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All things hiking Gear advice Skills tips Winter

Walking in winter

Walking comes in many different guises from dog walking to marathon walking. Perhaps then there’s a reason why “hiking” is becoming much more common usage for wild walking, long-distance and mountain walking. Hiking in summer and walking in winter can almost be classed as 2 different sports.

You might be a keen walker. Alternatively you might have started to develop an interest in walking later in life. You might be walking for health reasons or you might be Munro bagging. Whatever the reason, once you turn to hiking in the mountains, sooner or later you might want to extend your season so you can continue to hike all year round. You’ll want to go walking in winter.

Hiking in winter has its own distinct rewards from unending views in crystal, clear air conditions to solitude and glistening fresh snow, unblemished by evidence of other people. There are however also obvious hazards and also some aspects to winter walking/hiking, which you might not have considered.

walking in winter

Walkers striding across the Cairngorm plateau

WINTER HAZARDS

Winter hazard 1: snow

In Scotland the winter mountains will almost invariably have snow on them for at least part of the winter. We live in hope that the season will be longer and the snow will remain, but this year, 2017, even the most stubborn of snow patches melted away completely. It’s nearly the end of October already and there’s as yet no sign of the white stuff returning. Still if you are considering some winter hiking, make sure you have received some formal training in the skills you need to remain safe in winter conditions. There is nothing more sapping than cold weather.

Winter hazard 2: avalanches

There are a surprising number of avalanches in Scotland but most of them go un-witnessed and hence unreported. Fortunately we do have a very good avalanche information service, especially in the Cairngorms. Throughout the winter they produce a daily report of the avalanche risk. With formal training and a bit of experience, you can learn to interpret the report so that you pick the safest route for the day.

Winter hazard 3: boots

Making sure you have the proper boots for winter is essential. “Your boot is as much as tool as your crampons and ice axe” is a sentence often repeated by our own Andy Bateman when he is talking to winter novices. You must have stiff boots rated as B2 or above. However, the problem with the boots is that they weigh a lot more than boots you will be used to walking in and they are so much stiffer that they force you to walk in a slightly different gait from usual. Over the course of a couple of days, the difference in the boots can take its toll on you. You legs and feet will feel a lot more tired than they usually do for the same amount of summer walking.

Take care when wearing winter boots. Try to baby your feet a wee bit and if you have the opportunity a little bit of simulation will stand you in good stead, even if people give you funny looks when you clump along the beach promenade or up and down the city streets in monster boots.

Winter hazard 4: additional gear

Your pack, whether for an expedition or a day walk, is inevitably going to be bigger in winter. Not only will you need more in your lunch, but you’ll also need space for the additional gear: your ice axe, your crampons, thicker, warmer gloves etc. You’ll need to be ready for the extra weight.

TOP TIP: always try to pack your crampons within your pack as if you have them tied to the outside of your pack, you run the risk of losing one or both of them quite easily.

Winter hazard 5: cold &/or severe weather

In winter Scotland’s hills become mountains due to the severity of the weather conditions. There are regularly winds over 100 miles an hour in storms and though you might not plan to be out in conditions like that, even experienced mountaineers can get caught out. A friend of ours was once out in the Cairngorms when the weather turned. He and his party ended up almost crawling out as they were getting blown over when they stood up. The wind was even strong enough to take a head torch off one of their heads.

Guided winter walking in Scotland

Wintry conditions on the summit of Cairngorm

WINTER BENEFITS

Winter benefit 1: burning more calories

It’s not only the colder weather which helps to burn up more calories. You do have to carry more stuff with you when you go out hiking in winter. The additional weight will help to burn more calories at the end of the day. But always remember, if you put more calories in than you consume you won’t be losing weight. Just heading out for a hike is not a guarantee that you will lose weight – if that is your aim. You need to balance out keeping warm with the number of calories you consume. You don’t want to be cold, but neither do you want to overeat.

How many calories are burned by being cold?

Calories burned in cold weather

Winter benefit 2: clear air

Cold air carries less moisture than warm air and therefore produces better visibility. It is warm air streams which bring precipitation. There is some truth to the statement that it is too cold in the arctic to snow.

