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Beginners’ Tips for Winter Mountain Walking

By 22nd November 2020January 3rd, 2024Resources, Tips, Winter, Winter Mountaineering, Winter Walking

Introduction

A lone walker stands out against the snowy summits of the Mamores while descending in the afternoon light
A lone walker stands out against the snowy summits of the Mamores while descending from Stob Ban

These beginners’ tips for winter mountain walking and mountaineering in the UK are for those people who want to make the first move but are still a little bit uncertain. Maybe you have read lots of information already but still have burning questions and are unsure who, or even what, to ask. Or maybe you have heard friends talking about it but don’t know what it’s really all about. Perhaps you have just seen some stunning photos, or read things on social media. Maybe these have inspired you to find out more.

Whatever the reason, I hope these beginners’ tips will answer in advance many of the ‘FAQs’ on winter mountain walking that people tend to have. It will also point out some of the very common misconceptions and ‘rookie errors’ that beginners make. This is usually because they have got slightly the wrong end of the stick about winter mountain walking in the UK. You can learn much more about all of this on one of our winter skills courses.

I hope you find it helpful.

Winter Mountain Walking and Mountaineering in the UK

Mountain areas

The main three mountainous areas of the UK are the highlands of Scotland, the Lake District fells; and the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) in North Wales. Even that simple list is misleading, because the highlands of Scotland is a vast and varied area. It dwarfs the other two areas in terms of size, scale and remoteness.

These three areas are the parts of the UK most affected by winter weather, when our cold and wet climate can bring varying amounts of snow. The mountains can cling onto this snow cover well into the following spring (and even summer). You can therefore encounter snowy and icy conditions in the mountains any time from November through to April (and beyond). This is more the case in Scotland than in the Lake District and Eryri (Snowdonia), due to its more northerly latitude and higher peaks.

One obvious question is “What’s the attraction of all this, anyway?” Everyone will have their own perspective on this, but these are my top three reasons for especially enjoying winter mountain walking:

Scenery

The appearance of snow on the UK mountains has a transformational effect. Suddenly they are no longer just ‘big hills’ of green, grey and brown. Now they look like the ‘proper’ mountains of the world’s greater ranges. But the UK tends not to get completely snow-covered in winter. So, the contrast in colours between the snow, ice and rock of the summits and the moorland and forest below is truly breathtaking.

View of Ben Nevis in winter from the Mamores, with wind-carved sastrugi in the foreground
Ben Nevis from the Mamores in winter
Two climbers wearing goggles huddle together for protection against the blizzard during a winter skills course in the Cairngorms
Winter skills course – some of it is just about knowing how to cope in harsh conditions.

Challenge

Being out in winter is inherently more challenging than in summer, both physically and mentally. From breaking trail in deep snow, to battling the wind and blizzards, to navigating in true ‘white-out’ conditions (more later) – I love all of this challenge in a semi-masochistic way. (Note the goggles – an essential item of kit in Scotland in winter).

Knowledge and skills

There is a lot to learn if one wishes to enjoy the UK mountains in winter safely (the whole reason for this article on beginners’ tips for the winter mountains). I enjoy this learning journey itself, and I am still on it even after many years.

A group of beginners on a winter mountain walking course in Scotland

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I need to wear for winter mountaineering in the UK?

The three most important items of clothing to get right are:- (1) A pair of boots stiff enough to hold a crampon (minimum B1, depending on your activity) and to kick steps in hard snow. (2) Suitable gloves (warm and waterproof, but also dextrous) – and carry 2 pairs minimum. (3) A full waterproof and windproof ‘shell’ layer – jacket and trousers. This is your first ‘life-saver’ item.

Here is a full kit list of what you might need to wear and carry.

When is the best time to go winter mountaineering in the UK?

The winter season in the mountains can run for as long as from December through to April. The core months are January to March. The best month statistically is February.

Where is the best place to go winter mountaineering in the UK?

It’s possible to have winter mountaineering conditions in Eryri (Snowdonia), the Lake District and all over the highlands of Scotland. However, because of its more northerly latitude, colder weather, and higher summits, the highlands of Scotland has much better conditions, more often, and for longer.

How is hiking in the UK in summer different to winter?

The most obvious answer to this question is that it is colder. However, the really important answers are ones that people don’t expect and these have a huge effect on what you can or can’t do, as well as when and where. (1) Avalanche conditions (yes, avalanches are ‘a thing’ in the UK. (2) The need for good navigation (when paths, streams and anything else obvious is hidden under snow or by low cloud). (3) There is more bad weather than in summer, and when it happens it is much worse. (4) Daylight hours are much shorter, especially as you go further north in Scotland, so you need to plan your day accordingly.

What equipment do I need for winter mountaineering in the UK?

The essential items of equipment are:- (1) Winter mountaineering boots that will take a crampon (B1 minimum). I class this is as an ‘item of equipment’ not just an item of clothing because there are mountaineering techniques that you cannot do without a B1 boot. (2) An ice axe, and the skills to use it. (3) Crampons, and the skills to use them. (4) An emergency shelter to survive a night caught out (such as a small, light-weight survival bag). (5) A map and compass and the skills to use them. Don’t depend on a smartphone app alone, as batteries can drain extremely fast in the cold. (6) A head-torch with fully-charged batteries.

