Advice sought for a winter hillwalking beginner.

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  • Advice sought for a winter hillwalking beginner.
  • OK, a weekend in Kintail walking the Five Sisters in freshly fallen snow has got me seriously hooked on a bit of winter hillwalking.

    This time round I had the luxury of being led by a fully qualified leader, however over the christmas holidays I fancy a couple of days walking through the glens of Lochaber by myself and had a couple of questions.

    Would three season camping equipment (thermarest, synthetic bag, double skin north face tent) be:

    A)Completely inadequate
    B)OK if I go to sleep fully clothed in warm clothing and don’t mind being a ‘bit’ cold.
    C)Fine, because I’m staying in the Glens.

    If I’m blazing my own trail through snow with camping gear on my back, whats a reasonable distance to aim for in a day, 10km?

    Any other advice? (I’ve got poles, crampons etc. Planning to Walk from Spean Bridge to Kingshouse probably).



    First of all, bear in mind that Scottish winter nights are very, very long. Take a good book to read in your tent.

    Would three season camping equipment (thermarest, synthetic bag, double skin north face tent) be:

    (B) so long as the tent will handle rough weather. This is less of an issue if you’re somewhere sheltered down low, but on the other hand… many years ago some friends of mine [1] were camping in a sheltered spot near Loch Avon in the ‘Gorms when a blizzard blew up overnight, caused a snowdrift to build up which gradually squeezed them out of their tents like a toothpaste tube and buried most of their gear. Moral: when winter camping in the mountains, always be organised, packed and ready to get moving.

    If I’m blazing my own trail through snow with camping gear on my back, whats a reasonable distance to aim for in a day,

    Very, very dependent on (a) your fitness and (b) the actual conditions underfoot. Well consolidated snow is fine. Two feet of powder, or anything with a breakable crust on top… not so much, and with camping gear on your back you’ll lose the will to live remarkably quickly…

    [1] One of whom occasionally posts on here, actually.


    I wouldn’t even consider camping out. Is the tent a 4 season one ie will snow build up on it? I have a very good tent but its 3 season – in falling snow the snow settles on it and would collapse it. I have camped in may and september to wake with ice on teh tent / frozen boots etc. It not nice. Midwinter – forget it.

    Walk between hotel B&Bs – you need to carry less so teh walking will be easier and you will get a good nights sleep

    10 – 15 km a day with full packs seems about right.

    Thanks guys, food for thought.

    I think I’d carry the tent as a back-up, to re-assure the folks if nothing else. I had hoped to make one of the bothies in the area (Staoineag preferrably) but haven’t looked at distances yet, and wasn’t sure about crossing the Abhain Rath in winter!

    Premier Icon UK-FLATLANDER

    You didn’t mention an ice axe – essential if you’re doing anything other than flat routes. Also make sure your navigation skills are good, it’s very dis-orienting if the conditions approach a white out. Three season bag with clothes would only really work if the bag is large enough not to crush the insulation. Also worth carrying goggles if snow/wind is expected.


    30 or so people a year die on teh scottish mountains. Be careful


    Ditto the points above, especially the long nights issue!

    I wouldn’t carry a tent as back-up, without the intention of using it, too heavy. Plan to stay indoors (B&B/bothy) and take a bivvy bag as back-up/supplement to your sleeping bag if staying in a bothy.

    Your tent will be fine unless the weather is awful (and it can be very, very, very bad) in which case you’ll need a back-up plan and that might mean getting up in the dark and hoofing it to the nearest building (sleep with your kit all but packed – ready to get up and go within 15 minutes of things getting horrible). Even a four season tent pitched in the wrong place at the wrong time can be an awful place to be in Scotland in winter.

    That said, if the weather is kind, even if cold, the scenery and your sense of self sufficiency will be priceless.

    FWIW – I’d plan to bothy, forget the tent, and make up the weight with a good book, plenty of goodies and lots of warm clothes. I’d also take a friend. If you’ve got dry clothes are well fed and happy a couple of cold nights are more likely to be instructive than especially dangerous.

    I don’t have an ice axe, am not planning anything other than along the bottom of glens (at the moment anyway). Have got poles though and found them very useful on the Five Sisters, both as probes and as extra 4 wheel drive. The sleeping bag is pretty roomy, I wouldn’t be crushing any insulation. I’ve been meaning to buy a silk liner anyway, which adds another 5deg I read?

    I like the ‘packed and ready to go’ advice, I could do with applying that to my usual camping trips, instead of the usual 2 hour faff every morning… πŸ˜€

    Navigation is so/so. I can take bearings from the map, and have had a bit of practice. Again, I wouldn’t be putting myself in a situation when I had to navigate around cliffs etc, strictly low level as a first time.

