When considering how to ascend or descend a particular section of steep terrain, whether steep wet grass or a rocky outcrop, it is important to make a personal judgment on your ability to safely negotiate the ground ahead of you.
When assessing the risk to your personal safety it can often be useful to think in terms of a chart of the likelihood of a slip, and the possible consequences of such a slip occurring.
This is depicted below in the form of a traffic light system, green (safe); orange (caution); red (danger):
The likelihood of a slip is can be considered as either:
- Low (not likely to slip here)
- Medium (there is a chance I might slip)
- High (there is a good chance I might slip here).
Equally the consequences of such a slip can also be considered as either:
- Low (very little chance of injury)
- Medium (some chance I might get injured)
- High (very likely I will get injured)
If both likelihood and consequences are low, when you are ascending easy angled ground for example, then the chart puts us firmly in the green sector, safe to proceed. This is also true for a low likelihood of a fall but a medium consequence, green again.
If we venture into ground where there is a medium chance of a fall, and the consequences may result in injury (medium consequences) then we are into the orange zone on the chart. A warning to take care.
If we consider the likelihood of fall to be medium or high, and the consequences to be high, then we are entering the red territory on the chart and need to think very carefully before proceeding.
The likelihood of a slip will change depending on the prevailing conditions. Wet or icy ground will make a slip more likely, as will high winds.
This assessment of risk is personal to the individual, what someone considers a moderate or high risk is often determined by their personal experience and level of skill.
Ultimately this is your decision to make, take care.
Russ Mills is the founder of Mountaintrails.ie, a guided hiking and mountain training company based in Dublin.
As the warm, dry summer gives way to the cooler and wetter conditions of autumn, you might be considering replacing your hiking boots.
However, how do you make sense of the bewildering array of styles and designs available?
The first thing to consider is the type of terrain are you likely to be using your footwear on. Footwear is now produced to suit all grades of hiking, from simple trails to high altitude mountains, and understanding this will help you narrow down your selection considerably.
In the better stores you may see boots classified as either B0, B1, B2 or B3. This is simply a measure of their stiffness, and hence the suitability of high mountain use. All hiking boots will be B0, low stiffness, and this makes them ideal for walking in as they have a reasonable amount of flexibility in the sole. B1 and B2 boots have increasingly stiffer soles and are used for climbing and mountaineering. B3 boots are often made of plastic with a good deal of insulation and are designed for high altitude climbing in the Greater Ranges.
In the ever-increasing push for sales, manufacturers now produce footwear to cover every possible usage and terrain type.
To simplify it down a little let’s look at the five most common styles:
Trail shoes are lightweight and comfortable, with a flexible and soft sole, they are low cut with no ankle support. They look very much like runners and perform in a similar fashion. They might also have a waterproof liner which would be effective in wet grass and small puddles.
These shoes are only suitable for walking trails and made up paths in dry and warm conditions, and the shallow sole pattern reflects this. They certainly would not be suitable for open mountainsides and rocky terrain.
Mid -height Lightweight Boots
This is a very common style of boot found in the footwear departments. They are lightweight, comfortable and require no breaking in, they can be worn straight out of the box. For this reason, they are very popular as a first-time hiking boot. They would be classified as B0.
They will be manufactured from stitched fabric with maybe some leather in parts, andhave a Gore-Tex or similar internal membrane to make them waterproof.
The ankle ‘cuff’ will be what is called ‘mid-height’, this allows for a degree of ankle support without feeling too stiff and restricting. It also protects your foot from (shallow) water seeping over the top and twiggy debris and small stones getting into the boot.
The boot will be flexible and soft, not ideal for rocky mountain terrain, and the sole pattern can range from quite shallow to a much more aggressive pattern.
These boots are best for summer use in upland areas, hill paths and easier mountains in Ireland and the UK. I have used this type of boot in summer alpine conditions, the Atlas Mountains and even on Kilimanjaro.
Full-height general purpose Mountain Boots
This type of B0 boot has a higher ankle cuff to support the foot, the uppers will comprise some stitched fabric but may predominantly be made of leather for improved weather proofing and ruggedness. It will also have an internal waterproof membrane. It may have a rubber ‘rand’ around the edge to protect the foot from bumps and guard the boot against abrasion on rocks.
