Winter equipment advice

Choosing Winter Equipment

As my client and I headed along the approach path we heard shouts from the slope just a few hundred metres above.  I left Alex on the path (with the knowledge that he was well equipped to sit it out for a while) and headed up to find a walker lying in the snow with significant injuries after a long tumble down the slope.

I pulled my first aid kit from my rucksack and soon had his injuries stabilised enough to make a phone call for help – there was no way he was walking out with the injuries he’d sustained.  With help on its way I wrapped him in a reflective blanket and tucked him into a bothy shelter.  I had spare layers to keep me warm and soon had him insulated from the snow by using my rucksack underneath him.  With the helicopter approaching I signalled our position with my headtorch and finally breathed a sigh of relief as the casualty was winched aboard.  It was a very different day to the one I had planned for my client but he was still in good spirits and we even managed to fit in a short route before heading back to the valley.

Accidents can happen at any time of year, but the winter months will soon show up any weaknesses in your preparation.  Of course, as well as equipment to cope with emergencies it is essential to have all the other key essentials too.  Part 2 of our winter series focuses on winter equipment and follows our first piece about winter clothing (which you can read here). 

Please remember that the focus of these articles is only to share ideas on the type of equipment I am currently using rather than being a list of definite must haves.  The final article, focusing on technical equipment, comes soon…..

Rucksack – You’ll carry quite a lot of weight on your average winter hillwalking day and even more if you are mountaineering or climbing.  Having a comfortable and well fitting rucksack makes all the difference to both your performance and enjoyment of your day out.  A simple and robust rucksack with well padded straps and good waist belt works best and our current favourites are the Lowe Alpine Mountain Attack, Deuter Guide 35+ and Osprey Variant, Arcteryx FL45 and the Crux AK47.  We’ve been using these for everything from rock climbing to winter adventures and love them.

Headtorch and spare batteries – I’d consider this an essential item at any time of year, but ultra essential in winter.  You may be starting in the dark and may certainly be walking out in the dark.  Even if not, a few small delays and darkness could catch you before you are back in the valley.  A headtorch may stop an inconvenience becoming an epic.  I don’t want to carry anything too cumbersome but it needs to have enough output so I can walk with it plus it must be reliable and easy to operate with gloves on.  I currently use a Petzl Reactik+ which features reactive lighting and a rechargeable battery (a review of this torch will be published soon).  With this I can make sure the battery is fully charged before heading out and I always carry an adapter with spare set of alkalines too.  I also always have a second torch which is kept in my first aid kit and this is a tiny Petzl E+ lite which makes a very small but useable spare.  

Food and drink – Winter days aren’t the time for restricted calories and so a regular supply of easy to eat and energy rich food is essential to fuel the high energy output.  There isn’t space here to discuss particular possibilities but carbohydrate rich slow release energy food is key along with some quick hit sugary foods for the occasional boost.  Along with this a flask or at least a drink is good although I don’t carry stacks of liquid in winter.  Instead, I try and get really hydrated before heading out in the morning and then leave an end of day bottle in my car.  This means that I can get by with only a relatively small amount during the day.  It works for me but I will have to leave you to find out how much you can get by with.  Since testing a Hydroflask at the end of last year it has become my perfect winter drinks companion and I usually carry 500ml of hot drink another 500 of cold drink. 

Goggles – When the winter winds blow snow horizontally into your face while you are battling to find that descent path, then you’ll appreciate why I see googles as a winter essential.  There are various ideas on which colour lens to choose but I think clear work best in Scotland.  They can be tricky to find but various companies make them and they aren’t too expensive.  Goggles were also the subject of one of our Top Tips articles here.

Trekking Poles – Arguably not an essential item of winter equipment but there are lots of times you will find them really useful and they can add an extra element of safety for things like  undertaking tricky descents or when choosing streams.  I’ve been using both Black Diamond Compactors and Leki Tourstick Vario Carbon’s for winter use and they are both excellent. 

Map and Compass – I don’t think you can get better than the Silva Expedition Type 4 as a general purpose compass and Harvey’s or Ordnance Survey maps are the business – although it is more about whether you can actually reliably use them effectively.  Make sure your map is weatherproof (or use a map case).  I also carry a spare of both because it’s very easy for one to blow away or be lost and they really don’t weigh much.

GPS – There is no substitute for solid traditional map and compass navigation skills but there are times when a quick GPS fix will offer reassurance and save time.  There are apps that work on smart phones but I carry a small self contained unit because I’d prefer to not compromise my phone’s battery life.  I carry one that uses the same batteries as my head torch so there is plenty of battery life available for whichever device needs it.

Sunglasses and Suncream – It does get sunny in the UK sometimes (!) but I tend to look at the weather forecast before definitely packing these items.

Mobile Phone – Why wouldn’t you?  You’ll get a signal in a lot of places and should also sign up for the Emergency Texting Service.  You may want to keep it in a waterproof case and I like Lifedge or Lifeproof cases.  

Camera – Of course it’s all about getting the evidence!  What’s the point in making all this effort if you haven’t got the photos to prove it.  A lot of people use their smart phone as a camera but make sure you don’t use up all the battery because you may need the juice to make an emergency call.  On days when I can see the camera will be well used then I carry a Sony RX100 – compact and with superb capabilities.

First Aid Kit – I’m not going to have space to go into suggested contents here, but join one of our ITC Outdoor First Aid courses and we’ll cover this in detail.  Suffice to say that a first aid kit and the skills to use it is an all year round essential item.

Emergency Shelter –  Another thing I would consider to be an essential and another thing we discuss the use of on our first aid courses.  I use models by Rab or Terra Nova.  Both are simple, light and good value.

Additional Survival Bag – It may be that you need the shelter for the rest of your group or you need to leave a casualty while you seek help.  Having a lightweight divvy bag such as the SOL Emergency Bivvy is well worth the weight. 

Snow Shovel – Shovels obviously have a key role in digging out avalanche victims but they can also be used for various other jobs such as creating snow shelters and digging snow profiling pits.  They will fit easily down the back panel a rucksack and modern versions only weigh around 700 grams.  I would suggest always choosing a shovel with a strong construction and alloy blade so it will cope with hard snow.  I currently use an old and tatty but seemingly indestructible Back Country Access Arsenal which conveniently has a probe stored in the handle.

Avalanche Probe – Again avalanche probes have an obvious use in locating avalanche victims but they can also be useful to test the depth of snow when seeking a suitable shelter location.  I sometimes carry a Grivel carbon fibre 240 cm or, as mentioned above, the Back Country Arsenal shovel mentioned above has one in the handle.  Having said that, there are lots of great probes on the market for around £40.

Avalanche Transceiver – Transceivers, while considered an essential for back country skiing and trekking in various places around the world, haven’t as yet become seen as a UK winter essential for many mountaineers and hillwalkers.  They are expensive, everyone in the group needs one, they may make party members over confident and encourage them to venture into terrain they may otherwise have steered clear of and they are also useless unless all members of the team know how to use them efficiently and also know how to find and extricate avalanche victims effectively.  However, the tide is slowly turning and their use is slowly but surely becoming more widespread,  I am simply including this in the list as a discussion point and this isn’t a suggestion that groups always need them.  It is just something to think about.  When we use them, I currently use the Ortovox 3+ although you should remember that modern ones are all able to communicate with each other so not everyone in the party needs the same model (check compatibility before use though).  

Posted by Paul