If you’re doing any mountain hiking in the UK around this time of year, especially in Scotland, you’re almost certain to end up hiking in snow. Climbing snowy mountains is one of the most exciting and invigorating kinds of hiking you can do, in my opinion. However, it can be intimidating and sometimes dangerous, with risks that are far greater than in warm, snow-free conditions.
Those risks can be mitigated with experience and training, good forward-planning, and taking the right equipment. This post isn’t a substitute for experience, training and planning – but it is going to focus on some of the kit you should be thinking about for non-technical day hiking in snowy mountains.
In good weather, it may be possible to get away with hiking with a small bag or even no bag at all. In winter, though, as the list of kit below will indicate, you’re definitely going to need something to carry all your gear in.
While I often use an ultralight pack such as the Gossamer Gear G4-20 for multi-day hikes, day-hiking in winter can benefit from a more robust bag even if it’s a little heavier. The weight is less of an issue over a single day, and a slightly harder-wearing fabric is less prone to being damaged by ice-axe and crampons. For that reason, I use my Lowe Alpine Airzone Trail 35 pack for winter hikes. 35l is more than adequate – and in fact you could probably get away with 25 or 30l. But the 35L pack is what I’ve got, and it does a good job of securing an ice axe and, if necessary, hiking poles to the outside while giving plenty of internal space for emergency kit, clothes, food, drink, and extra clothes.
Boots and crampons
The three key factors when hiking in the winter, with snow on the ground, are warmth, waterproofing and grip. You may also want to consider abrasion resistance and sole stiffness, which we’ll come on to.
First off, warmth. It’s easy to ignore your feet and assume that the boots you have for the summer will do you fine in the winter too, maybe with a nice pair of thick socks. However, spend all day in below-freezing temperatures, and especially walking in deep snow, and you’ll quickly discover how miserable you can be when your feet get really, really cold. Winter mountaineering boots come in various levels. Whether it’s the extremely warm type needed for high alpine mountaineering, to mid-grade boots that will do you nicely on a snow-covered Munro. Be pragmatic, though, and don’t just go for the warmest boots you can find. You’ll quickly discover that having overly hot and sweaty feet is almost as bad as having freezing cold toes.
Waterproofing is also important. In summer hiking, there are schools of thought that mostly reject waterproof boots on the basis that you should allow your feet to breath and to dry naturally. I can’t say I entirely agree with that, but it’s certainly a point of view. Either way, in winter it doesn’t hold up at all. If you are trudging through snow you will definitely need boots with a decent waterproof outer to avoid them getting soaked through with ice-cold melting snow.
Other valuable features
Before we get onto grip, let’s quickly cover abrasion resistance and sole stiffness. These tend to be features of mountaineering boots designed for crampons. The abrasion resistance protects against sharp rocks while scrambling but also, crucially, helps prevent a crampon from damaging the opposite boot if you take a slight mis-step. Stiff soles, on the other hand, allow for ‘front-pointing’. That’s a technique for ascending steep hills covered in hardened snow and ice, where you kick your feet in with the front spikes on your crampons. As your entire foot must then cantilever from your toes, a rigid sole is essential. For less technical climbing where you will largely be placing your feet flat, a more flexible-soled boot can be more practical. Flexible boots are also usually cheaper and a little more comfortable.
And then grip, the big one. While different boots may have different degrees of grip, crampons are really essential for winter climbing. Even walking on relatively flat snow becomes difficult without spikes to provide extra grip, and ascending a steep hill covered in snow or ice could become almost impossible – not to mention extremely dangerous.
For less technical ascents, microspikes could be sufficient – and the advantage is that they are cheap, and relatively easy to fit to almost any kind of boot.
However, for anything with steep ascents, hardened ice, or the need for front-pointing, crampons are essential. They come in three grades (C1-3), which must be matched to a suitable grade of boot (B1-3) and for the majority of winter hiking C2 crampons will be more than adequate, although for the most demanding ascents and certainly for full on winter climbing (as opposed to hiking) you may need C3 crampons and B3 boots.
It’s the iconic piece of winter mountaineering kit, but do you really need one? Well, yes, you do.
For hiking on snow and ice, an ice axe performs a few vital functions:
- When ascending a slope, you can plant it into the snow with your uphill hand and use it as a handhold to aid your ascent.
- When moving up a steep slope covered in ice and snow, you can use the flat, blunt end of the head (the adze) to carve out footholds as you ascend.
