone) and working our way up the slopes to the exposed and harsh mountain tops (High Montane Zone).

Ireland has a number of ecological zones in its upland terrain, from temperate rainforest to blanket bog, heath and montane plateau. Here we look at the characteristics of these ecological environments and introduce some of the strange and interesting plants that may be found there.

Produced by Russ Mills of

Long established with trainers and mountain professionals alike, using the five D’s at the beginning of each navigation leg, particularly when first learning these vital skills, ensures that no essential information is missed and adds structure to our decision making process when navigating in the mountains.

Mountain navigation is often complex and difficult, with steep and rocky ground and with the possibility of poor visibility. To make our navigation easier in this challenging environment it is important to break our journey down into a series of manageable shorter sections called ‘legs’. We can then navigate each leg in turn and reach our final goal safely.

At the start of each leg we should consider a number of factors and the five D’s approach ensures we do not miss vital information in our decision making.

Easy to remember and follow, the five D’s* are:

  • Distance – (how far is it)
  • Duration – (how long will it take)
  • Direction – (which way should I go)
  • Description – (What will I see along the way)
  • Destination – (What should I see at the end of the leg)

We can look at each of these in a little more detail:


We need to know how far it is from our current position to the end of our navigation leg (destination) to be able to determine the duration. This can be measured from the map using our compass, either the millimetre rule or the Romer.

the five D's

Remember to check the scale of the map:

On a 1:50 000 scale map 1mm equals to 50 metres on the ground.

On a 1:25 000 scale map 1mm equals 25 metres on the ground.

On the above example (on a 1:25 000 map) the distance is 20mm, which is 500 metres on the ground.


Having determined our distance, we can now set about calculating the time it takes to travel this distance. To do this we need to know how fast we walk and this varies for each individual, the terrain over which we are walking, the slope of the ground and whether we are fatigued or carrying a heavy load.

Most of us walk between 4 and 5 kilometres an hour on flat ground, but you will need to determine this for yourself.

To calculate the time for a set distance we can use a timing card, this not only speeds up the process but also avoids errors. Simply choose the row for your selected speed and read off the time for your chosen distance.

At 4km an hour over 500 metres it should take 7.5 minutes.

the five D's

The duration can also be measures by a method called pacing. This involves knowing the number of paces you take to cover 100 metres. By counting the appropriate number of paces you will know when you have reached 500 metres from your start point. Our gait, and therefore our paces per 100 metres, will vary with the angle of the slope and this is a technique that requires lots of practice to get right.


Possibly the most vital piece of information we need, which direction should we walk in? This can be determined in two ways, and will require a compass.

The first option is to orient or ‘set’ the map. This involves lining up the north direction on the map with the north direction on the ground and this can be done with either the landscape you see around you or with a compass.

the five D's

The image above helps explains how to do this, there is also a more detailed explanation in our blog on setting the map.

Once the map is ‘set’ we can determine our direction of travel by looking at our intended route on the map and walking in that direction.

A more accurate method is to take a bearing with our compass. This involves taking a bearing from the map and then following that bearing as we walk.

Taking and using bearings is one of the more complex navigation skills, one that takes most of a day on our Mountain Skills courses to teach, practice and understand. It takes even longer to master this skill and many a navigator has been undone by making an error when walking on a bearing.

For more information on taking and walking on bearing  check our blog or go to the Mountaineering Ireland YouTube channel.


An accurate description of what we will see as we walk the leg is essential. After all, how will we know we are going the right way if we don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

Are there any junctions in our path on the route?

Is there a distinctive feature we can see and note on this leg, the edge of a forest, a stream crossing or a sharp turn in a wall? These are called tick features and are important markers for us to use in our navigation.

Does the ground slope up or down, is the slope consistent or does it change gradient? Are there any distinctive contour shapes we can recognise on the map and look out for on the ground? (This is contour interpretation and a crucial skill to learn when navigating upland terrain.)

For more information on Contour Interpretation check out our blog here.

By checking what we see with what we are expecting to see we will know if we are on the right route.

the five D's


We need to know what our destination is going to look like. Is it a hill or a depression (saddle), or maybe the edge of a forest or a junction in a track?

What will happen if we go too far, or miss it to the left or right? If our destination is a hill top (summit) then if we go too far, we will begin to descend again. This is an important bit of information and is called a catching feature as it ‘catches’ us if we overshoot.

Whatever our chosen destination, and it must be an easily recognisable feature, we need to identify it on the map to be able to identify it when we arrive.


