Safe winter walking in Snowdonia: what you need to know

Barely a week goes by in the winter without the North Wales media reporting on a mountain rescue where those in distress were ‘ill-equipped’ for their adventure. While some walkers are just unlucky, many underestimate the conditions.

A clear but cold day where you live can be blizzard-like in Snowdonia. For every 1,000ft of height you gain, the temperature can drop up to 3 degree celsius – so just above freezing when you start off can be well below by the time you reach a summit.

Of course, winter walking is a popular pastime but if you’re new to it there are some basic precautions you can take before you set off. If in doubt, don’t do it. A walk along a snowy river valley will be far more enjoyable than an icy scramble on a gale-buffeted ridge.

Walking in Snowdonia in winter is a thrilling but hazardous pastime.

1. Have a Plan B

This rule should go for mountain walking at any time of year. If, by the time you get to Snowdonia: the weather has changed; it’s more icy on the ground; or the weather forecast is for a change, walk your Plan B.

The Plan B walk should be more manageable in challenging conditions. There are some excellent circular walks around the forests of Betws-y-Coed and the rivers of Beddgelert. You can walk around Cwm Idwal and avoid the Glyder summits – but even this can be hard with ice on the ground.

Be honest with your ability and if your kit doesn’t extend to winter walking, avoid icy conditions and steep slopes altogether.

2. Remember the shorter days!

On an overcast day it can be dark by 4pm! Make sure you plan a walk that you can complete before darkness falls.

Two things are essential here:

1. Get out of bed early and make the most of the morning light. If it’s light by 8am, this is the best time to be setting off if you’re planning a full day’s walk. Sure, getting out of bed when it’s still cold and dark is tough, but you need to do it if you intend to put in plenty of miles.

2. As a contingency, make sure you pack a head torch (check the batteries are charged too).

3. Navigation – know your way

Navigation is more difficult in snow, low cloud or fog. Make sure you know your route before you leave, and if possible have an escape route ready – that is a route that will allow you to cut short your intended walk.

Know how to use a map. If you have a GPS device don’t rely on this alone. Again, check the batteries and make sure the map is available for ‘offline’ viewing (not reliant on an Internet or data signal).

Also be aware that colder weather can impair thinking and judgement. Make sure at least one other in your party knows the route too.

4. Allow more time for winter walking

Allow more time for your intended walk. Mud, water, snow and ice will all slow you down. Factor in the possibility of fallen trees for forest routes and scrambling around a detour.

The average walking pace is 3mph but you may struggle to achieve this over difficult winter terrain. Remember a lot of routes with published timings are based on summer walking – so add extra time to be on the safe side.

5. Pack spare kit – and the right kit

Take spares of essential items. Take extra items like gloves and hats, things that are easily lost (a gust of wind taking your hat off, dropping gloves down a ravine).

Take extra socks – if one pair gets wet, swap for dry. Have a spare carrier bag to hold wet gear. Conversely, shades might be needed in snow/bright sunshine. It’s cool to be prepared!

If you’re intent on reaching summits or walking steep terrain in icy/snowy weather, you must pack crampons and an ice axe as a minimum. That picture-postcard white stuff on the ridge tops isn’t soft snow – it’s likely frozen solid and impossible to walk on without crampons.

For more specific advice on winter walking, scrambling and climbing, visit the BMC’s website.

6. Layer clothing

Layering clothes is a well-known practice among seasoned walkers. Go shopping for outdoor clothes and you’ll likely see the phrase ‘part of a layering system’. It’s a simple idea.

You wear a base layer, the layer closest to your skin, which ideally takes moisture away (sweat can make you cold in winter). Merino wool is a great, if expensive, material for this. On top of this you wear a middle layer, typically a fleece. Finally, you have an outer layer – ideally wind- and water-proof. This coat or ‘shell’ will likely be your most expensive item, but it’s doing a lot of hard work in the winter weather.

7. Take food and cold drinks

Take chocolate and plenty of energy bars with you. The cold weather and difficult walking conditions may mean you need to munch more than usual.

Also make sure you take plenty of water. Coffee’s tempting in cold weather, but water will keep you better hydrated.

8. Know your emergency numbers

The following numbers apply for all of the UK including North Wales:

If you’re stranded on the coast dial 999 / 112 and ask for the Coastguard;

When caving dial 999 / 112 and ask for the Police and then Cave Rescue;

In the mountains dial 999 / 112 and ask for the Police and then Mountain Rescue;

9. Sign up for emergency SMS/text messaging

In poor signal areas you may not be able to make voice calls but texts may still work. Emergency SMS is part of the standard 999 service BUT you will only be able to use it if you have registered first.

To register, text ‘register’ to 999. You will get a reply (normally within a few hours) and you should follow the instructions you are sent.

10. Know the emergency call procedure

When you make an emergency call the emergency services will need to know the following:

Who is calling?

Describe the problem, including the state of casualty (if there is one);

Give your location as precisely as possible: use GPS, Grid Reference or nearby landmark;

Now wait where you are for a reply call or text.

Don’t let all the above put you off walking in Snowdonia in winter! There are plenty of low-level walks if the peaks seem off-limits. Yet it’s also possible to walk the high peaks in winter weather – just make sure you are prepared.