Winter benefit 3: less people

Fewer people enjoy going out in the cold weather despite the fact that we have amazing gear now which can keep us warm in virtually any conditions. However, this means that those of us who do go out can enjoy a real sense of solitude and space.

Winter benefit 4: camaraderie

There’s nothing better than sharing the story of the day. The warmth of a fire and a cup of tea at the end of the day will be appreciated so much more after being out in cold conditions.

When people come back after a day out in the snow, they almost always have a novel story to share. The risks are greater than in the summer, but then this enhances the benefits too.

Winter benefit 5: stay fit

If you stop going out in the colder weather, it may be more difficult to get back to your regular hiking than before. The risk of losing your fitness over the winter is greater as you get older. Walking on the treadmill isn’t really an adequate substitute, but if there’s no other choice …

Winter benefit 6: glorious views

I don’t know why the mountains seem so much more spectacular when covered in snow, but they do. Maybe it’s because they look more pristine. Maybe it’s because if gives them more shape. Whatever the reason, a little snow seems to add some “je ne sais quoi” to the mountain scene.

Winter benefit 7: stunning photos

winter munros

Typical Cairngorm scenery in the snow

when to come to the cairngorms

Winter scenery in the Ryvoan valley, taken by Thomas Barrat on a course with Scot Mountain Holidays

We specialise in guided walking holidays and walking skills here in Scotland.

If you’d like to leap in to winter at the deep end, why not think about a snow hole expedition: not an igloo, a snow hole; not an emergency shelter but a deliberate night out in a purpose built shelter. Check it out:

Turning hills into mountains – the effects of winter

Winter has descended upon the Scottish Highlands, the familiar hills evolve into awe-inspiring mountains, blanketed in a pristine coat of snow, setting the stage for a winter hiking experience like no other. The landscape, now a picturesque haven, invites adventurers to traverse its snow-laden trails, discovering a unique blend of tranquility and adventure. However, one must always keep an eye on the ever present dangers inherent in winter.

Winter hiking in contrast to summer

Winter hiking in the Highlands offers a striking contrast to other seasons. The once-green paths are now transformed into a pristine canvas of white, waiting to be explored. Intrepid hikers, armed with waterproof gear and insulated boots, embark on journeys that unveil the Highlands’ winter charm.

Traversing the snow-covered trails is a sensory delight. The crunch of snow beneath each step echoes through the valleys, and the brisk winter air invigorates the senses. The hills, now adorned with a glistening layer of frost, create a visual spectacle that adds an extra layer of magic to the hiking experience.

Never forget though that you need to be extra prepared before you head out into the winter hills. Our top tips include:

  1. make sure you have undergone specialised training in winter skills from a qualified expert
  2. always carry a headtorch
  3. always have a paper copy of the relevant map as the cold drastically affects the performance of your phone (at least 80% of mountain rescue callouts stem from navigational errors).
  4. carry a flask (never underestimate how much of an improvement to morale a hot drink will give you)
  5. make sure you have a powerpack to keep your phone charged (the effects of cold on a mobile phone are quite incredible).
New Year Winter Walking

Cairngorm plateau, New Year Winter Walking 2022 – 2023

Preparing to go hiking in winter

Preparation is key for those eager to embrace the winter landscape. Layered clothing, including waterproof jackets and insulated gloves, become essential companions (see our blog). As the landscape transitions from hills to mountains, the weather can be unpredictable, and hikers must be equipped to face the challenges that come with the season.

winter wildlife Cairngorms

A ptarmigan makes walking across the snow look easy

Popular winter hiking routes in the Highlands include the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the Speyside Way; which transform into a winter wonderland, offering panoramic views of snow-capped peaks and frozen lochs. The Cairngorms National Park, with its diverse trails, provides opportunities to witness the Highland wildlife amidst the winter spectacle; and for the intrepid this area can become a wilderness for the most intrepid to explore and indulge in winter sports and adventures like snow holing.

Hiking in the Highlands during winter is not just a physical adventure but also a journey into solitude and reflection. The silent majesty of the snow-covered landscape imparts a sense of serenity, inviting hikers to connect with nature on a deeper level.

Braemar winter munros

Cosy winter retreats to return to at the end of the day

Cozy hostels nestled along the trails and in the villages close by offer refuge after a day of winter exploration. Hostels provide a welcoming retreat where hikers can share stories and relish in the hearty warmth of local hospitality.

