Walking

Winter Hiking: Planning and Safety

winter-hiking-planning-and-safety

As autumn draws to a close and we look towards winter, many people will expect to be stuck inside as the snow falls and the temperature drops. However, many walkers will say that winter is their favourite time to take to the trails. Winter transforms the landscape completely and while this presents new challenges, it also offers a wealth of rewards for those willing to brave the cold. We’re going to look at some of the basics of winter walking and hiking so you can still enjoy the outdoors come winter.

 

Planning

Planning is essential for going outdoors at any point of the year, but in winter it is hands-down essential for a safe and successful day out. First of all, plan on where you’re going to go. If you’re new to winter walking, it’s best to start off with lowland areas as with steeper inclines comes more dangers. Once you have a plan, leave a copy with someone before you leave, if something goes wrong, they’ll be able to seek help and know where to look, this of course relies on you sticking to your pre-determined path.

Where

There are plenty of well-laid-out flatland walks across the UK and you can still traverse these beaten tracks in winter. In general, they won’t have the harsh uphills or higher altitudes characteristic of the more challenging trails, and it’s easier to prepare for a flatland walk. Moving on from there, you can opt for hillier moors and slightly more difficult treks. As inclines get steeper, there’s a greater risk of losing your footing and this must be taken into account with your kit and technique.

While you may have done several mountain hikes earlier in the year, in winter these are a completely different beast and it’s advisable to avoid plunging into the deep end without seeking expert advice and training, and keep in mind that specialised kit such as ice axes and crampons might be necessary to your undertaking.

Conditions

There are many ways you can thoroughly check the weather conditions before you head out. The most obvious is to scan the weather forecast for the area. If the already cold weather is getting an extra leg up through heavy snowfall or high winds, visibility will most likely be poor and it may be a better idea to change your plans. The Mountain Weather Information Service is an excellent resource for planning trips, as is the MET office.

Additionally, you can contact local bodies for more specialised information on outdoor conditions and if you’re going to be treading on mountainous areas, you should learn about the risk of avalanches and make yourself aware of what to do and not do in such circumstances. If conditions look tough and you think may face a white-out, don’t hesitate to call off the trip – it’s better to avoid risks altogether unless you are completely and fearlessly confident in your abilities.

Timing

If you’re going to be hiking this winter, plan to set off early. In winter, the hours of sunlight we get are greatly reduced and if you happen to get lost midway throughout your hike – even when you think it’s still early – it’s easy to find yourself bracing the dark all of a sudden. As a result, it’s very important to know what time the sun is setting and how long after to expect darkness, and plan accordingly.

It’s also wise to take extra batteries for your torch and even a spare light source, as it’s surprisingly easy to experience unexpected delays due to unforeseen circumstances, and in general, hikes always take longer than you plan them to. Remember to tread carefully in the dark to prevent injury.

Navigation

These should be second nature to hikers at any time of the year but become all the more significant in winter. Routes can be harder to spot, making it much easier to get lost. This is why you need to have an accurate map of your route and the surrounding area, along with a compass and proper knowledge of how to use both. A GPS is also an option if you like gadgets, and can prove very useful for simple and clear navigation. These will set you back on the right path if you start to suspect you’ve lost your way. You should keep your map in a case too, as snow and moisture could penetrate it and render it useless. Map protectors are cheap and highly useful; they don’t ever need to be replaced as long as you take good care of them. These will also play the protagonist role in your quest for direction and orientation if visibility becomes obscured.

winter-frost

 

Gear

While a lot of the gear you will need is the same all year round, there are considerations you need to take into account to ensure safety in these new conditions and changing environment. The temperatures in winter are much lower and added precipitation will cause the ground to be much less stable. Visibility can also become an issue in some conditions, so dress to tackle the elements and take a look at our hiking gear checklist before heading off to make sure you’re well-equipped with a strong and sturdy kit for winter hiking.

Clothing

Enemy number on in winter is the cold, so it’s necessary to make due plans for how to tackle it. As always, you should follow an effective layering system. Start off with base layers; Merino wool is a good choice as it’s widely used for its amazing insulation properties, and you can pick up a top and bottoms set that will last you for a while and cover use in a diverse array of contexts.

Mid-layers should be a thick fleece with good insulation, and if temperatures are very low you could even opt for a lightweight padded or down jacket for top-notch insulation. Your outer layer should be your waterproof jacket. It’s possible to choose one with padding for added warmth, although this can’t be removed so it may be a better idea to opt for layers you can control to prevent overheating.

Accessories

Hats and scarves are a must for the winter months. Get yourself an insulating, fleece-lined beanie or even a balaclava to provide full coverage for the face and head. Try to wear a scarf that won’t get in your way; a neck warmer is your best choice and you can find styles with additional fleece patches for your neck, which is one of the body’s most susceptible areas to the cold.

Ski gloves are a great alternative for winter hikes as they boast the best waterproof and breathable combinations so you can use your hands for stability on steeper points. Gaiters can help keep snow and moisture out of your boots and trouser legs; this is a good idea for deeper snow.

Sunglasses will help combat the glare reflected off of the snow, and if the snow is falling, you might also wish to opt for ski goggles for comprehensive protection. These will help keep your view clear and maintain acceptable levels of visibility around you.

Footwear

In the winter months, you need boots that have a robust grip so you don’t lose your balance or slip. Boots should have a sturdy sole so a metal shank is a good option to provide ample stability. Your boots should create a base for you to stand on, so you need the soles to cut into the snow and find a solid footing. High-ankle boots will also insulate heat better while keeping deep snow out, although this can also be remedied with gaiters, as we’ve mentioned before.

 

Emergencies

Should you have an accident or find yourself in trouble, try to stay calm. If you can, find a sheltered spot where you can at least get out of the wind or snow and if you have a signal, you should call 999 straight away and ask for the police, who will be able to contact mountain rescue services. If you don’t have a signal, you can use a whistle to call for help – which means you should be carrying one on your person at all times. Three whistle blasts is the standard distress signal. If it gets dark and you find yourself trapped, a torch can be used for signalling as well as navigation. Remember that if you find yourself lost and don’t know where you’re going, carrying on in the void could simply make matters worse. Stop and seek help patiently instead.

Companions

In winter you should always aim to travel with others – that way you’ll have someone to support you and help you out if something goes wrong. When travelling with others, it’s important to travel at the slowest person’s pace and not let anyone stray away on their own. Everyone should be fully briefed on the route and plan for the day prior to setting off as misunderstandings between team members could itself lead to issues.

 

At the end of the day however, take the time to enjoy the picturesque winter scenery. The landscapes change completely in the winter months and it truly is a sight to behold. Winter walking is rewarding and invigorating, although as we’ve seen, carries more risks than usual. Most of all, plan well, know what to expect and start small. Let us know what your winter walking plans are in the comments section or connect with us via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

Last updated: July 23, 2018 at 9:40 am

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