Getting Prepared for Winter Hiking
Winter Hiking

While very few people can get out into the hills at the moment, when we are able to travel again winter will have arrived in the mountains and with it the inherent problems of poor visibility, harsh weather and challenging terrain. To ensure you don’t get caught out when venturing back into the hills it’s time to prepare for the winter hiking conditions to come.

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

DRESS TO IMPRESS

Make sure you are dressed for the conditions you are likely to meet when winter hiking. Warm baselayers are a must, and remember cotton is not acceptable wear in winter. Think marino wool or hybrid merino/polypropylene mix baselayers for comfort, warmth and moisture wicking.

Mid layer fleeces will need replacing with a light synthetic insulated jacket, or maybe fibre pile to make sure we are warm enough.

Winter hiking
Make sure you have enough warm clothing for the conditions.

Softshell pants (trousers) that will protect from cold winds and keep off a shower 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. (See https://mountaintrails.ie/waterproof-jacket-not-waterproof/)

Good walking boots are essential, they should have a grippy, aggressive sole pattern and offer good support with a degree of stiffness and most importantly, be waterproof.

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.

WINTERIZE YOUR PACK

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.

Winter Hiking
Always carry a head torch in winter.

Change your lightweight summer gloves for insulated winter gloves, take 2 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 (https://mountaintrails.ie/winter-gloves-making-the-right-choice/)

Oh, and don’t forget your warm beanie hat.

Upgrade your spare layer to a synthetic puffy jacket, down is lovely but doesn’t work effectively if it gets wet. A synthetic jacket can be put over your existing layers, even in the wet, and provides vital warmth if you are forced to make an unscheduled stop.

Pack an emergency shelter if you have one. In these covid times big group shelters are out, but a 1 or 2 person shelter is ideal for exposed lunch stops or emergencies.

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

BE WEATHER AWARE

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 temperatures and make adjustments for the mountain conditions. I am still surprised by the number of people whole don’t realise how much colder it is on the Lugnaquilla plateau than it is in the valley below. 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.

Winter hiking
Be prepared for rapid changes in the weather

Rain is unpleasant at best, but at worst it can cause rivers to swell, blocking your way ahead, it can make the terrain very slippery and add 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, causing injury or worse. 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:

KMPH

Effect of wind speed on hiking

5-10

Wind felt on exposed skin

11-20

Hair ruffled, loose clothing flaps

21-30

Hair disarranged

31-40

Walking inconvenienced

41-50

Steady walking difficult, knocked sideways by gusts

51-60

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

61-70

People blown off feet, walking becoming dangerous

70+

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.

GET YOUR NAVIGATION UP TO SPEED

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.

Winter Hiking
Poor visibility navigation skills are essential in winter.

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

To navigate safely in the winter mountains, you should be able to walk on a bearing using a map and compass. If this is completely beyond you at this stage then think about going on a refresher course, or taking part in Mountaineering Irelands Mountain Skills program. See here: https://www.mountaineering.ie/TrainingAndSafety/ClubTrainingAndMountainSkills/MountainSkillsTraining/default.aspx

Finally a cautionary note, if there is a lot of snow and ice about then take an ice axe and crampons and know how to use them.

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