Staying safe in snowy mountains
John Kavanagh from Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue advises on safety if you head for the hills
Walking in adverse weather “If you or one of your party is cold the best remedy is to eat something sugary and get moving. Warm drinks are helpful, but to stay warm you must keep moving.” Photograph: Getty Images
Winter can be one of the nicest times of the year to head for the hills. With a clear sky and the sun sitting low, tickling the mountain tops, the views are hard to beat. However, it’s not all blue sky days unfortunately. In Ireland the weather can take a turn for the worse in the blink of an eye, and with colder temperatures than in the summer months it is important to be extra vigilant when it comes to safety.
John Kavanagh from Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team gives us the lowdown on staying safe while making the most of those glorious winter days in the hills.
1. Wrap up well
“The higher you go, the colder you get,” warns Kavanagh. “However, remember that you will warm up with exercise so opt for lots of thin layers as opposed to one thick layer so you can add or remove them to balance your temperature.”
Kavanagh also stresses the importance of bringing a good pair of waterproof trousers and a waterproof jacket even if the forecast is dry. According to Kavanagh, it’s better to have them and not use them than get caught out by a sudden shower.
A hat and gloves are also essential. And you should consider bringing spare gloves as wet gloves are almost as bad as no gloves at all.
“A survival bag ,which is a big orange plastic bag and can be purchased in most outdoor shops, is a good addition to your kit as is a small first aid kit. It’s also a good idea to carry some spare food too – chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and jellies are all good choices.”
2. Hypothermia is dangerous but easily avoidable
“Put on an extra layer when you stop for a break and try to stay out of the wind,” advises Kavanagh. “If you or one of your party is cold the best remedy is to eat something sugary and get moving. Warm drinks are helpful, but to stay warm you must keep moving.”
3. Navigation skills are key
While there are a great range of well-marked walking routes across the country, if you are headed for the hills navigation skills are a must. As previously mentioned, the weather can be very unpredictable. One moment you might be able to see the path clearly, but the next you might find yourself enveloped in mist.
“Get a compass and an appropriate map for the area you’re walking in. Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) and Discovery Series are the national standard, but there are other good providers, for example EastWest Mapping for Dublin and Wicklow.
“Learn how to use your map and compass. Mobile phones with digital mapping and GPS are great, but phones don’t work if they get wet and GPS drains your battery, potentially leaving you without your phone when you need it.”
It is also really important to plan your route and identify a few escape routes should things go bad. You should also take into account the short days; it gets dark at 4.30pm in the depths of winter so aim for slightly shorter walks than you would in summer. And always pack a head torch just in case you do find yourself out after dark. It is also important to bring a fully charged mobile phone (pop it into a Ziploc bag to make sure it stays dry).
4. Don’t skip breakfast
“A four-hour hike can burn more than 1,500 calories,” says Kavanagh. “Have a substantial breakfast and bring lunch. Don’t forget the water, even in an Irish winter you can become dehydrated.”
5. Beware of river crossings
Kavanagh advises that you should be wary of river crossings when out and about. “Preferably cross a river where there is an adequate bridge. If your route crosses a river, it’s a good idea to plan escape routes in case the river becomes impassable. This can be a particular problem if you cross a river on your way out and on your return. Rivers can swell in size over a couple of hours, leaving you stranded on the wrong side.”
And if you do get into trouble…
If you find yourself needing assistance call 999 or 112 and ask for mountain rescue. Emergency calls (999/112) use any network available to your phone, not just the one you’re on, so you should be able to make an emergency call if your phone has no coverage. If you find that you’re still unable to make an emergency call, consider sending a member of your group to higher ground to pick up a better signal. You should be careful not to put anyone at risk by asking them to climb to higher ground.
GET THE GEAR
Silva Expedition 4, €39.99
The Silva Expedition 4 is used by defence forces across the world. It’s a full-size base-plate compass for experienced navigators.
Lowe Alpine Aleutian Gloves, €21.50
These warm and breathable fleece gloves have flip-over fingers and thumbs which creates a cosy mitten giving you the freedom to work a smartphone or take out a map without having to take them off.
Rab Kinetic Plus Jacket, €205
This super-lightweight waterproof shell is made from a stretchy material that not only keeps the rain out but also offers sublime comfort and high levels of breathability.
Exped Waterproof Dry Bag XL, €17.99
The Exped dry bag is light, durable and water tight, making sure your spare layers and other valuables remain intact inside your backpack.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Walking Poles, €150
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ walking poles are light weight, have comfortable grip, and a handy folding system.
All of gear mentioned in this article is available from the following retailers: Basecamp, Wild Side Sports, Adventure.ie, Great Outdoors, and Cotswold Outdoor.