What are the most important things to know about winter mountaineering in the UK?

There are two main topics which many beginner walkers in the winter mountains don’t realise are even relevant; and even the experts agree there is still always more to learn. (1) Avalanches, which are regular occurrences in the UK mountains. You need to know how to plan your day to avoid avalanche-prone areas – Be Avalanche Aware. (2) Navigation skills need to be much, much better than in summer conditions. There are no marked paths, or even visible tracks, in winter under snow; and low cloud and appalling visibility are everyday occurrences.

From Summer Hiking to Winter…what?

Mindset

The first beginners’ tip is that the key to enjoying, as well as being safe and successful in, the UK’s winter mountains is one of mindset. In one sense, it’s perfectly understandable that as summer turns into winter, someone who enjoys the summer mountains will also enjoy them in winter.

But from a different perspective, it’s vital to realise that walking in the UK mountains in winter conditions is absolutely not the same thing as it is in summer. You will be in for a shock if you think that the only difference is the date on the calendar and a pair of gloves on your hands.

Winter hiking

I have to confess that alarm bells ring in my head whenever I hear someone ask about ‘winter hiking’.

The reason for this is that term ‘hiking’ covers a huge range of possible interpretations. Some people’s expectation of what ‘winter hiking’ means in the UK is very far removed from the what they will actually encounter. Sometimes dangerously so, through no fault of their own.

To some people, ‘hiking’ means walking along well-defined tracks and trails, that are very often signposted too. Leaving the trails is a very bad idea because of the surrounding terrain, vegetation and potentially wild animals too. By contrast, this isn’t the case the UK – it’s quite the opposite in fact. Second, our senses are bombarded by stunning images on social media which inspire people to visit these beautiful places. This is good. However, the images gives no sense of the degree of effort or skill required to reach those places.

Here are some reasons why reaching the summits of UK mountains in winter is so very, very different from in summer. A vital tip for beginners to winter mountains is to understand these differences and prepare for them.

Climate

The seasonal shift in the path of the Jetstream across the Atlantic causes a fundamental change in the pattern of airflows across the UK. Our wet and unpredictable autumn weather now becomes colder, more stormy and changeable, and instead of rain it brings snow. The wind directions now become more frequently north-westerly, northerly and north-easterly. These colder winds also tend to be stronger. Average temperatures drop, of course, but they also fluctuate enormously between night and day, and from day to day. All of this has a profound effect on what winter means in practice.

Mountain weather

Many beginners seem unaware that the prevailing weather conditions change as you gain height up a mountain, even the relatively small ones in the UK. In simple terms, you can expect the temperature to drop around 1C for every 200 metre of height gain. Also, wind speeds tend to increase with height, such that the windspeed at 1000m is likely to be around double that at sea level.

Here is an illustration to help understand this better in practice. This describes an imaginary day in Fort William and then uses the principles described above to estimate what the summit conditions would be like on Ben Nevis.

Weather conditions in Fort William (sea level):-

Temperature – Plus 5C. Wind speed – 20mph with gusts of 30mph. Occasional rain showers.  (This is not especially bad weather and is unlikely to deter someone from setting off up Ben Nevis).

Ben Nevis summit conditions at the same time:-

Temperature – Minus 1C. Windspeed – 50mph with gusts of 60mph. Sleet and snow in blizzard conditions. Windchill – Minus 12C. (This is considerably different to the sea level conditions and anyone inadequately prepared will be caught out).

Paths

Two climbers begin their descent from Ben Nevis towards the setting sun after climbing Ledge Route on a winter mountaineering course
Two climbers begin their descent from Ben Nevis towards the setting sun after climbing Ledge Route on a winter mountaineering course

There are handful of mountains in the UK where, over recent years, good paths have been laid. This is partly to make it easy for people but more significantly has been done to limit erosion damage on routes that are extremely popular. The ‘Three Peaks’ (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon)) are particular examples, with the paths up Yr Wyddfa perhaps being the best (or worst?) example of ‘industrial’ trails up the mountains.

But this isn’t the case everywhere. On many other mountains, in Scotland in particular, the summer path is little more than a groove worn by thousands of feet. Once this is covered in a foot or more of snow there simply is no ‘path’.

You should then add on the fact that the summer path perhaps zig-zagged its way up a steep hillside, finding an easy way dodging in and out of small cliffs. Now, covered in snow, there is no indication whatsoever of how to best find a way up this rocky, icy mountainside.

What is more, the snow isn’t the powdery, fluffy stuff that you have in the ski-resorts or see on the postcards. It’s heavy, wet snow that has been lying for several days and has started to turn concrete-hard and icy having thawed and frozen many times over in the stormy and changeable weather, and those fluctuating temperatures.

Essential equipment

All of a sudden, your trusty, comfortable fabric summer ‘hiking’ boots won’t provide a grip. The flexible sole, which makes them so comfortable on long hikes is now working against you. As you try to take a step on the hard icy snow, they just crumple and slide. Kicking hard at the snow is too painful on the toes to do for very long. You suddenly become aware that you have very little grip and are high up on a snowy, icy slope with numerous little cliffs below. This isn’t the ‘winter hiking’ you expected.