Winter hiking in the Highlands of Scotland is a testament to the enduring spirit of nature. It is an invitation to witness the marriage of untamed beauty and the thrill of adventure. So, lace up your boots, embrace the chill, and discover the enchanting transformation that occurs when the hills become mountains in the heart of a Highland winter.

Check out our range of guided winter walking holidays

at Fraoch Lodge

Everyone loves an open fire, almost as much entertainment as the TV

How about an active way to bring in the New Year?

We run our New Year Winter Walking trip every year on the same dates. It’s always a great trip and an ideal way to spend that period between Christmas and over the New Year; which can be lonely for some. It’s not always a sell out but it’s always great fun and includes the local street party in Grantown to bring in the New Year with a bang.

The New Year trip doesn’t include an overnight snow hole (all your nights are spent comfortably in the warmth at Fraoch Lodge). It’s a wee bit early in the snow season to be able to guarantee enough snow depth to safely build a snow hole. You will cover all the essential winter walking safety skills: how to use your ice axe, cramponing techniques, how to stop a sliding fall etc. No previous winter walking experience is required.

If you need any more persuading, check out the trip slideshow below:

 

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    Striding out across the plateau, Cairngorms (New Year Winter Walking 2022 - 2023)
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Longing to escape? Winter in a city getting to you? How about escaping into the wilds of theHighlands?

Every year there are reports of people getting lost in the snow and ice of winter. Mountain rescue callouts are predominantly about navigation errors. To make winter a safer place, it is a good idea to book a guide to lead or alternatively join a group heading out into the hills. Some groups are organised by companies on commercial trips, others are groups of friends or clubs. Nonetheless there is safety in numbers.

Every year there are winter wilderness expeditions running under the guidance of Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays in the Cairngorms and Glen Affric. There’s also usually a trip to Knoydart, home to Britain’s most remote pub; however there is a major reforestation project going on there this year which makes it less attractive to visit and all the accommodation will be taken by the forestry workers.

Life will be reduced to basics during the expedition and the only concerns will be: eat – sleep – hike (repeat). The perfect way to clear the mind and return feeling completely refreshed after only a few short days.

  • winter walking Cairngorms
    Walking in winter has it's own rewards in the endless mountain views in crystal clear visibility.

Winter Expeditions 

1. Southern Cairngorms Winter Odyssey

This is a rare opportunity to experience one of the remotest parts of the Cairngorms National Park at a time when the mountains are probably at their most glorious. The High Cairngorms are renowned for their wintry conditions yet at this time very few folk dare to do multi-day trips

winter in the Cairngorms

Celia enjoying her second (or third) winter expedition with Scot Mountain Holiadays

Highlights: winter skills, Monadh Mhor (Munro), Devil’s Point (Munro) Carn a’ Mhaim (Munro), Derry Cairngorm (Munro), Beinn a’ Chaorainn (Munro)

 

Price: £ on application

Email: SCO@scotmountainholidays.com for full information about this trip.

MINIMUM GROUP SIZE: 3 PEOPLE – Private dates available. Please enquire.

 

2. Winter Cairngorms 4000ers

This is Scotland’s ultimate winter mountain journey. The high “plateau” route takes in Britain’s 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th highest peaks on a journey that circumnavigates Scotland’s finest and best known mountain pass, the Lairig Ghru.

winter in Scotland

Check out the potential avalanche sites on the head wall. You can see how the corrie came to be made

Highlights: winter skills, Cairngorm (6th Highest Munro), Ben Macdui (2nd Highest Munro), Braeriach (3rd Highest Munro), Cairn Toul (4th Highest Munro), Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Munro)

Price: £ on application

Email: CWO@scotmountainholidays.com for full information about this trip

MINIMUM GROUP SIZE: 3 PEOPLE – Private dates available. Please enquire.

 

3. Glen Affric Winter Shangri-La

Imagine the soft orange light of a winters dawn gleaming down from the snowy celestial heights. Surrounded by snowy peaks and cradling a mug of tea in the crisp air, indeed a stunning winter’s day beckons.

