We have all been there, be honest. You had to have started your hiking exploits somewhere. Some of you will have been lucky enough to be born and raised near the hills, others won’t have discovered them until later in life, but everyone is a beginner at some point in time. And beginners make mistakes, no-one is perfect! Here are the top 5 mistakes to avoid doing if you are just getting into hill walking.
1) Underestimating the Weather
The weather in all mountainous places and change very quickly. Like in 5 minutes, sometimes less. I’ve had it rain, snow and be sunny all at the same time. Everyone gets caught out once in a while. Mountainous areas are actually scientifically wetter than lowland areas, because the air temperature is generally cooler and the air pressure is lower, increasing the chances of rain or snow. It can make quite a marked difference, as much as. 6.5 degrees Celsius per 1,000 meters in elevation.
The times you get caught out though, at least in my experience, are the ones where the weather at home or at the foot of the hill is quiet, calm, warm, sunny (insert other innocuous weather type here). As you climb however, the weather gets harsher, wilder and before you know it, you are walking into sideways rain and 40mph gusts of wind. All the while, the people at the foot of the hill are basking away in relative comfort.
Always be prepared for any weather. There is no need to carry crampons or an ice axe in the middle of summer, but there will always be a need to carry warm and waterproof clothing on any visit to bag a Munro or lower hill, especially in Scotland.
2) Don’t know how to use a map
Some people that I have met on the hill don’t even carry a map. To me that’s crazy. Now it’s my opinion, so I’m not saying that this is the correct thing to do, but I believe that everyone that goes walking at altitude here in the UK should have some rudimentary map skills. The ability to find yourself and a safe route off the hill in an emergency should be the minimum requirements. In my opinion.
Navigation in Scotland, or any mountainous region can be really tricky in really bad weather. When the fog is down, or there is snow on the floor (or god forbid, both) good navigation is not only tricky, but can save your life. Keeping away from cornices or high risk avalanche areas and avoiding cliffs in the fog are just two examples of how good navigation skills have helped me personally when out hill walking.
A beginner hill walker is likely to be heading out with more experienced climbers as they start off (not everyone though) so this is a great way to learn ‘on the job’. If you are a lone walker, I would really suggest heading out with friends or joining a walking group or something so you have people to learn from. I was lucky enough to be trained in navigation by the army, so I was able to hold my own from the beginning, but for many, making sense of all the lines, squiggles and colours can be daunting. Even then, I will try and walk with others where I can to share the load of navigation and decision making.
There are loads of courses out there to help you with this, and some really good books. I like this one, as it is simple and clear and covers all the basic skills to help keep you safe on the hill. Investing in a good map cover and a good compass will pay you back over time and help you if you ever get into bother.
Try and learn navigation in the hills form more experienced people. Its far better than trying to learn online or in a classroom!
3) Wearing the wrong footwear
I have, hand on heart, seen someone climbing Snowden in high heels. No lies, I actually saw a lady, wearing high heeled shoes, climbing the highest mountain in Wales. Unbelievable. That is an extreme example, but your choice of footwear is not only going to help you climb and descend the hill safely, but also make you more comfortable. Breaking in your boots before you go climbing is also critical, boots can cause big blisters and other issues if your feet and boots don’t get on.
Footwear is a personal choice, I will always choose a boot when out walking. Some friends of mine prefer what I would call approach shoes on long walk-ins or on softer terrain. What is important here is that the correct footwear is worn, taking into account the persons preference and the terrain that you are going to be walking on. I would not want to be wearing anything that did not protect my ankles on the boulder fields at the top of Schiehallion, for example.
Break your boots in before a long walk. Take them around the block a few times at home, or wear them around the house for a few days before your walk.
4) Start walking too late in the day
Inexperience can lead to mis-judging the length of time it will take you to climb your target hills and complete your planned route. This means that you may start a little late and end up coming down the hill in the dark. In itself, this is not an issue, but if you have not prepared for this, not carrying a headtorch for example, you might run into trouble. Secondly, if you are running late, you may rush back, not taking the time required and make a navigational mistake or something, compounding the error.
When planning my walks, I use Naismith’s Rule to work our roughly how long it will take me. Naismith’s Rule states that you should allow 1 hour for every 5km walked plus an additional hour for every 600m in vertical ascent you gain whilst walking. For example, a 5km route, climbing 600m would take you 2 hours to complete. It does not account for delays, such as extended breaks for rest or sightseeing, or for navigational obstacles though, so remember to build those into your plan.
I know that on the flat, on good terrain, without a heavy pack, my natural walking speed is about 6km/hr (slightly quicker with no pack at all) but using Naismith’s Rule allows me to build in a greater tolerance for error, taking pictures and generally taking my time.
Remember to leave more than enough time to complete your chosen route. If you are not sure how long it will take, use Naismith’s Rule to give you a guide.
5) Being over-ambitious
Choosing your route and adequately preparing for your visit to the hills is really important. Without the right preparation, you run the risk of ruining your day out with something preventable. Check out my post on pre-walk preparation. One of those points is to choose a route and target hill that is within the abilities of you and those in your group.
There is nothing wrong with challenging yourself and other through the hills and routes you take; it is a challenging past time after all. However, if you choose a route that has those challenges and then the weather gets worse, you go of course or one of the many other things that can go wrong does goes wrong, you will quickly find yourself in a bit of a situation.
My suggestion is to be conservative in your route choice, allow enough time to complete your chose route and make sure that you and your group is properly prepared for the day. That way, if things do start to go wrong, it will be within your capacity to deal with it and make sure that everyone gets off the hill safely.
Take the time to prepare properly and understand your limits when selecting the hills or routes you will tackle. Consider teaming up with more experienced climbers or hiring a guide for those really tricky climbs.
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