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.