    Think I’ll plan around bothying and/or returning to civilisation at night, I’m willing to forego any serious epicness this winter!

    use bothies or bunkhouses as it will keep your kit down.

    Winter kit:

    waterproof top and bottoms
    base layers
    Mid layers
    inner gloves
    outer mits (waterproof)
    head torch + spare batteries
    ice axe
    map, compass
    spare socks
    hot food
    emergency food
    survival blanket or portable “bothy”
    glacier glasses (side wind ans snow glare)

    This is a minimum, now add a tent, cooker, eating iorns, sleeping bag, mat it all gets a bit giddy.

    Stay in Newtonmore or Kingusie and knock off some of the easier hills, get experience and don’t rush at it.

    Scotland in winter can be an animal


    i’ve used a light mtneering tent in winter in snowdonia when there’s snow down and since scotland’s potentially a hell of a lot colder, i’d go for a good 4 seasons down bag and be sure to have a thin dry layer to put on before you get into the bag.

    15hrs or more of darkness, on your own, with an undequate bag (after getting in with wet layers on) is no fun, trust me ) but you learn quick!

    scotland in the winter is probably not the place for experimenting with kit though.

    Stay in Newtonmore or Kingusie and knock off some of the easier hills, get experience and don’t rush at it.

    Not really planning on hills at the moment, thinking more cross country through some glens (train-to-train sort of thing). That was a daunting list until I realised I have all of that stuff minus the axe and the glasses.

    Definitely seeing the sense in ditching the tent though, which is fine as I’d hoped to make it to a bothy anyway.


    Not really an winter camping expert but I’ve done a fair few winter hills. May not work for you but here’s some tips for when you start heading up the hills:

    look at the weather & avalanche forecasts and pick and choose the best days
    – this is probably the best advice I received when I started and has ensured that most days out have been ace
    get a big warm synthetic belay jacket to chuck on for stops
    take a flask full of warm liquid refreshment and loads of food
    take a bothy bag – these are great things
    take lots of batteries for your electronic stuff
    take lots of gloves cos you will lose some
    Pile and Pertex gear is cheap and works very well
    Buffs are good for plugging gaps where the wind gets in


    Scotland is winter is great and adds a new dimension to walking, Every Feb I have a week in Highlands and it is fabulous to be out there, (but it is actually best regarded as mountaineering when in the hills); but also can be very serious….do not under estimate the cold, the effect snow can have on navigation and speed (and beware white outs too!). Think very hard about river crossings, they could be frozen or impassable due to high water levels. Routes which are easy in summer can become very serious under winter conditions. Night temps can be very low indeed so even a bothy could be a challenge (-15c last winter for many nights in central highlands). Get an ice axe too, (having one literally has saved my life).
    Start with easier routes and keep distances low and achievable, 10 miles in winter is a big walk. Think maybe about a winter skills course, expensive maybe, to learn how to use crampons / ice axe / check snow , avalanche issues etc / winter navigation. If you live somewhere hilly already do some of your summer routes in winter conditions and youll be amazed at difference (eg my local 2000ft hills behind me, an easy summer ramble, last winter at times I couldnt get around due to thigh deep soft snow making progress very very difficult).
    But above all enjoy and take extra care!! πŸ™‚

    It might seem overkill but if I was doing any highish passes I would not go without crampons, crampon compatible boots and an ice axe. Did Bidian nam Bian in Glencoe last January coming off via the Lost Valley. The last km of the path had huge tracts of sheet ice right across the path where burns had frozen, with a 30m drop onto rocks on one side. Would have been a huge risk without crampons – and that was only at about 350m.

    Agree with other above – forget camping. Cold, long miserable nights potentially, and huge extra weight to heave through the snow.

    However, if the forecast is nowhere near cold enough for snow or ice disregard the above


    +1 above about low level paths…often can be the iciest stretch of a route, water seepage freezing can make some really difficult conditions


    Here’s a good 2/3 dayer with short walks between good bothies.

    Day 1. Spean Bridge to Lairig Leacach bothy.

    Day 2. Lairig Leacach to Chairan bothy via Craigeuneach Lodge/Loch Treig (bridge across the Abhainn Rath)

    Day 3. Chiaran Bothy to Kingshouse via Blackwater Dam and Devil’s Staircase.

    Leave the tent behind. If the weather is in any way threatening, you’ll be making things harder by carrying extra weight and then having an inadequate shelter to sleep in. I’ve had a tent collapsed (irreparably) by snow before and if it happens on day one you’re resorting to bothies anyway. Secondly, get a proper warm down sleeping bag and store it in a waterproof drybag. This, combined with a decent thermarest and a hat will mean you have a decent night’s sleep. There is nothing worse on a multi-day trip than not sleeping because you’re cold or wet.