The sole pattern will be quite aggressive, with a distinct heel step, which serves to give better grip on slippery ground and in descent. The boot will be a little stiffer and heavier as a result, but still with enough flexibility to make it comfortable to walk in.
This boot type may be worn straight from the box, but would benefit from a little breaking in before you took them out on a big day. Good for all upland terrain in Ireland and the UK, both on and off trail and would suit those hikers who head across open mountainside and moor in most weather.
They would not be suitable for full winter conditions where there is a lot of ice and snow about, and would generally be too flexible to take a crampon.
Designed for rocky alpine ascents, scrambles and difficult mountain terrain, this style of boot is similar to the mountain boot above. It would however be a good deal stiffer and more supportive, and will be in the category of B1 or B2. This could make them uncomfortable to walk in over a long day and therefore they would not be ideal as a hiking boot, though some hikers find the extra stiffness a help when suffering foot problems
They will have a heel notch to take a crampon for winter use, and may be cut a little tighter in the toe box to allow for a bit of ‘feel’ when climbing.
Winter Hiking Boots
Usually classified as B2, these boots are solidly made, stiff and with an aggressive sole pattern. A high ankle cuff is standard, as is a waterproof membrane and some insulation to keep the foot warm.
Specifically designed for winter use they will have fittings for attaching crampons, and a large ‘rand’ for protection. Heavier than the other styles here, they are made for use in snow and ice in the higher mountains of Ireland and the UK.
Russ Mills is the owner of Mountaintrails.ie, a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Dublin, Ireland.
Time: 6.5 hours Distance: 13km Height gain: 1040 metres
Galtymore is the highest inland mountain in Ireland and at 919 metres, is the 14th highest in the country. It sits squarely on the border between Tipperary and Limerick and forms a majestic centre piece for a tough horseshoe hike that takes in three great mountains, Cush, Galtybeg and Galtymore.
Galtymore is most often climbed from the south, via the black road, but this easier ascent misses out on the stunning views of the mountains north face, and of the several corrie loughs that sit under its imposing shadow.
Our route begins at the forest car park at Clydagh Bridge about 5 km west of Rossadrehid. From here follow the minor road uphill for a few hundred metres to a stile on the left that leads to a wide path over rising heathery ground.
Continue uphill keeping the forest boundary to your left until you reach another stile, turn right here and ahead of you is a faint path that leads to the increasingly steep northwest spur of Cush.
Push on to the summit at 639 metres, where your route for the day unfolds before you and the mighty bulk of Galtymore dominates the valley.
Head south down the broad spur to reach a boggy saddle where before you lies the steep ascent to Galtybeg, a thigh burning 320 metres of steep grassy hillside and a somewhat daunting prospect. Stay strong, as the views from the summit of Galtybeg are stunning and the rocky crest gives ample shelter from any chilly westerly winds, making it a good spot for a lunch stop.
When you are rejuvenated head west and down to the badly eroded and peaty saddle before another longish pull up Galtymore. At 919 metres this fine mountain qualifies as one of the Irish Furth’s (a mountain over 3,000ft), and is the county highpoint of both Limerick and Tipperary.
The elongated summit ridge is marked by a large cairn at each end, the first of these being the higher and the true summit. Between the two sits Dawson’s Table, a flattish area of sandstone conglomerate rock, upon which sits a much-photographed white Celtic cross around 2.5 metres tall. Spare a kindly word also for the recently erected small statue of Buddha sitting on the broken trig pillar nearby.
A truly multi-cultural mountain!
Once the obligatory photographs are taken head west again to the second cairn before descending to a large boggy open area, bounded to the right by a steep drop and to the left by a stone wall. The wall acts as a navigation aid in poor visibility, and you can handrail it in a north-westerly direction until it funnels you towards the steeper ground below Slievecushnabinnia.
A faint path now leads you north, and gently rises before descending down the broad north spur of Slievecushnabinnia. In poor visibility care should be taken with your navigation here as it’s easy to lose the path on the hillside. Eventually you will reach a large cairn which marks the downward route on a clear path, follow this to a small hump and then follow post markers to the forest edge. Go over the stile and follow the well-made paths and forest roads back to the start point.
