How to winterise your walking rucksack
Winter walking requires a different range of kit so that you stay safe in the hills and mountains. Here are my tips and advice on winterising your walking kit.
Winter brings shorter days, lower temperatures, greater chances of windchill, plus snow and ice. If you plan to walk in Scotland’s mountains at this time of year, you need to take extra care – and kit – to stay safe.
First things first
Before you pack your rucksack or even make a plan about where to walk, you need to check the weather and avalanche forecasts.
If you are unsure about winter navigation, skills and avalanche awareness there are plenty of courses to sign up to. It’s important you know what you are doing in the winter hills and mountains.
Always tell someone where you will be walking and give them an expected time for returning. If something does happen they will be able to say where you planned to go.
Winterise your walking kit
A baselayer is worn in layers, starting with one against your skin. They are made from lightweight materials that keep you warm but also allows sweat to wick away to the outside. Natural wools, such as merino or yak, tend to be better at keeping you warm and these fabrics will dry quickly if you get sweaty.
Wear several layers to trap heat in between each layer for the best level of warmth.
You can then add or peel off layers, including short and long-sleeved tops and leggings depending on the conditions or how hard you are working.
Winter walking boots
You need stiffer walking boots than in the summer to offer better grip on muddy, icy or snowy terrain – and make sure they are waterproof, too. I wear boots that have a higher ankle cuff, too, to prevent rain and snow getting inside the boots.
Look for boot soles that have a more aggressively gripped pattern and the sharper the heel (look for a right angle at the base of the heel), the better the boots will grip to the terrain when descending. Rounded heels tend to slip on wet, snowy or muddy land.
Gaiters will help to keep the wet from getting into the top of your boots.
You will need crampons for winter walking. These are added to the base of your boots to give extra grip in snow and ice. There are different types of crampons to fit different styles of boots.
You don’t need specialist boots for many styles of crampons but you do need to be sure that the crampons will fit the boots you plan to wear.
As a general guide, boots are rated from B0 to B3, from flexible to stiffer. There are crampons to suit each type of boot.
- B0 boots are too flexible for crampons.
- B1 boots can be used with C1 crampons.
- B2 boots can be used with C1 or C2 crampons.
- B3 boots can be used with C1, C2 or C3 crampons.
If in doubt, ask an expert at an outdoors store.
Some people also use micro crampons, such as Kahtoola. These are fine in some situations but they will not offer enough grip when conditions are very icy. There is little to substitute a good quality pair of Grivel or Petzl style crampons. See different Grivel crampons.
If you are winter walking in Scotland, you may well end up, at some point, on an icy or snowy slope. This is when you are likely to use crampons and an ice axe.
A walking ice axe is meant to act as an emergency aid, in case you fall. It will be used to “arrest” your fall, but if you don’t know the technique for arresting your fall with an ice axe there is little point in owning one. This is why you should attend a winter mountains skills course.
I have also used crampons and an ice axe to ascend a seep slope, such as on a walk of Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe. The ice axe helped to keep me “stuck” to a snowy slope.
Winter waterproof jacket
The ideal waterproof jacket for winter will be made of fabric that is wind and waterproof. Look for winter quality rather than lightweight summer quality of fabric.
If you are wearing last year’s winter jacket you could give it some attention with a wash-in re-proofing detergent.
Features to look out for when buying a winter waterproof include DWR, high-grade Gore-Tex, eVent or similar, taped seams, a waterproof/water repellent zip, waterproof zipped pockets, an adjustable hood with a stiff peak (so it stays up in windy conditions), adjustable arm cuffs and hem and a brighter colour to aid safety on the hills.
I have come to love my walking poles and I find them really useful on wet, muddy and snowy terrain. They are great for balance – and also for preserving my joints and leg muscles.
A pair of waterproof and breathable overtrousers are essential. Buy trousers with zips on the outside of the legs to allow you to pull them on over boots.
You’ll need a hat or buff of some kinds, gloves or mittens that are designed to cope with cold conditions (add a pair of silk liner gloves for extra warmth); and winter walking socks.
Gloves are my biggest concern in winter. I often carry a few pairs of different thicknesses.
I enjoy a snowshoe outing in the winter and when there is thick snow it is a great way to cover a similar distance to summer walking. The snowshoes allow you to pace out on top of the snow. See snowshoe adventure on Beinn Ime.
My favourite snowshoes are MSR Lightning Ascent shoes for women.
In the winter months, you’ll carry more spare clothing and safety kit, which means you need a larger rucksack.You might manage with a 30l pack but many people carry a larger pack.
It’s important that the rucksack is comfortable because it will be heavier. Make sure it has padded shoulder straps, a padded hip/waist strap and some way of staying waterproof. If it does not have a waterproof cover, put all your kit inside in drybags. There’s no point in having spare clothes if they end up soaked by rain.
What I pack in my winter rucksack
- Spare layers, such as a baselayer and mid-layer
- Spare socks
- Spare gloves
- Spare beanie hat/buff
- Insulated jacket, such as a down or primaloft jacket
- Emergency blanket or shelter
- Compass and map (and make sure you know how to use them)
- Mobile phone (loaded with OS maps if you have the right app) and/or GPS gadget (and spare batteries)
- Crampons and ice axe (you also need to know how to use these)
- Flask of hot drink
- Bottle or hydration bladder of water (you still sweat in winter and need to stay hydrated)
- More food than you think you’ll need
- Emergency energy snacks
- In snowy conditions, a balaclava and ski goggles.
- Snowshoes if I plan to use them.