- If you slip on a steep slope, you can use the spiked end of the head to arrest your descent (self-arrest).
All three of these are essential in wintery conditions, and the last in particular is critical for hiking safely. A slope that could be completely innocuous in dry weather can, when covered in snow, become a death-slide that you would have little chance of stopping yourself on once you started slipping. When used properly, and with regular practice, an ice-axe could literally save your life. They don’t need to be expensive, and I’d caution anyone against hiking in the mountains in snow without one.
Warm and waterproof gear
It probably goes without saying that you’ll be needing plenty of warm kit. If it’s not actually snowing, on a cold but dry day, you might not feel that a raincoat is all that important. However, I’d always chuck one in, just in case you get stuck in a surprise blizzard.
Additionally, consider gaiters if you’re going to be hiking in deep snow. They’ll do a great job of keeping your trousers dry, your legs a little warmer, and protecting your expensive goretex trousers from your crampons.
Perhaps the most important thing not to forget in winter, though, is a really good set of gloves. A set, you say? Yes – because just as with the rest of your gear, you’ll get much better results if you layer. Hands, like the rest of you, can quickly alternate between too hot when you’re puffing your way up a steep slope in the sunshine, and too cold when you’re walking on flat terrain in the wind. So, having various layers you can add and remove will really help.
My glove system
My own glove system comprises:
- Two pairs of Rab powerstrech pro gloves. These are fairly cheap, meaning I can have two or three pairs so that I always have a dry set of gloves to wear against my skin no matter how cold and wet I get. They also fit closely leaving you with plenty of dexterity, so even if I need to take off my other gloves to deal with a buckle or zip, I can keep one layer on. And a lot of the time they’re all I really need.
- A pair of Rab Xenon mitts. These are very lightweight, compressible insulated mitts, meaning they’re easy to chuck into my bag on the off-chance I need something warmer. I usually put them on over the powerstretch pro gloves, as an extra layer. Being mitts, they’re a bit more effective at keeping my fingers warm than regular gloves, although obviously you lose a lot of dexterity.
- A pair of Rab goretex lightweight mitts. They don’t seem to make these anymore, but what I like about them is that – like a waterproof jacket – they are water and windproof but not overly warm. That means I can choose whether to wear them alone, with just the power-stretch gloves to keep them dry on a drizzly but not overly cold scottish day, or on top of the Xenon mitts for warmth and waterproofing.
This system does me nicely in any conditions down to -10C or thereabouts. Below that, you’d definitely want something more insulated, and at a certain point the layering system might become pointless and you’d be better off with some serious mountaineering gloves that are both warm and waterproof, but I’d still always advocate the use of a cheap, thin fleece glove that you can have a few pairs of and change the way you’d change your socks – especially on a multi-day hike – to try and keep dry and warm.
Eye protection is surprisingly important in winter hiking. The threats to your eyes come from two main sources – sun, and snow. Cold days are often bright and cloudless, and in winter the sun can be low in the sky, making it harder to see and rendering sunglasses essential. But on top of that, sun reflects off the snow and it can become exhausting just staring at bright white snow for hours, as well as difficult to distinguish shapes and terrain. For these reasons, a good pair of sunglasses is crucial.
However, when the wind picks up the snow creates another problem as freezing pieces of snow blowing into your face can feel like icy needles and be surprisingly painful. In these conditions, a balaclava and snow goggles will make your life a lot more comfortable.
I’m always an advocate of considering worst-case scenarios when going hiking, and I never go out into the mountains without a bit of emergency gear, but it’s even more essential in winter. The top of a Scottish mountain in winter can be a pretty inhospitable place, and on a very cold day with a bit of wind, could quickly become extremely dangerous. Consider what you’d do if you injured yourself and weren’t able to get off the mountain under your own steam. That’s why I carry:
- At least one insulated layer more than those I expect to wear at any point while hiking.
- A foil emergency sleeping bag.
- A Garmin InReach mini.
- A headtorch and flashlight.
- Plenty of food, beyond what I expect to need while hiking.
Exactly what you take might vary, but I’d say that something like the above is just about the minimum.
Food and drink
And speaking of food and drink, don’t neglect your need for energy while hiking in cold conditions. You may not need as much water as on a hot day, but you’ll still need plenty. You might also benefit from a hot drink in a thermos flask, and a few sugary snacks to keep your energy levels up. Consider what containers you take your drinks in, and whether you might need an insulated water bottle. There’s nothing worse than being desperate for some water and realising your whole water bottle has frozen solid…