By adopting the five D’s when navigating we can be sure we have all the necessary information to complete our individual legs and to ultimately find our way successfully and confidently around the mountains in all conditions.

*Some trainers adopt four D’s, and some six, but the basic principles remain.


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

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mountaintrails will ensure that all events will be carried out in line with the advice from the Irish Government. This will be reviewed in the light of government policy.

We will be taking all possible precautions to keep everyone safe whilst participating in our activities.

  • TRAVEL – Mountaintrails will not be providing transport for clients during the pandemic. Clients should not car-share unless with a member of their own household.  Ensure you park responsibly, do not obstruct gates or lanes and always consider the local community and its residents.
  • SOCIAL DISTANCING – The current recommendation is that everyone should maintain a distance of 2 metres apart, we would expect clients to adhere to this. Social distancing rules will be reviewed in line with government policy.
  • ILLNESS – If you or a member of your group is showing any of the coronavirus symptoms; fever, dry cough or fatigue, please do not join the event. In addition, if you have been confirmed as having coronavirus in the last 3 weeks, please do not join the event.  In either of the above cases you will be given a full refund.
  • HYGIENE – It is important to wash hands for the prescribed 20 seconds wherever possible, before and after meals and after using the bathroom. Where this is not possible, i.e. on hikes in mountainous terrain, hand sanitiser should be carried by each client and used regularly after crossing styles, opening gates, toileting, cough or sneezing and before eating.  Clients should practice good cough/sneeze etiquette and use tissues whenever possible; these should be disposed of safely in a bin as soon as it is practical to do so.
  • GROUP SIZE – Group numbers will be set in line with government policy and will be reviewed as required.
  • EQUIPMENT – It will not be possible to loan equipment or clothing from our guides during the pandemic, so please ensure you have everything you need. Do not share or handle clothing and equipment with anyone outside of your household.
  • EMERGENCIES – In the event of an emergency requiring close contact between a guide and a client, we will ensure that both the guide and client are provided with face masks and that the guide wears suitable medical gloves. Biohazard bags will be available to dispose of used gloves, masks, dressings, tissues etc..

Clients should acknowledge that taking part in our activities does pose an increased risk of contracting Covid-19 and should accept responsibility for their own hygiene.

For more advice on outdoor activities during the pandemic please go to the Mountaineering Ireland website.

We are running a series of FREE navigation tutorials over the next few weeks.

These sessions are ideal if you wish to brush up on your navigation or are planning to take a Mountain Skills course in the future.

The tutorials are on Thursdays at 18.30 and repeated on Sundays at 11.30 and are free to join.

Topics to come are:

  • 14 & 17 May – Grid References
  • 21 & 24 May – Contour interpretation
  • 28 & 31 May – Using a compass
  • 4 & 7 June – Five D’s in a navigation strategy
  • 11 & 14 June – Planning your Day – Route cards
  • 18 June – Map Reading Skills
  • 25 June – Grid References
  • 2 July – Contour Interpretation
  • 9 July – Using a compass
  • 16 July – Five D’s in a navigation strategy
  • 23 July – Planning your Day – Route cards

To book a place drop me an email at, or via FB message, stating what day you are interested in and I will send you the link to use to join the workshop.

You will need to have Zoom downloaded to your phone or laptop, this is free and very easy to do.
#JoinTheAdventure #navigationskills

Glendalough sits in the Wicklow Mountains are a range of granite hills a short drive south of Dublin on the east coast of Ireland. Shaped by the glaciers that covered this land more than 12,000 years ago, they are now a series of rounded mountains and ‘U’ shaped valleys that rise to a high point of 940 metres but are more typically 600-800 metres high.

The poor nutrient levels of the thin soils and the dense peat that covers much of the hills, coupled with the high rainfall that leaches out what nutrients remain and forms an impenetrable ‘ironpan’, results in a sparse heathland cover of heather, sedges, bilberries and mosses.



Wild deer and a few sheep graze these hills, cropping the low vegetation and preventing tree regeneration. The lower slopes are forested with commercial conifer plantations, their dark interiors dripping with wet mosses and lichens, whilst a few areas of ancient oak and birch woods remain, and are now protected.

The Glendalough valley is a great place to start a hike, there is good parking, facilities and plenty of food and drink outlets. The waymarked paths can get crowded here on holidays and weekends, so this hike takes us away from the popular routes and onto a scenic ridge walk, with great views all around.

Glendalough translates from the Irish as the ‘glen of the two lakes’. Originally one lake, over time sediment from a stream flowing into the lough has eventually dammed it and cut it in two.