    Get a good pair of boots too. I use a pair of Scarpa Freney XT boots which are GTX lined and very light yet stiff enough for winter climbing. Don’t use socks and/or boots that you’re not used to, so go for some shorter walks first to make sure they are comfortable.

    Get a decent rucksack to put it all in – is it comfy to carry with 20 kilos of kit in it for 5 hours at a time, or does it cause sore spots on your hips and shoulders?

    Kit-wise, pretty much as above though I’d consider ditching the axe if I wasn’t traversing any steep slopes and certainly if the snow was soft, though it can change overnight so best to be on the safe side.

    Oh – you’ll need about 3 kilos of coal per night ;o)

    And whisky.

    Taking this all on board guys, thanks.

    Stuartie, re: your route suggestion – great minds etc. πŸ˜€


    look at the weather and avalanche forecasts and pick and choose the best days

    This is worth repeating. The trick with getting good winter days out in Scotland is not to plan too far in advance – be ready to be flexible about where/when you go if at all possible.

    Stable, clear, settled conditions are rare, iffy weather is normal, the key skill is recognising when iffy-but-okay weather is about to deteriorate into really nasty conditions.

    As a general rule of thumb, check the Atlantic weather charts to see which way the weather systems and wind are coming from, then go to the opposite side of Scotland.

    Also, you do sound like you’ve got your head screwed on, so don’t let us put you off too badly πŸ™‚


    Having dragged my bike through 4 miles of 2 foot snow yesterday I’d sack it off and do something fun instead. Even if you are well dressed it’s not any fun- stick to bikes.


    stick to bikes

    Not sure how that qualifies as “instead”

    You probably know this already but use MWIS for the forecast as it is very specific to hillwalkers and regions. There is a mobile specific version as well


    Some’ good advise, i second MWIS as invaluable for winter walking.

    I would caution against the “dont carry a tent use bothies” idea. You’ll be very surprised how many people plan to use the bothies midwinter. I’ve arrived at the Hutchie hut to find it rammed and had to pitch up with several other tents outside.


    Ok you say you’re sticking to the Glens but I’d recommend a Winter skills course concentrating on Avalanche assesment, use of crampons and ice axe arresting techniques and brushing up on navigation/micro navigation for use in potential white out conditions.
    Check the MWIS forecast, any avalanche risks and let someone know your route. With it being cold and wet you will burn more calories, take plenty of food and make the effort of preparing a flask of some hot drink each morning.
    Even in summer it’s possible in these areas away from Ben Nevis to walk for a day seeing no-one. So, be prepared to be totally self reliant and confident in your own abilities. There’s nothing worse than questioning your own map reading or decision making once the clag is down or there’s a whiteout.


    SpokesCycles – Member

    Having dragged my bike through 4 miles of 2 foot snow yesterday I’d sack it off and do something fun instead. Even if you are well dressed it’s not any fun- stick to bikes.

    Its great fun when its good.

    IMG_0066 by TandemJeremy, on Flickr

    Its always tricky advising people without being patronising when you’re no expert yourself. Kit selection/use is always a very personal thing, but I prefer the option of sleeping in a tent/hole to bothies if I don’t know them beforehand. Having an axe as well as crampons is always advisable, though axes and crampons aren’t always used on the same terrain as one another, and in reality there will be times that they will not get used at all and you’ll wish you’d left them behind. Unfortunately only experience lets you know when you make a mistake with that kind of thing. On your first trips out you should try and find some safe spots (e.g. not above cliffs) to get used to using different techniques for both in any case (AKA having a piss about in the snow).

    My main advice is to learn to ‘read’ the conditions as best you can. Follow the forecasts/reports (MWIS, SAIS- including their blogs) as a matter of course, if you’re familiar with the areas you’re in use experience to judge how future and past conditions will affect your plans, and be realistic about changing them. In full winter conditions you can save a lot of time and energy by being attentive to localised changes. Learn to tell a lot from the snow by looking at the surface, both at your feet and all around you. Being attentive to how the snow is behaving will help you cross ground effectively, and – more importantly- safely. On this, a good avalanche book will help you. Most are designed for climbers or ski touring, but that doesn’t matter too much. You can often find them in charity shops for a couple of quid. Although you might never get avalanched, learning about the snow will help you make decisions that will help you enjoy being out. [And for those that think avalanche risk in the UK is minimal, one was triggered on the Cas headwall (Cairn Gorm) this week, and the west coast rail line (not exactly a mountain railway) was shut quite a bit last winter (IIRC)]

    Other than that, most of the things that are useful to be able to do in summer remain, but become significantly more important when it all goes tits up. Most people are lucky enough to learn from that though, so don’t let it put you off. Oh, and if you want to go up/down/across more of more interesting stuff get into ski touring.


    one was triggered on the Cas headwall (Cairn Gorm) this week, and the west coast rail line (not exactly a mountain railway) was shut quite a bit last winter

    That’s some avalanche!