Highlights: winter skills, Mullach Fraoch – choire (Munro), Mam Sodhail (Munro), Carn Eighe (Munro), An Socach (Munro), Carn a’Choire Ghairbh (Munro)

winter expedition Scotland

Spotting deer in Glen Affric while on winter expedition in Scotland

Price: £ on application

Email: Shangri-La@scotmountainholidays.com for full information about this trip

MINIMUM GROUP SIZE: 3 PEOPLE – Private dates available. Please enquire.

 

Or for something slightly different

 

4. Snow Hole Expedition

“Porridge with whisky at 9am whilst warm & dry in my sleeping bag has never tasted better!” Ric Taylor,Bristol.”

Have you ever dreamt of taking a short walk amongst a moonlit snowy wonderland. Amazingly no need for a torch! Imagine reflected flickering candle light giving way to the soft light of a winters dawn as you emerge from you snowy abode. Not a soul about! We’ll have a vast pristine winter wonderland all to ourselves. It’s a remarkable experience.

Highlights: winter skills on Cairngorm, overnight expedition to sleep in a snow cave, creation of said snow cave

snowholing expedition

how to build a snowhole in Scotland

All digging and cooking equipment supplied by your hosts, Scot Mountain Holidays.

Check full details on the website 

 

5. Winter Knoydart Expedition

Highlights:

Accommodation: Barrisdale Stable (if available) or heated Tentipi

MINIMUM GROUP SIZE: 3 PEOPLE – Private dates available. Please enquire.

 

6. Winter Loch Nevis Expedition

Highlights:

Accommodation: Barrisdale Stable (if available) or heated Tentipi

MINIMUM GROUP SIZE: 3 PEOPLE – Private dates available. Please enquire.

 

Why book with Scot Mountain Holidays?

  1. The routes have all been checked carefully. In addition, routes are very familiar to the guide who will know how to adapt according to the weather conditions. He or she will also know where and how to avoid the cornices (overhanging snow features)
  2. Accommodation is organised therefore no tents flapping in the wind keeping everyone awake.
  3. Toilet and wash facilities will be available without having to “go native” and dig a hole.
  4. Cooking will be done by the guide.
  5. Food will all be prepared from fresh, local produce to a wide range of recipes including carrot and cardamom soup. Obviously no commercial packets for us.
  6. All group equipment will be provided.

Why go walking in winter

1. Why go walking in winter – Keep fit

It’s all in vogue these days. As our normal lives become more and more sedentary, there’s an increasing emphasis on keeping fit. As we get older too, it becomes increasing difficult to maintain our fitness levels. We can’t afford to hibernate over the winter. Instead of heading abroad, we can take on a new experience and continue getting out in the countryside throughout the winter months. If you find the winter weather a challenge or too scary, take a course to give you the confidence to get out walking the hills in winter.

Extra ways of burning calories while walking in winter include:

All of which you can tick when you go hillwalking in winter.

why walk in winter

As far as anyone can tell, the “one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back” notion originated with Sir Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. Since then, numerous studies by academic researchers and even the U.S. Army have concluded one thing on the matter: Weight on the feet is disproportionately more exhausting than weight carried on the torso.* To find out more read the links in our further reading section. Therefore walking in winter boots requires more effort and will burn more calories!

2. Why go walking in winter – Spectacular views

Guided winter walking in Scotland

Glorious wintry views in the Cairngorms

The air in winter is so much more crisp and clear than in the spring/summer months. In spring the large estates who own huge swathes of the Scottish hillside, often start to burn the heather to maintain the grouse moors. Obviously this produces a haze from the smoke which can affect visibility. In the summer the air is generally more hazy due to the humidity which then affects how far you are able to see clearly.

In the middle of winter it is possible to see 100km or more from the high hills. For example, Ben Nevis can clearly be seen from the summit of Cairngorm.

3. Why go walking in winter – It’s a challenge

Challenge is the big buzz word these days. Have you run your first marathon? Have you participated in your first triathlon/ironman? Tough Mudder anyone? Compared with challenges like these, winter hill walking is much more accessible and something you could do every day (in season). The biggest challenge for winter hillwalking is building up your stamina when you’re also trying to hold down a full time job. Many of us have deskbound jobs these days and the closer we get to “middle-age” (our 40s and 50s) the more difficult it is to maintain fitness and stamina levels. However, in the course of a week, many people find that their fitness and stamina levels noticeably improve on a guided winter hill walking trip.

why go hiking in winter

Statistics gathered on an autumn walking weekend in the Cairngorms guided by Andy Bateman

On a typical winter walking day out with Andy, the guests record steps in excess of 30,000 per day! You’d be well on your way to your #Walk1000miles at that rate.

