I have lost count of the times I have had a conversation with someone where they have announced, ‘I am off to the mountains this weekend’, and after being asked about their route, they respond, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I will work it out when I’m there; there will be a path‘.
OK, in some cases, they may be right. Another common statement while talking about kit tends to be, ‘I won’t need to take much, it’s not forecast to rain’.
I admit, I have been guilty of this. Though with experience comes knowledge and awareness. You may get away with this for a short 2-hour walk, but a longer venture could mean much more risk.
Why does this matter?
What if you get there and it is not an obvious path? What if there is more than one path? I can’t be the only person who has ended up on a random sheep trail by accident, going completely off course (lesson learnt).
If you don’t know which route you are taking, how do you know how far you are walking? Or the terrain? You could even end up walking for far longer than you had anticipated, meaning there could be a risk of not having enough water or food with you. You may even get caught out and be walking your last leg in the dark.
Be mindful of the weather
Take time to learn to read pressure charts, weather maps and forecasts. Take time to understand how to interpret the weather in mountainous areas. Be realistic. If you are planning a walk in winter, you will likely encounter snow and ice at high altitude. What does this mean for your route? If you are not skilled in winder mountaineering, this could be fatal. There are also extra considerations for your kit too. The rolling mountain mist can look spectacular, but it will impact your navigation, slow down your overall timing, and can be quite unnerving.
Plan your route
While planning your route, be realistic about the time it could take to walk on uneven or steep ground, compared to a flat surface. Think about the time it takes to walk a distance and pace out your route accordingly. As a rule of thumb, you should add between 30 – 60 seconds per contour while walking uphill, maybe more if the topography is particularly steep. Downhill could also slow you down if the surface is unstable (scree) or again, particularly steep.
While plotting your route on a map, consider the distance of your ‘leg’s (not your actual legs, but the legs of the journey – though I do claim that as a relatively short person – it could take me longer to walk a distance than others). Routes should be broken up into shorter sections, often referred to as ‘legs’. Shorter ‘legs’ can be more accurate than longer ones. This is particularly important at night, or where visibility can be significantly reduced, and you need to rely on walking on a bearing. A few degrees ‘off’ over a short distance is not as much as an issue as on a longer distance. With the best navigation in the world you can still wander ‘off course’. It is a good idea to practice your poor visibility navigation at night – this way, you can practice your pacing and bearings and be prepared for all eventualities. Even the most expert mountaineers practice, skill fade is real.
(Click here for a free copy of my route card template. The route card is free, so how about a donation to West Mercia Search and Rescue in return? Please click here to donate. Thank you. )
Please also be mindful of your own ability. If there looks to be a bit of a rocky area on the map, do your research. Don’t assume that because there is a footpath that there isn’t a scramble. Don’t assume that because you like the idea of climbing rocks, that a grade 3 scramble is a good idea. Have a ‘plan B’ route just in case if need be. If you are keen to scramble, do some research on the area.
Is being able to use a map and compass important?
Debatable. If you are on a short known route you will probably be OK. However, it is well worth learning navigation skills. There are resources available HERE to teach yourself. However, there are providers around the world who can help teach you navigation. Some run assessed training courses, while others have more informal sessions for those who want to learn navigation but are not bothered about a navigation qualification, such as myself.
Prepare for the weather to change. It is not unusual to have all four seasons within one days walk, particularly in the UK.
Finally, think about your exit routes. These are basically quick routes to an area of ‘safety’ which could be your car, a local pub or village. Why? It is worth being aware of in case something unexpected should happen – or you just get cold, wet and fed-up. I’ll often mark-up potential short-cuts on longer walks as a just in case.
Consider your kit (See: Preparing your kit list: from crampons to Kendal Mint Cake)
Pretty obvious that you should make sure you have the right ‘kit’ for your walk, right? You would be surprised. I have often come across people walking Snowdon in flip-flops. I once passed a woman on Aber Falls in heels. Impressive, but not practical. My first aid kit came in useful for the latter. It turned out she had been taken on a surprise date. I don’t think it was a success. On that note – it is well worth checking that your friends are prepared too! It could save you some frustration later on in the walk.
OK, so this is a bit of a contradiction to the usual ‘be prepared’ advice. You should definitely be prepared – but have a serious think about what you actually need. Taking more than you need can be a literal burden.
- Are you on a route where you can refill your water bottle? Why take 2 litres if you can get away with 1 litre and a guaranteed refill (using Puritabs or filtered water bottles of course)
- Do you need multiple jumpers and fleeces or can you just take a decent microfibre jacket – they pack up so small. I admit, wasn’t keen at first but I am HOOKED!
- Do you need your whole map? Or can you cut it down a bit (or even better – photocopy the section you need- though don’t cut off the northings and eastings numbers). Yes, even if you are relying on digital apps. Batteries don’t last forever – they are not reliable.
Check out your first aid kit. I have come across people who buy a standard kit and chuck it in their bags, thinking, ‘it’s not opened, nothing has been used, everything I need is in there’. Are you sure? Take a look. Remove anything you don’t know how to use. Why take it if you have no clue what it is or what it does (or even better – learn how to use it). Do you really need 1001 tiny plasters? Some first aid kits seem to be bulked out with a ridiculous number of plasters.- often shapes and sizes that are hardly used. You may choose to add some kit, such as an instant cold compress or a tic removal card. You should also bear in mind that if there is a situation in remote areas, it can take a long time for help to reach you. My advice is to take a survival bag or group shelter with you, and always have a torch (and spare batteries). Energy-dense food is also wise, as well as water purifying tablets and electrolytes (kept inside the first aid kit), just in case.
- Have you included your medical information and emergency contact details – in case of an emergency? What if something happens to you and you are found by someone else. Grim thought – but would they know who to contact? Having your details and medical information can be hugely helpful. I have an emergency contact card clipped to my rucksack.
- Do you know who to call in case of an emergency? Have you set up text 999 in case your signal is poor? (See HERE)
Above all, enjoy! Be safe, don’t take unnecessary risks, let people know where you are going and when you are likely to return. Stop to admire the view and remember to look at the view behind.
These are my tips, you may find others will have more to add based on their experience, and you will gain some yourself!