UK Winter Walking Advice
Below we offer some uk winter walking advice for British hillgoers. The higher British hills will generally have snow cover (above 3000 feet) for much of the winter. In Wales and the Lake District it may be just a dusting at times, but in most of Scotland the snow line can be much lower and snow cover more consistent. Walking in winter requires all the same techniques as summer walking, plus other important skills including crampon technique and handling an ice axe.
Coping with the winter environment needs careful judgement matching the weather, snow conditions and mountain journey. Experience and sensible decision making is imperative, so winter walking in the higher British hills should be approached as ‘mountaineering’ and walkers should be experienced in summer conditions first, before venturing out in winter.
If you are keen to get into winter walking for the first time, learn new techniques, or would like to hire a Scottish winter guide – then take a look at the Scottish winter mountaineering section of our website.
When is the best time to find winter conditions?
Snow can fall in October and it is not uncommon to still find snow in Scotland in early May. Winter is longer the further north you travel, though over recent decades snow has become an increasingly rare commodity, as shown by the demise of various Scottish ski resorts. However in Scotland you can normally count on encountering snow on the mountains from December through to March. Winter conditions in the Lake District and Wales are much more fickle and can come and go quickly. The best thing to do is to keep an eye on the weather and make haste to the hills when snow is forecast!
What to look for in the weather forecast
Snow, obviously! We are lucky in the UK to have two very good sources of mountain weather information: the Mountain Weather Information Service and the Met Office Mountain Forecasts.
When a weather front passes over the country it normally brings precipitation. Hopefully this will fall as snow as the moist air is pushed up over the mountains. A useful indicator is to look which direction the weather is coming from e.g. weather from the southwest can be warm and wet bringing rain and a thaw, whereas weather from the northwest, or in winter from the east, will be much cooler – hopefully bringing lots of snow.
Winds can be a big factor in the winter. Battling against the wind can be exhausting, but winds that pick you off your feet are potentially dangerous. Winds get stronger the higher you go. Listen for the wind speeds on the forecast and double them for the winds at 3000ft. If the synoptic chart looks like a tightly drawn dartboard, perhaps plan a low-level day. A combination of wind and snow can make even the simplest of tasks such as eating a trial and complicated ones such as navigating really arduous.
Temperatures can vary massively in our maritime climate. Looking for temperatures on the forecast will give you an idea as to where the snow is actually to be found! When the weather is dry and clear, the temperature normally drops 1C for every 100m rise in altitude, but if the weather is moist and cloudy the drop will be 1C for every 200m. Snow does not just fall at freezing point, but starts at about 3C. The temperature can also give you an indication as to whether the paths are going to be hard and icy, which can be hazardous under foot.
What skills do I need?
Firstly a good level of fitness. Winter days are more physical than summer. The hills with more consistent snow are the higher ones, so you will have to walk further and carry more equipment. Winter boots are also heavier and crampons add a bit more for the legs to carry.
Moving on Snow
You will need to learn how to walk on snow both with and without crampons. This sounds simple – and is when you know how – but it does does require practise, as the consequences of slipping are much more serious in winter than summer. If you fall over, then ice axe arrest is a skill that it’s very important to know – this is one to learn and practice regularly, but hope you never have to use in anger. You’ll need to learn how to use an ice axe in many different ways, so that it becomes a useful tool on your travels.
Navigation is an absolutely essential skill in winter. Snow hides many of the common navigational features such as footpaths and cairns, so when you then add cloud everything becomes white and it’s impossible to tell which direction to go without a map and compass. You’ll need to be able to read a map well, judge distances by timing and pacing, as well as follow a bearing accurately. These skills need to be practised in summer and then in good visibility in winter, before needing to rely on them. It is worth mentioning that most accidents in winter occur as a result of getting lost.
What equipment do I need?
Good quality waterproof top and trousers (with full-length zips to allow you to take them on and off while wearing crampons) and lots of warm layers on top. It is normal to wear a thermal and a thin fleece while moving and have a really warm extra top to put on when stopped or if cold.
Good winter boots are a must. They do not need to be fully rigid but they need to be stiff enough to kick steps in firm snow and take a crampon. A more robust boot will also protect your feet and be warmer.
Added to your boots you will need crampons. If buying crampons take your boots along to the shop, so that you can ensure that they are compatible and fit well. There is a simple crampon boot compatibility rating (C1 for B1 etc) that good outdoor shops should be able to explain. Crampons have made winter mountaineering and walking a much safer past time. Modern crampons are easy to adjust and easy to put on, so if there is snow around don’t leave home with out them.
Also, don’t leave home with out an ice axe. Axes come in lots of different shapes and sizes, as they are tools with different purposes. For walking, your axe will mainly be held in your uphill hand and be there for balance and security. Ensure that it is comfortable to carry (usually with a gently curved pick). A good guide for the length for a walking axe is that when you allow your arm to hang straight while holding the axe as normal, it should reach just above your boot/ankle. Take a look at our axe boot and crampon advice page for more info on the above.
It is a good idea to carry at least two pairs of gloves a thin pair for doing things and a thick pair for warmth.
Warm hat or balaclava.
A map and compass.
A headtorch is essential, as daylight is limited.
A flask and hot drink and plenty of easy to eat, high energy food.
Goggles are a real must – when the wind blows it can be similar to a sandstorm, only freezing and blinding.
An emergency bivvy bag (big plastic orange one is fine).
A whistle – just in case.
A rucksack to put it in all in (and don’t forget a water proof liner).
Are avalanches a hazard in Britain?
Yes – anywhere you find snow and a slope steep enough to slide on, you may get avalanches.
Avalanches could be the subject of a whole article – there is a greater risk of avalanches if it is snowing, just after heavy snow and also during big sudden temperature changes (eg a thaw arriving). Most avalanches occur on slopes of 30 to 40degrees (optimum 37) so quite steep for walking. If you are unsure, stick to gentle slopes and get on to ridges. Most snow in Scotland falls with wind, which blows snow on to the leeward side of the hill forming wind slab which can form a serious avalanche hazard. However, the windward side should be scoured and safer.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service post daily forecasts in local shops, pubs and access points to the hills as well as on the Internet. You need to read these forecasts carefully and tie them in to your planning for the day – avoiding any high risk areas predicted in the forecast.
I’ve never been walking in winter conditions, where should I start?
It is a good idea to start walking in the winter with an experienced friend who can give you tips on using the gear and share their evaluation of the snow conditions and avalanche hazard. Better still – join a scottish winter skills course. The consequence of errors in winter are potentially so much more serious that you may wish to boost your skills and learn about the hazards from an expert.
Winter shows the British Mountains at their best – renewed and apparently untouched with every snowfall, the mountains take on a beauty that will give any walker their most memorable days. However, the environment is harsh and the consequence of errors serious. Go to the winter hills, but with caution and respect and they will give you the best memories and endless tales for the pub.