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All things hiking Skills tips Winter

Thinking of going on a snowhole expedition?

The best way to build a snowhole

Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays leads at least 3 commercial snow hole expeditions in the Cairngorms Mountains every winter season. He has introduced scores of people to the magic of the winter season. He is also an expert at the skill of building a snow hole for a drip free night out in the mountains. To see what snowholing expedition experience is like for the customer check out our video on YouTube:


Ambient Temperature

Seasonal temperatures on the high hills in Scotland are never as low as those in the valleys. You need to take this into consideration when planning to snowhole. Here in Boat of Garten we get temperatures of around -20oC. The lowest ever recorded temperature on the summit of Cairngorm is -16.5oC. Cold temperatures in the valley always occur under cold settled conditions. This is when the cold air drains off the mountain. The cold air then pools in the bottom of the valley. This means that in the Cairngorms the temperatures are never as low as in Norway.

snow hole expedition

Enjoying an evening meal in the luxury  palace makes the snowholing expedition unforgettable!

Avoiding roof sag/collapse

In Norway, you need to capture the warm air. Most people learn to build snow caves in Norway. They learn to create features which capture the warm air inside the shelter. In Scotland, however, you are operating much close to the melting temperature of snow so sloping entrances, sleeping platforms and cold air drains become much less important for the snow hole expedition.

Roof sag is a combination of the temperature rising too much, poor ventilation and not having a thick enough roof or having a large area of unsupported roof. A roof and front wall of approx. 1m thick is vital. If daylight can be seen through either the roof or the wall, they are probably too thin. However, bear in mind that a roof that thick will need an adequately thick & strong front wall.


An Apex ceiling

Avoid large areas of unsupported roof by keeping your snow hole more like a tunnel, narrow. Aim for a distance of no more than 2 body widths, side by side lengthwise. This means you can create a steep-angled apex ceiling which helps to avoid any drip points and allows you to channel warm air towards ventilation holes.

Avoid avalanches

Many snowhole sites by virtue of their high snow accumulation and steep slopes are prone to avalanches. To be safe, you may need to pick a slope with a more gentle gradient and spend more time digging into the slope. To maintain a 1m thick roof on a 30 degree slope you will have to dig horizontally 2m from the top of the doorway before widening out.



Make sure there is good ventilation and regularly watch your breath then you will avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. If you see it drifting off to one side, it’s a good indication that ventilation is adequate. Never cook in a snowhole without regularly checking there is adequate ventilation.

It’s a good idea to create ventilation holes in your snow hole because of the Scottish climatic conditions.

Make your snow hole large enough to stand up in so you don’t get back ache from crouching.

Make them big

One potential hazard of digging a small snow hole is that you don’t have enough space to put the snow when you attempt to extricate yourself in the morning. One of the snowholes Andy built in the Cairngorms involved digging out through 1.5m of fresh, drifted snow to get out in the morning.


Snowholing expedition Tools

Never underestimate how hard the Scottish snow pack could be. At least make sure your snow shovel has a metal scoop and that you are also carrying a snow saw.


Time taken to construct your snow hole is vital. A communal snow hole can take 4 – 5 hours to dig to make sure that you have the best construction possible.



See more about our snow hole expedition!

Scottish winters – are you looking for a winter walking guide?

Winter is when the Scottish hills mutate into proper mountains which need as much respect as 8000m peaks in the Himalayas. Every year there are reports of people going missing or dying in the Scottish hills. Though most people don’t realise it, it is relatively common for avalanches to go off in Scotland as well as in the Alps. Anywhere you find snow and steep slopes, there could be avalanches. Before you consider going out in winter you do need to be aware of the additional hazards and take them into consideration when making your plans. It is sensible to think of booking a winter walking guide.

