At this time of year there is always lots of talk about being well prepared and making sure that you have the right kit for the conditions. I’m guilty of posting this fairly often on my own page too, which is no bad thing.
However, I think it’s fair to say that we need to be well prepared every time we are heading out for an adventure. If we are not organised or prepared then things can, and will, go wrong. I believe strongly that our safety on the mountains starts a long before we even think about stepping outside the front door. We keep ourselves within our own acceptable risk levels by what we do in our preparations as well as what happens when we are out on our adventure.
What I don’t often discuss though is what we mean by the right kit for the conditions. In winter this is hugely important, and many people do not know what kit is required. Many incidents in winter can be attributed to lack of preparation and not having the necessary kit for the conditions.
So what sort of kit should we be thinking about for winter conditions? This post is not going to go into huge detail about each piece of kit, or how to use it. I may in future posts discuss each in more detail though.
Some of what I required is obvious, some of it is not. You don’t always know exactly what you need until you get there, and sometimes what you need at the start, at the bottom of the mountain, is very different to what you might need higher up. So that leads perfectly to the first item, your rucksack.
In winter it makes sense to use a larger volume rucksack than in summer, quite simply because you need more kit, so you need more space to carry it. Try and get everything inside your rucksack. Strapping your helmet or crampons to the outside is not a good idea, but I see often. There is a chance they can fall off and then you are missing an important piece of kit. Anything on the outside can also catch and snag on things (such as your rope if you are roped up at that point). Walking poles and ice axe though are usually strapped to the outside and most rucksacks have specific strapping for these. Be careful of anything with straps though. In the wind any long or lose straps can blow about and cause injury to your face or eyes. I have even seen that happen with the corner of a map case in someone’s eye.
The basic principles of layers, a wicking base layer next to the skin, breathable materials and waterproofs remain the same. You may need additional layers due to the colder temperatures, but you may not need them till later in the day when you have gained altitude and the weather really starts to show its true winter colours. Anything not being worn should be kept in your rucksack secured and safe in a good quality dry bag. Think about a base layer that is able to wick moisture away from your skin to keep you dry. A mid layer to provide warmth. Some mid layers are also wind proof so that is a good option in winter. A soft-shell layer that is windproof and water resistant. An outer shell layer. This is your outer armour and first level of protection to the elements. It needs to be windproof and waterproof, and breathable. It needs to have a hood that can be tightened if it windy and give good protection to the face, without affecting your vision. Good waterproof trousers are a requirement, and these come in a variety of styles and price ranges. Also important for your comfort and warmth are socks. Doubler layer socks can really help to reduce the chance of blisters if you are prone to them. We really like the 1,000-mile socks. Make sure you get the hiking one’s not the thin ones for running! They are available in different lengths and thicknesses for different seasons. We also use waterproof socks too and they have proven to be very effective. Rab, Bridgedale and Sealskinz all have waterproof socks in their ranges. They can be a little strange to wear at first due to their shape, but dry feet are warm feet.
Temperature regulation is critical, and in honesty you are rarely ever at the perfect temperature. Having clothing that has zips and vents is useful. Instead of taking off a fleece, unzip it a little and let some cool air in and warm ait out. Having layers also allows you to adjust. Too hot and a layer can come off, too cold and a layer can be added. Most people start with too many layers. Remember if you are the right temperature when you first start your walk, you will very soon be too hot once you start walking and are working hard and generating heat. Be bold, start cold. The disadvantage of being too warm is that you will sweat. That sweat is moisture, its damp. That will make you colder at some point, maybe later in the day when you are tired and have reached your summit and are now descending and therefore generating less heat.
Boots are a major piece of your winter kit. As with summer, badly fitting boots can ruin your adventure, but in winter the addition of cold temperatures, wind, rain, ice, snow and the potential requirement for crampons all need to be carefully considered.
If you look at your usual hiking boots you can probably bend the sole of the boot a little. They are flexible and comfortable for hiking in. Putting a crampon on these type of boot can be a problem, even with flexible crampon linking bars these are not ideal boots for crampons and winter.
Winter boots are classed as 4 season boots and there is, as with most things, a wide variety of styles and options available. Shop around and get them fitted properly and get advice on the right boot for the adventure you have in mind and the expected conditions. You need warm boots for winter. They need to be waterproof and offer good solid ankle support. If you will need crampons, then you should look at the boot rating and ensure that the boot and crampons are compatible. Boots are rated as B1, B2 or B3, and crampons are rated as C1, C2 or C3.
A B1 boot is stiffer than a normal hiking boot. They are good for long mountain days and scrambles and winter hill walks. They are compatible with C1 crampons.
A B2 boot would be perfect for a Scottish winter climb. They are stiff boots with a solid midsole and upper boot too. They go perfectly with a C2 crampon. They are usually warmer than a B1 boot.
A B3 boot is for full on winter mountaineering and ice climbing. They are completely solid stiff boots. They can be further categorised into technical boots and high-altitude boots. They will take a C3 crampon but can also usually take a C2 as well. Many of the high-altitude boots have an inner boot, lots of insulation and an outer boot that has a built-in gaiter. These are expensive boots for specific conditions.
Most people know what crampons are. They are a traction device that can be attached to your boots to improve grip and mobility on snow and ice. As mentioned above they have rating, C1, C2 and C3. They need to be compatible with your boots.
C1 crampons have a degree of flexibility and are perfect for winter hiked where you may encounter some snow or ice and need the additional security the extra traction gives you. They are attached to the boot using straps and they usually have 8-10 points on them.
C2 crampons are attached with a combination of a strap and a heel lever that clamps onto the boot. They are stiffer so require a stiffer (B2) boot, that has a heel designed to take the heel lever of the crampon.