There is no getting away from it, to move about in the UK winter mountains you absolutely must have a mountain boot that is stiff enough to hold a crampon. (A flexible hiking boot won’t do this at all). Many beginners to winter mountain walking are not aware of this tip and think that their summer hiking boots are adequate.

You also need an ice axe, the essential tool of the mountaineer, for a variety of tasks. And you will need to be carrying crampons for your boots, even if in the end you don’t need them that day.

Avalanche awareness

Many people are taken aback that avalanches are even ‘a thing’ in the UK. Avalanches happen in places with big mountains, like the Alps and the Himalayas, not on small hills like we have in the UK (don’t they?). Very surprisingly, the most deadly avalanche in British history was in Lewes, East Sussex on 27 December 1836. A row of cottages was destroyed and eight people killed.

But avalanches are still very much regular occurrences in the UK. Most years in Scotland there are between 100-300 recorded avalanches and, sadly, there can be 15-20 deaths in a winter season. These are never enormous avalanches of Alpine or Himalayan proportions. But they are big enough to bury a person deeply enough that they might not be found until the next spring.

It’s not always obvious where the avalanche hazard may be lurking. The changeable wind directions keep moving the snow around, making slopes that were safe yesterday a deadly hazard today. Once encased in the heavy, wet snow, a person is effectively buried in concrete, giving them very little chance of survival. (Have you spotted the connection yet – how everything keeps coming back to the UK’s unique, changeable winter weather?)

Mountaineering, not hiking

I want to promote the idea that there simply is no such thing as ‘winter hiking’ in the UK mountains. Treat with great caution any suggestion that you can go for a ‘snowy hike’ in the mountains in winter – especially if you read it on Facebook.

The term ‘mountaineering’ has numerous definitions, but they will invariably include words such as mountain, terrain, weather, conditions, skills, special equipment and experience. If you want to venture into the mountains of Scotland, the Lake District or Wales in winter conditions, then your mindset needs to be that you are ‘mountaineering’. Learn how to understand mountain weather and avalanche conditions. Choose routes that are matched to your knowledge, skills and equipment. Know how to deal with emergency situations. Gradually you will accumulate more experience and then in time be able to push your boundaries further.

Welcome to the fabulous world of winter mountaineering in the UK. I hope you will be able to put these beginners’ tips to good use in the winter mountains soon.

Clothing and Equipment

One of the most obvious and frequent questions that people have is “What kit do I need?”.

At its simplest, the answer is to say that you need an extension to what you use for mountain walking/hiking in the summer, with the obvious addition of warmer layers. However, I have already mentioned the need for a stiffer boot, suitable for use with crampons, instead of a flexible walking boot.

There are plenty of recommended kit lists out there online and they will all point you in the right direction. My own suggested list is here. However, rather than simply list all these items again, in this beginners’ tips article I intend to focus on the things that people get most wrong, most of the time on their first trip winter mountains. This all comes back to not fully appreciating the game that you are getting into.

So here are the main tips for winter mountain walking that I find beginners get badly wrong most often:-

Boots

This is a point mentioned earlier above. Beginners get caught out thinking their summer hiking boots (which are very bendy) will be fine in winter. All they need is to put on an extra pair of socks. Sometimes cost is factor – “Do I really need a pair of serious mountaineering boots at that price when I just want to a bit of walking? I’m not interested in climbing, after all.”

Stiffness – B1, B2, B3

There is lots of information available out there about stiffness of boots and how they are rated in terms of being compatible with crampons. Boots tend to be rated in the UK as B1, B2 or B3 with B1 being the minimum stiffness for use with crampons. If cost is a factor, they can be hired quite easily in places like Fort William and Aviemore, and even online with delivery in advance.

Boots as a tool

But a stiff boot (minimum B1) is the essential tool for walking in the mountains in winter. It’s not (only) an item of clothing – it is an essential tool. Would you try roller-blading in hiking boots? Or ice-skating in trail-running shoes? Play football in beach shoes? For all those sports you need the correct tools on your feet. So it is the same for walking in the mountains in winter, and this is probably the most important tip on clothing and equipment for beginners.

Gloves

Dry cold and wet cold

The next tip for winter mountain walking beginners is not to underestimate what you need in the way of gloves. Generally, novices don’t anticipate that it will be as cold and wet as it actually will be. Those who have experience in the Alps, America or Canada are often caught out too. They might be used to Minus 20C of very dry cold, but Minus 5C of the wet cold that we have in the UK can actually feel an awful lot colder.

A climber on a winter mountaineering course waits at the belay on Dorsal Arete on a bitterly cold day
A climber on a winter mountaineering course waits at the belay on Dorsal Arete on a bitterly cold day

Thickness of glove

There is a very fine balance to be achieved when buying a glove for any activity. You need to balance the outside temperature with your body temperature. This in turn will depend on whether the activity is high output or low output and therefore how much body heat you will be generating. Also, some of us feel the cold more while others do not.

Getting too light a glove will tip the balance wrongly in one direction. This will leave your hands not adequately insulated and therefore cold. But getting it wrong the other way, and wearing too warm a glove, will make your hands sweat thus wetting the glove. Then you will have wet hands which quickly become cold hands. So, it is a tricky balance.