Russ Mills is the owner and principle guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for over 40 years. Mountaintrails guide hikes up Galtymore several times each year, you can find more details on their website at:
Time: 6.5 hours Distance: 13km Height gain: 1040 metres
The Mweelrea Massif encompasses five tops, aligned around an imposing horseshoe, and with two major named summits, Mweelrea (814 m) and Ben Bury (795 m).
Mweelrea sits in the southwest corner of Co. Mayo, on the northern side of Killary Fjord, where its imposing crags dominate the skyline. It is the highest peak in the province of Connaught and one of the great mountains of the 4-Peaks Challenge*.
The easiest and most often used route to the summit involves a start near the Silver Strand, on the western side of the mountain. However, this ascent though quicker than the route described here, misses out on some of the best rock architecture in Ireland, which is seen in the stunning north facing glacial corrie of Lugmore.
Our route starts at a road side pull-in on at the northern end of Doo Lough (GR L828 696), there is room to park several cars here but if you are a big group it would be better to park in Leenane and car share from there.
Follow the northern edge of the Lough crossing a shallow stream before picking up a rough track that leads you southwest towards the mountain, you will need to cross another stream, this time using stepping stones or the makeshift bridge 50 metres north.
Follow the track until it reaches some old sheep pens. From here follow the stream into the corrie over rough ground which is pathless and very wet after prolonged rain. Make your way to the back of the corrie where to the left side you will see a steep grassy bank between imposing crags. Make your way up this bank and around large blocks of fallen rock to where a small path heads up right, this is the start of the well-known ‘Ramp’.
You will now find yourself surrounded by magnificent cliffs and crags rising high above you for almost 400 metres. The rocks hereabouts are purple hued sandstones and conglomerates, laid down as river deposits during flash flood events some 450 million years ago. In some fallen blocks you can see the large pebbles, now lithified, that would have been washed into a broad basin by these long-ago rivers and subsequently raised up as mountains.
There is now an intermittent path to follow, winding its way up through the steep grass and scree of the Ramp. As you near the top the angle shallows and the Ramp narrows as the ground drops steeply away to your right. Exercise caution here as a slip on the precipitous scree or the rock steps would have very serious consequences.
Very quickly you will emerge onto the open mountainside by a cairn that marks the start of the descent route, up to your right are the open rocky slopes of Ben Bury.
Head in a generally westerly direction for around 1.5 km, contouring the slope at first and then gently descending left to reach the bealach (col) between Mweelrea and Ben Bury. This section is pathless and care should be taken in misty conditions not to drop too low and drop into the crags above Lough Bellawaum.
From the bealach set off south up the rocky slopes to reach a grassy cliff edge and the final few metres to the summit of Mweelrea which is marked by a small cairn (814m). On a good day the views from here are stunning, to the west you look down 800 metres to the coastal islands, while to the south lies the broad inlet of Killary Fjord and beyond that the pale mountains of Connemara and the 12 Bens.
Once you have had your fill of the views and photographed all you can, make your way back down to the bealach and this time head up the broad spur that takes you northeast to the rock strewn elongated ridge of Ben Bury (795m), the summit marked by a cairn with a rudimentary cross. More delightful views greet you, this time north to the Mayo coastline, Clare Island and Croagh Patrick.
Follow the summit ridge east to a second larger stony cairn before descending southeast down a gentle slope to reach the cairn that marks the top of the Ramp. This can be hard to locate in poor visibility so take extra care with your navigation here.
More care is required as the top part of the Ramp is negotiated again but once past this section you can enjoy the magnificent views of the cliffs ahead of you.
The steep descent back down to Lough Doo can seem arduous for tired legs but the sense of satisfaction is palpable, as is the thought of the cup of tea that awaits you in the Blackberry café back in Leenane.
Finally, a word of caution, this can be a difficult route in wet, windy or icy conditions. The narrow section at the top of the Ramp being particularly awkward. In poor visibility navigation can be difficult, finding your way back from Mweelrea to the cairn at the top of the Ramp is particularly challenging.
In these circumstances you would do much better to start your ascent from the Silver Strand and save this route for a clear weather day……
Russ Mills is the founder and principle guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for over 40 years. Mountaintrails guide hikes up Mweelrea several times each year, you can find more details on their website at:
* The 4-peaks challenge involves climbing the highest point in each of the four provinces: Mweelrea in Connaght, Carrauntoohil in Munster, Lugnaquilla in Leinster and Slieve Donard in Ulster. It is most often attempted over 3 days.