If you are thinking about starting some winter walking it is extremely important to make sure you get some safety training. There are always deaths in the hills in winter. Safety training is not a guarantee that you will never have an accident but it does minimise the risk. It is important to realise though that as with all skills, you must practise. If you don’t, then the skill won’t be useful to you. For example:

on a winter skills course in the UK you are always taught “ice axe arrest” as one of the skills you will need to prevent a sliding fall. Can you imagine slipping on ice on a mountainside? The speed you achieve in a very short space of time will amaze you. Reaching for your ice axe and using it the correct way, needs to be instinctive. This takes practise as does assessing snow and ice conditions and knowing the local terrain.

winter skills

How to ice axe arrest


Planning to go out winter walking? You’ll need to book a skills course or a guide to make a start.

Qualifications to look for:

If you are considering hiring a guide/leader you need to make sure that they have one of the following qualifications:

Winter Mountain Leader (WML) – lead groups of hill walkers in winter conditions

Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (MIC) – instructing the skills of snow and ice climbing

British Mountain Guide (BMG) – required to guide climbing (including the coaching of lead climbing) skiing and mountaineering on rock, snow & ice, and in alpine terrain

Unless you are yourself, considering leading groups in the winter mountains, there is no need to go to the extent of committing yourself to this level of training. The courses take a commitment of months or years and previous training. For pleasure, you would only need to consider a winter skills course or winter mountaineering course, which can be provided by the above instructors.

your walking guide

Andy enjoying winter conditions in the Cairngorms

Want a guide rather than training?

A skills course is not the solution for everyone. After all, just learning the technical skills is not the learning journey, you still need to know how to deal with the added challenge of navigating in winter. Many people prefer the security of taking a winter walking guide because of the added challenges of the winter weather.

Scot Mountain Holidays delivers a series of winter walking holidays, expeditions and challenges. We can also arrange a private winter walking guide for you (and your group) if you are unable to join an organised group.

Winter Walking Holidays

New Year Winter WalkingClassic Winter CairngormsWinter MunrosGlencoe Munros –

Winter Expeditions

Snow Hole Expedition – Cairngorm 4000ers – Winter Affric Shangri LaKnoydart Winter Wilderness Expedition 

Build a snowhole in Scotland

Build your own snow hole in the Cairngorms

Winter skills and courses

The main difference between our 2 winter skills courses is that there is not enough time on the 2 day course to cover the essential skill of winter navigation. We do run a separate winter navigation course over 2 days.

2 day winter skills course5 day winter skills course

Alternative providers across Scotland

If our dates or our format doesn’t suit you please use our directory below to find a course or holiday which suits your requirements

Across Scotland – CnDo Scotland or Wilderness Scotland

In the Cairngorms – Talisman Mountaineering or Tarmachan Mountaineering or Cairngorm Treks or Cairngorm Adventure Guides

On the west coast – West Coast Mountain Guides or Martin Moran guiding or Abacus Mountain Guides

winter walking guide

Spectacular Cairngorm ridges in the snow



One of the most frequently asked questions for those joining our winter courses is what if there is no snow. Although we can’t control the weather we can almost guarantee there will be snow. Especially on the high peaks during winter and early spring. But for those of you that still have concerns, let us put your worries to rest.

Snow Hole Expedition

Digging in for the night in the Cairngorms

What if there is no snow?

If for some reason the winter is mild and the snowfall doesn’t stick; fortunately for you, it’s not the end of the world. If you are joining Scot Mountain Holidays on a Winter Skill course, snow is actually only one of three factors in the course going ahead. Arguably the two most important factors to consider are in fact wind (for drifting) and the huge Cairngorm plateau (for snow capture) on the windward side of our chosen sites.

Keep in mind that the Cairngorms are home to Britain’s most permanent snow-beds. And the snow (if at all) will generally only melt in July and early August. Plus, though there might not be enough snow cover for skiing, for the winter walker/climber, complete snow cover is fabulous but not essential. Thick deep snow can make our day out more strenuous than necessary.