Cost

However, what I see the most is people who have underestimated the warmth of glove that they need. This tends to be a function of the cost of the glove. They look at the prices and think “Wow! How much for a glove? I don’t need that.” They believe that they are “only hiking, not mountaineering or anything hard like that” and that a cheaper glove will suit their needs.

But think about it. Think how vital the hands are. It’s not just a question of whether you can ‘put up with’ cold hands and tough it out. If your fingers are numb then they don’t work properly. This means that you can’t do simple tasks like open your rucksack, pull out a jacket, put it on and fasten the zip, use your map and compass etc. If you can’t use your hands then you are becoming a problem, a risk to yourself and others.

This glove is the Mountain Equipment Couloir glove. Something like this, or an equivalent, is a good standard glove for winter mountaineering in Scotland. No, it’s not cheap. A traditional Dachstein Mitten is a cheaper alternative that is still surprisingly effective.

Several pairs of gloves

In any case, it’s a good plan to take several pairs of gloves on a Scottish winter day out – a thinner pair for higher output as you walk in the morning; a thicker pair for the cold and wet times during the main event; and maybe a pair of mitts to put on, dry, at the end of the day on the way back down.

When you get back to the valley, you will doubtless have 2-3 pairs of gloves which need to by dry for the following day. This tip on drying gloves might well come in handy.

Rucksack

There are a couple of things that I see beginners regularly get wrong with the choice of rucksacks. Again, this tends to be a carry-over from summer walking experience and believing that winter is just the same but a bit whiter. So I have some beginners’ tips for what to look for when choosing a rucksack for the winter mountains.

Size (Capacity)

The first is the size of the rucksack (litre capacity). People tend to underestimate this enormously. Some turn up for winter day out with a 10-15-litre trail running bag; others with something that is suitable as a summer day-sack but no more (say, 20-25 litres). They totally underestimate how much extra bulk there is to fit inside in winter.

Not only is there the question of what to fit inside, but also there’s what is sometimes referred to as ‘room to work’. This means that empty space inside the rucksack is actually being used as a working space to allow you to do things sheltered from the wind and sleet and hail. For example, changing a pair of gloves; or getting goggles prepared to wear; and so on. So, your rucksack needs not only space to get everything you need inside it, but it also needs 5-10 litres of empty space for you to put your hands in and do stuff inside it. For beginners to winter mountain walking, the key tip is that anything less than 35-40 litres probably just isn’t big enough.

Waterproofing

The next mistake is believing that a rucksack is waterproof. Now, I know that some are very, very highly resistant to water penetration. Some may even be rubberised and made from a waterproof fabric. Some have a roll-top closure like a dry-bag at the top and claim to be waterproof. But the big problem with all these is that as soon as you open them, they have a big hole at the top. Then they are no longer in the least bit waterproof.

In comes the sleet and the snow and soaks your dry down duvet and your dry spare gloves. When you take off your crampons, inside the bag they go (along with huge clumps of snow) to soak everything that had been dry until then. The same problem goes with ‘rucksack liners’ that are a single dry-bag that fills the entire rucksack. Once opened, in comes all the snow.

The answer is to assume your rucksack is not waterproof. Instead, put single items or groups of items into separate small dry-bags. A spare warm jacket in one bag. Gloves and hat in another. Emergency gear in a separate bag, and so on. This is the second key tip for beginners to get right when going winter mountain walking.

Ice Axe and Crampons

An ice-axe and crampons are the next essential tools, following closely behind a suitable boot. Funnily enough, many people recognise this and actively look forward to trying them out. But they still think that the crampons will work on a bendy, summer hiking boot. They won’t, I assure you. If they stay attached long enough, the bending of the boot will stress the metal of the crampon and snap it. But most likely the crampons won’t even stay on the boot that long – the bend of the boot will simply shake the crampon off it. You can bet this will happen at the most inopportune – and most dangerous – moment. There is a great deal of discussion – and misunderstanding – about the relative pros and cons of crampons versus microspikes. Suffice to say that while microspikes have their place, they are not really the right tool for winter mountaineering.

Looking down Ledge Route high up on Ben Nevis during a winter mountaineering courses in Scotland
Ledge Route, Ben Nevis – typical of winter mountaineering courses in Scotland such as in the Cairngorms, Glencoe or Ben Nevis

The final, but vital, point to add here is that not only should you have all this equipment – but you need to have the knowledge of when to use them and how to use them effectively. This is typically why many beginners will attend a ‘winter skills course’ during their first visit to the mountains in winter , to pick up vital tips and techniques.

Cotton kills

Wearing a cotton layer next to the skin, such as T-Shirt, or even anywhere in the layering system, is a very, very bad idea. Cotton makes excellent towels, because it is highly absorbent and will therefore absorb a huge amount of liquid relative to its own weight. But it takes a long time to dry. We all know this from first-hand experience in our kitchens and bathrooms.

When worn on the body, especially next to the skin, it performs in exactly the same way. It is very effective at absorbing moisture (sweat, rain, snow) and very slow to dry (especially when no air can get to it). The wet cotton close to your skin will chill your body around 5 times more quickly. This leads to heat (energy) loss and ultimately to hypothermia (which if not corrected leads to death).

It’s for this reason that the expression “Cotton Kills” is mentioned in the context of winter outdoor sports. Buy man-made fibres such as sports clothing even if you can’t splash out on high-tech equivalents. But don’t wear cotton.

