Hill Top Tips

A few things I’ve learned on days out on the hills that I rarely hear from other outdoor folk.

Be bold start cold. You jump out of the warmth of the car, and hit the chilly air outside, and layer up too much: as soon as you start exerting yourself, particularly if ascending, you’ll be toasty warm then too hot, which leads to too much sweating and then damp base layers which once you stop for a break or reach the windswept top of the hill, are then a liability. Best to try and keep dry longer by starting off ‘cold’.

Be a quick switcher. A similar principle of putting on/off as conditions demand applies to waterproofs. None are as breathable as they make out (well, perhaps paramo which is too warm, bulky and heavy for most of the year if you’re a fast/light type). Don’t put them on until needed, and take them off once a shower has passed if there’s ongoing exertion which will make for sweaty underlayers.

Air your feet. On long days out, feet will inevitably get damp from either sweat or immersion, which can lead to blistering. At any stop of a reasonable time, I like to get my feet out of the boots/trainers to air (weather and company permitting!). Keep them drier longer. Having a spare dry pair of socks is worthwhile.

Snacks to hand. I always try and have a snack or two readily to hand i.e. reachable without stopping or taking off the rucksack. It’s easy to be in a hurry and push on with a tummy rumbling, and end up being under-fueled as you e.g. approach a tough climb. On really challenging days when fatigue can be a factor this is more important. I like rucksacks / garments with front chest pockets, and try and have both something to eat and drink there.

Camera to hand. I see lots of people that have their camera tucked away in their rucksack or otherwise out of reach. They miss out on many brilliant momentary photo opportunities: the sudden glint of sun through the trees, the unexpected wildlife crossing the path ahead, splashing through the ford on the bike. If you have to stop, unpack, rummage, shoot, repack, restart, you’ll soon not bother much. A camera in a front pocket or sling can be out, snap taken, and back in 10 seconds.

Other photography tips? With a group, plan ahead: when nearing a photo hotspot, perhaps head off the front to arrive early if you want a snap clear of folk. On cold days keep your spare battery (or the only one) somewhere warm, maybe an inner pocket, rather than beside the camera. Learn to use the timer for better selfies, or to include yourself in a group photo.

Planning planning planning: Repeated 3 times because I’m astounded how many folk do no investigation of the area they’re visiting beyond the basics of a route. Often, you’ve went to a fair effort to get somewhere, and might not be back there for a long time, if ever. Surely it makes sense to make the most of it: visiting the points of interest nearby – castles, waterfalls, viewpoints, monuments. Don’t presume that a 3rd party route takes in everything worth visiting.

Often the hidden gems will not lie on a lazily downloaded ‘walk highlands’ tourist route that’s generally the path of least resistance, and easiest ascent for the dull bagger masses.

Also, don’t presume a route description mentions hazards that are on it: scrambles, missing bridges, exposure.. is it up to date? Do some homework before you go.

Geograph.org.uk is a great web site that allows viewing photos of the terrain /paths, but also often has local knowledge about POI that may be slightly off the track. Use the grid navigator to move along the general area of the route, and see what folk have taken photos of. It’s by no means comprehensive but has thrown up lots of things I’d have otherwise never have seen. Google image search, instagram, flickr and the likes can also be useful: type in a place name and see what shows up.

Plan B Route planning goes further than that: is there a plan B for the likely conditions? What if the wind is extreme or the tops are deep in clag? Better to have had a look before you head off, far easier to use all the resources at home (big screen, internet, every map possible, large cup of tea) and work it out then rather than fumbling with a damp torn 50k map with little detail half way up a hill in a storm.

Timing For trips where time is critical, I like to have a few ‘timed’ waypoints, i.e. if I’ve kept to the planned pace, taking into account terrain and ascent, what time should I arrive at each – better to try and calculate these at home (can be tricky) and know early if the going gets tough, whether I’m falling behind schedule and may need to switch to a plan B, or turn back as the main target won’t be reachable in the time available. I record all my trips using a gps watch and have them in strava – I can refer back to these and see how long sections took previously.

Weather and ground conditions People in general know to get a mountain weather forecast from MWIS or Met office mountain forecasts. An additional source for the winter, which can often provide very recent evidence of snow cover, is social media: using a search for location or location as a hashtag (and then ignoring the results returned marked as ‘popular’ for the ‘recent’ ones) will often provide photos from recent visitors. Sure these are not ‘trusted’ sources, but it’s an extra data point you otherwise won’t have. More detail here. There is also the sentinel satellite footage map that provides a low resolution capture every few days (if there are no clouds).

