Mountain Safety Tips

7th Oct 2016


Mountain Rescue

This summer has seen many mountain rescue team call outs at higher than ever levels.  This suggests, on one hand, that we have a lot of people enjoying our hill and mountain areas (which is brilliant) but also calls into question how well prepared and trained some of those people are.  Considering some of these call outs are to people without any injuries and poorly equipped to cope with challenging conditions points towards some hillgoers having a lack of understanding about the potential hazards and difficulties looking after themselves when the chips are down.

We all might need the assistance of a rescue team one day, and I've been there myself on several occasions, but etched into the history of British mountaineering is an ethos about being as self reliant as possible and going into the mountains prepared for the worst - an ethos which seems to be getting diluted in this age of mobile phones and GPS navigation.

So it seemed a useful idea to identify some of the key equipment and preparation points we think UK hillgoers should consider before heading for the mountains. We hope you find it useful......

What do you plan to do?

  • Planning an itinerary for a day in the hills is part of the fun.  Whether it is heading for a mountain scramble or climb or planning a hill walk, time spent thinking carefully through the proposed option is always time well spent.  Spread your maps out,  grab a guide book, gather clues from the internet and find out all you can from friends who have been there before.  
  • What hazards does the route present? Maybe, for example, there are rivers that may come into spate if it rains hard, tricky navigation sections, route finding trouble spots, loose rock or dangerous cliffs.
  • Does your plan fit with the weather forecast predictions? We all know weather forecasts can be wrong sometimes but they are usually pretty reliable - look at several to get a detailed overview and choose mountain specific forecasts like the Mountain Weather Information Service or Met Office Mountain Forecast.  Depending on the time of year you will also want to take account of other resources like the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) forecasts or check out online forums for up to date advice and tips (although I don't believe everything I read on internet forums!).
  • Will recent weather cause problems? It is important to consider not just what the weather is going to do but also what the weather has been like in the lead up to your day out - For example, will the rock be slippy? Are rivers likely to be running high? Will the ground be very wet? Will south facing climbs be a better option than those on north faces?
  • Are you physically capable of the route planned? It is good to set a challenge but overtaxing yourself can lead to problems.  Have a plan that leaves you with plenty in reserve to cope with the unexpected.  
  • Do you have the skills required to navigate the route you are proposing and, just as importantly, do you have the skills to still cope if the weather and visibility change considerably?  GPS units and smartphone apps are a great aid to navigation but shouldn't be relied on alone - back it up with good map and compass skills and, of course, carry a map and compass.

Luck favours the well prepared

  • Leave details of your route and an expected return time - and make sure you check back in with the person holding those details once you are down safely (there have been plenty of call outs over the years due simply to poor communication).
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped both to stay comfortable during your adventure as well as carrying equipment to deal with the unexpected. What you need will vary according to many factors but should always include emergency shelter, a headtorch, whistle, suitable spare clothing, first aid kit (mentioned below), spare food and a hot drink. 
  • One other essential is a mobile phone. I have mentioned the limitations of smart phones above (particularly if their battery gets drained by power hungry GPS apps or there is no signal available) but I still always carry one as they can often be a lifesaver in calling help quickly.  It is also well worth signing up for the emergency texting service as sometimes a text message can be sent even when there isn't enough signal to get a phone call out. Signing up for service is easy - just text 'Register' to 999 and you will receive an automated response which, once you have sent back confirmation and received the system response, means your phone number is registered and future emergency texts will be responded too.  A great service. 
  • Carry a first aid kit - although the crucial thing isn't having a stack of fancy is having the skills to deal with emergencies.  Only a small percentage of attendees on our outdoor  first aid courses are individuals improving their skills (most are outdoor instructors and guides) and yet, if the worst happens, you might feel it was the best £100 you ever spent!
  • Understand the additional risk involved in travelling alone - I'm not saying don't travel alone because there are lots of great things about solo missions, but you are certainly putting yourself at higher risk if you have an accident that immobilises you.
  • One way to help ensure you can communicate in an emergency (whether travelling solo or with others) is to carry a Personal Locator Beacon.  Again I'm saying it is a must have, but because PLB's operate via satellites, there is the chance to get an emergency signal out when other means won't work.  There are lots of types on the market and it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss them in detail, but it could be worthy of consideration as the prices are dropping and they have been proven to help in some emergencies.
  • Think before calling help out.  This may sound obvious but some mountain rescue teams have raised the issue of parties calling them out when they may have been able to solve the problem themselves.  No rescue team will hesitate to attend an emergency request, but we do seem to be losing the tradition of self reliance that has been a long held tradition in the UK mountains.  If you have the equipment and skills to walk yourself to safety maybe this could work in some circumstances - do those rescue team personnel really need to be pulled away from their warm firesides?

Never regret a retreat

  • Lastly, it goes without saying to treat the mountains with respect.  We have all bitten off more than we can chew at times and knowing when to call it a day is important.  The objective will still be there for you to return at some point in the future.  Have respect for the mountains and, as the old mountaineering saying goes, never regret a retreat. 

Posted by Paul

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