C3 crampons require a stiff B3 boot. They have more points, including front points for penetrating hard ice on steep walls.
The biggest decision for crampons is when to put them on, and when to take them off. Sometimes it is not easy to judge, and experience counts. Walking in crampons can be strange at first and can be tiring when you are not used to it. The golden rule for crampons is to remember when you have then on and remember when you don’t have them on! Many a climber has taken them off and the encountered a small ice patch as if they still had them on, resulting in a slip.
There are times when crampons are overkill for the situation, but some extra traction would be very useful. This is when spikes are perfect. Be warned though, they are not a substitute for crampons! They are no good in conditions that require crampons. But they have their place and I always have mine with me in winter. Many makes and styles are available. I use Grivel spiders or Khatoola Micro-spikes.
I have a rule that I always follow – If my crampons are going on, then my ice axe is coming out too. It is used for balance, cutting, security on snow and ice, support, digging and as my safety net if things do go wrong. The ice axe for hiking is different to those we use for technical ice climbing, these are usually known as ice tools or technical ice axes. A standard ice axe is fairly straight, although some do have a slight curve to them. It has many uses as listed above but can also be used to “self-arrest” or you slip or fall. If that happens then there is potential to slide, so you want to stop that happening, quickly. In reality, if you fall or slip and that results in a slide, then you have already gone wrong. If the consequence of a fall might lead to a problem, then you should have already been employing some safety measures to prevent this situation. But if it happens then you need to know how to use your ice axe for self-arrest. Get on a good winter skills course and you will spend lots of time practicing this. You will have great fun and you will learn lots. Note though, nest to practice this in a safe place and without your crampons on!
Protection for your head. Slips, falls, debris from above. Not necessarily needed for just a winter hike, but if you are going technical then get a helmet. Enough said
Unless your boots have built in gaiters then these are an essential requirement for winter conditions. They stop snow from entering your boots, they provide extra insulation and offer some protection from crampon spikes snagging on trousers. Better to have to replace or repair a gaiter than expensive winter trousers. If your trousers have a built-in gaiter then they are usually not enough, so separate gaiters are still needed.
Always a difficult one to get right. But don’t skimp on gloves. No one likes cold hands. And cold hands will impair you, and what you can do. Warm, waterproof gloves are essential. But be aware that the very best waterproof gloves will eventually get wet. Either through sweat, or through rain and snow melt eventually finding its way into the glove. Spare gloves are essential. And any spare kit needs to be safely secured in a dry bag in your rucksack. Mittens should also be considered. What you lose in dexterity you gain in warmth. I’ll say it again; spare pairs are essential.
A warm head makes a massive difference to your overall temperature. Regulate your heat here effectively and you can make a big difference to how you feel. In winter I always have a lightweight hat woolly hat, a warm woolly hat, a buff and a balaclava. The buff I use for winter is known as a Polar Buff and has an additional fleece section on it. Its perfect for a neck warmer or for covering face and nose when the cold starts to bite. If it gets any worse than that then my balaclava comes out to keep my face and head warm and the buff is then used just to keep my neck warm. This is also when I probably put my goggles on. Remember to out your hood up too as that not only adds a layer to your head but it also provides a seamless covering on your outer armour.
Goggles are often not thought about for winter kit but are a very important item. Wind, rain, hail, snow, and bright light reflecting off the snow can make for tough conditions and eye protection make all the difference. They are not expensive but make sure you get double lenses which are less likely to mist up. In the mass of whiteness in winter conditions a tinted lens can really help to give better visibility and definition of the landscape around you. When goggles are not needed for protection from wind and driving snow and hail, then sunglasses can be used to provide the UV protection and definition of the landscape.
Less daylight hours means more chance of being still out when it gets dark. A headtorch is not to be left out. Even if you do not plan to be out long take it with you, as you never know what may happen to delay you. You generally get what you pay for, so a £5 headtorch off the internet may not work or provide what you need in tough conditions. Cold kills batteries too, so make it is charged and you have spares. A second spare headtorch is worth considering.
A great help, but also a source of great debate. I use them all year round but in winter they really do make a difference.
Every adventure I am on, summer or winter, day or night, I have a group shelter and a bivi-bag with me. The group shelter is a wonderful piece of kit. Sometimes just nice to get out the wind or rain to eat lunch, sometime a lifesaving piece of equipment. A personal bivi-bag is always a great addition to your kit, anytime of year. In the worst happens and you have an injured member of your party you can deploy the shelter and get your group inside. The injured member may get cold quickly so they can be in the bivi-bag, in the shelter, while you plan and organise your next move. Remember you first aid basics, keep them breathing, stop them bleeding, keep them warm.
Food & Drink
In winter, with all your layers on it can sometimes feel like you are cold, yet hot & sweaty at the same time. You may not notice your loss of fluid due to the cold. You need to drink. You need to pay careful attention to your hydration. Cramp often happens more in cold weather and is linked to a lack of fluid. Stay hydrated. Water is essential, but you can add to it – I use Isostar in my water. A flask with a warm drink of coffee or soup is also wonderful on a cold day. If making coffee or tea, then heat the milk too so the drink is very hot when it goes in the flask. You also need energy, so fuel your body before you start, and make sure you have food with you.
Spares and other items to consider
Winter is tough. It takes it out on your body and your kit. Spares of important items are useful. Spare gloves, lots of them. Spare headtorch (or batteries). Phone (for comms not navigating) and power charger. A GPS to go with your map and compass. A good plan, with additional options should the situation change. Radios for group communication. Keep an eye on each other. Keep an eye on the time and the situation, make good decisions as the group and the situation dictates. Do not be afraid to alter your plan, and retreat if required. A decision to turn back is often a hard one to make, but it is never the wrong decision.