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Winter Hiking – The Essentials

Winter Hiking Essentials

With some snow already present in the Scottish Highlands it looks like winter is about to arrive to our mountains and bring with it the inherent problems of poor visibility, cold weather and challenging terrain. To ensure you don’t get caught out when venturing into the winter hills it’s time to prepare for the harsher hiking conditions to come.

Here is a check list of the things to consider before heading out.


Make sure you are dressed for the conditions you are likely to meet when winter hiking. Warm and wicking baselayers are a must, they will keep you dry and comfortable close to your skin. Remember cotton is not acceptable to wear in winter as it holds moisture (sweat) which will chill your body once you stop working hard. Marino wool is very popular for winter baselayers, as is woven polypropylene or polyester fabrics.

Hybrid merino/polypropylene mix baselayers are available to give the optimum mix of comfort, warmth and moisture wicking.

Your mid layer should provide insulation, consider replacing the mid layer fleece with a light synthetic insulated jacket, or maybe fibre pile to make sure you are warm enough.

Make sure you have enough warm clothing for the conditions.

Winter Hiking essentials

Be prepared for the worst..!

Softshell pants (trousers) that will protect from cold winds and keep off a shower or two are essential, but you must also have reliable waterproof pants in your pack, for when the weather gets nasty.

Make sure your waterproof jacket is up to the job, reproof if necessary, or upgrade if it is no longer keeping the rain out. Check out our blog on waterproof jackets here:

Good hiking boots are essential in winter, they should have a have an aggressive sole pattern for good grip in the wet and offer good support around the ankles in case of slips. Most importantly your boots should be waterproof, either incorporating a waterproof inner layer such as goretex or being constructed primarily of leather.

Remember to clean your boots regularly, dry them, and reproof with wax.

Gaiters are a useful addition in winter to keep the muck out of your boots and to protect your lower legs from wet and mud.


Make sure you have packed your rucksack with winter hiking conditions in mind.

Be prepared for the reduced daylight hours by packing a fully charged headtorch, and take a spare if you have one, just in case.

Always carry a head torch in winter.

Winter Hiking Essentials

Always pack a torch when hiking in the winter months

Change your lightweight summer gloves for insulated winter gloves, consider taking two pairs as it is so easy to lose one and you will be in difficulty without spares. It’s also great to be able to change into dry gloves at lunchtime..!

See here for glove advice (

Oh, and don’t forget to take a warm beanie hat.

Upgrade the spare layer in your pack to a synthetic puffy jacket, down works best in cold and dry conditions but doesn’t work at all well if it gets wet. A synthetic jacket can be put on over your existing layers, even in the wet, and will provide vital warmth if you are forced to make an unscheduled stop.

Pack an emergency shelter if you have one, a 1 or 2 person shelter is ideal for exposed lunch stops or emergencies, and larger group shelters are available for leaders and clubs.


Shelter in Winter

Carrying a shelter in winter is an essential safety measure

Take a flask of hot drink to warm you up and remember to pack plenty of high calories snacks, you will burn more fuel in the winter due to the cold and the difficult conditions.

Navigation will be more challenging in the winter, so take a spare map and compass in case yours is blown away, broken or lost.

Finally, make sure your pack is big enough for the extra gear, 35/40 litres should be sufficient.


It’s vital to check the weather forecasts before heading out in winter. Check several days before your trip, the night before and again in the morning of your hike.

Check the temperature and make adjustments to your clothing and kit for the forecasted mountain conditions. Be prepared for a big drop in temperature as you climb higher. Temperature decreases by approximately 1 degree Celsius for every 100 metres you climb, so it can often be 8 degrees colder on summits than in the valley.

Be prepared for rapid changes in the weather

Winter hiking on Lugnaquilla

Winter Hiking on Lugnaquilla

Rain is unpleasant at best but at its worst it can cause rivers to swell, blocking your way ahead and forcing a change of plan. It can make the terrain very slippery and slow your progress when boggy. It will also add considerably to the threat of hypothermia if your underlayers get soaked.

Wind is the game changer, strong winds will make the day very hard to negotiate, and in extreme conditions can blow you off your feet, with the risk of injury or death. Strong wind will also add significantly to the risk of hypothermia.

If the wind is forecast to exceed 40km/hr it is likely to have an impact on your day. See below:


Effect of wind speed on hiking


Wind felt on exposed skin


Hair ruffled, loose clothing flaps


Hair disarranged


Walking inconvenienced


Steady walking difficult, knocked sideways by gusts


Walking with great difficulty and your foot not always landing where you intended.


People blown off feet, walking becoming dangerous


You may be blown over, or blown several metres by gusts. Walking extremely difficult: progress may be crawling at times. Link arms as a group to keep smaller people anchored down.



Finding your way in winter can be tough, hill fog is a very common at this time of year and many hikers find moving through the mountains in poor visibility very challenging.

If your navigation is a bit scratchy then you need brush up on it. There are plenty of online resources and tutorials to help you. YouTube is a useful resource with plenty of instructional and helpful videos.

To navigate safely in the winter mountains you should be comfortable with a map and compass and be able to walk on a bearing across open hillsides.

Don’t rely only on your phone.

Winter Navigation

Make sure your navigation skills are up the scratch, and don’t rely on your phone..!

If this is beyond your skill level at this stage then think about going on a navigation course, or taking part in Mountaineering Irelands Mountain Skills program.

Finally a cautionary note, if there is a lot of snow and ice about then you will need to take an ice axe and crampons and know how to use them. These are specific skills that are taught on our Winter Skills Weekend in Scotland.

See here for details:

The winter hills can be great fun, offer amazing views, and give us some of our most memorable days in the mountains. With proper preparation we can enjoy winter hiking safely and competently.

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