What to wear and pack for winter mountaineering in Scotland
Time for Winter Hillwalking and Mountaineering
Our mission at Ocean Vertical is simple: To share a love for adventure in the natural world and ensure the survival of our last remaining wild places.
We spend a chunk of the year in the ocean paddle boarding, coasteering and surfing with clients. And every November we look north with a sense of excitement – our winter mountaineering and climbing season will soon be starting.
Winter Hillwalking in Scotland
The Scottish mountains in winter are awe-inspiring; they can be a transformational experience. We aim to make these wild and remote places accessible, with adventures led by our professional guides and instructors.
Its winter in the Scottish mountains. You are at 3500 feet, its minus 20 with wind-chill, you are 3 hours from your vehicle, you’ve been on the mountain for 5 hours, its horizontal spindrift and snow, visibility is highly compromised and wind gusts of 50mph are buffeting you with hail and sleet.
But from inside your armor, all is fine. You’ve done your pre planning and preparation, you are prepared for the conditions and you have the correct clothing and equipment with you – and you know how to use it.
Your choice of route has been informed by the Mountain Weather Information Service forecast, and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. You have experience in these conditions, or the leader of your group does, and you might have attended a winter skills course.
The reality is of course that many folks who head off into the mountains during winter in Scotland can fall short on planning, preparation, equipment, navigation and skills.
In our blog https://www.oceanvertical.com/blog/planning-for-winter-mountaineering-in-scotland we focused on the wider aspects of planning a winter day in the mountains in Scotland; from understanding the weather and avalanche risk, to route planning, equipment, clothing, and the level of experience required. In this blog we are going to focus in on what to wear and pack.
The Rucksack or Backpack
First up is the rucksack itself. We would recommend a rucksack of 40 – 45L. This may seem pretty big compared with what you have, and are used to. But then this is winter mountaineering, which requires more equipment and clothing.
There are different types of rucksack; we prefer what you would call a technical, or “climbing” rucksack. These are typically more streamline, with no external pouches and pockets [except on the lid for small items], and compression straps on either side. They also have fixing points for ice axes, which you will need, a waist belt and chest strap. The more minimal and functional the better.
We prefer these technical packs, as they compress and pack down, don’t snag, and don’t have unnecessary bulky pouches and straps. The external “housekeeping” of your rucksack is important – you will be reminded of this when a 60mph gust whips a loose strap across your face. Never much fun.
We would also recommend you line your rucksack with a dry bag. It can be brutal out there, and rain and sleet will find its way into every nook and cranny in your rucksack. We also use smaller dry bag for other items, it makes them easy to find and acts as an extra protective layer.
And finally, as with all mountain clothing and equipment, go for a bright colored rucksack. Being seen could save your life. [Please scroll on folks].
Clothing for Winter Hillwalking
In terms of clothing, think layering, lightweight, synthetics and merino wool. You will need to regulate your temperature throughout the day. [Cotton is the devils work in the mountains, so don’t go there].
Starting from butt naked: synthetic or merino stretchy underwear. Believe us, 8 hours of wet cotton knickers or boxers chaffing isn’t much fun. Lightweight synthetic or merino leggings and base layer top. Long wool socks. Soft-shell trousers and lightweight fleece top.
Windproof synthetic insulated jacket with hood [avoid using skiing clothing – this is too bulky and not designed for high exertion – you will overheat]. Insulated waterproof gloves and warm wool hat or balaclava.
Winter Mountaineering Boots
Four season winter mountaineering boots [B2 / B3]. Don’t rush into this purchase, they are expensive and need to be comfortable. Head into a reputable outdoor retail shop to get fitted by expert staff member.
Think of your boots as a long-term investment. Having the right boots is essential, and your crampons need to be compatible with these boots. Don’t wait till you are in a blizzard at 3000 feet to find this out – do your homework by the fire at home with Free Solo on the TV, and make sure your crampons are ready to fit to your boots.
Inside the Rucksack - Clothing for Winter Hillwalking
So, what’s in the rucksack? [Or rather dry bag, which is in the rucksack]. Starting with additional clothing. Waterproof hard-shell jacket with a hood. [If possible one with a helmet compatible hood]. Waterproof hard-shell trousers.
These are your fundamental line of defense against precipitation; freezing rain, sleet, snow, horizontal spindrift and critically in Scotland, wind. It’s also your chance to be seen - so choose some cool bright colors.
Spare warm insulated jacket with a hood. This may seem like overkill – but its important. If something does go wrong – you or one of your group may have to stay put, potentially for hours, before a rescue team reached you. If you are forced to sit still for 4 hours you will be thankful for this warm jacket.
Spare waterproof insulated gloves and warm wool hat or balaclava. The wind in the Scottish mountains is legendary, and will make short work of a loose glove or hat. A pair of gaiters. These can be really helpful in deep snow and super wet conditions.
Group shelters pack down small, get into the habit of having one at the bottom of your rucksack. Likewise with a personal blizzard bag.
Basic technical items; crampons in a robust crampon bag, or their teeth will devour your expensive Gore-Tex shell. Ice axe [with the lanyard removed] attached to the outside of your rucksack. Make sure this is the right length for you, and a walking ice axe as opposed to a climbing one.
Lightweight demountable snow shovel. Make no mistake; if there’s snow, there will be avalanches. When buried in snow most people die from carbon dioxide poisoning. 90% of victims can be recovered if they are uncovered within the first 15 minutes.
Helmet. There’s a lot of debate on this one, but as most winter deaths in the mountains result from head injuries – we pack them. They are certainly not worn all day, but if we move onto steep terrain, with ice, snow, rocks and exposure, the helmets come on before we get there. They offer real protection from any falling debris such as snow, ice, loose stones and rock.
A map with your route, in a waterproof clear map bag, and compass. Spare map and compass. It goes without saying that you need to know how to use these, or someone in your group must know.
Whistle [the international distress signal is 6 blasts every minute]. Small first aid kit, head torch plus spare. A mobile phone kept insulated – if it’s in an external pocket the wind and cold will kill the battery pretty quickly. Goggles – the type you would wear skiing. You will need these to protect your eyes and aid navigation and map reading in vertical sleet, spindrift and hail.
Food and Nutrition
Snacks and liquid. We tend to snack as we go rather than stop for “lunch”. So easy access foods in bite-sized pieces are brilliant, including energy and chocolate bars, rather than a full packed lunch your Gran made.
Same with liquids. Hydration is key on big days out in the mountains. Take at least 1 liter of water as well as a hot flask of drink. A quick hit of hot tea while we stop to put crampons on, rather than a leisurely tea and sandwich stop.
It’s cold out there, especially when you stop and have been working hard and building up a sweat. A steady pace, without erratic stop - starts, is also part of navigation and timing for the day.
Ocean Vertical are here to help
If you would like to understand more about winter mountaineering in Scotland please contact us any time, we are here to share our passion for adventure. You can also see full details of all our winter adventures at www.oceanvertical.com
“Had an awesome day in the winter mountains with Ocean Vertical. It was all new to us and we felt really safe, they provided all the equipment, and even drove us there and back! Can't thank the OV Team enough - we will recommend and be back - thanks!.”
Anna and Sarah | Edinburgh