Water is essential to life, and a lack of it will soon lead to serious health issues and ultimately to death. A lean person comprises around 70 – 75% water, losing just 1% of this will leave you dehydrated, losing 2% and things are getting serious.
Water carries heat away from the vital organs and transports it to the surface through your skin, where it is removed as sweat. The sweat evaporates from the surface of your skin and this cools you down.
If you do not replace this water you will quickly become dehydrated. Being dehydrated effects the efficiency of our muscles, and adversely effects concentration and decision making.
So how do we ensure we stay hydrated in hot weather? Here are our tips to staying hydrated in the heat.
- In hot weather drink before you begin your hike, up to 500ml if possible and drink it slowly over a period of time, as you are driving to the start point for example.
- Drinking plain water is good, but during intensive exercise or excessive heat you need to replace lost electrolytes, which are essential minerals and salts lost when you sweat and which are vital for the correct functioning of the body.
- Make your own electrolyte solution by mixing water and fruit juice in a ratio of 1:1, add a few pinches of salt. This will also contain around 6% carbohydrate, the same as in expensive energy drinks, but with less sugar and zero caffeine.
- Drink when you begin to feel thirsty, it is better to drink a little and often, rather than chugging down large amounts in one go. How much you need to drink depends on the level of exercise, the temperature, your own level of fitness, and your body mass.
- Check the colour of your pee, it should be a light straw yellow colour, if it’s a lot darker than this then you are dehydrated and need to drink more.
- Remember to drink after your hike too, skimmed milk is absorbed well by the body and has plenty of the essential electrolytes you need, as well as protein, which aids muscle recovery.
- In some instances, drinking too much can lead to a rare condition called hyponatremia, where important salts such as sodium are flushed from the body. This can result in a serious brain swelling condition and is life threatening.
- Try to keep your body as cool as possible. Cover exposed skin with light clothing, wear a hat to protect your head and try to wet it when you can in a stream, if possible wet a buff/neck tube and wear it around your neck to cool the blood going to your head.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and skills training business based in Dublin, Ireland.
On a recent winter hike with a group of clients to Lugnaquilla mountain (930 metres), I decided we had to turn back when we were on the plateau, and tantalisingly only 1 km from the summit cairn. Why did I do this and what were the thought processes that led to this decision, when is it a good time to turn back?
There is an old mountaineering saying, ‘The best decision you will ever make is the one to turn back’, and it is often true. To make this crucial call there are a number of criteria that must considered, and here I have outlined those I feel to be the most important.
The prevailing weather conditions are a crucial factor when considering whether to continue or turn back. What is the weather like now, how will it change as you continue the ascent, what will it be like on the descent?
High winds are a game changer in the mountains, having a profound effect on safety and morale. What is the strength of the wind, how will this change as you ascend, will you become more or less exposed to it if you continue?
Strong winds, (those over 50-60km/hr), are going to slow your progress, and will significantly increase the risk of you being blown over and perhaps injured. In addition, walking into a strong headwind for a number of hours will sap both your energy and morale. Remember that the wind will strengthen as you gain height and can be more severe over saddles and at the top of corries.
The temperature is also an important factor to consider. As you gain height the temperature drops by approximately 1.0 – 1.5°C for every 100 metres of ascent, so if it is 1 or 2°C in the valley it could well be -10°C on the upper slopes of Lugnaquilla, for example. If it is a cold day, then coupled with the wind, you may have a considerable wind-chill to take into account. Do not underestimate this, on a day when it might be -5°C on the mountain, a strong wind can give a wind-chill of -15°C or more, stripping heat away from your body very quickly.
Precipitation can add significantly to the chilling effects of the wind and cold, soaking gloves and hands and leaking through waterproof clothing to wet the layers beneath. Perhaps not so obvious at first, snow is less of a problem than rain or sleet. Is it raining, or is it likely to rain soon?
Effective Equipment & Clothing
Do you have effective equipment and clothing to deal with the conditions anticipated? Your boots should be suitable for the terrain you are on, sturdy and waterproof boots with good grip are essential for the uplands of Ireland and Britain.
