Thursday, 1 December 2016

Gear Roundup: Winter Walking

As the nights draw in and the weather forecasters start talking about 'snow on the tops' my mind turns towards the joys of winter walking. Winter can make even the most benign landscape a challenge and often what may be a simple stroll in the summer can become an epic in the winter.

The most reliable winter walking can be found in Scotland with snow guaranteed between January and March though Scottish Winter walking is a skill unto its own, enough to warrant training days dedicated to the subject. I've done a more generic winter skills course at the Plas y Brenin National Mountain Centre and I would recommend it to anyone who is considering taking their fell walking into the winter months.

Walking in winter requires some extra planning and thought, as well as a few pieces of extra equipment and I thought I'd give you a flavour of what I carry on a typical winter outing.
Kit for a typical winter outing
Pack
I use a large 36 litre pack in the winter. As you'll see lower down, the extra gear required for a day in the mountains during the winter warrants the extra space that it provides. A large pack also means you can just shove stuff in it rather than having any intricate packing - this is extremely useful during a winter walk.

Navigation
Navigating in winter is a key aspect of staying safe. A map and compass are essential pieces of kit, as it knowing how to use them. It can be beneficial to mark up pre-determined route bearings on your map to save you having to do precise navigation in harsh conditions. The laminated OS maps are ideal for this as you can wash it off afterwards.

Ice Axe
Walking in winter almost instantly conjures up thoughts of carrying specialist equipment and none are more impressive or perhaps 'cooler' than an ice axe. They are supremely useful, even out of winter, providing stability on steeper ground and a measure of reassurance should you take a slip. A walking axe like mine is fairly simple, a metal shaft with the pick bolted to it at right angles and an adze (the small spade-shaped part) that can be used for digging holes and cutting steps into hard snow or ice (though the use of crampons reduces this to an extent).
My DMM Raptor
Ice axes come with a 'B' or 'T' rating (it will be stamped on the axe somewhere). This denotes the amount of load that ice axe can take on the shaft ('T' being stronger than 'B'). Both are adequate for walking but it was recommended to me to carry a 'T' rated axe as they are a bit heavier, making them easier to swing into packed snow and ice.

Crampons
One of the golden rules in the winter is not to fall over which can be achieved by using a pair of crampons and having a good walking technique. Wearing crampons may require an alteration of your walking style and there are special techniques you should learn to move around safely and efficiently - this is what I'd recommend a winter skills course for. As for when you should wear them? It's up to you - the rule of thumb I generally use is - what are the consequences of a slip or fall?
Black Diamond Serac crampons
Goggles
This may seem an odd one at first but if you're trying to stare down gusts of spindrift then you will most likely fail without a pair of goggles. We were once beaten back from Helm Crag for precisely this reason. They don't have to be expensive - mine were a sale item at around £20.
A fairly inexpensive pair of goggles can make all the difference
Gloves and hats
The more the merrier. It was suggested to me that you should carry at least 3 or 4 pairs of gloves if you're out on an all day winter epic. They tend to get wet and chances are they may get blown away so you should never be at a point without a pair. The same goes for hats.

I tend to carry the following: thin liner gloves, warmer fleece gloves, large waterproof gloves that will go over the lot and, more than likely, a spare pair.
A typical array of gloves
Headtorch
Winter days are short with the sun setting mid afternoon. I try to time my walks to finish before sunset but unforeseen delays or general idleness may require a descent during the early evening hours or even at night. It was recommended to me that you carry as much light as you can afford; a bargain beacon might not cut the mustard. I carry a Petzl Tikka RXP, primarily because is it bright (over 200 lumens) and secondly because it has reactive lighting which extends the battery life. A spare torch isn't a bad shout either - Alpkit sells some superb lamps at very reasonable prices.
The Petzl Tikka RXP
Waterproofs
A full set, enough said.

Insulation
The usual recommendations for clothing apply (the classic layering system) but the advancements in technology have blurred the lines of traditional mid layers. Gridded fleeces and 'breathable' synthetic insulation have added huge flexibility to layering though one thing that hasn't changed much in 60 odd years is a good duvet jacket - a warm layer for throwing over everything when you need to stop. They provide near instant warmth but take note of the forecast - a down jacket doesn't fare so well on a rainy day.

Safety
The inherent nature of winter walking means the risk of accidents is increased so you need to be able to signal someone if things go wrong. Phones are great if you can get a signal but their batteries do suffer from the cold so make sure they stay in a nice warm inside pocket if possible. Without phone reception, a whistle and torch also allow for signalling and should be considered as essential items. The International distress signal is 6 blasts repeated with an interval of one minute between each series of 6 blasts. If your whistles are heard, you should hear three whistles in reply. Keep repeating the whistle blasts so that your location can be determined.

A survival bag such as a Blizzard Bag is also highly recommended.

Dry bags
Useful for keeping things dry and organised though I tend to use them all year round, not just winter.

Honourable Mentions
Helmet - a helmet is recommended if you are intending to traverse or climb steep ground.
Sun cream and sunglasses - for those all-too-rare sunny winter days.
First aid kit - for minor injuries
Food and water - for obvious reasons
A camera - for capturing the beauty of the mountains in winter

So that summarises the kit that I usually carry on a winter walk. Is there anything you think I've missed? Or something you wouldn't go out with that I haven't mentioned? I'd love to hear what you think.

The rewards for carrying this extra gear are great (and if you wanted your appetite whetting, here are some of my winter snaps from the last couple of years).
Spindrift on Helm Crag
The Langdale Pikes
Scafell and Scafell Pike
Cloud inversion on Great Langdale
Nethermost Pike
Ribblesdale