4. Why go walking in winter – Camaraderie

Sharing is a major part of walking. People tend to chat as they walk in a group and often end up discussing all manner of topics; setting the world to rights. When you share an interest (i.e. walking) already with the people you’re with, chances are you have topics in common you can discuss without coming to blows. Of course, camaraderie is not something which is confined to winter, but there is something about pitting your skills against the environment which pulls your group together and gives you something to share.

5. Why do walking in winter – Gear

It doesn’t matter what sport you’re enthusiastic about, people love to talk about their gear and share their experiences of using it. When it comes to winter walking, if you’re a novice, you will need to make some investments to upgrade from your summer/autumn walking equipment in order to be safe in the winter hills. If you’re not sure it’s going to be your thing (though if you already enjoy walking, you might get hooked quite easily), you can always hire the technical stuff – winter grade boots, ice axe and crampons, before making the leap yourself into buying the kit.

Using an ice axe on a winter skills course

Ice axe arrest on a winter skills course

6. Why go walking in winter – Legitimate adult play in the snow

Sliding around in the snow with a sharp tool – sliding down a hill on your bum – digging in the snow – kicking into ice with crampons – all become legitimate “skills” when you’re on a winter course learning the “personal safety skills” of safe movement on the winter hills.

 7. Why go walking in winter – Cheap alternative to skiing

To go out walking you don’t need to pay for a lift pass for every day you want to go up the hills.

You don’t need to buy the skis and generally you’re further away from the ski lodges, so you don’t have access to the cafes and restaurants, which means you have far fewer opportunities to spend your hard earned pennies.

8. Why go walking in winter – Builds confidence

Gaining new skills and becoming proficient in using them builds confidence not only in the activity you are doing, but also in other areas of your life. It is always a good idea to keep your brain active and to learn new things, particularly if you are also learning new physical skills which will help your body remain fit as well as your brain.

If you’re a novice or if you’re lacking time to gain the skills yourself, remember that winter is harsh environment and not everyone has the experience to head up into the mountains but there are plenty of local, highly-qualified guides who are very happy to take you out.

9. Why go walking in winter – Something to share

It’s much more fun to share unusual experiences with your friends. Most people like to see images and videos of adventurous activities, spectacular views, mountains, nature – you can tick all these boxes when you record your experiences out and about in the winter hills, then share then on your favourite social media channel. You’re virtually guaranteed some interaction with your friends/followers.

Resources/Extra reading

*A pound on the foot – the science

The Great Outdoor Forum (Stack Exchange) – discussion on the science behind extra weight on your feet.

http://www.infographicspedia.com/lose-body-fat-percentage-on-walking-infographic/

Toast in the Cairngorms:

a word of mouth story from the Cairngorms (which may have grown in the telling)

winter munros

The northern corries of the Cairngorms in their winter garb

A guy headed up into the Cairngorms to go winter climbing. He slipped awkwardly and broke his leg. Fortunately he had his mobile phone with him. He rang mountain rescue, who ascertained that he had all the right gear with him and he know where he was; the forecast was good but they were unable to reach him at that time and would send the helicopter in the morning.

Unbeknownst to the climber, just over the brow of the hill, out of his line of sight, was another guy who planned to camp out over night. Each was unaware of the other. The camper woke up in the morning feeling a wee bitty cold so he decided to cook himself some toast over his camping stove.

As he was eating his toast he heard the unmistakable sound of the rescue helicopter. He watched the winchman descend and pick up the stranded climber and thought: “Oh dear, there must have been someone out there all night.” However, he didn’t really think much more about it.

The climber however, was very thankful that he’d been found at last. He said to the winchman: “Thank God you came to get me. I was beginning to hallucinate. I thought I could smell toast.”

