The weather at the weekend (in the Lake District at least) showed the first proper signs of winter arriving. On the summit of Little Hart Crag (not exactly Scafell Pike in terms of exposure and height) I recorded winds of 35mph and a resulting wind chill temperature of -19C! I think it’s fair to say that that’s winter weather.
I was prepared. I’ve been walking with my “winter pack” for the last couple of weeks, in anticipation of a rapidly deteriorating day, or an uncomfortably windy summit. I’m sure there were one or two people, however, who looked at the weather in the towns and valleys and headed up to the tops expecting more of the same – a warming sunny outlook.
I wouldn’t want anyone to use this as a template or a definitive guide, but I thought I’d list the items I carry in my “winter pack” and perhaps compare them to other readers who wish to share their thoughts on the topic. If I’ve forgotten something essential, let me know. Let us know what you feel is appropriate for a winter walk in big hills.
My pack is very versatile. I carry a GoLite Jam2, which can be a 50 litre “carry everything” backpacking pack, but just as easily compresses down to a small day pack for a summer bimble. For winter walking I let out some of the compression straps to accommodate the larger load and Bob’s your Uncle. Others may need to consider a larger pack for the winter.
At the bottom of the pack is my First Aid Kit – this is always here and doesn’t change for winter walking, it has the basic essentials for patching up cuts and grazes, antiseptic wipes and cream and a couple of small bandages. In the kit I also have toilet roll, wet-wipes and a lighter, but we won’t go into the details there.
Other standard items that don’t change for winter include; mountain whistle, Petzl eLite headtorch (an emergency light with amazing pack life and good enough for unexpected late descents), small pen knife, hand sanitiser and various painkillers.
The Grab Bag
I then have a small roll-top dry bag (again carried all year round) which I call my “grab bag”. In here I have cold weather items I may need to access quickly; Thinsulate hat, gloves, a buff which I use as a neck gaiter which will also covers my mouth, nose and ears. In this bag I also have a couple of “Little Hotties”. These are hand-warmers and some of the best winter kit I’ve ever purchased. I bought a job-lot on eBay a couple of years ago and I’ve called on them often. They are small, disposable pouches of chemicals that heat up when you remove the protective plastic cover. Slip them inside gloves, pockets or whatever and you have instant warmth that lasts for several hours.
In the winter I tend to walk in my Paramo gear – even if it’s not raining I find that the warmth I get from the Paramo and the fact that I would need to carry waterproofs anyway, makes them worthwhile. I have an Alta 2 Jacket if it’s very cold and a Velez Smock for those days when it’s cold but not bitter. I have enough additional layers (see below) to add beneath the Velez if things turn bad. My Cascada trousers are now my default winter trousers once the temperature gets below +5C.
The Winter Bag
My winter kit is kept in a larger roll-top dry bag. This holds a mid-weight fleece, a spare Merino base layer vest, spare hat, gloves and buff. I carry more “Little Hotties” in here too. On more than one occasion I’ve shared the hand warmers with people I’ve met.The winter bag also has a pair of waterproof over-mits which when used over wet gloves will stop hands from getting cold. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. The mits are clumsy and I don’t like wearing them unless I need to, so I use regular gloves even if it’s raining or snowing. If the gloves soak through and it’s still cold and/or windy my hands begin to get cold. Using the over-mits over wet gloves keeps the wind off and my hands begin to warm up quickly, even though they’re wet. If push comes to shove I have the spare gloves which I can use beneath the over-mits.
In this winter bag I also have a full size headtorch which will see me safely down the hill in the dark.
The spare kit gives me flexibility. Even if I set out in base layer, fleece and coat I know I still have at least two extra layers to deploy if I need them. I also have the ability to change out of a sweaty base layer or wet fleece into dry alternatives. This could be important on a particularly cold and windy day. The spare hat, gloves, buff etc. also mean I can survive a downpour and still have dry gear to use once it stops.
If I’m walking alone, in a particularly remote or potentially high and exposed location I carry my emergency bothy bag. This is a waterproof shelter that rolls down to the size of a water bottle, but is something I can sit inside, out of a storm and stay warm and dry. It is actually large enough for two people and although I’ve tested it, I’ve never actually needed it.
I don’t yet own an Ice axe or crampons and I’m not sure I yet have the confidence to use the former. I am going to get some micro-spikes though – a sort of half-way house between full crampons and no crampons, which will slip over my boots and provide grip on snow and ice.
Not a definitive list and I’m sure I’ve missed something off, so please let me know what you think!