Is your waterproof clothing going to keep you warm and dry in heavy rain? Wet clothes can result in you loosing up to 20 times more heat than when you are dry. You should have enough warm layers, either in your pack or being worn, to cope with the conditions, as well as a warm hat and gloves, plus spares.
Physical & Mental Condition
How are you and your companions feeling? Are you tired, hungry, cold, dispirited or exhausted? Maybe you are feeling strong, in good spirits and ready for the challenge. You should also ensure you have enough high calorie food to last the day, to keep your energy levels up. Be honest with yourself and consider are you able to continue with the hike as planned.
These are important factors to take into consideration when deciding if and when to turn back.
Think about how long it might be before you reach more comfortable terrain and more sheltered conditions, down in the valley or perhaps under the cover of crags or trees.
If you did a route card when planning the hike, monitor your real progress against that predicted, check if you are on time or well behind the clock. If you continue on, consider how much time you have before it begins to get dark. Do you have the time to get down in the daylight, and do you have a torch in case you get caught out in the dark?
Implications of an incident
All of the factors above will have a bearing on how you might manage an incident, should one occur. If you have an enforced stop due to injury or illness could you cope until help arrives, given the weather conditions you find yourself in?
Finally, think about changing your route if the circumstances dictate, perhaps you can do the hike in reverse and keep the wind at your back when on higher ground. If you are already committed to the hike then remember to have your escape route(s) planned and be prepared to use it if things get tough, or you get behind on time.
There is another commonly used mountaineering phrase, ‘If you think it’s time to turn back, then it probably is’. If your gut feeling is that something is not right then give some thought to the above, change your plans if necessary, and stay safe.
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails.ie, specialising in guided hiking and mountain skills training, and based in Dublin, Ireland.
High wind in the mountains can be a real game changer, it can have a profound effect on safety and morale. It can make it feel much colder than it actually is (wind chill effect), and can be unpredictable in direction and speed.
Strong winds, (those over 50-60km/hr), are going to impede your progress, and will significantly increase the risk of you being blown over and injured. In addition, walking into a strong headwind for a number of hours will sap both your energy and morale. Add significant gusting and you will be constantly adjusting your balance, foot placements and forward momentum, all of which can be very tiring.
The speed and direction of the wind can be unpredictable in the uplands. As the moving air is pushed over a mountain range it is squeezed between the mountains and the top of the troposphere, causing the wind to speed up. It is nearly always windier, therefore, on mountain tops than in adjacent valleys. The wind is forced over ridges and through saddles, increasing in speed, and making these places more hazardous in stormy weather. The topography of the valleys and mountains often means the wind can be gusting, swirling about and rapidly changing direction, adding to the difficulties of keeping your balance and stability.
High winds will often make it feel colder (wind chill), this can bring about rapid cooling of the extremities, the head and hands in particular. The effect of wind chill is to increase the rate of heat loss to the surrounding air. Prolonged cooling can lead to hypothermia and frost nip, both very serious conditions.
Cold and wet weather can be dealt with by adequate clothing and equipment, but strong winds mean you may have to change your plans. Here is our assessment of the effect of wind on your ability to move effectively, and what to do about it.
|Wind speed in km/hr||Effect on you||What should you do?|
|Less than 20||Negligible||Continue as planned|
|20-30||Unlikely to affect your balance or control. At these windspeeds in winter a temperature of 0C will have an equivalent wind chill of around
|Add an extra warm layer.
Prevent small items from blowing loose.
Goggles will be useful in winter conditions.
|30-40||You will begin to feel the buffeting effect of the wind. Progress into a head wind will become more laboured. It will be harder to maintain your balance when walking.||Keep way from steep and exposed ridge lines. Secure your map and tie down loose clothing and secure toggles to prevent them whipping around.|
|40-50||Walking will become more difficult. Energy output will be significantly increased. Expect a greater risk of being blown sideways and off balance.||Consider changing your route to avoid a head or cross wind. Be prepared to shorten the day. Check companions for signs of hypothermia and frost nip, particularly in winter.