Our hike starts from the visitor centre, where we follow the ‘Green Road’ as it winds along the side of the valley through ancient woods preserved originally by the monks of the nearby monastery. We soon leave this behind us as we head up a narrow track through more oak and birch woodland to reach open country.

Our route now takes us steeply upward through heathland and pine plantation to the top of Derrybawn (482m), the start of the ridge and a wonderful place to enjoy the views of the sea, hills, valleys and mountains that surround us.

After taking in the views and catching our breath, we follow the ridge southwest, and as it broadens out we turn north west to take in our highpoint for the day, Mullacor, (from the Irish, Mullach Mhór, meaning ‘big summit’), at 657 metres (2,156 ft) high.


In the saddle beyond the mountain our path is crossed by the Wicklow Way long distance trail, here there is the shelter of some trees, and a good place to break for lunch.

Continuing on our way, we follow a track that traverses around part of Lugduff  hill before we join a wooden boardwalk path at the top of the steep cliff that marks the southern side of the glaciated valley of Glendalough.

This is the Spinc, and from here there are stunning vistas both east and west along the valley, with dizzying views down to the lake 400 metres below.

Heading east now we follow the boardwalk along the cliff top until it descends into woodland and past the beautiful Poulanass waterfall before reaching the valley floor.

From here we can return to the visitor centre, but not before we linger a while at the ancient ruined monastic settlement with its iconic round tower. Founded by St. Kevin, and built in the 9th– 12th century, these ancient early Christian buildings attract many visitors and are a major attraction in Glendalough.

This hike and many more can be found on website


Understanding contours and being able to interpret the shapes they make on a map is a very powerful navigational tool.

However, all too often contour interpretation is overlooked in favour of more obvious features such as streams and forests. An experienced and competent navigator will look at the contours early in the process and use the information they provide to make good navigation decisions.

What are Contours?

A map is a 2-dimensional representation of the 3-dimensional world. To be able to depict three dimensions on the flat surface of a map the cartographers employ a number of techniques. The most useful of these is using contour lines.

A contour line joins points of equal height, if you walked around a hill side at exactly 200 metres above sea level and placed a flag every few metres the line joining these flags together would be the 200 metre contour line. It would snake around the hill, in and out of the small valleys and around knolls, always staying at 200m above sea level, creating an imaginary line on the landscape. It is this line that the cartographers put on the map.

To give shape and meaning to the contour lines they are drawn every few metres apart. On most maps they are drawn at 10 metre vertical intervals, but they might be 5, 10, 15 or even 20 metre intervals, depending on the scale of the map and the level of detail provided (see below).


Contour interpretation


At regular points on the map the contours are numbered, this gives us the height above mean sea level of a particular contour line and helps us to determine the contour interval, the vertical distance between each contour line. In the image above the map on the left has 10 metre contour intervals and the one on the right has 15 metres contour intervals.  The numbers also allow us to determine which direction is uphill and which down.

The numbered contour lines are often depicted as thicker or bolder lines and these are called index contours.

When looking at the contours on a map many of you will intuitively know that when the contour lines are close together the ground is steep and when they are well spaced the ground is flatter. This is the beginning of contour interpretation, which really means understanding the patterns that contour lines make on the map.

Interpreting the Patterns

We know that the vertical interval (the distance between) the contours is constant, in the image below this is 10 metres. If the horizonal distance between each contour is large, as in the valley on the left, then the ground is very shallow. As the horizontal distance decreases and the contours get closer together so the ground steepens, to the point where they almost blend together in one thick black line. We can see this on the NE slopes of Binn an Choire on the image below. On shear vertical cliffs the contours would effectively be stacked one above the other and form a single bold line.

We can use this information to determine which ground is safe to travel over and which slopes may be too steep to negotiate safely.

Contour Interpretation


If we look closely at the contour lines on a map, we can see other patterns emerging. For example, if we look at the tops of the mountains we can see the contour lines forming circle like shapes, or rings, these are indeed called ring contours and denote a summit.

When we are stood on a summit of a hill the ground drops away from us in all directions and this gives us the distinct ring shapes as seen in the diagram below.

If we were to walk down the right-hand slope of the larger hill in the diagram we would be walking down a feature called a spur, which is denoted on the map as ‘v’ shaped or chevron contour patterns. Here the ground descends on three sides (ahead and to each side of us) and goes up on one side (back toward the summit).

