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Packing for winter walking

Image for article Packing for winter walking

Walking in winter presents a few extra challenges compared with the more benign summertime.  

Shorter daylight hours, cold conditions, as well as snow or ice on the ground, focuses us to reassess our plans for going on the fell. Here’s how to upgrade your summer kit to help make the experience a little safer and more pleasant.

Staying warm

It’s sensible to carry some extra insulation year round. Borrowing an idea from climbers, a ‘belay jacket’ is a synthetic or down jacket that can be thrown over all your other layers (including a waterproof) for instant warmth when you’re stopped. In summer something light will do a great job, or even an insulated gilet.

However, in winter you are likely to need more warmth so a dedicated garment with a hood will be a better idea. Down is always going to give the best warmth for weight, but many now prefer synthetic insulation due to its greater water resistance.

A sit mat is also a great idea for breaks to keep your bum off the frozen ground!

Hats and gloves are also a definite requirement for winter. Extremities get cold very quickly and trying to open a rucksack with icy fingers is not something you want to have to deal with. Several pairs of gloves in case you lose one, or a pair get wet is a good precaution. A light pair of close fitting fleece gloves is great for keeping your hands warm whilst retaining some dexterity, while a warmer glove or mitt with a waterproof membrane will be ideal for worse conditions.

There are a whole variety of hats available; those with a windproof lining are great for cutting out an icy draught, and in really bad conditions a balaclava will give the most protection. Whether summer or winter a Buff is light enough to be carried without thinking about it and can be fashioned into a whole range of headwear.

Navigation

You should be carrying a map (we stock Ordnance Survey and Harvey) and compass year round but there are a few ways you can ‘winterise’ these vital bits of kit. Having spares of each in your pack is a great backup just in case you lose either, particularly if you are on a multi day trip. Putting paper maps in a map case protects them from the rain, but a laminated OS Active Map or Harvey map printed on waterproof paper is ideal for use in really bad weather. You may be more reliant on your compass, so a model with a longer baseplate allows you to take more accurate bearings and often includes a roamer scale for taking more accurate grid references.

If you want additional reassurance while navigating, then a GPS device or watch is ideal. We stock models from Garmin, Satmap and Suunto; please just ask us for advice on which is best for you.

When things go wrong...

There is always the chance that you may need rescuing, so it is sensible to plan for this eventuality. There could easily be a wait of several hours before the Mountain Rescue Team reaches you, so you need to be able to stay warm for at least that long. Some sort of shelter from wind and rain is therefore important. At the very least a survival blanket will cut out some of the wind and provide a little insulation. A survival bag is better as it can cover your entire body, giving greater protection.

The gold standard (short of an entire tent) is probably the survival shelter. Otherwise know as a KISU or Bothy Bag, these are lightweight boxes of water resistant material, big enough for two or more people to get inside. To keep the weight down, there are no supporting poles, so the fabric just sits on the heads of the occupants. These cut out the wind and trap shared heat, creating a warm micro-climate inside, and is the most effective way of keeping warm and relatively dry.

Communication

It is, of course, vital to contact help as well as keep yourself protected from the elements. Mobile phone coverage in the mountains is quite patchy and so shouldn’t be relied upon. Maximise your chances of using any signal by keeping your mobile phone turned off to extend its battery, and carry a backup charger.

Also remember that a text message is far more likely to get through than a voice call; register for the Emergency Text Service at emergencysms.org.uk so you can use this facility. The most common injuries in the mountains are to people’s lower legs. A fracture is likely to be impossible to walk on, but with a simple sprain you may have other options. Carrying a First Aid Kit with some painkillers and bandages to strap up an ankle may get you as far as a point where you can get a phone signal or at least to some shelter. First Aid Kits are of no great help without the knowledge to use them. There are a variety of Outdoor First Aid courses available, some of which will also double as First Aid at Work courses. See if your employer will pay for one, and kill two birds with one stone.

A whistle is great for attracting attention in an emergency. The International Distress Signal is six blasts, with a minute wait, then another six continued for as long as effective. Don’t forget that many rucksacks have a whistle built into the buckle of the chest strap.

Lighting

Shorter days make it more likely that you will be descending in the dark, so a head torch becomes even more important. In summer a small, less bright torch may be adequate for using in the dusk or around a campsite, but if you want to be able to navigate then plenty of light is preferable. We carry a wide range of head torch options from Petzl.

Crampons and ice axe

Whether you want it or not, this winter will see some snow somewhere. If you expect to be out in snowy conditions, adequate grip is vital. The most comprehensive option is to be fitted for a pair of winter-specific boots that have stiffer soles than summer boots. These provide a more substantial platform to stand on, as snow tends to be less stable than summer ground, particularly if it is steep. Stiffer boots also allow the use of crampons, which will not stay attached to flexible summer boots.  See our advice on walking boots for winter.

For winter walking on frozen, icy but generally straightforward paths, technical crampons can be overkill. They’re easy to trip up in, and feel like you’re walking on stilts. So if you know you’re only walking on non-technical ground, consider microspikes, ideal for snowed up paths - they fit onto almost any shoe or boot in seconds to give extra traction on ice and hard-packed snow.

Steeper routes like Swirral Edge on Helvellyn, where a slip could prove dangerous, require more substantial boots and crampons (we stock crampons from Petzl and Grivel). This sort of terrain would also require an ice axe, both to steady you on steep ground and to provide a way to control a slip by ‘self-arresting’, we stock Petzl and Black Diamond.

Ice axes can be divided into two types: B and T rated. Walking axes that you would generally not use for climbing or rope work are B rated, while Alpine and ice climbing axes are T rated and have greater strength. The Lakeland walker would normally choose a B rated axe. However if you are planning more mountaineering or snow climbing, the best choice would be a T rated axe.

If you’re not on a steep enough route to require an ice axe, walking poles really come in to their own, providing you with extra grip on tricky surfaces, as well as taking the strain off your knees.

30 January 2017 by George Fisher

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