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.
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.