Emergency shelter

This should always be a consideration – ask yourself “Could I survive a night out if I had to?” In summer it’s a more finely balanced decision. Nights are less cold, the weather is generally better, and even if injured it might not take too long to reach a road or civilisation. Many people also prefer to travel as light as possible. But even on organised long-distance challenge events, organisers generally insist that a survival bag is a minimum requirement. What do you normally carry in summer?

In winter, however, the answer to this question becomes much more clear-cut. Having to spend an unplanned night out is a much more likely eventuality than in summer, and without some sort of additional equipment it is highly unlikely that you would survive the night.

There are many options available and you can choose according to the number in the party, and the seriousness or remoteness of the route. Popular choices include a group shelter (depending on the number in the party); an individual insulated survival bag such as the Blizzard Bag; and at a bare minimum a simple plastic survival bag (assuming you are also carrying an extra warm jacket for emergency insulation).

Food and drink

During a long, tiring day out in the hills we will need to replenish our body’s energy stocks and fluid levels. Everyone has different dietary needs and preferences, so this is very much a case of ‘each to their own’, providing it is fit for purpose. There’s not much nutrition value in a bag of crisps, however.

Consistently, though, I find people make three classic mistakes. Here they are, along with how they occur and how you can avoid them.

Taking too much

Carrying too much food and fluid adds to the weight of the rucksack, which in turn makes the day more tiring and your progress slower. Remember that 1 litre of water is basically 1 kilogram of weight. I suppose people base their expected fluid consumption on their experience in summer and think they will be consistently thirsty.

In reality, during a winter day when daylight is short, you are much more likely to move continually, but slowly, and stop for only very brief rests. Oddly enough, the body tends not to crave fluids as it does in summer, because of the lower temperature. If you arrive back at the end of the day with large amounts of food and drink left in your bag, then consider if you really needed to take it. Personally, I manage with a 0.75litre flask of hot drink. However, I practice “pre-hydrating” (drinking plenty in the morning) and “re-hydrating” (drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids on return).

Wrong type of foods

By the wrong type of food, I am not referring to ingredients and nutrition, as that is a personal matter. But I am referring to the packaging and access to the food.

In a day’s winter mountaineering there tends not to be a defined lunch-break, least of all at a set time. It’s difficult to know exactly where one will be at “lunchtime” and what the weather will be doing. It’s frequently cold and windy, so you are unlikely to want to sit down for a 30 minute lunch, especially when you are racing the daylight. For this reason, bringing plastic boxes filled with pasta and sauce is not usually a practical choice.

The best foods are those that you can eat while still being active. This is often referred to as “chew and do”. For example, taking bites of a sandwich while fitting your crampons or adding more clothing layers. Items that you can stuff into jacket pockets are the best – cereal bars and chocolate bars that you can access and eat even while moving.

Drinking tubes

In summer, many walkers (including me) like to have a hydration pack with a drinking tube. This makes it incredibly easy to keep hydrated by taking regular small sips, but without guzzling and getting bloated.

These have an obvious drawback in winter, which seems to pass many people by – until their first day out. Water freezes. So the thin tube and mouthpiece freeze up very quickly meaning that you have nothing to drink and are now just carrying a dead weight of water in a plastic sack. The insulated covers for the tubes tend not to be all that effective either, in case you are tempted to try.

One tip for beginners is not to use driving tubes in the winter mountains. If you want to carry water, carry a conventional water bottle inside your rucksack but store it upside down. This way the neck of the bottle will be the last thing to freeze.

Knowledge and Skills

Several times already, I have mentioned that winter mountaineering in the UK requires additional skills and knowledge, compared to summer. The best way to learn some of this at the start is on a winter skills course with a qualified and knowledge professional. Going out with clubs and truly experienced friends are also very good ways to learn and develop experience. But when choosing ‘experienced friends’ to take you out, or unregulated social media ‘groups’, take good care to look into the actual experience of the people ‘guiding’ you, especially if they are charging money. Don’t forget the age-old expression – “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

These are some of the things that can make winter mountaineering a steep learning curve for many people. To become independent, you will need to actively seek out information on these topics and over time make a point of gaining experience in these areas. For beginners in the winter mountains, these are my key tips for what to learn about.

Understanding mountain weather

  • Seek out and read information on the UK’s weather systems in general and on mountain weather in particular.
  • Find out where you can access reliable weather forecasts and information – but understand the pros and cons of each source. For example:
    • The Met Office has a mountain weather forecast page which is updated throughout the day as the forecasting models are updated.
    • The Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) was until recently the only readily available source. It is still very popular and presents information in a way that makes sense to the mountaineer. Its drawback is that it is only updated once each day, at around 4-5pm. So by 9am the next day, when you head out, it’s already somewhat out of date.
    • The Met Office also has a useful smartphone app.
    • Another useful smartphone app is MWUK (Mountain Weather UK). This acts as a hub or portal into existing data sources including the Met Office and actual weather stations (eg on Cairngorm summit). It also provides links to MWIS and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) so it is a bit of a one-stop-shop.
  • It’s worth having an approach to dealing with multiple different sources. I like this approach:
    • If multiple sources forecast similar weather, then they have come up with the same answer despite different data and models. It is more likely that all their forecasts will be correct.
    • If multiple sources forecast different weather, even wildly different, then it shows that their methods could not reach the same conclusion. This means that there is a lower chance that any one of them will be right. It can be prudent to plan on activity based on the majority of forecasts but with a full expectation (and Plan B) based on the most pessimistic forecast.

