Friday, 18 January 2013

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

Pretty much irresistible...
It's January and the UK is currently gripped with snow fever.  As I type around 1mm of snow is sprinkled across the track outside the house but still it makes the news.  In an hour or so I shall fire up the flasks and head for the fells, but not before I've passed on some of my top tips for hiking in the snow.

(NOTE:  Whilst some of these are light-hearted hiking in the fells in winter is dangerous and should NOT be attempted without all the proper kit and experience!)

1. Snow is cold.  Really cold.  Don't be fooled by the blue skies; you think it's cold when you get out of the car - just wait till you get to the top of the fells.  Load up with as many layers as you can.  This is not a time to be fashion conscious, this is a time to be safe.  The Michelin Man look is de rigueur for winter hiking.

There's a path under here somewhere...
2.  Snow is wet.  I know this might sound obvious to many of you but plenty of people seem to miss this fact and head out without waterproofs because the forecast is dry.  Well the forecast may be dry but the snow will be wet.  And cold (see above).  Any part of your body which comes into contact with it will become cold and soggy which, if you happen to be me, means your boots, socks, gloves, trousers and backside will spend the day in a state of soggy frozen numbness.

3.  Snow is slippy.  It might look all soft and fluffy but that's just a ploy to lure you out there.  Hiking in snow involves slipping over, which is perhaps the main reason why it's a good idea to stick to the safe routes.  If I'm going to fall over I'd prefer to only have a few bruises to show for the experience.  You may just be here for the weekend with a plan to bag a bunch of Wainwrights but trust me, the fells will still be there the tomorrow, you may not. (For winter hiking it is essential to invest in proper walking spikes.  We have Pogu Spikes and would strongly recommend them.)

"Off piste"
4.  Snow hides all the good paths.  Well at least it does at first, by lunchtime most of the main routes have become icy bobsleigh runs leaving you with two choices.  Either slide your way down the main route or get a slightly better grip just off the path but risk vanishing up to your thighs in a drift.  Which brings me to point 5.

5.  Snow is deep.  It has this knack of lying in a lovely flat looking blanket and covering up all the dips and troughs in the landscape.  One second you're walking on solid ground, the next you've vanished up to your thighs in a drift.  This is largely good fun but also a little spooky at times.  Not to mention frustrating and energy sapping if it's towards the end of the day.

6.  Snow disguises landmarks.  The fells look stunning in the snow but they also look different.  Red Screes becomes White Screes, cairns get covered and shelters drifted up.  We can recognise and name most of the fells and are pretty handy with a map & compass, but the snow makes everything look different and that can be disorientating.  Stick to routes you know or use a GPS system to stay safe.
Challenging conditions on Helvellyn

7.  Snow comes from clouds.  Big thick clouds, which often return to the fell tops during the day.  Nothing is trickier to navigate through than thick snowy mist on top of a thick snowy fell.  To put it bluntly, if you don't know how to navigate don't go up there.

8.  Snow nicks all the good lunch spots.  You may have packed a big flask of hot soup but you'll be hard pushed to find a spot to eat it.  For a start it's incredibly cold so you won't be wanting to stand still for too long and secondly all the flat surfaces have snow on them.  You can scrape it off but believe me you will have a numb bum within seconds of sitting down.  Snow hiking is about short frequent snacks to keep your energy levels up.

Winter hiking rocks!
9.  Snow wears you out.  Do not expect to complete the same distances in the snow as you can on a fine day.  The combination of all the factors above make it an energy sapping experience.  The cold on its own can drain you much more quickly than you realise and once you're tired you are much more likely to make mistakes.

10.  Snow is fun!  I don't want to be a doom monger - I love the snow.  Snow is perfect for pelting Steve with snowballs and for making snow men and snow angels and for sledging on and for a million other excuses to act like a five year old, just remember it can also be dangerous.   Right, time to fire up the flasks and head out there!


  1. Excellent tips! From a Canadian perspective, I would add 2 more; re: snow nicking all the good lunch spots, I carry a foam 1/2 sleeping bag pad as a bum pad for lunch. And if it's < -10C, if you dig a pit to the bare ground; the ground is at zero, so much warmer for your feet than sitting on your bum pad on top of the snow.

  2. Hi Ron! Thanks for that, we don't often get below -10c during the day but that's great advice. Would dearly love to visit Canada for some big hikes. One day...