Thursday 30 November 2017

Essential Gear For Winter Weather

Now that winter is well underway and cold days and even colder nights are the norm the contents of my pack have changed. On a winter day walk I always want to have enough gear that I could survive an unplanned night out. In summer with short hours of darkness and reasonably warm temperatures that doesn’t require much stuff. In winter it’s a different story. Nights are long and cold and can be very stormy.

Below are items I always carry regardless of the weather forecast or the conditions when I set off. Of course when there’s snow and ice on the hills I add ice axe and crampons and if the snow’s deep either skis or snowshoes and a snow shovel. (See here for my thoughts on ice axes, and here for skis and snowshoes).

My friend Mark well bundled up in a Cairngorms winter storm

Cold weather means cold hands and cold heads unless you have good gloves or mitts and warm hats. In summer I don’t carry gloves and often no hat either. If I do carry the latter it’s a Buff or a thin wool beanie just in case it’s a little chilly. This time of year I add a thicker hat and at least three pairs of gloves or mitts – thin liners, light fleece/softshell, waterproof shell mitts, thick insulated ones. Why so many? Well, to cope with different conditions to start with. Thin gloves are often adequate on their own if it’s not too cold or stormy. Light softshell or windproof fleece gloves come next and are the ones I wear most. In rain or snow waterproof shell mitts over either of these keep your hands dry and warm. And in really cold weather a thick pair of insulated gloves or mitts may be needed - I sometimes only wear these for short periods to warm up my hands but when I do I’m always glad I carried them. Also, having several pairs means if I lose a glove (I’ve had one blow away in the wind) or if a pair gets soaked I can still keep my hands warm.

In colder weather I wear thicker trousers and jacket and often wear my light fleece all day. That means I need more clothing to keep me warm when I stop so I always add an insulated jacket to my pack. This also means I have an extra layer for extreme cold. I very rarely actually walk in an insulated jacket but when I have it’s been really necessary.

Admiring the view on a cold day. The thick mat and insulated flask were very welcome.

I also carry a spare pair of socks in case the ones I’m wearing get wet and a pair of insulated trousers – I wore the last regularly during the filming of The Cairngorms In Winter as I was often standing round for long periods, usually they live in the pack just in case of extreme cold.

Long dark nights require light. Being cautious I carry a headlamp year round. In summer it’s often a very tiny minimalist one however as I know I’m unlikely to need it. Once the hours of darkness are longer than those of daylight I bring out a bigger headlamp with a more powerful beam. Every autumn and winter people are caught out by early darkness and have to be rescued as they don’t have a headlamp or torch. Having a decent one is important. I carry a spare too – it’s much easier to swap headlamps than batteries, though I do carry the latter as well.

I also carry a sitmat and a bivi/survival bag year round (I said I was cautious!). Again, though, these are usually minimal ones in summer – a thin small bit of foam and a plastic survival bag - and I do sometimes forget one or both of them. This time of year I carry a thicker, bigger foam pad – sometimes a full-length one - and a proper waterproof/breathable bivi bag plus a bothy bag in which I can sit up. I’ve never spent a night in the latter but I have used it as a lunch shelter a few times in storms. The warmth it provides is surprising, even when there’s only myself in it. Larger bothy bags for groups can get quite hot inside. 

Stinging spindrift sometimes makes goggles essential

For bright sunshine reflecting off the snow dark glasses are essential. These provide some protection against cold winds and blown snow but they’re not adequate in a blizzard, as I discovered many years ago when a descent took much longer than I thought because the snow kept blowing in behind my glasses and cutting my vision. Since then I’ve always carried snow goggles. Because these are usually worn in flat light I like ones with yellow or orange lenses as these help with visibility in these conditions.

A comfortable rest with a hot drink
Winter walking requires more food than in summer too both due to its strenuousness and the need to keep warm so I carry more, especially snack foods and trail mix that I can eat whilst walking. In a winter storm I don’t want to have to deal with sandwiches. If I have the latter they are sometimes only eaten when I get down. In really cold weather a hot drink can be really warming and reviving so I carry a thermos flask filled with spicy ginger cordial or, sometimes, a stove and packet soup or sachets of hot chocolate.

A version of this post appeared in The Great Outdoors many years ago.

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