Cairngorms mountain rescue helicopter

Yellow Whirlie Bird in action in the Cairngorms

If you’re interested in more images from the Cairngorms, from year round visits into the mountains, try our Instagram account

For more news and stories follow us on Facebook

Be safe and be prepared when heading out in the hills at any time of year, especially winter.

If you are looking for some help refreshing your skills for winter, please don’t hesitate to contact us

 

Related blogs

1. The most amazing snow hole group

2. Why do we call it Hogmanay?

3. Where are the bears?

4. Why come to Scotland in winter?

5. How to prepare for a winter skills course?

 

Deciding to book a winter skills course is a matter of safety in the hills. You definitely don’t want to be the one who’s on the wrong end of a call to mountain rescue. Most rescue callouts stem from navigational error, but not being prepared for the wild conditions can be a contributing factor. The Cairngorms offer some of the most consistent full-on winter conditions for the aspiring winter walker. Learning here under the expert tutelage of experienced, qualified guides is an experience which will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

 

– more than just learning how to use your ice axe and crampons.

 Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays gives you some of his experience as a result of 20 years of coaching winter skills and navigation in the Cairngorms.

 

As the first snows arrive on the mountains many hang up their hiking boots. They wait until spring to go out again. Yet if you continue to head out throughout the winter, you could have some sensational days out. Cold air holds less moisture so on a clear day the views go in forever, the horizon crystal clear. The wonderful Jack Frost creation that is rime ice marks the air flow aroundevery stone and boulder. This is all the result of freezing hill fog on the wind. Older lying snow is scoured by the wind to produce the wonderful flutings. These are called Sustrugi. All these natural sculptures interplay with the soft light of a winters day.

winter skills course scotland

All kinds of natural sculptures appear in the hills during winter

Photo caption & credit: The snow turns the Cairngorm plateau into a place of beauty (taken by Andy Bateman, Scot Mountain Holidays)

Of course this environment isn’t without its hazards. It is no place for the ill prepared. Once trained in the essential winter skills there’s a very special sense of privilege. This comes from being able to exist confidently and comfortably in this hostile yet pristine and beautiful winter wonderland.

Weather conditions in the mountains

The conditions on the British mountains in winter are often as varied as the weather that’s created them. You need a good variety of skills at your disposal. Your winter boot is just as much a tool as your axe or crampons. It needs to be of adequate stiffness.  On steep snow and ice covered ground good footwork is the watchword. Your approach should be from the perspective of prevention rather than cure. You should try step kicking and cutting or crampon techniques before resoring to the techniques of self-belay and self-arrest.

winter skills course scotland

Self-arresting on a winter skills course in the Cairngorms

Photo caption: Practising winter skills in the Cairngorms –  the classic feet first on your front self-arrest (5 day winter skills course with Scot Mountain Holidays)

Self arrest skills

Knowing though, that when all else fails, you can confidently and quickly stop a sliding fall, with or without an axe is a fantastic fillet to your confidence. Some of the self-arrest techniques are straight forward enough but others are not; sliding head first on your back is a case in point. Understanding the body position that is required for the forces of gravity to work in your favour is all important; in one fluent move you flip you’re yourself onto your front whilst swinging your legs beneath you – easy when the dynamics and body posture have been clearly explained.

Being safe in a whiteout

For many the step up in navigation standard that’s demanded by the winter mountains is often the biggest challenge of all. Here the right approach is crucial and accuracy comes in a number of forms and levels. Being totally reliant on the absolute accuracy in your compass bearings and dead reckoning techniques (timing and pacing) has been the unravelling of many an aspiring Mountain Leader.  In the often flat light conditions of winter, contour interpretation becomes even more imperative yet perceived poor visibility encourages folk to abandon this vital skill.

Many good mountain navigation techniques come in under the heading of “error management”. Some of these techniques will be familiar to the experienced: aiming off, collection features and attach points but these are just a few of the techniques that can be used to make life easier in the winter mountains. Good winter navigation skills could be the difference between stay on safe ground and straying onto that that is prone to a slide.

navigation

Highly skilled micro-navigation in practice

Photo Caption: Winter micro-navigation using Andy’s patented timing and pacing chart (winter navigation course with Scot Mountain Holidays)

Avalanche prediction and risk

Evaluating Avalanche hazard is another subject difficult to get a handle on. There are though pertinent points that, when borne in mind at the planning stage, can already be starting to reduce your chances of ever being caught in an avalanche. Yes, you could start avalanche hazard evaluation in the summer months long before the snow has arrived! It is of course though, an ongoing process of monitoring right through to the end of the trip and not least of which is viewing and understanding the avalanche forecast.

