4 Winter Mountain Hiking Mistakes To Avoid
Walking in the Scottish Highlands in wintertime can be a magical experience, as the dramatic beauty of the mountains is enhanced by a covering of snow and ice, from a minor Munro to the famous Aonach Eagach Ridge. It is an experience which will no doubt create some memories which will stay with you for a lifetime.
However, there are fresh dangers and challenges presented by the winter conditions, so it is important to be as well prepared as possible before embarking on a hill walk in snow and ice. Here are some of the most common mistakes that novice hikers make at this time of year, and how you can avoid them.
Setting out too late
If you are not a morning person, then this probably isn’t the news you want to hear, but setting out early is the best policy for a winter walk. Days are short, and the sooner you can get going at first light, the better. This reduces the risk of having to complete your walk in the dark, which leads us on to the next mistake…
Benighting is the term used to describe unintentionally being out on the hills after sunset. It can happen even to the best prepared, as routes may not go to plan, or one of the party may pick up an injury. A benighted group is obviously at greater risk of getting lost, falls, and hypothermia, and may need the assistance of the rescue services to help them home safely.
The best ways to minimise the risk of benightment are good forward planning and preparation. Firstly, know what time the sun sets on the day of your walk—it’s usually included in most weather forecasting apps. Set out early enough to allow you to complete the walk in full daylight.
Remember that if the weather conditions are poor, then darkness can descend very quickly, so keep an eye on the forecast. If it is going to be overcast and wet, there will be very little wriggle room between the official sunset time and full darkness. In clear conditions, especially around a full moon, you will have more leeway.
It’s essential to know how long your route will take. There are usually rough guides in route maps or mapping software, but don’t take them by the book. Consider the level of fitness and experience for everyone in your party, and how many rest stops you are likely to take.
The weather may hold you back a little, especially if conditions are very muddy or icy underfoot. On clear days, you may be stopping to take more photographs than usual!
It would be a mistake to only plan for a route march which didn’t allow you and your companions enough time to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings fully.
Getting lost in summer may mean that you are late for dinner and a little tired the next day, but in winter, getting lost can have serious consequences, such as falls, injuries, and hypothermia. Study the route carefully in advance to reduce the possibility of navigational errors, as well as any areas of particular interest to take breaks.
It is a good idea to have a paper OS map of the area to back up any digital devices you have, in case of loss of battery power or breakages. Learning how to set and read a compass is also an important winter navigational skill.
Make sure that the route is fitted to the technical abilities of everyone in the party, to avoid making unplanned diversions around difficult climbs or descents.
Not packing properly
It is crucial to take a torch and spare batteries out with you in the winter. This will help you navigate in dark conditions, and if the worst comes to the worst, send out a distress signal (six flashes of the torch at one minute intervals). A powerful head torch is your best option, as this will light up the path while leaving your hands free.
In winter, you are likely to encounter snow and ice at higher altitudes, even if there is no snow lying at the base. Therefore, the whole group should be equipped with crampons (spiked metal plate that fit the soles of your boots for better grip). Put them on at the first signs of icy ground, to minimise the risk of falls.
Of course, you should also pack spare warm clothing, especially for items that are easily lost, such as hats and gloves. Emergency shelters and plenty of food and drink are also must-haves.