Winter equipment advice

Choosing Winter Equipment

Our Winter Equipment Advice shares some ideas on getting prepped for safe and fulfilling cold season adventures. We really hope you find it useful.

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. I came to a walker lying in the snow with significant injuries after a long tumble down the slope.

The first aid kit was pulled from my rucksack and soon I had his injuries stabilised. I could then 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 also had spare layers to keep me warm.

I soon had him insulated from the snow by using my emptied rucksack underneath him.  With the helicopter approaching I 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. 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. 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.

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. In terms of capacity, we find about 45 litres is optimum for most winter adventures.

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 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 Aktik Core, but there are loads of possibles on the market.  With this I can make sure the battery is fully charged before heading out and I always carry a spare.  I also always have a second torch because torches get lost and can stop working. There are some very compact and yet good performance models like the Petzl Bindi.  

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. It also helps to some quick hit sugary foods for the occasional boost. 

Along with this a drink is essential although I must own up that I don’t carry stacks of liquid in winter.  Instead, I try and get really hydrated before heading out in the morning. I 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.

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 works best in a Scottish winter.  They can be tricky to find but various companies make them and they aren’t too expensive. We wrote an advice article on Goggles For Mountaineering here.

Trekking Poles 

Arguably not an essential item of winter equipment but there are lots of times you will find them really useful. They can reduce shock load on limbs and joints. They also add an extra element of safety for things like tricky descents or when crossing streams. We wrote another article about Trekking Poles here and have reviewed many pairs. The Leki Sherpa FX Carbon Strong poles we reviewed here would be an ideal winter pole. Similarly, the Komperdell FXP4 Cloud Compacts we reviewed here would be a great winter pole.

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. It is essential you can reliably use them though.  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. Our Navigation Top Tips article here might be of interest.

GPS

There is no substitute for solid traditional map and compass navigation skills. However, there are times when a quick GPS fix will offer reassurance and save time.  There are apps that work on smart phones or you may choose to carry a self-contained unit. Using your phone to navigate can compromise the phone’s battery life. In which case carry a phone charger is a good insurance policy.

Sunglasses And Suncream

It does get sunny in the UK sometimes and on those days these are essential. 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.  

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. Just make sure you don’t use up all the battery. You may need the juice to make an emergency call.

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 essential item. We shared some ideas on what to Include in a first aid kit here. Details of our first aid courses is here.

Emergency Shelter

Another thing I would consider to be an essential and another thing we discuss the use of on our first aid courses. 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 of a rucksack and modern versions.  I would suggest always choosing a shovel with a strong construction and metal blade so it will cope with hard snow. I also prefer models with a square shaped blade as they clear snow quicker and there is room to step on the end to help penetrate hard snow. We wrote an article on Emergency Snow Shelters here which contains more info on shovels as well.

Avalanche Probe

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. Choose one that is strong, has an efficient locking mechanism and is long enough.

Avalanche Transceiver

Transceivers are considered an essential for back country skiing and trekking in various places around the world. However, they haven’t as yet become seen as a UK winter essential for many mountaineers and hillwalkers. Why? There are a few possible reasons.  They are expensive and everyone in the group needs one. They may also make party members over confident and encourage them to venture into terrain they would otherwise have steered clear of. Crucially, they are also going to offer little hope unless all members of the team know how to use them efficiently and 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.

We hope you have found this Winter Equipment Advice useful. If so, our advice articles on Keeping Your Hands Warm here and Mountain Safety Top Tips here may be useful useful too.