Winter is on its way, but you can still enjoy exploring Britain’s hills and mountains, with some safety precautions in place. Mike Margeson OBE, Operations Director at Mountain Rescue England and Wales, shares his advice on how to stay safe when walking in hills and mountains this season.

Make a plan

Always have a plan A for your walk and a plan B as well. If the weather is poor or deteriorating, go with plan B. Quite often people get into trouble in the hills and mountains because they carry on with their walk. Don’t be afraid to change your plan and to change it early enough to make a difference too.

How to stay safe on hill and mountain walks this winter

Know how to navigate

I personally carry a map and also have mapping on my phone. But whether you have a digital map, a paper map or both, the most important thing is that you know how to use them. Make sure you can orientate or set your map, understand the contour detail in relation to the height, have an awareness of the difficulty of your planned journey and how long it will take. Appreciate what the terrain looks like on the ground compared to on your map. And be sure to pack a compass that you know how to use as well.

Watch the weather

Winter walks can be significantly more challenging in terms of weather. Be mindful of wind chill. The weather forecast might say it’s x degrees, but a fast-blowing wind could make the temperature feel a lot colder. It’s worth thinking about which direction the wind will be blowing, so you can plan to have it behind you for as much of your journey as possible, especially when you’re most exposed to it. It’s also worth noting that hills and mountains can be icy and slippery, even if you can’t spot any snow from the valley. Use a weather forecast service that focuses on a mountain forecast rather than a general one. I’d recommend checking the Mountain Weather Information Service, Ventusky and the Met Office’s mountain weather forecast.

Layers and spares

It’s important to wear (and carry) several layers, so you don’t get too cold or even too hot. This is much better than having one thick layer. I’d recommend an outer layer that’s waterproof and has a hood. A synthetic insulated jacket is better than down because it will keep you warmer and perform better if it gets wet. Make sure you’ve got gloves and a hat (and spares) too. I use a lined hat for extra warmth. Ensure that your head, hands and feet stay warm, and you’ll feel warmer overall.

Tread carefully

Keeping your feet warm and dry is important, so I’d advise wearing waterproof walking boots. Check they have a thick tread and Vibram or Vibram-type soles, regardless of the season. A lot of lightweight shoes made for drier countries don’t have a good tread. Will your walking boots perform well on wet rocks or grass? How about on ice or snow? Your boots will need to offer good ankle support too.

How to stay safe on hill and mountain walks this winter

Stay focused

Mountain Rescue statistics show that a lot of accidents happen in the afternoon, between 3pm and 6pm. They often involve lower leg injuries, where people have gone over on an ankle, slipping downhill, when they might be tired or hurrying to get down. Walkers have finished most of their route and may relax and switch off – or just be getting tired. Make sure you stay focused, whatever part of the journey you’re on.

Be prepared for the dark

Unless you’ve got a lot of experience in the hills and mountains, plan enough time to get down before dark. Of course, anyone can find themselves behind schedule and having to travel in the dark. The clocks going back can also catch people out for a few weeks. If this happens, it’s critical you’ve got good lighting to manage the scenario. You don’t want to end up making your way along with nothing but the light on your mobile, which will use up the power as well. I always carry two headtorches, one as a back-up. That way you won’t end up fiddling around in the dark trying to change batteries with cold hands. It’s much easier to have a spare.

Carry the right kit

Make sure you carry the right kit to keep you safe when embarking on a walk in the hills or mountains. As well as head torches, pack an orange survival bag. You can get into it to keep warm if needed. Each member of your walking group should have their own. Take a group shelter too. These items will be invaluable if anyone has an accident, and you need to stay warm while waiting for help. I’d also recommend walking poles. They’re good for when it’s slippery, if you need to cross a stream and when you’re tired. I’d pack winter traction devices for boots, such as Yaktrax or Black Diamond access spikes, as a precaution. As a rescue team, we carry several pairs of these to keep people stable when carrying them off hills and mountains. Carry spare warm clothes too. And you should also have a basic first aid kit and first aid knowledge.

How to stay safe on hill and mountain walks this winter

Stay fed and hydrated

You’ll be carrying more kit in winter than in other seasons and you’ll expend more energy doing so. It’s important to stay hydrated to keep energy levels up and to stay warm. Even if you’re only 10% dehydrated it’ll impact on your ability to keep warm. You need to be drinking regularly and eating little and often too. It’s not a case of taking a big packed lunch with you and stopping once for food. Eat little and often, around every half an hour. Go for high energy foods to keep your energy levels up.

Be aware of how to get help

Know how to get help if you need it. If you require help from Mountain Rescue, contact 999 and ask for the police, who will contact our service. You might not have enough phone signal to get through or it might be too windy to hear the operator. That’s why it’s worth registering your phone with the emergencySMS service beforehand. This service allows you to send an emergency text and reply via text too – ideal for low signal spots.

Keep your phone(s) charged

Your phone battery will likely get sapped during the day, if you’re using it for photographs, navigation, etc. Even drops in temperature when you’re at higher altitudes can use up battery power. It’s crucial you’ve got enough battery power as your phone will be an important tool if something goes wrong. Carry a battery pack for your mobile. Consider taking a separate phone that’s just for outdoor emergencies. Keep it switched off, so it’s fully charged. It’s all about being able to use your phone for what only your phone can do – call for help.

Maximise your phone signal

All 999 calls go through to the strongest network signal they can pick up, even if you’re not on that network. Be aware that your phone signal might be poor despite this. If you haven’t got enough signal for a call, there might be enough for a text, because they use less signal. You might think to walk down hill to get a better signal but assess your location. A quick walk uphill might give you a better signal.

Be resource-ful

There are lots of resources online to help you stay safe in the hills and mountains. The Mountain Rescue England and Wales blog has many useful posts about safety. The Met Office has blogs on mountain safety too, as do Ordnance Survey (Get Outside) and the British Mountaineering Council. I’d also recommend looking at Adventure Smart. The website features three questions to ask yourself to check you’re prepared for any outdoor adventure.

Mike Margeson

Mike Margeson

Mike Margeson OBE is Operations Director at Mountain Rescue England and Wales, as well as a Winter and Summer Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor, International Mountain Leader and Program Operations and Safety Manager at YMCA Lakeside, a large outdoor education centre in the Lake District. In his free time, he loves all aspects of adventure activities, including climbing and mountaineering all around the UK and abroad.


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