Navigation

Map, compass and GPS

Being able to navigate with a map and a compass are absolutely essential skills in the UK winter mountains. It’s fine to use a GPS or smartphone app to confirm your location (I certainly do), but you have to be very aware of their limitations as far as battery and cold are concerned.

Navigational difficulties

Navigation is much, much harder in the winter for three main reasons:

  • Snow will cover many of the features that people tend to navigate by in the summer – paths, tracks, streams etc. They all disappear in winter meaning the navigation simply must be done by using landforms – therefore reading the contours from the map.
  • In winter, weather is on average worse than in summer which means that you spend more of your time in poor visibility. If you can see 500 metres to 1km away in winter, that’s really very good visibility even though it’s a far cry from what you might be used to in summer. Less than 200 metres is common-place, but still not really that bad. You will need to become comfortable navigating like this regularly.
  • It’s physically more difficult to open up a map and place a compass on it in winter, when in all likelihood you are in high winds getting battered by sleep and spindrift (tiny snow particles whipped up the wind, like being sand-blasted). This tip on securing your map in high wind might come in handy.

Consequences of errors

Navigation becomes more critical in winter conditions due to the avalanche hazard. In summer, taking the wrong path might simply turn out to be an inconvenient detour or force you to retrace your steps. In winter, a navigational error could put you into dangerous avalanche terrain and cost your life. The summit of Ben Nevis (below) is notoriously difficult to navigate off in poor visibility.

The summit of Ben Nevis in winter. The emergency shelter and the summit marker are obvious, as is the enormous chasm of Gardyloo Gully which you have to take care to avoid in poor visibility
The summit of Ben Nevis in winter, during a winter navigation course. Navigational skills and tips are needed for you to descend safely in poor visibility

White-Out

From time to time you may hear people regale you with their stories of navigating in a complete white-out. But this has been in the summer. Well, they may have been in thick cloud or fog, with relatively poor visibility. But it’s impossible to be in a white-out when there is no snow on the ground. The best description of white-out is that it’s like being on the inside of a ping-pong ball. Okay, I’ve not actually been inside a ping-pong ball but the analogy stands. Everything is white and there is no difference between ground and sky.  You can’t tell whether something is up or down. White-out messes with your senses and makes you lose balance because there is no reference point. You genuinely don’t know whether the next step will take you up or over a precipice.

Avalanche

The mountains are a dangerous place in winter for complete beginners and a vital tip is to do some learning about avalanches:-

  • Seek out and read information on avalanches in general and UK avalanches in particular. Discover how they form and how they are triggered, even if you have only a crude understanding.
  • Find out how to interpret weather forecasts (and recent weather history). This will let you make a basic judgement as to whether the avalanche risk will be worse or better than yesterday.
  • Learn how to find out, or work out, which slopes are likely to be avalanche prone on the day that you go out, so that you can plan on avoiding them.
  • If you are going to be in Scotland, then you can access the brilliant Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) website, which provides much for this information for you. You just need to be sure to follow it. SAIS also provide lots of resources to learn about avalanches.
  • If you are going to the Lake District or Wales, where avalanches are less common (but still very much a hazard), then you will have to make more of your own judgement.
  • Find out about the UK’s avalanche planning protocol, called Be Avalanche Aware – and use it.
  • A common question from novices is “What should I do if I’m caught in an avalanche?” It’s certainly worth understanding this. A much more important question for a novice to ask is “How can I avoid avalanche-prone areas?”
  • Learn about physical features that you can see in the snow so that you can recognise them and understand what they tell you about the avalanche risk where you are going. Sastrugi and Rime Ice are two useful examples.

The Winter Mountain Walking Season the UK

Putting beginners' mountain walking tips into practice in the highlands of Scotland on the Devil's Ridge
Winter mountain walking in the Mamores crossing the Devil’s Ridge – the result of attending a winter skills course in Scotland in the Cairngorms, Glencoe or Ben Nevis

Earlier on, I mentioned that people generally consider the UK to have three mountainous areas. These are Eryri (Snowdonia), the Lake District and the (vast) highlands of Scotland. Later, I’ll talk a little about which of these to go to, when and why.

First, a little bit of climatic history. People have varying views on the topic of climate change and whether it’s permanent or cyclical. But there is no doubt that the winter weather in the 2010-20s is hugely different to when I first started winter climbing in the 1980s. It’s different in two main regards.

Length or duration

First, there’s the question of duration. Forty years ago, winter would start at some point in early December, or even November. Then it would stay until spring took over (say April, but sometimes even May). During that time there could be decent quantities of snow all over the UK.  But the mountains (particularly in Scotland) would generally have an almost permanent covering of snow. Now, winter is more of a series of little episodes, punctuated by breaks.  At their worst, these breaks completely re-set the conditions back to those of the wet, mild autumn.

