Tops tips for safer winter walking
Walking in winter can offer some of the most rewarding challenges – and the most magical landscapes. But hiking in snowy hills and mountains also comes with a serious warning label. There is a far greater potential for walking accidents, including avalanches, slips and falls.
So you might imagine that mountain rescue volunteers would prefer all walkers to hang up their boots at the end of the summer and put them on again in the spring. But not so. In fact, the truth is the opposite.
Ian Dawson, a training officer with Lomond Mountain Rescue, says: “The dangers of the winter hills and mountains are obvious, including much less daylight hours, poor weather and avalanches.
“And every year our team are called out to people caught out by early evening darkness or those who are not dressed and equipped to deal with the cold, snow or a sudden weather change.
“However, I wouldn’t discourage walkers. Not at all. But they really do need to be prepared for the dangers that winter walking can bring.”
Winter safety campaign
And as winter approaches in Europe, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has also issued their annual warning to would-be hill-goers.
Their winter safety campaign this year focuses on “skills not gear”.
Heather Morning, the MCofS Safety Adviser, says: “Ice axes and crampons are an essential part of kit for winter. But they can be a liability rather than a lifesaver if you don’t know how to use them.
“Every winter brings its toll of accidents, and so many are due to a simple slip while walking on what might be simple ground under summer conditions.
“Learning how to use crampons safely can prevent that slip, but they can also cause a trip if you don’t know how to use them.
“It’s the same with an ice axe. It's a real lifesaver if you know how to use it to stop a fall, but it becomes a potentially deadly weapon whirling around your body if you don’t know how to prevent that slip turning into a longer fall.”
There are other winter skills, such as being able to navigate in poor visibility and avalanche awareness, that are also essential to for walkers in the winter months.
Heather adds: “People may be experienced hill walkers but there is no hill walking in the Scottish mountains in winter – it’s mountaineering.
“And mountaineering demands additional skills as well as a higher level of existing skills and experience.”
Top tips for winter walking safety
Wrap up warm:
Good quality, winter walking boots
are essential. Several baselayers instead of one thicker layer will help to maintain your core body temperature. The essential outer layer for winter walking is a windproof and waterproof jacket. Always add waterproof trousers, hat and gloves.
Winterise your walking kit:
Carry a larger rucksack in winter and make sure it includes spare clothing including baselayers, an insulated jacket
and gloves. Add snacks, water and a hot drink. Other items for your winter walking rucksack include an emergency blanket or bivi bag, a head torch, a mobile phone, GPS and first aid kit.
Don’t leave home without a map:
Ian, like Heather, states that winter walkers need to have the right kit and know how to use it. “It’s vital that every walker’s winter rucksack includes a compass and map, and that they can effectively and safely use them. Likewise, crampons and an ice axe are often required for higher level walks but there is little point to these unless you can use them properly."
Use your commonsense:
Before you go out for a walk, check the weather and avalanche forecasts. Good websites include:
MWIS at www.mwis.org.uk
Met office at www.metoffice.gov.uk
Sport Scotland Avalanche Information Service at www.sais.gov.uk
Mountaineering Council of Scotland at www.mcofs.org.uk
Don’t keep secrets:
Walk with a friend and always tell someone else where you are going and when you’re expected time back home.
Know your skills for winter walking
If you are new to winter walking, a skills day or weekend is a vital part of staying safe. Ian says: “I’d advise walkers who are going off the beaten track and in snow to do a navigation course, avalanche awareness course and a basic first aid course.
“Even the most experienced summer hills walkers can be caught out by a sudden change in the weather or conditions and it’s important that you know how to navigate yourself back to your start point when there is little to see around you – and what to do if someone falls ill or becomes injured.”
Glenmore Lodge winter skills courses
The MCofS run heavily subsidised winter skills courses based at Glenmore Lodge, near Aviemore. A weekend course runs from December 20 to 22, while there are four one-day courses running from January 4 to 8, 2014.
There are also two one-day avalanche awareness courses, based at the Nevis Range ski area north of Fort William, designed for people with winter experience but who want to increase their knowledge of snow and avalanches.
Six more winter skills courses in the UK
Winter skills courses at the National Mountain Centre Sports Centre
Mountain winter skills courses in Wales and Scotland with Guided Mountain
Scottish winter skills five day course with Expedition Guide
Scottish winter skills with Talisman Activities
A range of winter skills courses with Abacus Mountaineering
Winter courses in the Lake District with Summit Treks
Heather concludes: Having the right equipment – ice axe and crampons, head torch, snow goggles, hat and gloves, as well as the correct clothing – is always essential. But everyone’s heard the expression ‘All the gear and no idea’. Don’t be that person. Get clued up for winter.”