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How to stay safe hillwalking in winter

Crisp, clear days and the crunch of snow under foot is an idyllic winter walking scene. But hillwalking in Scotland during the winter is a serious undertaking that requires additional skills to those needed in the summer.

It’s not just a case of having the right kit such as warm clothing, hats, gloves, ice axes and crampons (essential as those may be!). We’ve teamed up with Mountaineering Scotland to provide some helpful advice for those winter days on the hills and mountains. It’s time to #ThinkWINTER.

Consider your experience and don’t be too ambitious

Winter days are short, and while snow-covered hills are great to look at, they’re also hard work. You’ll be walking at a much slower pace than you would in summer, and it’ll be more difficult too. Start with easier goals and work your way up as you gain experience. This applies to your companions too: you may be experienced, but don’t overestimate your friends’ experience or abilities.

Be flexible and ready to change your plans

Don’t be fixated on one hill or mountain! Weather and conditions can be changeable and vary widely across the country so it’s a good idea to have more than one option in mind. You should be checking the mountain weather forecast and snow avalanche conditions for about a week before your planned trip, so you are well prepared for what you’re going to find when you take to the hills.

So what should you look out for?

  • Heavy snow will probably indicate a raised avalanche risk;
  • A thaw, or heavy rain, will mean river and stream crossings will be more difficult or even impossible;
  • Wind direction can also affect avalanche risk; and
  • Wind speed on the day can lower the temperature dramatically.

Mountain weather forecasts can be found at the Mountain Weather Information Service or at the Met Office. Avalanche conditions and forecasts are available from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Know where you are going

Your ability to navigate is crucial in winter as paths are likely to be covered by snow. Whether you’re using a GPS, an app on your phone, or a map and compass, you need to be able to follow a route with no reference to a path. Have a good look at the map in the comfort of your home to identify danger points such as river or stream crossings, or steeper sections which might prove too difficult in some conditions. If there are places like this on your route you should identify alternative routes to avoid them, or at least to get back to your car or accommodation safely.

This may sound complicated and a lot of hard work before you’ve even started packing your rucksack, but being aware of the dangers can make all the difference between being the person who has a wonderful experience and makes great memories, and the person who ends up in a dangerous situation.

You can find more information on the necessary kit and skills required for winter mountaineering from Mountaineering Scotland.

This blog post was written in partnership with Mountaineering Scotland.

#ThinkWINTER is a campaign led by Mountaineering Scotland to help people get the most from their winter in Scotland’s hills and mountains without putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

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