As we reach the gap between the two hills there is a small flat area (point B at 103 metres) and this is known as a saddle. It may also be called a col or a bealach. Here the ground rises behind us and ahead of us and descends on either side of us and gives a distinctive pattern in the contours.

On the far side of the smaller hill there is a small valley cutting into the hillside. As the contours cross this feature the pattern they make looks like a series of inward facing arrows or chevrons. The contours here are said to re-enter the hillside and so are called re-entrants.

If you were to stand in this feature the ground would be rising behind you (towards the summit) and on either side of you, but would be dropping ahead of you as you looked down the slope.


These four contour shapes are summarised below.

SUMMIT – Ring contours, ground descends on all 4 sides.

SPUR – Chevron shapes to the contours, ground descends on 3 sides and rises on 1 side.

SADDLE – Flat area between hills, ground rises to 2 sides and descends on 2 sides.

RE-ENTRANT – A valley shape, ground rises on 3 sides and descends on 1 side.

Contour Interpretation

All the features we see in the landscape can be described as one of these four shapes, there are no others, so in learning to recognise these patterns on a map it is possible to interpret the shape of the ground and build a 3-dimensional picture of the landscape around you.

For example, if you look closely at a ridge line you will see it comprises a series of summit, spur, saddle, spur, summit etc.

The sides of the mountain may be cut by a series of valleys and smaller stream features which give a pattern of alternating spurs and re-entrants.

Of course, this simple explanation hides the complexity of mountain landscapes and the almost infinite variety of the four features described above, but they are there, as can be seen in the contour only map of the Maumturk mountains shown below.

Navigation features

Using Contour Interpretation in Navigation

Being able to interpret these patterns in the contours allows the competent navigator to know what the ground is going to look like in an area they have never seen before and to build a 3-dimensional picture of the route they plan to take.

Once mastered contour interpretation is a very powerful navigational tool that will enable us to navigate well in all conditions. By looking at the contours along our line of travel we will know if the ground is going up or down, whether it will level off and for how long, how much height gain there is before we reach the next summit and so on.

In combination with other navigational skills it will even allow us to navigate across open mountainsides in the dark as even with restricted visibility we will know if we are walking uphill or downhill.

It will enable us to locate our position easily by observing the shapes in the landscape around us and referring them back to the map to identify our current location.

We will be able to monitor our progress by using contour features as tick points, to continuously confirm our location and we will know if we have overshot our target by using them as catching features.

When training clients I sometimes refer to contour interpretation as navigating like a Jedi, and it is a very powerful skill to acquire, but it also requires a lot of practice to master. However, when you do the mountains will be your playground and you will be free of paths and signposts.

Russ Mills is the founder and owner of Mountaintrails a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Dublin.

For short video’s on this and other navigation topics check out the Mountaineering Ireland website training page.


In this post we hope to update you on our response to the Covid-19 pandemic; our refund/transfer policy, what we are doing now and how we will move forward in the future.

Cancellations, refunds and transfers

We have currently cancelled all activities to the end of April , as this is a very dynamic and fast evolving situation we cannot rule out further cancellations into May and beyond.
There will be a rolling program of cancellations going forward and once an event is cancelled  we will contact all participants to offer a full refund or the chance to transfer to a future date, the fee will then be held as a credit.  If at any point you wish to redeem the credit and take a refund instead we can also do this for you.

Online Resources, video links and social media

Though our courses and hiking trips have stopped temporarily, we are still here in the office to answer your emails and enquiries.  To keep engaged with our wide Mountaintrails community we will be posting regularly on social media platforms. Right now we are posting online resources for those involved with the Mountain Skills scheme with links to useful training videos and articles, so keep an eye out for these.
It’s also a great way to alleviate the tedium of staying at home…!
In addition we are posting photos from past events around Ireland and Britain, we hope this will raise all our spirits and remind us of great days in the past, and greater days to come in the mountains in the future.
If you happen to see yourself in one of the pics then why not give yourself a shout out on the post..!

Into the Future

Some larger events have already been rescheduled and where we can we will squeeze extra hikes into the calendar. Additional Mountain Skills courses have already been added in late summer and autumn 2020.
It will be a very full schedule later this year and we are looking forward to getting out into the hills with many of you then.

Take care everyone, be good to yourselves, #stayhome and #staysafe.

Russ Mills

Mountaintrails Team

I’m a bit of a winter glove obsessive.

I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s that I suffer with cold hands but I am constantly on the search for the perfect winter gloves and dip into outdoor stores regularly to check out the latest offerings.

So, what are the important features I am looking for when trying on new designs?