If you would like to discuss any of the points Andy raises in his article, please don’t hesitate to call him on 01479 831 331

Remember that Andy’s experience has been gained over 17 years of living and working in the Cairngorms. He aims to give you as much knowledge as he can while you’re here but it’s only in practicing the skills he introduces that you’ll gain proficiency yourself.

 

RELATED BLOGS

Top 10 winter skills tips

Which winter boots to choose for winter skills and winter hiking?

How to choose a walking ice axe for a winter skills course?

Why go walking in winter in Scotland?

How do I prepare for a winter skills course?

 

Your ultimate guide to safe winter walking

Your guide

Andy, your fearless leader

Andy Bateman has instructed and guided for over 20 winter seasons in Scotland’s uncompromising mountains in the Cairngorms and beyond. Conditions can vary from blue skies and winter wonderland to raging blizzard, hurricane force winds and visibility of mere meters. Here are a few of his expert winter skills tips:

1. Carry your crampons in your rucksack

Unless your rucksack has a facility specifically for carrying crampons safely on the outside, they should be in a crampon bag inside your rucksack when not on your boots. They are heavy items of kit and can easily work loose when attached with exterior straps or bungee. Crampons carried on the outside can also be a source of injury for other members of the party.

2. Boots with good soles

At the begging of each winter season, check the condition of the soles of your boots. If they are worn it may be time to get them resoled or replaced. Having sharp(ish) edges to your soles means they will be effective at gripping and kicking into hard icy snow.

Crampon work

Crampons at work

3. …and rigid boots

The snow and ice conditions can be as varied as the weather that creates them. Don’t limit the techniques at your disposal before you’ve even set foot on the mountain. Your boot is as much a tool as your ice-axe or crampons. B1 boots are often too flexible to effectively kick steps in hard snow; if you try to front point the toes they tend to bend up and drop the heel, causing the wearer to fall backwards. Wear B2, or fully rigid B3, boots.

4. Length of ice axe shaft

There are a few situations where a long shaft is an advantage but they are outweighed by the number of situations where a short shafted axe is your best bet. Go for an axe with a relatively straight shaft and no longer than 55cm.

4

Picking our way through snow

5. Don’t be too ambitious

Remember in winter trekking your rucksack will be heavier, plus the extra weight of winter boots and crampons on your feet, the underfoot conditions and having to check the map more frequently all conspire to slow your pace. On top of this there are fewer daylight hours. It’s important that you’re not over ambitious with your route plan to prevent being caught out.

Test your limits, within your means

Test your limits, within your means

6. Is all that kit you’re carrying necessary?

Your rucksack is already heavier with all the necessary gear required by winter. Heavy boots, crampons and underfoot conditions will sap energy and slow you down. Don’t burdern yourself further with superfluous kit by considering whether an item is necessary for the day. At the same time, be sure you have everything you need.

7. Hydration bladders can easily freeze

Even with an insulated jacket around the tube, once the temperature drops below -3 deg C hydration bladders tend to easily freeze. You are better off with a water bottle on your sack.

8. Ice axe leashes

There are situations where an ice axe leash is an advantage but there are also a good number of situations where they can be a hazard. Have an arrangement where the leash can be easily add or removed from the head of the axe, i.e. tie a loop in the end of the leash and larks-foot it through the head of the axe.

9. Cold hands?

Remember, as your core temperature cools your body reduces your circulation to your extremities, like your hands. So if you have cold hands it may well be worth considering putting an extra layer on, as well as warmer gloves.

10. Take regular short breaks

Your body can burn up 40% more calories just by keeping itself warm. Winter conditions and heavy gear add to your bodies energy demands. Standing around for more than 10 minutes can mean folks start to get chilled. Schedule in regular breaks where possible. I find a 10 min break after every 80 min of walking is optimal.

winter in the Cairngorms

Striding out to conquer the winter Cairngorms

Why do it? Because this is why it’s worth it.