Severity

Second, there is the question of severity. Back then, once winter started it turned cold and stayed cold (on average). The snow that fell at the start of the season began to form a base.  Then further events kept adding new snowfall and ice on top. Nowadays, even when there is a mini-episode of winter, it is often much milder and wetter than it was 30-40 years ago. This means that ice struggles to accumulate.

These are sweeping generalisations, I know, and are occasionally wrong (such as the year of the Beast from the East). But few mountaineers would argue with this. Most would agree that winter mountaineering conditions are seldom what they were 30-40 years ago.

Planning ahead

As a result, we have to modify our expectations as to what winter even means and what conditions it might be bring, and when, to different areas. It’s not unusual to see an October Facebook post such as “Can anyone recommend me a good instructor for a winter skills course in Wales next February?” Now, there may be very good specific reasons why a person may be asking this.  Also, it’s perfectly possible to have good winter days in Eryri (Snowdonia) in February. But I will say that it’s a very limiting plan. The odds of a good winter are not as high as they would be in Scotland. So, it’s not surprising that many of the instructors migrate northwards and spend the winter season working in Scotland. Therefore you may even have difficulty booking an instructor in England or Wales on your chosen dates.

Timing

If you are in England or Wales, and are able to be spontaneous and take time off at short notice, then good winter conditions can and do come to Eryri (Snowdonia) and the Lake District. But these days they tend to be very short lived and can disappear as fast as they arrived, unfortunately.

If you are planning a long way ahead, knowing you want to do a winter mountaineering trip in a certain week and have no other options, then without a doubt you should choose Scotland. The extra journey will be worthwhile because your chances of having decent winter conditions will be multiplied many times over (though still not guaranteed!)

Areas for Beginners to go Winter Mountain Walking in the UK

Here are some tips and things to consider to help you choose when and where to go, especially if you are a beginner at winter mountain walking:

Scotland

A winter view from the Horns of Alligin in Torridon
View from the Horns of Alligin, Torridon, during a winter mountaineering course

Previously I mentioned just how huge an expanse the highlands of Scotland. What’s  more, it is a very complex area in terms of geology, terrain, prevailing weather conditions, remoteness and travel options. Consequently, there are a huge number of options open to you. With care, you can make the most of whatever the winter might have brought. However, I want to simplify this enormously and give useful tips for beginners. So, I am going to divide it into three main winter mountain walking regions:

East

By the East, I am generally referring to the Cairngorm mountains with places like Aviemore as a handy base.

  • The Cairngorms is a semi-arctic high-level plateau of rolling hills, similar to some terrain in Norway. It contains five of Scotland’s (and therefore the UK’s) ten highest mountains. There are plenty of steep cliffs for climbers, however, though they tend to be smaller than on the west coast.
  • Air-flow. The eastern side of Scotland is more exposed to northern and eastern air-flows, and what they bring. In contrast, they are protected from westerly air-flows.
  • Temperatures tend to stay colder on average because this area is protected from the warm westerly airflows.
  • Snow accumulation. Most of the UK precipitation comes from the west, and less from the north and east. Therefore, the Cairngorms take longer to accumulate depths of snow than the west coast. But once it’s there it stays much longer than in the west. There are exceptions, such as the very highest parts of Ben Nevis.
  • This area has good access by road (A9) and is about 3 hours drive from Edinburgh. It is also served by train from London (overnight sleeper) and has an airport at Inverness, an hour away.

West

The most popular and accessible areas are those centred around Fort William and Glencoe.

  • The west coast and the islands generally have steep, jagged peaks. These rise all the way from sea-level to 1000 metres plus. Steep rocky slopes, huge cliffs and narrow exposed ridges are all common. The west coast looks very much like one expects mountains to look.
  • Air-flow. The western side of Scotland is more exposed to the milder and wetter westerly/north-westerly air-flows.
  • Average temperatures fluctuate more than in the east.
  • Snow accumulation. The westerly winds can bring huge quantities of snow very quickly. But a change to a warmer air-flow can cause rapid thaws. These will strip the snow back to nothing very quickly too.
  • The A82 from Glasgow takes you by car to Fort William in just under 3 hours. There is also an overnight sleeper train from London.

North

This is a huge area of much variety. It is more difficult to pigeon-hole and characterise than the other two popular areas.

  • Like the west coast, this is an area where mountains rise up from seal-level and low-lying bogs. However, the peaks are more dispersed and so appear even bigger as they are more isolated.
  • Air-flow. Very similar to the west coast mountains – more affected by north/north-west air-flows.
  • Like the west coast, temperatures are more prone to fluctuation than they are in the east. However, being even further north the latitude plays a part in it being somewhat colder.
  • Snow accumulation. This area has the same characteristics and pros/cons as the west coast.
  • This is a much more remote area and harder to get to, with longer journey times. However do it, if you are travelling from the south then it’s a very long way. If you have the luxury of being able to get here quickly then you can be spontaneous. Otherwise, you must commit to making the long journey and staying there for a while and to make the most of the conditions.

