A beginner’s guide to safe winter walking in Snowdonia

In our regular monthly blog series, writer and hiker Phil Thomas shares the trade secrets of his passion: the Great Outdoors. He lives in North Wales and spends most of his spare time writing or walking in the hills with his girlfriend and their crazy Patterdale terriers.

In the final instalment of 2018 Phil talks winter safety. It’s one of the most beautiful seasons in Snowdonia, but one of the most dangerous too, especially if you’re ill prepared for (very) changeable weather conditions and the unique physical toll of cold weather. 

You might think that nothing beats hiking Snowdonia’s mountains on a beautiful summer’s day. Except, it can. Pick your moment away from peak season and you get cooler temperatures, clearer skies and frothing streams in full flow. Winter walking lets you experience Snowdonia in a whole new light, often with fewer people too. With a bit of extra preparation (and gear), you can safely explore our mountains in winter. Read on to learn how you can enjoy Snowdonia year-round.

Know your fitness and ability

Know how far you can walk. In the summer you might be comfortable walking six to eight miles in a day. In winter, consider shortening your route. As well as less daylight, walking can be slowed down by ice, snow, buffeting winds, streams in spate and (frequently) more mud. You may be carrying more or heavier kit, so sling your packed rucksack on your back before you set off and get a feel for its weight. Our best advice is to stick to shorter routes and add in a pub stop at the end.

How steady are you on your feet? You may not use walking poles in the summer but they may come in handy in winter. Pack them just in case.

Be a weather expert

It’s impossible to understate how different the weather is in the mountains to the surrounding areas, and especially different if you’re coming from an urban area. Take out the effect of the urban heat island, the fact you’re travelling into the prevailing weather, and the approximate rule of thumb that for every 1,000ft you climb, the temperate drops between 2 and 3 degrees celsius, it will almost always be colder!

That means it could be frosty, icy or covered in snow, even if where you live isn’t. Equally, a still day at home can mean gale force winds at 3,000ft. Anyone who’s ever climbed a Welsh 3,000-footer will know it’s a rare day indeed to find little-to-no wind on the summits!

The Mountain Weather Forecast service is your go-to reference here. It’s written to describe weather conditions at altitude. It might surprise you, but don’t ignore it – they don’t exaggerate!

Plan your Route A and Route B

As well as your preferred route, have an optional route (or activity) ready. This is good advice all year, but especially so in winter. Consider a low-level route and think of underfoot conditions – a grassy path in summer can be a mud-bath in winter. Sunken rocky tracks can become frozen streams after days of rain.

Another tip is to consider the aspect of the walk – a south-facing hike will see more winter sun and be less likely to ice-up. For example, Snowdon’s popular Pyg Track zig-zags into a north east-facing coll which sees no direct sunlight during a few winter months. The ice comes early here, and stays longer. Conversely, the path from Rhyd-Ddu on Snowdon’s south-western flank stays sunny, and as most of the walk is via a ridge it avoids water-logging for the most part, too.

Walking on ice and snow

Walking through your garden in snow is fun. Walking up a rocky, 45-degree slope with a cliff to one side in snow is frightening and dangerous. Snow on the mountains looks gorgeous from the car park, but walking on it is something else. Typically it’s frozen, so you won’t be building a snowman either.

The first rule of thumb is: if you’re unsure, don’t do it. Stick to Route B and stay below the snow-line. There are plenty of beautiful winter walks through Snowdonia that avoid the need to scramble up slopes and traverse exposed aretes. Plus, just as from the car park, the views are always stunning.

If you’re the adventurous type, then the very minimum equipment you need are winter boots and crampons. You should also pack an ice axe. Owning these things and knowing how to use them are two different things. If you’ve never done it before, we strongly recommend going on a course. Local providers such as RAW Adventures offer winter mountain courses, the ideal activity to combine a stay at Royal Victoria!

Crampons or Snow Chains/Mini Spikes?