Maps. The most common map I see on the hills, whether paper or digital, is the ubiquitous OS Landranger 1:50K. I find them good for planning the rough outline of a trip, particularly if longer-range e.g. on the bike, but once you head off-path or are navigating in difficult terrain, they’re shit, as they don’t have enough detail. Folk stick with them because they’re cheap or lazy: less maps. OS maps are of course large and heavy and making them waterproof is even worse. There are other options.

Printed or bought. I use a range of solutions: I print out A4 sheets of 1:25k from the OS online subscription (on water resistant paper if necessary), no folding and faffing, 20x lighter, and I’m happy to write and mark trip specific details on top. Harvey maps are compact and often have better information. Harvey superwalker xt25 are lighter and more waterproof, and their tiny xt40 are ultralight.

Other paths. It’s sometimes worth looking at a route in Openstreetmap (the source for viewranger and many other apps) as it often has paths that OS doesn’t, and if it’s not there you can add it in (I often contribute to it after visiting an area and logging paths on GPS).

Strava heatmap. Is a path used, does it exist, blocked, cyclable? Checking on strava heatmap (which shows an overlay of activity level on a map) will show the reality of whether people use it.

Visualise and calculate. The OS web app is brilliant for calculating distances and ascent (route creation use naismith’s rules to estimate time), and the 3d flythrough allows a useful visualisation of the lay of the land.

Mobile. In the mobile domain, an app that swaps between 1:50 and 1:25 as you zoom is brilliant (Backcountry Navigator). Trailforks is primarily a mountain biking app aimed at downhillers, but it has many trails not on any other map. Whichever app, learn to cache the maps for offline use. It can also be useful to cache some aerial photography in the area planned , though beware large download sizes – it’s an extra bit of information for route choice, finding camping spots etc. (I could have saved myself many a peat-hag trudge with a bit of aerial preview). It should be common sense to download any map tiles needed in advance, putting your phone in aeroplane mode to avoid draining the battery pointlessly scanning for weak or non-existent signal, taking a spare battery on long days, and keeping them warm on cold days, but I see few folk do these simple things.

Another useful web map to consult before heading out in the winter: SAIS – you can change the map to show historical records of recorded avalanches at the area required.

Water: It’s heavy so taking too much is an unnecessary load. A micro filter weighing 30g is far lighter, allows infinite supplies if the terrain allows (see planning above) and removes any doubt about water drinkability (there’s a huge amount of unscientific romantic bullshit spoken about Scotland’s supposedly ‘magically clean’ hill water, and no, just because water is running doesn’t make it safe). Although water from higher up is low-risk it’s not no-risk, there are deer up there shitting, dieing and decomposing. Here’s a test for the magic-water zealots: would you run your water through a container full of soil before drinking? That’s what the water in the streams has done: been soaking through soil for days if not weeks before in the last moment it enters a stream and heads off to the sea.

Arm warmers: I suffer from quite cold hands, and being a skinny type it’s not helped by thin wrists where the blood flowing to my hands can get cooled. I’ve a pair of merino arm warmers (designed for cycling primarily but useful running too) that I often scrunch up around my wrists, adding a bit of warmth there and can make a handy ‘glove’ pulled over the hands if necessary.

Space in bags. A bit of spare space in any bags used e.g. rucksack, tent sleeve, sleeping bag dry bag, is very useful when crap weather means you want to quickly stow stuff without worrying too much about rolling and packing perfectly. If your bag is full when packed in the comfort of home, then it’s going to be a struggle un/repacking on a steep slope in a gale.

Communication. If your trips are in areas where there’s minimal phone signal, then texting rather than phoning may be more successful, however the recipient might not get it immediately, there could be a long delay until there’s sufficient signal to send. It’s useful to put the time into the message (or voicemail) so there’s context to any action that needs to be taken. e.g. I’ve went on ahead, the rest of the party then send “Reached top 1245” I now know a likely time they’ll finish and what I can do in the meantime. Without any communication, or uncertain time context I may need to wait at the car unsure if they’ll be 10 minutes or a couple hours. In emergency or urgent scenarios this is even more important.