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Essential Winter Walking Gear: A Guide For UK Mountain Adventures

Walking in the winter mountains can be an amazing experience, but the snowy, icy and cold conditions that make it so rewarding also significantly add to the seriousness of the day, especially when you compare it to a day out in the non-winter months.

Being well prepared and having the skills and equipment to look after yourself in the winter mountains will add to your experience, meaning that you can focus on enjoying the amazing vistas that only winter can give us.

Weather can be really unpredictable at any time in the mountains of the UK, but in winter the severity is upped a notch or too. Wind chill can be way below zero, days are shorter so it goes dark earlier and conditions underfoot can be icy or snowy, or both.

A great way of getting the skills you need to explore the winter mountains safely is to attend a winter skills course, or to head out with experienced friends and learn from them. However, all these skills are useless if you don’t have the basic kit with you to keep yourself warm and safe.

This blog will briefly outline the minimum kit that we’d take for a winter walk in the high mountains of the UK. For more information, feel free to drop us a message – we’d be happy to help you out.

Footwear

You want a warm, fairly stiff boot that will enable you to kick into hard snow to make steps. Your footwear should be able to take a crampon too. We recommend a B2 boot (but definitely no less than a B1). Read our guide on mountaineering boots or watch our video.

Crampons

These need to fit your boots. For a B2 boot, you want a C2 crampon. For a B1, a C1 crampon is what you’ll need. Not sure what all this jargon means? We’ve created a fantastic guide on how to fit crampons and created a video. Make sure your crampons are a good, tight fit on your boots.

Socks

Warm, breathable mountaineering socks work well. We love merino wool.

Trousers

Your author’s ‘go-to’ clothing system is to wear a thick base-layer on his legs, then a well fitted robust hardshell (aka waterproof) trouser over the top. Some people prefer to wear a softshell trouser, but we find that even on a nice day you’re going to get wet (snow melts!) and the hardshell layer not only will keep you dry, but it will keep the wind out too.

Other Clothing

A layering system works best as you can tweak this to deal with any changes in conditions. A warm, wicking base-layer with a fleece over the top, then the option to add more fleece type layers or even a thin insulated jacket over these is a good system. This all lives under a robust hardshell jacket, which will keep you dry and blocks the cold winter winds.

Having a spare warm jacket in the bottom of your pack is a good idea too – this is your emergency layer that can be put over everything else if you have to stop for a long period of time. Synthetic ‘belay jacket’ type kit works well as it retains its warmth when wet. Down is a bad idea in the UK as once it wets-out, its next to useless.

Gloves

Lots of pairs of gloves is key. Just buy 3 or 4 pairs of cheap ski gloves. When your gloves get wet (they will), your hands will get cold fast. Being able to swap to a dry and warm pair of gloves is essential. Your author carries at least 3 pairs, even on a ‘dry’ day.

Hat

This is an obvious one. Having a spare is a good shout, for when your main hat blows away in the wind!

Neck Gaiter

A Buff or similar is great piece of kit. It keeps your neck warm and can be used for a whole host of other things too.

Ice Axe

An ice axe is essential for walking in the winter mountains, as is having the skills to use it properly. An ice axe is used to arrest a fall on steep terrain, but more importantly, with the right skills is used to prevent this happening in the first place. For winter walking, a ‘walking’ or ‘alpine’ axe is ideal. A climbing shop will be able to advise you, or drop us a message and we’ll help.

Helmet

Sort of optional, apart from on the courses we run, but if you’re heading into areas where there are steep crags and slopes above you, having a helmet on makes sense as rock and ice fall is common.

Navigation Tools

This is a whole blog post in itself, but as a minimum you should have a map of the area and a compass, plus the skills to use both. Navigation in winter conditions can be challenging, so get yourself practised, or think about attending a winter-specific navigation course. Having a spare map is a good idea too – they like to blow away in the wind, like your hat did!

Rucksack

We find that about 35L works well to carry all the kit in this list, without being too big and unwieldly.

Food & Drink

Eating a sit-down picnic in the winter isn’t very practical, so consider bringing food that can be eaten while you’re moving, or while you’re doing another job like putting your crampons on. Drinks-wise, this is very personal. Some like a flask of coffee, others don’t. Your author takes hot juice.

Headtorch

Days are short in winter and it’s quite likely that at least part of your day will be in darkness. A headtorch with fresh batteries, plus a spare set, is essential.

First aid kit

You’re not going to be carrying out any major medical procedures on the hill, so keep it simple. We carry some plasters, pain killers, blister kit and a dressing to stop a bleed. That’s it. A quick Google will find lots of videos on how you can improvise making things like splints and triangular bandages with the kit you have, such as a Buff.

Bothy bag / emergency shelter

This is essential in winter. If you or a friend get injured and have to wait for help you are going to get very cold, very quickly. A bothy bag is sort of like a tent, but without any poles or structure. You put it over your heads and sit on the fabric to stop it blowing away. It forms a little micro-climate that will keep you warm and out of the wind while you wait for help.

A foil silver ‘blanket’ (the sort of thing that comes in First Aid kits or you get given at the end of your 10K run) is useless – if anything, get one of the vacuum-packed insulated versions from companies like ‘Blizzard’ https://www.blizzardsurvival.com – these are excellent. We carry a bothy bag AND an insulated foil jacket/bag on all our winter adventures.

Repair Kit

Crampons and other kit sometimes break on the hill. At best this can just be an annoyance, but it could also really compromise your ability to move around safely. Carrying a small repair kit is a good idea. We carry a few strong zip-ties, some gaffa tape (a few meters wrapped around an old credit card works well), a hex wrench to tighten any crampon bolts and a small multi-tool (one with pliers is a good shout). A short length of cord is a good idea too, to fix snapped laces.

Waterproofs

We mentioned these above, as we wear them all day. But just in case you don’t and are using this as a tick list, here’s a reminder! Robust, well fitted waterproofs work well. Winter can be tough on gear.

Mobile phone

These days we have the technology to contact the emergency services from pretty much anywhere on the hill. Having a fully charged phone is essential. Keep it close to your body so that the battery doesn’t get cold and be conscious that using it for things like taking photos is going to run that battery down. Having a battery pack isn’t a bad idea so that you can charge it if you need to.

We hope that this list is helpful. Being prepared for whatever the mountain can throw at you means that you can focus on enjoying the incredible conditions that winter brings.

If you need any help or advice, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Si at Highland Ascents

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