Take a dose of sun, a sprinkling of snow, a handful of gales and a dusting of whiteouts. Mix them all together in a bucketful of rain, and voila! you have an energising winter’s day in the Scottish mountains. (Alright, that might not be quite accurate, it can be like that in summer, too.)
I couldn’t believe my luck, then, when last week while winter walking in Scotland, I was graced with sunglasses and SPF weather in Glen Coe. Still, we were prepared for the worst, as any winter hill walker should be.
If you’re thinking of trundling along snow-covered ridges, here are some tips for winter walking in Scotland.
One minute you’re cold, the next you’re hot, then you’re cold again (and probably wet from sweating. Delightful). Layer up like an onion, hopefully you won’t smell like one, especially if merino wool is on your kit list.
- Merino wool baselayers – helps keep you warm even when wet, and it works as an anti-odour control, too. I can easily wear the same 100 percent merino top for at least seven days, although I would probably be walking solo if I used it for much longer! The properties of merino wool work far better than polyester baselayers.
- Fleece – it isn’t windproof, but that’s beneficial when you’re walking uphill and getting pretty toasty.
- Softshell jacket – get a windproof one (to see if it is windproof, blow air through the sleeve and if you cannot feel it through the jacket, it’s windproof).
- Insulated jacket – for winter walking in Scotland, it’s best to opt for a thin yet warm synthetic jacket rather than down, as it still works when wet.
- Insulated or softshell trousers – they help against the wind and softshells will normally have some water repellency on them.
- Waterproof jacket – these take a battering around the shoulders and back where you’re wearing a pack, especially when you use them every day on the hills. You can prolong the life of your jacket by using it only when it’s snowing or raining and use your softshell as your windproof jacket. Buy a waterproof jacket with pitzips, you’ll be truly thankful when you build up a sweat going uphill. Goretex Pro is the top waterproof fabric out there but unfortunately it’s not cheap, but for winter walking in Scotland, it can be a godsend.
- Waterproof trousers – these should have zips right to the top so if you need to put them on when you’ve already got your crampons on, it won’t involve you becoming a contortionist.
- Gaiters – good for deep snow and river crossings.
- Waterproof gloves, a hat and a buff for your face.
- Very warm merino socks, otherwise your feet will get cold when you’re not moving.
- Hand warmers to revive cold hands.
You might not be in all the layers at once, but if you have them in your bag, you have the option to put them on as you need them.
Crampons and an ice axe are essential for safe winter walking in Scotland. If you’re not sure how to use them, go on a winter skills course and they’ll run through walking techniques, safety and falling techniques and a whole lot more. I’d recommend a 5-day course rather than a 2-day one to cement your learning. You’ll need B1 or B2 boots (they are crampon compatible), just be aware of the weight of them. The heavier they are, the more demanding it will be to walk in deep snow. B1 boots (lighter and less rigid) should cover most scenarios for winter walking in Scotland.
Dry bag your backpack, which should be between 35 and 45 litres with a separate dry bag for each compartment. A rain cover on the outside of your backpack won’t last 2 seconds in a blizzard.
Check the Forecasts
Look at the local Met forecast for the area, the mountain forecast and avalanche risk and cross reference the wind direction and avalanche chances before setting out. If the weather’s particularly bad, sit this day out and read a good book. It’s always better to wish you were up on hills from the comfort of your home rather than wishing you were at home when in danger on the mountains. As with all hiking, take detailed maps and a compass.
Make sure you know how many paces you take per 100 metres on different terrain. This can differ wildly for normal flat, summer walking steps to trudging through deep snow. The more you practise it, the more accurate you’ll become.
It’s pretty easy to become dehydrated when out in the snow, so ensure you drink enough water and/or hot chocolate to give you a bit of a boost and warmth when winter walking. In Scotland, it can be easy to think you’re not thirsty if it’s raining, but guzzle down the liquids anyway.
Let someone know your route and expected arrival time off the hills. Give them a specific cut-off time (for example, 2 hours beyond your ETA) when they should contact Mountain Rescue.
Know your Limits
Be prepared to turn around if the going gets tough or have an alternative back-up plan. Give yourself extra time for winter walking in Scotland, taking into account additional time for walking in deep snow with heavy boots and crampons. When going uphill, add 1 min per contour line to your planning. Remember, winter days are shorter the further north you are.
Take emergency equipment in case you get caught out and need to spend longer in the hills than expected. A great piece of kit to have is a survival blizzard bag which gives the equivalent warmth of a 2-season sleeping bag. For the Mountain Rescue service, call 999 or 112, ask for the police and then Mountain Rescue, and be prepared to give them specific information. Don’t forget your torch, first aid kit, pen knife, a group shelter and some extra food, too.
But most of all, enjoy it, winter walking in Scotland is beautiful.
To be fully prepared for winter walking in Scotland, go on a winter skills course for all the information you need to have a safe hike.