Walking in the hills and mountains in winter can provide some of the most amazing experiences. A hike through the snowy countryside brings stunning scenic rewards and can offer new challenges. But walkers do need to take extra care in winter. Here we bring you a guide to winter mountain safety.
Brush up your skills: Many mountain guides and outdoors companies offer day and weekend courses in winter skills and techniques. These might include techniques such as walking in crampons, ice axe arrest and building a snow hole. It is a good idea to take an avalanche awareness course, too.
Check before you go: Look at weather forecasts in the area where you plan to walk – and be prepared to make last-minute changes if there are high alerts for wind, snow and avalanches. Remember too that the UK weather can change very quickly and the higher you go, the colder and wetter it becomes.
The wind chill factor: If the forecast says windy, you should remember that the wind in winter will be far colder and more severe at high altitudes than in summer. Walkers need to take into account the speed and chill of the wind before choosing a location for walking.
The deathly overhangs: Known more technically as cornices, these are formed when snow is blown by the wind and deposited on steep leeward sides of mountain summits and ridges. A big build-up can lead to huge cornices and it might not be immediately obvious which part of them is on solid mountain and which part is simply over-hanging. The basic principle is to steer clear of cornices.
Winterise your rucksack: Make sure you have adequate clothing and kit for a winter walk. Pack more than you think you’ll need including extra layers, map and compass (even if you are planning to navigate by GPS), spare GPS batteries or an emergency phone charger, a survival bag, goggles and a torch.
Tell others your plans: Make sure that someone knows where you plan to walk and when you are likely to be b ack. Always phone this person the minute you are safely off the hill.
Walk with others: Winter walking on your own adds extra risks to your adventure so try to team up with one or two experienced walking friends.
Know what to do in an emergency: If things go wrong, you need to have a plan. Prepare this plan before you leave home. It’s vital that you know how to call for help and what information you should leave with a designated point of contact. Read "How to make emergency contact" so you know what you would do in a remote area where there is no mobile signal.
How to make emergency contact: At the most basic level, if you have a mobile phone and it has a signal, call 999 (or 112). Ask for the police and relay information as requested. If appropriate, the police will contact mountain rescue, who will call you back. If you do not have a phone signal it’s possible to send an EmergencySMS but you must be registered to use this service. This service is very useful because it can often relay a text message when voice calls are not possible.
Register for EmergencySMS:
1. Send the word "register" to 999
2. You will then receive a message about the service
3. When you have read the message, reply with ‘yes’ (in a text message to 999)
4. You will receive a further message confirming registration, or that there has been a problem with registering your phone.
Do you know what hypothermia is? Hypothermia can strike when walkers are in cold and wet conditions, or if they have physically over-exerted themselves or are lacking calories. Read more about hypothermia and what to do if it strikes.
Food and drink: You'll use more energy walking in the mountains in winter and the chances are you’ll be out for longer because a walk in summer doesn’t require you to walk through knee-deep snow. Make sure you carry good supplies of high-calorie food and lots of water. Even when you are cold you will sweat, which can lead to dehydration.
Expert navigation: Knowing how to navigate in the hills and mountains is vital at any time of the year but in winter it’s far more likely that you’ll need to use these skills. Learn from an expert and practise the technique frequently before heading into the winter countryside.
Don't let all these points put you off winter walking, however. With the right skills, knowledge and kit, the wintry hills and mountains can offer a truly fabulous walking playground.