 

Choosing an ice axe

winter skills

How to ice axe arrest

 

There are several factors to consider when choosing an ice axe.

There are 2 reasons why you might need to buy an ice axe:

Your reason will define the type of axe you are looking for

 

What to look for in a walking ice axe

How do you know if the axe you are looking at is designed for walking or climbing? Traditionally, one of the defining features is the length of the shaft.

The traditional method of choosing a walking ice axe

The traditional mantra: hold the axe by the head with the shaft pointing downwards. The point should be about 2 inches (5cm) from the ground.

Andy’s tip: I never really warmed to this line of thinking. After many years experience as a winter skills instructor, it quickly became apparent to me that this method was outdated.

A walking axe is very much a multi purpose tool with the user asking it to perform a whole number of tasks in a single outing. Some tasks may well be better served by having a longer shaft whilst others are not. It is therefore going to boil down to a bit of a compromise but I would suggest the shaft length for a walking axe should be no longer than 55 cm.

Winter Skills Course Scotland

5 day and 2 day winter skills courses in the Cairngorms

What’s good about a shaft of more than 55cm

Techniques where a shaft length of over 55 cm is advantageous:

  1. Cutting slash steps down the fall line of a steep slope
  2. Self-belay in deep soft snow
  3. Delaying departure down slope in an avalanche? – maybe

 

What’s good about a shaft of less than 55cm

Techniques where a shaft length of 55 cm and under is advantageous:

  1. Self-belay in anything other than soft deep snow
  2. The various self arrest techniques
  3. Cutting slash steps up hill
  4. Making slash steps ahead of you
  5. Cutting dove tail steps

I’ve found an axe with a long shaft is often ungainly to swing

Andrew Bateman

winter guide

Andy getting excited about snow in the Cairngorms

When you’re thinking about visiting the Pyrenees or the Alps or even the Andes, it would be a good idea before you go to give yourself a bit of a safety head start by learning basic safe movement in winter conditions – try a 2 day winter skills trip.

If you’re going on a guided trip a 2 Day winter skills course should give you enough skills to be safe with your instructor who will take care of the navigation and group management for you.

However you’d like to be more independent in the hills you may want to consider the full 5 day Winter Skills and Navigation course. You’ll learn how to deal with “whiteout” conditions as well as technical safety skills so that you can remain calm no matter what nature throws at you.

For more tips please check out our: Top 10 tips for winter skills or consider why you should want to book a winter skills course

For further guided walking holiday options try our main home page

Walking is one of the best forms of exercise being gentle, easy and free. It’s something everyone can do, and extremely beneficial to your wellbeing. So, it’s no wonder masses of people are beginning to introduce walking to their daily lives. But to keep the habit up it’s important to ensure you’re not letting your walking become a chore. So to avoid this, try these easy steps to turn a walk into an adventure.

Mountains and Malts - whisky themed hiking

Hiking in the Highlands exploring the footsteps laid by smugglers of old

Turn a walk into an adventure

Walking has been proven to assist you in maintaining a healthy weight, prevent or manage various conditions including heart disease and high blood pressure and additionally, it strengthens your bones and muscles. Not only this, but it’s extremely positive to your mental wellbeing. And, it’s a great excuse to take some time for yourself.

Take the road less travelled by

Firstly, it’s time to get off the beaten path. Head away from the pavement and hit the trails. The Cairngorm National Park is full of gorgeous forest, river and mountain walking so you’re rich for choice.

Switch off

Once you’re away from the roads, and traffic of the world, take some time away from technology. Leave your phone at home, turn the music off and appreciate the beauty of nature. This will not only be a refreshing break and an opportunity for you to restart. But, you will find yourself so much more connected to nature, and you’re much more likely to spot wildlife and fauna. This will add a level of appreciation, and excitement to your walks.

Walk the Lairig Ghru

Self-guided Lairig Ghru logistics

Follow your instinct

This goes hand in hand with switching off. If you have some sense of direction, try to avoid planning out your route prior to your walk. Follow your instinct, keep things fresh and go somewhere new each day. Making a split second decision at each fork you come to, will add a sense of exhilaration to your walking adventures.

These three easy to do steps will be just the thing to turn your walking into memorable adventures.

 

 

 

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