The gloves have ideally to be waterproof (though that is always difficult when there is a gaping hole where your hand goes in) be quick drying, have good insulation to keep your fingers warm, and have a reasonable amount of dexterity for doing fiddly tasks like opening rucksacks and tying in with the rope.

There is often a conflict between these features, a heavily insulated glove won’t give the optimum dexterity and a waterproof glove won’t be quick drying. Any winter glove therefore will be something of a compromise.


Winter gloves
Liner, fleece, short cuff winter and long cuff winter gloves

So, let’s begin with the standard fleece gloves.

They have some insulation and offer reasonably good dexterity; however, they are not in the least bit water resistant and will get wet very quickly. This renders them almost useless in winter and I am often replacing the soaking, cold fleece gloves of clients with a pair of my own winter gloves. Leave the fleece gloves at home in winter.

If, however, we cover our fleece gloves with a durable, wind resistant and water repellent outer layer we have the makings of a reasonable winter glove. Unfortunately, this will not provide enough insulation for the coldest mountain days and if sufficient insulation is added we lose the ability to close the hand and therefore that all-important dexterity.

It’s a fact that the palms of our hands are better protected against the cold than the back. Our fingers and palms have thicker skin and stores of fatty tissue, both of which will keep the palmar side insulated. In contrast the back of your hand has thinner skin and doesn’t have the same fat reserves as the palm, the blood vessels are also right underneath the skin. This makes the back of your hand much more sensitive to cold.

Good winter gloves will have thicker insulation on the back of the hand, often fibre pile, and thinner insulation on the palm side, either fleece or primaloft. This offers a good compromise giving reasonable dexterity combined with good insulation.

Our optimum winter glove is now beginning to take shape.

Winter gloves
The best winter gloves have a good balance of water resistance, dexterity, insulation and toughness

Further improvements can be made by extending the cuff below the wrist to make them into gauntlets. A lot of heat is lost through our wrists as major blood vessels lie close to the surface here. By extending the gloves in this way and adding an adjustable cinching cuff closure more heat is trapped inside.

Ideally, we would now add a waterproof membrane, like Gore-Tex, underneath the outer layer of our gloves. This would ensure they were waterproof as well as windproof. However, the benefits are somewhat limited as the large hole your hand goes in can also let in water. Waterproof gloves can take a very long time to dry out once they are soaked inside.

One solution is to wear water resistant gloves, with no membrane, and to change them for a dry pair half way through the day. They are cheaper than fully waterproof gloves but you would have to buy two pairs. It is always a good idea to carry at least 2 pairs of gloves in the winter anyway, in case you lose one during the day.

You can further enhance your glove options by wearing thin liner gloves under your thicker gloves. This gives you an extra layer of insulation as well as some protection for your hands if you have to take off your outer pair. If you take this option you will need to buy gloves bigger than usual to accommodate the liners. Note that if your gloves are too tight they will restrict the blood circulation and compress the insulation so it becomes less effective.

It is also very difficult to get wet hands into tight fitting gloves.

Finally, you can always opt for mittens.

They offer extremely good insulation and are windproof and water resistant. However, you lose all dexterity and you will have to remove them to perform any tasks with your fingers. In very cold weather oversize mittens can be slipped over existing gloves temporarily to rewarm cold hands and I have seen them used successfully for this purpose.

Ultimately our glove choices will depend on need, the tasks we want them to perform and available funds.

But remember, numb unresponsive fingers are very debilitating, so choose carefully.


Russ Mills owns and runs, a guided hiking and mountain training business based in Dublin.



This week sees the first significant snow of the season. With winter closing in perhaps it’s time to consider the plans we need to make to safely explore the winter mountains.

The winter mountains can be a magical place and offer some great rewards, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped hills are but a few of the wonders to be experienced at this time of year.

However, the Irish mountains can be an unpredictable place in winter too. With uncertain weather, they can also bring inherent risks such as strong cold winds; boggy and slippery terrain; rain, sleet and snow; shorter daylight hours and poor visibility.  To cope with the ever-changing nature of the winter hills it is best to be well prepared and equipped.

Plan and Prepare

Check the weather forecast the day before your hike, and check it again before you head out. Pay particular attention to the wind speed and direction. It’s always more difficult to make progress with the wind in your face than at your back, so be willing to alter your route to take account of this.

Check the expected temperature at your intended height, and make allowance for the wind chill, be prepared by carrying extra clothing if required.

Check the likelihood of precipitation, (rain, hail or snow), how much and when?

