Last weekend saw the first significant snow of the season on Ben Nevis. With winter close at hand 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.
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: https://mountaintrails.ie/mountain-courses/)
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.
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.
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 www.mountaintrails.ie.