    I’m just back from the Cairngorms and asked some similar questions here.

    Got some great advice – definitely worth a read through. Although my intentions were different (one day out and back up summits) a lot of the pointers would probably be useful to you too.

    Having done a few of the smaller summits in the last week and a half, I can +1 on the point made above about snow crusts. One or two steps on top of the crust, then the next you plunge into thigh deep snow. It’s absolutely knackering and slows progress to a hot, bothered crawl.

    ’tis lovely when the sun’s out though!


    take an axe. Poles are no substitute. Watch the weather . people have died near the railway. Go for it.
    Wish I was coming.
    Get a duvet jacket, it will make up for a crappy bag.

    Premier Icon kennyp

    I was going to chip in my tuppenceworth but there’s plenty good advice already been given.

    Don’t rule out camping, it can be great, but it does get dark very early, so you could be in your tent a long, long time.

    Don’t get too ambitious with your first walk as if the weather turns bad it can get really bad. And it can turn in an instant. If you’re in any doubt, turn back.

    Equally, don’t let all the warnings of doom and impending death put you off. Some of the best day’s walking I’ve ever had have been in the Highlands in winter.

    Camping up the hills in winter is ace, as is bivvying out. Some of my best ever outdoor experiences have involved camping out it winter. A good sleeping bag makes one hell of a difference though. I have one of these:

    I have never been cold in it funnily enough.


    <img src=”; width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”Ascending Sgurr Chuilm” />

    How nice it can be in winter, but hard, hard going


    I just wrote a massive list of stuff and STW fecked it up.

    13fm – pop into the shop at some point and I can related it in person πŸ™‚

    Premier Icon Garry_Lager

    There is a good winter hill walking course at Firbush if you wanted to take a class – think it’s about this time in the year on a weekend. I was pretty impressed – good instructors. They take you through all the basic equipment which is helpful – but it’s the navigation that I found really eye opening. Learning to judge distance, pacing and effort in thick conditions is a real skill. They put a good emphasis on decision making and judgment rather than, say, equipment.

    One of the guys there has been involved with avalanche forecasting in Scotland and gives a superb presentation on it – amazing to see how a snow slip that looks like fk all would completely bury you.

    Premier Icon epicyclo

    Don’t forget to watch “Dog Soldiers” before you go. πŸ™‚



    Email me if you fancy a day in the hills in the next few weeks. Fantastic time of year for it.

    Geal Charn by stuartie_c, on Flickr




    Take a view of conditions in 5 weeks time
    In the last few days look at SAIS reports and get weather forecasts for the days you will be out. Then make a decision. There is a good book by Martin Moran called Scottish Winter Mountains, I advise buying this book and reading it, especially the bits on interpreting SAIS reports/forecasts. You are talking about staying at low levels, so I don’t think you will have any problems, but you are best waiting till near the time to see what, if any, snow builds up. You need to decide between caying heavy kit and sleeping out or travelling fast and light, do one or the other, not both. Ask the same question on here in 5-6 weeks time, be prepared to ditch the idea. That’s my advice.


    just a tiny detail, if you go the axe route make sure you know how to use it.


    low level passes though in Highlands can equate to moderate Lakeland Hills! Lairig Ghru in `gorms for example is at 2900ft and a serious winter crossing.

    Premier Icon ampthill

    elliptic thats me

    Lost all of our gear bar clothes and one ice axe due to being Buried in snow at Loch Avon

    I’d say you need a decent sleeping bag (or a second one and sleep in 2). Maybe try and use bothy’s although that creates a risk if you don’t get to them

    Oh and check the forcast

    Phew! A lot to take in there guys, thanks again.

    Ice axe is on its way, I was chatting to my dad about the Five Sisters and he is insisting on getting me an axe for Christmas. Sorted!

    Will have a look for a couple of books, would like a better understanding of the weather anyway.

    Had hoped to avoid taking courses, I prefer to learn by doing, and if it means gaining lots of experience doing short/easy walks then I would have preferred that. However, it sounds like there’s quite a lot of things I could get wrong or wouldn’t get a chance to learn until it was too late, so will definitely research a couple of courses.

    Stuartie, I’d love to get another hill or two in before Christmas, you happy leading a beginner with (almost) all the gear but only a basic idea? 8)

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