Plan your route before you go. How long will it take? How much ascent is involved? What type of terrain do you expect to encounter? Check the likely time it will take you against the daylight hours available, remember we move slower in the heavy ground conditions of winter.

Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, you will burn a lot more fuel in winter. Carry some extra calories in the form of sugary sweets in case of emergency.  There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Taking a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold will warm you up and is a great morale booster.

winter mountains


A map and compass are essential items for all hillwalkers. Do not rely solely on smartphone technology as batteries can fail when the phone gets wet and cold, which they frequently do in winter.

Carrying a map and compass on its’ own is not enough, 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 consider going on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.

(Check out our navigation courses here:


It is essential in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for vital grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter.  Couple these with a pair of gaiters which 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 important 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 a lot of water (sweat), and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy when you slow down or rest.


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.

Waterproof Jacket & Pants are essential 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.

To protect your extremities, make sure you have gloves and a warm hat. You will often see lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares in case you lose one. It’s also great to be able 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.

winter mountains


Here are 5 other essential items you should have with you when heading out into the winter mountains:

  • Warm spare layer or belay jacket. 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.


  • Survival or blizzard 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 winter mountains. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some extra layers to provide insulation.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • Goggles. Wind blown hail or snow can become a real hazard, stinging your eyes and making it difficult to navigate. A pair of ski goggles will allow you to make progress in even the most difficult conditions.

winter mountains

Finally, 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 winter mountains 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

I regularly get asked by clients if using hiking poles is a good idea and my answer may sometimes sound noncommittal, ‘well maybe yes, maybe no’.

In reality it is down to the individual to determine whether hiking poles are for them. To help with making that decision I have laid out the major advantages and disadvantages below.

But first it is important to use the right technique when using poles, otherwise many of the advantages are lost. I see far too many hikers using poles incorrectly, to the point where they are doing more harm than good.

Adjust the length of the poles so that your forearm is at the horizonal when holding the grip. In cold weather you should shorten the poles slightly to have your hands lower than your elbows, this will help the circulation of warm blood into your fingers.  You should also shorten the poles slightly when ascending steep ground, as you are placing them higher up the slope in front of you. Lengthen them again when descending steeply, as the ground is lower than your feet.

All this adjusting can be a chore, so clip-lock designs have a definite advantage over the twist-locking types.

Putting your hands though the straps as indicated will take a certain amount of strain off of your wrists. However, if you should take a tumble then the poles are flailing around your body, so some experienced users think it is better not to use the straps at all.

Keep the poles close to your body in both ascent and descent. Having your arms extended sideways so the poles act as stabilisers will not benefit your uphill and downhill progress, will ultimately reduce your ability to keep your balance and may act as a trip hazard for others around you.

In ascent use the poles slightly to the side or behind you, this will give added propulsion up the slope. On a steep descent, place the poles ahead of you, for support and braking.

One pole or two? This is a matter of personal preference, I often carry two poles but may only use one, leaving my other hand free to hold a map, camera or eat a snack!  Long term use of only one pole has been suggested by some to cause imbalance issues with the muscles and ligaments.

hiking poleshiking poles


  • Reduces the impact on joints, particularly in descent. Anyone with sore knees or lower body joint pain will benefit from using poles on downhill sections, it will also be of benefit to anyone carrying a heavy pack.
  • If you find balancing difficult when travelling over rocky or uneven ground, at night or through deep snow, then poles will definitely be of benefit.
  •  Using poles correctly will give a whole body workout, reducing the work done by the legs and adding work to the muscles in the core, arms and shoulders. This has the effect of improving your power and endurance on long uphill sections.
  • In river crossings a single pole can act as a ‘third leg’, increasing stability and safety.
  • In boggy conditions a pole can be used to test the ground ahead, to check if it is solid and will support your weight.


  • An incorrect technique can markedly decrease the value of using poles at all and can lead to muscle pain and injury.
  • They can be an inconvenience if you need to free up your hands. Be prepared to put away your poles if you need to use your hands for scrambling, to read your map, or to navigate with your compass.
  • Long term use of poles can lead to a decreased sense of balance, especially when used as ‘stabilisers’. Be prepared to put them away on flat ground and easy gentle slopes.
  • Carrying hiking poles adds extra weight to your pack when they are not in use. When stowing your poles ensure the tips are pointing downwards so as not to risk them becoming a hazard to others. Poles are best stowed down the side of your pack, either inside or outside.
  • The rubber tips on hiking poles often come off and consequently litter the hills, so leave them at home.


Russ Mills runs , a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Dublin.