It's at about this time of year that things start to get cold and
gnarly in the hills and with shorter days and more extreme
conditions, it makes sense to think through what you're carrying in
your winter pack.
Bear in mind that there are no absoutely correct answers here,
your kit choice will vary with your experience, the conditons, your
plans and the area you're walking in - what may make sense in, say,
the Cairngorms could be overkill in the Dales.
In other words, use our suggestions as a starting point and take
it from there. Remember the old mountaineering saying that going
equipped for a bivvy often means you're carrrying so much kit that
it's far more likely to happen.
The Pack Itself...
aren't any 'right answers' here. Historically winter daypacks tended
to be around the 40 litre mark, but with lighter, more compact,
modern equipment, you can often get away with smaller.
What you do need is the capacity to carry everything on your
checklist plus, in snowy conditions, fixings for an ice axe, possibly
two, and a set of crampons. Some packs come with crampon patches on
the lid, but we'd suggest stowing them under the lid, where they're
less likely to become clogged with snow.
A crampon bag will help too, but obviously adds extra weight. For
winter climbing you'll also need to be able to stash a rope - it's
best inside the pack to avoid snow and ice - and hardware as well, so
in that case, 40+ litres is probably about right. For normal use, a
30-litre pack should be enough for most people using modern gear.
spare clothing you carry will depend partly on your emergency shelter
provisions and the clothing system you use.
We're assuming here that you're already wearing appropriate wind
and wateproof shell clothing and possibly some extra
insulation. Classic advice is to carry an extra lightweight
fleece, but increasingly, walkers are using synthetically insulated
jackets which pack smaller and have a good warmth to weight
Spare clothing is basically for stops when you'll cool down fast
or, in a worst case scenario, for an emergency bivvy when you may
have to stay out overnight.
In the UK, we'd suggest synthetic rather than down insulation
because it withstands damp conditions better.
As well as extra torso insulation, you should also carry a hat and
gloves. In full winter conditions, we'd also suggest spares of each
just in case. You could do this on a group basis - just don't all
lose your gloves at the same time...
a good idea to carry some form of emergency shelter - it could save
your life. Steer clear of space blankets, they simply aren't tough
enough. Instead we'd suggest either a basic polythene survival
bag or, if you're a couple or group, then some for of group
The latter are generally a big bag made from wind and waterproof
tent-type fabric with a drawcord. You sit on your pack and the base
of the bag and bingo, instand protection. They have the big advantage
of pooling body warmth inside the bag and can be improbably
Bear in mind that neither of the above provide any insulation,
hence the need for spare clothing to retain body heat.
Some groups do carry a spare sleeping bag, but it's a relatively
heavy item to haul about for smaller parties. A better compomise is
one of the excellent Blizzard Survival Bags which aren't much
heavier than a normal survival bag, but trap enough air to be roughly
as warm as a 2/3 season sleeping bag. In their packed state, they're
about the same size as a video tape.
Food And Drink
burn calories just keeping warm in winter, so you'll need enough fuel
for your day's walking - err on the generous side. On top of that,
it's a good idea to carry a back-up emergency food stash in case you
do find yourself benighted. Chocolate bars are a good way of carrying
lots of calories in a small space. Or the dreaded Kendal Mint Cake,
which has the advantage of being really unpalatable.
You'll also need fluid, particularly if you're working hard. Think
a minimimum half litre per hour and preferably more. On top of that,
a flash of hot soup or tea is a great morale booster. It's not a
light option though, so you need to balance effort versus benefit.
The same's true of carrying a stove for a brew-up. Are you really
going to do it?
As a group, we'd suggest that you always have at least one
spare map - they blow away all too easily - and compass at
hand to back up your primary navigating gear whether it's another map
or a GPS unit. If the latter, it's a good idea to carry spare
batteries as well - in cold winter conditions, the reactions within
batteries slow down leading to shorter life.
top of the above, we'd also suggest you carry a headtorch with
batteries, make sure it can't be switched on accidentally in your
pack. A whistle to attract attention in an emergency situation
and a basic first aid kit to cope with minor injuries and
cuts. Something like a Swiss Army knife can also come in
In full winter conditions where driven spindrift and snow could be an issue a pair of ski goggles - vented ones work best - and a balaclava or even a neoprene / fleece face mask can make the difference between a day of mild discomfort and one being painfully shot-blasted with driven ice particles. Nigh on essential in the Cairngorms, for example.
Last but not least a mobile phone is the single most
effective way of calling for help, though remember, coverage in
mountain areas can be patchy, so don't rely on being able to get
When It All Goes Horribly Wrong...
walkers and climbers who die on the hills are actually found to be
carrying everything they would have needed to survive. Their mistake
was often pushing on when they should have stopped, taken shelter and
waited either for rescue or a break in the weather.
You can carry all the right gear, but you still need the judgement
and knowledge to use it and to make the right decisions. That means
honing your navigational skills, understanding your physiology and
how your body works in bad conditions and sometimes, simply, staying
calm when things turn nasty and making considered decisions.
Of course that's easy to say, but hard when you're tired, stressed
and possibly mildly hypothermic and your judgement is possibly
impaired. Thorough preparation, good fitness, an effective clothing system and good nutrition should reduce the chances of this happening though, and don't underestimate the importance of morale.
Before You Leave
Last and not least, before you head out in winter, leave a note of
your intended route and estimated time of return with someone you
trust so that if you don't get back, they can notify mountain rescue
by calling '999'. Remember to let them know you're back when you're
off the hill as well.
Like we said at the start, nothing is set in stone and with
experience you'll develop your own ideas of what you need and don't
need, but whatever you do, remember that while winter hills are
beautiful, they're also potentionally deadly, so let's be careful out
there and come back safe and sound.