Summer snow patches in Scotland

Guests enjoying a patch of snow in the Cairngorms in July

This means that, in the fifteen winter seasons that Scot Mountain Holidays have been running winter skill courses and hiking holidays, a course has never been cancelled due to lack of snow.

Man in snow-hole

Enjoying some light reading in a self made snow-hole

Scot Mountain Holidays winter courses teach many skills to deal with a variety of snow conditions. The hard icy snow that develops after a thaw and subsequent refreeze is ideal for teaching the crampon skills. Often a new blanket of snow won’t add any additional benefits to our winter skill courses.

Remember, if there’s no snow on the lower lands this shouldn’t affect any winter skill course you are participating in. While snow is a very strong likelihood on the peaks and where our courses take place, there are many other factors that will make your experience very memorable.

The thought of snow brings visions of skiing and snowboarding to the forefront of many minds. But for those of us who don’t enjoy the slopes or perhaps want another option, Scotland is the right place to come. There are thankfully still many exciting activities that can be enjoyed in the snow.

guided winter walking in the Highlands of Scotland

Spectacular glistening snow on the slopes of the Cairngorm peaks

Here are Scot Mountain Holidays top four snow options for non-skiers.


For those who aren’t familiar with the sport of snowshoeing, it’s a lot of fun and needs little skill to master. Essentially, snowshoeing is strapping tennis racket like objects to your feet and walking/sliding over snow and ice. It’s a fantastic way to explore an area and Scot Mountain Holidays offers an all inclusive guided snowshoe tour for your convenience.

Winter Hiking

Hiking is a fantastic activity most popular in the peak season, but winter hiking is no different. While coming with some additional challenges, the rewards are fantastic and you’ll quickly discover the hiking trails have a magical like quality to them. You’ll also find the hiking traffic is much less; giving you opportunities for fully appreciate where you are.

Snow Hole Expedition

Digging in for a night out on the mountain.

Snow skill course

Scot Mountain Holidays offer a range of snow skill courses for your choosing. With the opportunity to learn about and have first hand experience on ice axes, building ice holes, winter navigation and more, the choices are endless. Not only are these courses a fantastic alternative from the slopes, but they are brilliant life skills to have.

Light hearted fun in the snow

Whilst all of our snow options for non-skiers are fun, exciting activities. It’s always nice to relax and have a little fun in the snow, especially for those travelling with children. So, take an afternoon to build a snowman, or have a snow fight. Make snow angels or bobsled. You’ll appreciate an open fire and a good book so much more once you’re back in the warmth.

Scotland is a beautiful country and one that has unique points of interest for each season. Although summer soars in popularity for visitors’, winter is severely overlooked for its raw beauty, clear winter days and hiking. So for those of you that have any doubts, here are five reasons to hike in winter and join Scot Mountain Holidays on a trip of a lifetime.

New Year adventure

Stunning winter scenery at New Year

1. Amazing views

The peaks of Scotland offer spectacular views all year round. But for those of you willing to bear the brisk wind, winter arguably offers the most rewarding view of all. There is something truly magical about winter, especially if there’s snow. Winter can produce some of the most clear beautiful skies all year round and with the added bonus of snowy peaks the view will be worth the extra layers of clothing.

Guided winter walking in Scotland

A guided expedition in winter

2. Fewer People

It’s no secret that the chilly offseason discourages a lot of people from hiking. But for those of you undeterred you’ll find yourself in a breathtakingly sparse space, with very few people about. This means fewer distractions for you, the chance to reflect and really appreciate where you are.

3. Terrain visuals

Winter offers a visually compelling unique point of view. The lack of leaves, greenery and wildlife will give you the opportunity to fully appreciate the raw rugged beauty of the mountains, the incredible rock formations and the sparse world that the season creates. If you’re lucky enough to get snow you’ll enjoy a separate, but equally compelling visually changed terrain.

White Christmas in Scotland

A White Christmas is more of a reality in the Cairngorms than most other places in the UK.