Navigation will become more difficult.
|50-60||Walking will become very challenging. There is a strong chance of being blown off your feet.
|Link arms with weaker members of your group. Try to move between the worst gusts. Get off the hill by the safest and easiest route keeping away from steep windward drops.|
|60-70||As above||If you must venture out in these conditions then keep to the valley floor.|
Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain training business based in Dublin, Ireland.
Hiking the winter hills:
The winter hills can be a magical place and offer some great rewards to the willing hiker, crisp frosty mornings, misty valleys, long reaching views and snow topped mountains are but a few of the delights to be experienced at this time of year. But the Irish mountains can be a daunting place in winter too. With unpredictable weather, they can also bring inherent risks, such as icy cold winds, grey boggy hillsides, torrential rain, shorter daylight hours and low cloud with poor visibility.
To cope with the ever-changing nature of our Irish hills in the winter it is best to be well prepared. It is vital in winter to have good waterproof hiking boots with an ‘aggressive’ sole pattern and a good step in the heel for essential grip in the wet and slippery conditions you will encounter. Couple these with a pair of gaiters, they 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 essential 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 up to 25 times its’ own weight in water, and the hollow fibres of cotton won’t release it easily, so it stays with you and makes you feel cold and clammy.
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.
In addition to your clothing, there are certain essential items you should have with you when heading for the winter hills.
12 things you should definitely carry in your winter rucksack:
- Waterproof drybags. Put those items that you want to ensure stay dry into drybags for extra protection from the winter weather. Use a rucksack liner too, to ensure all your kit stays well protected from the elements.
- Waterproof Jacket & Pants. Invest in a good waterproof jacket and waterproof pants. These are essential items to 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, that is adjustable.
- Gloves & Hats. Take several pairs. You will often see lost gloves and hats in the hills, so take spares to use in case you lose one. It’s also great 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.
- Warm spare layer. 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.
- Food and Drink. Always ensure you have plenty of high calorie food available, and bring extra in case you are delayed and have to spend more time outdoors. There is no rule concerning how much liquid you should take, though 1.5 litres is a good guide. Take a hot drink in a flask when it is going to be cold.
- First Aid Kit. A bare minimum would be an ‘ouch-pouch’, this could consist of sticking plaster, antiseptic wipes and blister plasters, such as Compeed. You may feel you want a more comprehensive kit, but do get training in this case, and do not carry what you are not competent to use.
- Survival 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 mountains. You might consider upgrading this to a ‘blizzard’ bag, which has some added 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.
- Map and compass. Essential items for all hillwalkers, do not rely on smartphone apps as they can get wet and cold and then fail. Carrying a map and compass is not enough on its’ own, 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 go on a course to learn how to master these essential skills.
- Emergency whistle. Many rucksacks now come with an integral whistle in the chest strap. Six one second blasts on the whistle, repeated after a short break, is the internationally recognised emergency signal. The reply from the rescuers is three blasts. It makes sense to carry one.
- Duct Tape. This amazing versatile tape has a myriad of uses, from repairing torn waterproofs to temporary boot repairs. (Wrap some round your water bottle or walking pole).
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 hills in the winter 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.
Before being able to take a compass bearing it is essential to understand the relationship between True North, Grid North and Magnetic North. (Part II, walking on a compass bearing, will follow next month).
The Three Norths
Grid North is the navigational term for the northward projection of the north-south gridlines on a map. In Ireland it lies to the east of both True and Magnetic North.
True or Geographic North is aligned with the Earth’s axis and points to the geographic North Pole, the axis on which the Earth is spinning. In Ireland it lies west of Grid North and east of Magnetic North.
Magnetic North is defined as the direction toward which the north-seeking, (red) arrow of a compass points. Magnetic North is the northern pole of the Earth’s magnetic field and it deviates from True North over time because the earth’s magnetic poles are not fixed in relation to its axis. The current magnetic north pole is located in the Arctic Islands of Canada and is moving very slowly eastwards. In Ireland it currently lies west of both Grid North and True North.
The relative positions of Grid, True and Magnetic North will vary, depending on where you are in the world.
For the purposes of mountain navigation in Ireland and the UK, True North can be ignored.
Magnetic variation is the difference in angle (in degrees), between Magnetic North and Grid North. It varies from place to place, and with time.
