Getting your kit winter ready for the hills doesn't require too much effort when you consider our summers.
Now is a good time to review your kit for the winter months ahead.
Think like an onion! Layering is the key to comfort.
The layering system is particularly important during the winter. You can add or remove layers as your own personal thermometer and the weather dictates. This might sound obvious, but it’s something I’ve noticed with groups - just because someone else has removed or added a layer doesn’t mean you must. As well as the fact that you are unlikely to be wearing exactly the same fabrics, you are individuals with different internal thermometers. Even the same person in the same weather conditions can feel different day to day. It’s what makes layering systems wonderful. You can adapt much easier.
Essentially, a layering system for hill-walking will consist of a baselayer tee worn next to your skin, a mid-layer fleece, hiking pants and an outer shell - your rain jacket and bottoms. Merino wool excels in winter months because of its superior thermal properties, but if you are a profuse sweater, you may want to consider synthetic or a blend. See here for more information.
The range of options available in mid-layers is mind boggling, but for most people having a lightweight mid-layer fleece and a heavier one will tick most boxes. You can wear one and stuff the other in a drybag in your pack. Fleece and wool help you stay warm even when they get wet.
A hat is a hat really, so find one that fits well and maybe throw a spare into your pack. Gloves. Now they are a different story altogether. Rab Xenons are our favourite. They're just the right level of insulation for most days on the hill. Their only downside is durability. If you're particularly hard on kit or need a working glove, this is not it. On a minging wet day, an over-mitt or gauntlet makes them a solid choice though.
Regardless of how good your rain jacket (shell) is, they do all eventually let in rain. It’s more a matter of how long you can stay dry before this happens.
Durable Water Repellents (DWRs) are now also water-based, so even if (or more accurately, especially if) your jacket is brand new, it will need to be re-proofed more often than you might think. This is particularly noticeable where your pack sits or other high rub areas. Here’s a great article by UKClimbing to explain further. Essentially though, these are not as effective – which challenges expectations of users as we transition to more environmentally sustainable methods.
What you choose to wear under your rain jacket can influence your comfort levels considerably. A fluffier fleece on a cold, wet day is a good choice. As well as the pockets of air between the fluffy bits warming up, the tips of the fluffly bits can also take in some moisture that may be getting through your rain jacket and wick sweat away from your skin. So you stay comfortable longer.
Staying dry longer is also a function of how well you use your jacket. Think cuffs, hood, zippers, cords – especially with windy conditions.
There’s no point giving out about being wet, if you haven’t done up the Velcro on your cuffs tightly – that will wet you out to your elbows. Open pit-zips will mean the rest of your arms and your sides are wet. Front zipper down a bit? That’s your chest and shoulders wet. Hood not cinched in - same thing.
Gaiters come into their own in the winter – whether to help keep you warm or dry, in wet or snowy conditions, they are a fantastic investment and a must if you plan to use crampons or snow-shoes.
So you’re booted & suited for winter. Now what?
Let’s look at your pack.
Most backpacks are somewhat water-resistant, but not waterproof. Many come with rain-covers zipped into a bottom compartment. Some people love these. We are not fans – check out the video below to see what happens these on a windy day. It’s so easy for the wind to whip them off completely if they are not attached correctly or to have it act like a parachute or sail, helping the wind knock you off your feet.
We much prefer to use a couple of drybags internally to both organise our kit and keep it dry in poor weather. A zip-lock bag can do much the same job, but in the shift away from single use plastic, it’s not the most environmentally friendly approach.
If we know in advance that the weather is going to be awful, we may also line our bags with a survival bag, giving it multiple functions. Very few people can afford to go out and buy all this kit in one go, so starting with a survival bag inside your pack as you’re building up your stash of drybags is a great idea!
Once the bag is lined, keep a drybag or zip-lock handy for your phone and car keys.
What goes in your pack in the winter months?
Much the same kit to be honest. In Ireland, the weather in the mountains can change very quickly, so you need these items all year round.
- Your rainwear if you’re not already wearing them.
- Headtorch – check it’s working and fully charged/fresh batteries. It should be in your pack all year round, but you’re more likely to need it now that the days are so much shorter. Handheld torches are a pain when hiking, but have their uses in fog. If you’ve nothing else, pop it in there and add a headtorch to your Christmas list.
- Food, food and more food! Pack a decent lunch, but my advice would be to make it something you can eat on the go if you have to – a sambo or roll. It’s not the best time of year for sitting down with open lunch boxes and sporks. A bag of jellies is always great for a boost of energy and morale in bad weather, and of course there must be chocolate or a protein bar somewhere in there.
- Water and other fluids. Hot drinks are especially nice in the winter, chat with your hiking buddies, no point in both of you lugging up a flask.
- Group Shelter – this is like a tent fly sheet and comes in a variety of sizes from 2 person up to 10 person. In bad weather, it’s a cosy place to have lunch. In the event of an accident, it’s a vital and potentially life-saving piece of kit. Leaders generally carry one. Check with your hiking group. If you don’t have one in your hiking group, consider investing. At the very least, everyone should have a survival bag.
- Basic First Aid Kit.
- Toileting Kit. It’s unlikely on a day hike that you’ll need your cat trowel, but don’t forget your hand sanitiser! And for the ladies; a pee cloth or loo roll & rubbish bag. (To carry your loo roll out).
- Navigation tools – maps, compass etc. (make sure you know how to use them! Get in touch if you need a refresher.)
- Fully charged mobile phone with location services turned on. (A powerbank in a drybag would be nice too, particularly if also using the phone for photos or navigation too).
- Hat, gloves, neck gaiter. Pack a spare if you have room. While a neck gaiter can double job as a hat, having dry gloves to put on after lunch can be a real treat. Consider a cap as well – If you wear glasses, the peak helps shield them from the rain.
- Extra layer(s) – an insulated jacket to put on at lunch, an extra fleece to wear walking downhill.
- Walking poles, optional but handy crossing rivers and saving the knees on the downhill.