4. Burn more calories

This one’s for the fitness enthusiast out there. While hiking at any time is great exercise, hiking in colder weather actually burns more calories then hiking in the heat. Another fantastic benefit to winter hiking.

5. New exciting challenges

Winter demands a different style of hiking and naturally comes with some added challenges. While it is slightly more strenuous you’ll be exposed to something you’ve never done before. The challenges of winter hiking will also make your success so much more rewarding.

Navigating in winter

Winter walking in the Cairngorm Mountains, Aviemore, Scotland.

So, to experience something new, to challenge yourself, and enjoy some of the most spectacular terrain and views you’ll ever see. Join Scot Mountain Holidays on a winter hiking holiday and reap the rewards for years to come.

winter walking in Scotland

Setting off on expedition across the snowy Cairngorm plateau




How to prepare for a winter skills course

Words of wisdom from the Met Office and the BMC.

Our instructors:

Andy Bateman, our company director, is the main guide for Scot Mountain Holidays. He is a qualified winter mountain leader with 15 years experience instructing in the Cairngorms. He says there is nothing like local knowledge for being aware of the avalanche hotspots and how to avoid them. He keeps a very close eye on the weather from this time of year (November) until winter passes towards the end of April and is out on the snowpack so frequently that he has almost as good an eye for predicting the avalanche weaknesses as the SAIS team.

We also work with experienced mountain instructors who deliver mountaineering and climbing courses for us. The instructors live in the area and have in many cases instructed for the RAF outdoor centres when they were based in Grantown on Spey. All instructors who work for us have a wealth of local knowledge.

Winter courses offered by Scot Mountain Holidays

It is essential if you are planning to go out in the hills on your own or even with a small group of friends that you should all have had some formal training in personal safety skills so you know how to use your crampons & ice axe effectively and have all the gear necessary. Navigation is perhaps the least valued of these skills, but arguably the most valuable. We also offer training in winter navigation techniques.

Winter holidays offered by Scot Mountain Holidays (including expeditions)

If you would like to get out in the winter but are not confident of managing on your own, you might want to join an organised group. Take a look at our dates and see if we have anything which will suit your commitments.


Mountain Weather Information Service

Met Office Mountain Forecast

Scottish Avalanche Information Service


Scotland’s Winter Conditions: choosing a winter sleeping bag to suit

Winter in the Cairngorms

So you’re planning a high overnight camp and you’re wondering how warm your winter sleeping bag should be?

Likely Ambient Temperature

With a number of recent TV documentaries ‘laying it on a bit thick’ about how low the temperature can drop in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains you might be forgiven for thinking you were heading for somewhere akin to the high Arctic! Indeed the temperature in the Scottish Highlands has been recorded approaching -30 deg C (-27.2 to be precise – the official British record) but this has only been on three occasions in 120 years!

Interestingly, Cairngorm summit (1245m) has only ever managed a record minimum of around half of this at – 16.5 deg C (12th Jan 1987) whilst the residents of nearby Nethybridge (210m) at the foot of the mountain claimed the mercury dropped to -31.3 deg C on 10thJanuary 1982, the same night as one of the -27.2’s was recorded.  Satellite evidence suggests they were right!

The vital bit of missing information on these – 30ish lows are that they’ve all been recorded as a result of temperature inversions. That is, cold air has flowed off the mountains and pooled in the valley bottoms where it’s cooled further whilst the mountain summits have remained appreciably warmer. These record minima are in no way a reflection of the likely temperature you would find on our mountains, possibly not surprising considering all our mountains are never that far from a relatively warm sea.

So what would be the likely temperature at the main snow-hole sites, let’s say, in the Cairngorms at around 1100m? Well, the seasonal minimum for 900m is usually around -8 deg C which could, at a pinch, translate to -10 deg C at 1100m but far more often in winter it’s around minus 5 and above. The point is, on our mountains we don’t experience anything like the temperatures you might get in e.g.Norway.

Which bag to choose?