Plan ahead, have the right kit, and remember it’s better to turn back than to become another headline in a North Wales newspaper.

Ahoy! 2018 is Wales’ Year of the Sea

You know about our mountains. You’ve explored our castles and cromlechs and culture. Now it’s time to discover our coast and sea. Wales’ tourism body Visit Wales will promote our coves, cliffs, beaches and seas as it declares 2018 the Year of the Sea.

But why are the waters around Wales – and North Wales in particular – so special? Here are just some of our highlights:

Variety – from the Costas to breakers in 15 minutes

Wander onto either of Abersoch’s two beaches and – with the right weather – you could be on the Mediterranean Costas. Albeit a beautiful, undeveloped Costa. The sea is blue and calm, and there are palm trees around the village and piles of fine sand in the kerbs. People flip-flop around the place and are never in any rush to do…anything. It’s a holiday place.

Drive for 15 minutes and you encounter Hell’s Mouth (Porth Neigwl), a big Atlantic grin of a beach featuring surfer waves and windswept hair. Even on that same, sunny day, this place feels like it has a different climate entirely. Forget the flip flops, you’ll need a wetsuit or a jacket!

That’s the North Wales coast in nutshell. The Med and the Atlantic, 15 minutes apart. Even then, we can find room for another great sandy beach (Porth Ceiriad) between the two. What a coast walk that will make!

Nought to resort – quiet or buzzing? You choose

Have you found Traeth yr Ora yet? It’s a beach tucked away beyond a spit of land at the western end of Traeth Lligwy, a beach near Moelfre on the Isle of Anglesey. Lligwy has a snack shack in the summer months, making it Monaco compared to Traeth yr Ora.

Traeth yr Ora has nothing, zilch, nought. Except golden sand, islands out to sea, some lovely coastal walks, and the sound of waves and gulls. You have to know Traeth yr Ora even exists before you can walk to it. It’s secret – that’s what makes it special.

If you need more buzz with your beach-going, head for Llandudno. The ‘Queen of Welsh Resorts’ is about as brash as beach resorts get in this part of the world. It’s got a wonderfully wide promenade, a picture-perfect crescent of Victorian architecture, and comes with its own pier and authentic Punch & Judy. More understated is Beaumaris, back on Anglesey, or Caernarfon, or Pwllheli, or…well, we could go on, but best you grab a map and find out for yourself.

Cliffs to watch the wildlife

Puffins at South Stack. Porpoises at Puffin Island. North Wales has vantage points all along its coast for you to walk, sit and watch.

The sea cliffs at South Stack are perhaps our most spectacular, but the Great Orme’s limestone escarpments have a grandeur all of their own. And if you’re lucky you’ll see porpoises and dolphins here too.

Watch oystercatchers eat mussels in the Menai Strait, see fisherman haul mussels from the sea beds by rake at Conwy estuary. There are more cliffs around Anglesey’s northeastern coast and along the north of the Llyn Peninsula. Many are little visited, yet long-distance footpaths provide access to all.

Find your starting point and go and explore – the sea always has something to offer…

Harbours, history, heritage… and sea-view pubs

North Wales’s coasts and seas aren’t just for show. During the Industrial Revolution the area exported slate for roof building around the world, with the seas making such commerce possible. There are harbours built for the slate trade all round North Wales, including Porthmadog, Porth Penrhyn at Bangor and Caernarfon’s Slate Quay.

Amlwch Port shipped copper around the world too, from a mine that once produced more of the precious metal than any other place in the world. In fact, if it wasn’t for Parys Mountain’s copper, Nelson would have had no victorious fleet at Trafalgar – the metal helped build his ships.

Of course, we have fishing harbours too, and clusters of fisherman’s sheds on the Llyn. We have a ring of coastal castles built by the sea to control those on the land.

Wander with the sea on one side and the land on the other and you’ll come across coastal brick works and quarries, barnacled piers and pubs with seaweed in the beer garden – none more famous (and photographed) than Ty Coch at Porthdinllaen.

Around every headland, just beyond the next cove, there are reminders of Man’s endeavours – and pleasures – on our shores. They’re fascinating and evocative places to explore.

And for a bit of fun – watersports. All of them

We’re wracking our brains here to think of a watersport that you can’t do in North Wales.

Mainstream stuff like sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and the like – we’ve got all that. Plas Menai on the Menai Strait is a great place to learn. You can even learn to surf… inland (Surf Snowdonia).

We also do the zany, crazy stuff – coasteering, rafting, kite-surfing, gorge-walking (so some these tend to happen on our inland waters, but we’ll include for completeness anyway). You can paddle board on Llyn Padarn lake (that’s where you stand up on a surfboard and paddle) or wild swim, well, just about anywhere.

Do boating across underground lakes and climbing waterfalls in caverns qualify as watersports? You can do those here too, courtesy of adventurous entrepreneurs at Go Below.

So we’re looking forward to 2018’s Year of the Sea. There’s plenty for us to celebrate, and some secret favourites to share with you. Subscribe to our newsletter for great ideas for coastal-based getaways to our hotel in 2018.

Image courtesy of: sun over the Rival Mountains across the Menai Strait by Phil Thomas.