Hillwalking A to Z of equipment and skills

Posted by Alex Messenger on 04/04/1999

Hillwalking is an activity that takes the walker away from the confinements of the lowland track and up onto the higher moors and mountains. A day could include considerable ascent and descent, possibly way off well trodden paths. As such, Hillwalking requires a degree of self sufficiency both in terms of equipment carried and of skills learned.

It is about being out in the hills, not just about bagging summits, traversing a remote pass or crossing a wild moor or even walking some of the remote Scottish coastline is just as much part of this wild game.

A is for Avalanches
Which can and do occur in the British hills. Being able to make a judgement as to whether or not a slope may avalanche is a key winter skill and until experienced and confident it is wise to be very cautious about crossing snow-laden slopes.

B is for Boots
Uncomfortable boots give miserable days. Comfort is the key, and decide whether you need a light summer boot, a winter boot or an all rounder. A very high proportion of accidents in the hills are due to the simple slip so it is important to choose a boot with a sole that is designed for the job , (see page 18). Take time and shop around. Try the boots on with your own socks. A good fit will give you room around the toes whilst holding the heel so that it doesn’t lift too much. Having bought the boots go for short walks before embarking on the ‘big one’. This will soften up the boot and make you aware of any rub points and the best socks to fit. At the end of the day your boots will be damp, allow them to dry slowly and don’t be tempted to put them too close to the fire.

C is for Compass
For most navigational needs the most basic compass is perfectly adequate, it really is a case of ‘ it’s not what you’ve got it’s how you use it’.

D is for Dodgy stomach
In theory running water without farm or habitation up stream should be fine, but in recent years pathogens such as giardia have been on the increase. This is probably due to wild camping and poor waste management. Be on your guard, boil the water (10minutes) or use Iodine tablets.

E is for Eating
The amount of food and drink required by the body will vary tremendously depending on conditions and the distance and terrain walked. On a warm day you can get away with a small amount of food but will suffer if you skimp on the drink. But on a cold winters day you’ll need a good quantity of food and drink just to keep warm. Have an emergency bar or two tucked out of the way ‘just in case’, and don’t get overly technical about calorie intake and balanced diets unless you plan to be on the go for weeks, pick the snack food that you enjoy.

F is for Faeces
In some popular areas build up of human waste is a real problem and there is an increasing onus on walkers to bag up and carry out their waste. But in most cases the most practicable way to dispose of human waste is to bury it in a sensible place - use a trowel to dig a hole far as possible from water and down stream from your own and other likely camp sites. If using paper then carry it out or burn if there is no fire hazard.

G is for GPS
A modern aid that can provide a lot of useful information but it is important to remember that it does not replace navigation skills. To use one effectively you must already be able to accurately interpret a map and navigate with a compass. A GPS without a map and compass is of little use in the hills, nor is one where the batteries have run down.

H is for Headtorch and fresh battery
Because you just never know.

I is for Insect repellent
Despite its diminutive size, the Scottish midge is one of the most vicious creatures on earth, making strong repellent an essential in the summer season. DEET is highly effective but powerful and potentially harmful. Use with care and keep away from children. Good alternatives to DEET exist, experiment to find what works for you.

J is for Jacket
Big enough to get plenty of layers under but with a waist drawcord to stop it flapping around. Look for a map pocket, stiffened hood which gives good visibility when up, but which can be fixed out of the way when not in use, and good closure at the wrist

K is for Karma.
Be nice to people.

L is for To layer or not to layer
The much vaunted layering system uses a number of layers (typically thermal, fleece/pile, duvet, windproof) which can be added or discarded depending on the temperature and conditions. The system gives flexibility and can cope with the coldest conditions. Alternatively use the single layer system pioneered by Buffalo, where an insulating fibre pile is combined with a pertex windproof shell to give a single garment. Worn next to the skin, this keeps you warm by wicking moisture away from the body as quickly as possible whilst relying on good ventilation to cool the body in hot conditions. The system has many devotees and is cheaper and than the layering system. Its weakness is perhaps at the extremes of the temperature range.

M is for Mobile phones
Using a phone to ask for directions, ask for additional food and clothing to be brought to the user, or to ask to be rescued for a non life threatening or disabling injury, is considered as an abuse of the technology, and could severely limit the ability of mountain rescue teams to respond to genuine emergencies. The mobile should not distort the essential principle of self-reliance. The hills offer the opportunity to be alone and fully dependent on your own abilities. If you would not go out without the mobile, then you should seriously consider whether you are doing the right thing.

N is for navigation, including route planning
Anyone venturing into the hills should be able to find their way around with confidence. Maps provide the key to being able to develop the skills of a competent mountain navigator, and with a compass the combination should enable a walker to be in control of their destiny in the mountains.

P is for Pub
Handy places really.

R is for Rucksack
For a day walk a 30-40litre sack is quite adequate and need not be overly complex, A sack for multi day use is likely to be 60-75 litres in capacity and should fit your back well. A good sack will be water resistant, have accessible, but discrete pockets, have compression straps, have a sturdy hard wearing construction with solid zips, and have a padded back, ideally ribbed or featured to circulate air.

S is for Serious Sunburn
By means likely on a summers day in the high hills. For most sunny days a waterproof sunscreen with a SPF of 10 or more, plus lip-salve for the lips, would is appropriate. Always remember that in a cooling wind the effects of the sun are easily underestimated.

T is for Trekking Poles
Increasingly common these are a variation on ski poles and serve to reduce impact on the knees and improve balance. Particularly useful when carrying a heavy sack, but like all other equipment, require thought as to how best they can enhance your mountain day. Too short and they do not provide support, too long and they can trip you up….

W is for Winter Conditions
Available on the British hills all year round. Accidents in autumn and spring are common where walkers, equipped for a summer hike, meet snow or ice on the ground and/or get caught in blizzards. Winter mountaineering requires additional skills such as self arrest, avalanche and cornice awareness, crampon movement skills and very accurate navigation.

X is for extremely hazardous steep grass slopes
The most common cause of serious accident in the mountains of the UK is a simple slip. When involved in technical and demanding mountain walking, it is usual to be very focused on the challenges at hand, but when on easier ground it is tempting to relax and lose concentration. Steep grass slopes can be extremely hazardous – not only in wet conditions, but also when the grass is long and dry.

Y is for Yetis
Perhaps also extremely hazardous, but definitely less common on say, Kinder. Then again....

Z is for……
Answers on a postcard?

A useful introduction to anyone new to these activities is to be found here.


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Looking after number one
Looking after number one

One of the joys of going into the hills for a day is the freedom to tramp around where it pleases me, to make the route longer or shorter, make it up as I go along and get back home when it suits me. The thought of leaving a route plan somewhere safe so that I can be rescued if I don't show up on time leaves me cold.
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Natural lines
Natural lines

Breaking out of the circular rut with linear walks using public transport.
Read more »

Looking after number one

One of the joys of going into the hills for a day is the freedom to tramp around where it pleases me, to make the route longer or shorter, make it up as I go along and get back home when it suits me. The thought of leaving a route plan somewhere safe so that I can be rescued if I don't show up on time leaves me cold.
Read more »

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