  1. These days sleeping bags are graded according to the temperature. There is a wide choice of sleeping bags which will keep you warm in the average temperatures in a snow hole/winter expedition with Scot Mountain Holidays. Some of the choice comes down to your personal preference, but there are some general guidelines below:
  2. Down or synthetic?
  3. Generally down/feathers loose a lot of their thermal potential (i.e. they won’t keep you anywhere near as warm as advertised) once they get damp. These days a lot of down is treated with a water-repellent but it may still be advisable to opt for a synthetic bag if you are intending to use your bag for more than one night in damp conditions.
  4. Down is lighter but more expensive.
  5. Be careful when considering which side the bag opens – it makes a difference if you normally sleep on your left or your right!

Be guided by advice of sales staff in the shop who should have some relevant experience. Ask for shop expert if your sales person doesn’t demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the range on sale.

Most importatly – buy quality for a sleeping mat. In winter, it is most important to make sure you are insulated from the snow beneath you as you’ll lose the majority of your bodyheat this way.

One final piece of advice:

It goes without saying of course you need to be checking the weather forecasts before you head out. A tented high camp in winter needs to be carefully judged. Those who have got it wrong have ended up having their tent destroyed and gear being scatted far and wide by hurricane force winds.

Andy Bateman 14/11/14



Mountain Weather Information Service

Met Office Mountain Forecast

Scottish Avalanche Information Service

 How to ice axe arrest

A taster of winter skills, but the only way to really learn how to ice axe arrest is to do it yourself under the guidance of a winter mountain leader or other qualified instructor. Imagine taking a tablet or smartphone out in the snow to try and teach yourself … pretty much a lost cause at the end of the day and you’d be terrified of smashing your technology to pieces. Bit the bullet and book a course.

We found this video on YouTube, produced by the MCofS. Here Roger Wild introduces ice axe arrest and explains the basics which you’d learn on the hill with Andy (lead instructor with Scot Mountain Holidays). If you’re comtemplating a winter skills weekend, bear in mind that this is one of the core skills you’ll be learning, which many people have heard about before they book a skills weekend; however, as Roger Wild says: there’s a lot more to the full range of skills to keep you safe in winter and you should consider ice axe arrest to be the last in a series of skills aimed at preventing a sliding fall.


Check out our Top Ten Winter Skills tips: https://scotmountainholidays.com/blog/top-10-winter-skills-tips/


Winter Skills at Hogmanay

(A synopsis in pictures)

The snow’s back here in the Cairngorms and it’s only 4th November 2014 – plenty of time for the snow to build up for a fabulous Christmas and New Year in the Highlands. Take a look at our selection of winter images below – all taken in during winter seasons in the Cairngorms. Will it be an official white Christmas or just white on the high peaks of the Cairngorms

Winter in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: A day out in the snow – heading home in the sunset,

turning the snow pink and giving life to the Cairngorms –

also known as Mhonaidh Ruaidh (the red hills).

Winter in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: Sometimes a wee bit of cloud can play into your hands

and produce a much more stunning picture than a clear blue sky,

especially in the soft winter light we get here in the Cairngorms,

which is of course enhanced by reflection on the snow.

Winter in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: Unique to the Cairngorms National Park,

Britain’s only reindeer herd, which are free-roaming

across the hills in the winter. You could bump into them

on any of our courses or winter walking holidays.

Winter in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: White Christmas? Wouldn’t that be amazing?

This is the kind of snow laden scene

we’d all like to see, but how many of you would like to

experience it yourselves? When the snow lay round about,

deep and crisp and even …


Photo caption: It’s New Year and it’s Scotland – must mean it’s time for a party –

or as you’re in Scotland let’s give it the proper name and join the ceilidh!

February in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: Winter walking holiday across the Cairngorm plateau. Check out the blue skies!


Inspired? Check out some of our winter offerings in the Cairngorms and further afield across the Highlands of Scotland

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