Anyone who’s ever worn a crampon will know it’s literally like strapping a metal cage to your feet! You can only really walk in them when there’s snow on the ground and they’re bulky to carry. Plus, you need a technical or ‘four-season’ boot on which to strap them, which many casual walkers don’t own. (Not sure what the difference is between a three-season and a four-season boot? The BMC has a great guide here.)

No wonder, then, that so-called snow chains or mini-spikes have become popular. They’re cheap, can be fitted to less robust boots, and pack down to almost nothing (it’s just a chain after all). Most are carefully marketed to say that they help for walking on icy or snowy pavements and driveways – and that’s the key point.

Expert walkers agree that snow chains or mini-spikes for hillwalking are no substitute for a crampon. If you do own snow chains or are thinking of buying them, don’t consider them a green light for walking on snow and ice at 3,000ft. If you’re planning a lower, less steep route, however, snow chains and mini-spikes are well worth packing.

Walking the mountains without crampons

Of course, you can still venture into the mountains in cold weather. I’ve done it myself a number of times and taken photos of frozen waterfalls and other stunning sights. Typically, though, I’ve kept my walks shorter and avoided the highest routes. When I have ventured up, and encountered ice, I always turn back. Walking on ice in town is no fun, on the mountains less so.

You might feel you can pick your way over boulders, but think about coming back down – always more difficult. It’s too easy to turn your ankle, or worse. Bangor Hospital’s A&E is a den of walking-wounded some weekends – don’t add to their burden!

Don’t walk by yourself. If you do, tell someone your exact route and ETA, and stick to it. And always be prepared to turn back. Check out our article on lower-level winter walks.

Spotting hypothermia

Apart from falls, the other big danger of winter walking is hypothermia. The danger with hypothermia is that it creeps up on you. Shivering and fatigue are early symptoms, but both are easily associated with any exertion in cold weather. As fatigue gives way to disorientation, it’s often difficult to self-diagnose – another good reason to not go winter walking alone.

In addition to the kit we’ve already highlighted above, and in this article, an essential winter item is a survival bag. This may sound extreme, but a simple windproof and waterproof bag can slow the onset of hypothermia. If you’re caught out, unable to move and waiting for rescue, you’re most vulnerable to hypothermia. Getting inside a survival bag can save your life. They’re light, inexpensive and pack down, so make sure you have one for each member of your group. The Mountain Safety website has some good, more detailed advice on survival bags.

If you suspect you or a member of your party has hypothermia, call the emergency services. This article has all the information on getting help in the mountains.

Learn to use a compass!

Technology’s a wonderful thing, and GPS is a walker’s best friend (don’t tell the dog!) But we rely on tech so much that when it breaks, or it’s unavailable, we’re like fish out of water. That’s not a good thing on a winter mountain hike. Have a map and compass with you. Even if it’s an older map, topographic features don’t change that much over the years. It’s better than nothing. Waterproof maps are more expensive to buy but that coating makes all the difference when you’re trying to read a map in wind and rain!

There are different types of compass but one of the best and simplest to use is the baseplate or orienteering compass. It’s the one you probably used at Outward Bounds all those years ago. Take an orienteering course or teach yourself – learning to read a map is good fun. Britain’s best-known map makers – Ordnance Survey – have a great series of articles on using map and compass. Gwydir Forest above Betws-y-Coed has a series of orienteering courses of varying difficulty – a great place to hone your skills.

Enjoy winter walking – with common sense

You can enjoy mountain walks in Snowdonia in winter. The scenery is every bit of special and the low light from the sun can make the landscapes even more striking. Know your limits and learn how to use the right kit. If bad weather is forecast, change your plans. Walk around our lakesvisit a museum, or enjoy a windswept walk on a beach and blow the cobwebs away.

Phil will return in 2019 with a whole host of brand new and useful blogs for all your outdoor adventures in North Wales – be sure to check back. Nadolig Llawen.  

Images courtesy: Icy fence near Cadair Idris summit, by Gaynor Roberts, 2017. Snowy Snowdon by Richard Outram from Wales, via Wikimedia Commons​.