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Winter Walking Tips 4 - Planning....

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Falling through a cornice and taking the express way down the mountain is something that we all want to avoid, a couple of friends have done it (in separate incidents!) many years ago in poor visibility when we were just reliant on maps and timing / pacing was the method to calculate distance travelled. Obviously their mental arithmetic was bit shaky or they forgot how to count beyond 10, both walked away, both messed up, both were lucky. We all have our winter tales to share when it’s time ‘to pull up a chair’ from an era of broad and fairly simple information like weather & avalanche forecasts and paper maps.

Winter waking in the Cairngorms

These days I marvel at how with all the information & technology available to us along with the more traditional ways of navigating we really are well equipped to head into the hills all year round. Summer or winter both bring their own challenges, I’ve lost count how many days in August have been wilder than a day mid winter in Snowdonia and Autumn is undoubtedly the worst season, windy, wet and progressively getting colder each month, more commonly called minging!

Without doubt in winter if you just used ‘' to walk in the mountains, then you will have the most frightening ‘pull up the chair’ stories to recount, access to an impressive range of sites / apps these days presents a lot of detailed information prior to even leaving the warmth of your car and hopefully makes your stories the best rather than the scariest! In winter it’s essential to put some thought into your day.

The weather forecast is a good place to start. I head to Scotland in 2 weeks time and I’m taking a broad interest in what the weather is doing already, perhaps picking up the forecast on the morning and not being aware of what has happened on the mountain prior doesn’t allow you to fully interpret the facts correctly. I’m sure we all have our favourite forecasting sites, the days of interpreting synoptic charts as the main forecast are long gone, individual summit and valley forecasts are available on an hourly basis and can be accessed on the hill too, it’s quite incredible really.

Scottish Avalanche information service

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service has grown into an incredible tool, it is too extensive to go into detail here as to the value and information that it offers, but when you have a spare half hour of your life available, it’s well worth exploring the pages. It not only issues a daily forecast for the areas that are listed (and the previous days too), but offers clear explanations around complex subjects that are made easy to understand. It’s essentially academic and applying it outside requires further learning and knowledge. Snow is an incredible fragile and complex material that is affected in so many ways which poses many challenges for us to interpret to make decisions to allow safe travel. You can access this on your phone on the hill, it will locate you on the map and bring up the ‘compass rose’ avalanche hazard - an amazing piece of tech!

Fatmap appeared a number of years ago, predominantly for ski mountaineering, but it has many features that are truly time saving. Slope aspect and slope angle are layers you can select for the area you’re planing to venture into, giving you these super easy identifiable graphics over a 3D aerial photo, these really complement the weather & SAIS forecasts and are techniques that we would have spent a considerable amount of time poring over maps and working out before. Again all accessible on the phone on the hill!


Even the new version of Viewranger, Outdooractive has a basic slope angle on it!

ordnance survey map

With all that all in hand, focus on the day that you’re keen to do, interpret the forecasts, understand the impact these forecasts will have on you, think of where the problems might come from, how will that influence your route choices, what are your options and so on. Perhaps annotate your map with anything important as a reminder on the day. As well as getting my map all set up for the day, I also set up my watch, phone and GPS - all part of my navigational tools - if you don’t use all these tools then you’re going to have more ‘pull up the chair moments’ than me! On a very simple level, I use preloaded waypoints the way I might annotate my map.

This is not something you do in a few minutes, it takes time, build up the knowledge before you go, start planning the night before, tweak your plans in the morning with the updated forecasts, as I’ve mentioned before ‘Be Bothered’……

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