In those countries that do not use a grid system, magnetic variation is the difference in angle between Magnetic North and True North.
When taking a bearing from the map, we initially align the compass with the north-south grid lines, or Grid North. However, the red end of the compass needle is pointing to Magnetic North, and we must make a small adjustment to the bearing for this.
Information on the magnetic variation for a particular area can be found in the margins of the map. To calculate the Magnetic Variation we need three pieces of information from the map. 1) Year of map update. 2) The rate of decrease (or increase) of magnetic variation. 3) The current year.
From this information it is possible to calculate the adjustment applied to the compass bearing.
At the present time in Ireland the magnetic variation should be added when taking a bearing from the map to follow on the ground.
In The Wicklow mountains the current magnetic variation (2017) is 4.0 °
Taking a Bearing
- Place the compass on the map so that one of the long lines on the base plate, (or the compass edge, though this is less accurate), is touching both your starting point and target point. Ensure that the ‘direction of travel arrow’ is pointing towards your target point. (diagram 1)
- Hold the compass firmly on the map and rotate the compass housing until the orienting lines in the base of the housing are lined up with, (running parallel to), the north-south grid lines on the map; and the orienting arrow is pointing north. (diagram 2)
- Take the compass off the map and read the bearing at the index line on the compass housing. This is the Grid Bearing. (diagram 3)
- Calculate the magnetic variation for your location and add or subtract this from the grid bearing. Adjust the bearing at the index line accordingly. This is the Magnetic Bearing.
- Hold the compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing directly away from you. Turn your whole body until the north end of the needle lines up with the orienting arrow (put red in the shed). The direction of travel arrow is now pointing you towards your target.
To learn more about mountain navigation, or to join one of our very popular Mountain Skills courses, go to:
Many of us have an altimeter as an integral part of our mountain watches, but how many of us know the skills of navigating with an altimeter?
Here are 5 tips on how to use an altimeter as a navigation tool.
Before we begin however, a note of caution, altimeter watches rely on barometric pressure to calculate altitude and as the barometric pressure fluctuates so does the altitude reading, and this can lead to serious errors if not addressed.
It is important to re-calibrate the altimeter regularly by re-setting it to the correct reading when a known altitude is reached, such as a summit, col or spot height. Read the height from the map, and adjust the altimeter accordingly. This is particularly important in areas where the pressure may change rapidly as weather systems track across the globe, for example over Ireland and the British Isles. Here adjustments should be made every couple of hours, as and when the opportunity presents itself.
- Knowing how high you are (absolute altitude)
Knowing how high you are (your altitude) and how far you still have to climb is a great way of monitoring your progress. This is particularly helpful on a long uniform slope with little in the way of landmarks, or when visibility is reduced as clouds descend or when night falls.
In poor visibility, reading off the altitude can indicate if you are at the summit of your mountain, or merely a lower, subsidiary top.
- Ascent rate
Checking your ascent rate is a great way of monitoring your progress. By checking both your increasing altitude and the time taken you can estimate your arrival time at the summit.
For example, if you have a 1,000 metre climb to undertake, and you have completed the first 200 metres of ascent in 30 minutes, then it should take you another 2 hours (4 x 30 mins) to reach the summit. You can check your progress against the estimated arrival time, and if all is going well, reach the summit. Equally, you can re-assess your plans or turn back if you are falling well behind the clock.
- Descending a slope
If you are descending a slope, perhaps in poor visibility, and you are required to make a change of direction to avoid steep and craggy ground, check the map for the height at which you need to turn off and when your altimeter reads that height, you can make the necessary change. (In the example below this is at the 790m contour).
This technique would work equally well if you were ascending a slope and needed to change direction.
- Traversing (Contouring)
Maintaining the same height as you traverse around a slope, (following a contour line), can be notoriously difficult in bad weather. There is a strong tendency to lose height as you go, and drop down the slope.
Checking that the altitude reading on your watch remains constant allows you to maintain your height and traverse the slope without any problems.
- Relocation (Aspect of Slope)
This navigational technique can be combined with an altimeter reading to determine your exact location on that slope. In the example below the altimeter reads 600 metres, which places you at the red cross on the map.
Used in combination with other navigation skills, and your map and compass, an altimeter can be a valuable addition to your navigation toolbox.