The Lake District

A busy day on Sharp Edge. Lots of climbers taking advantage of the conditions to practice their winter skills in the Lake District and make an ascent of this Grade 1 ridge on Blencathra.
A busy day on Sharp Edge. Lots of climbers taking advantage of the conditions to practice their winter skills in the Lake District and make an ascent of this Grade 1 ridge on Blencathra.
  • As I mentioned above, winter conditions can arrive quickly and disappear just as fast. You need to have a degree of flexibility and spontaneity to make the most of it.
  • Avalanches are less likely than in Scotland because the snow seldom accumulates to the same extent. However, that’s not to say that they can’t happen. High, north-facing gullies can accumulate and hold onto large amounts of snow, making avalanche planning still a vital consideration.
  • There are a number of very popular routes in the Lake District, classed as summer Grade 1 scrambles. These become a much more serious proposition in winter. I’m thinking of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge (on Helvellyn) and Sharp Edge on Blencathra. The latter is an accident blackspot even in summer if it’s wet. You should treat all of these routes with the utmost respect in proper winter conditions. There are a good numbers of accidents on Swirral Edge as people make their descent. This is either because they have no crampons or because they are not sufficiently skilled in walking in them.

Eryri (Snowdonia)

View of the Snowdon Horseshoe in winter taken from Plas y Brenin
  • As for the Lake District, winter conditions can come and go very quickly.
  • When it is consistently cold, north and north-central Wales actually have some of the finest ice-climbing in the whole country. It’s just a shame that this happens so infrequently now.
  • As in the Lake District, Eryri’s classic Grade 1 scrambles are very popular in winter too. This includes Crib Goch and the North Ridge of Tryfan. But as described above, you need much more skill and experience to tackle these in full winter conditions.
  • Lots of people who have walked Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) in the summer want to do it in winter. The easiest path (both technically and in terms of exertion) in summer is the path from Llanberis. It should figure, therefore, that the same is true in winter. In some ways, this is still the case. But the mountains can play cruel tricks and Yr Wyddfa is no different. The slopes below the summit, close to the railway line, have earned themselves the media nickname of ‘the killer convex’. You can read all about it if you search for it. In poor visibility inexperienced groups are lulled into a false sense of security and follow the railway line down. Here, they are moving along a steep snow slope that bulges outwards – gentler at the top, getting steeper further down. But this happens quickly and the slope ends in enormous cliffs. It’s very easy to slip here when the snow is hard-packed and icy. This is even more the case if you are wearing flexible bendy hiking boots. The slip will quickly turn into a slide which is impossible to stop. Tragically, victims slide and accelerate down to, and over, the cliffs.

I’ll finish up with some tips on specific beginners’ winter mountain routes or areas to go to. Of course, if you didn’t already know, by now you will – it’s vital to balance your choice of route with the weather and snow conditions on the day, along with your own levels of skills and experience.

The suggested list below is in various categories to take you all the way from your first winter mountain day to your first Grade 1 snow gully climb (should you be interested in this).

These routes have been chosen based on their technical difficulty and accessibility. Don’t forget that in poor weather conditions, or in a period of high avalanche risk, then these all become much more difficult or even impossible to do safely.

Technically easy walks

  • Wales
    • Carneddau range
  • Lake District
    • Skiddaw range
    • Derwent Fells
  • Scotland
    • East
      • Cairngorm and Cairn Lochain
    • West
      • Glencoe – Buachaille Etive Beag
      • Lochaber – Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag

More serious walks

  • Wales
    • Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon)
  • Lake District
    • High Street
    • Helvellyn
    • Fairfield
  • Scotland
    • East
      • Ben Macdui
      • Braeriach
      • Lochnagar
    • West
      • Glen Nevis – The Grey Corries

Routes on steeper terrain

  • Wales
    • Glyderau range
  • Lake District
    • Central Fells – Bowfell, Great End and Scafell Pike
  • Scotland
    • East
      • Cairngorms – peaks around Loch Avon behind Cairngorm
    • West
      • Glencoe – Stob Coire nan Lochan
      • Glencoe – Buachaille Etive Mor
      • Glen Nevis – The Mamores range

Grade 1 gully climbs and ridges

  • Wales
    • Central Trinity/Left Hand Trinity (Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon))
    • Crib Goch (Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon))
  • Lake District
    • Cust’s Gully (Great End)
    • Striding Edge (Helvellyn)
  • Scotland
    • East
      • Jacob’s Ladder (Cairngorms)
      • Aladdin’s Couloir (Cairngorms)
      • Fiacaill Ridge – easiest line (Cairngorms)
    • West
      • Carn Mor Dearg Arete (Ben Nevis)
      • Number Three Gully (Ben Nevis)
      • Tower Gully (Ben Nevis)

Summary

This article on tips for winter mountain walking is aimed at a beginners. This is probably someone who has done some summer walking/hiking and who wants to get into the UK mountains in the winter. I’ve explained why I think that mindset needed to do this should be one of ‘mountaineering’ rather than ‘hiking’ (though I accept the definitions of these terms are many and varied!).

The main content of the article has been to highlight the tips that I think beginners are often unaware of. I have also described the most common mistakes made by novices in the winter mountains.

I hope that have you enjoyed reading this. Despite all the grim warnings I hope this has inspired you to get out walking in the winter mountains. Or perhaps like me, you enjoy the challenge and want to go because of them. I also hope you have picked up plenty of beginners’ tips and information to put to good use. If you’d like to learn more, then a winter skills course is the ideal way to do this.

Enjoy the UK winter mountains, but safely.