How to Check the Weather in the UK Mountains – Beginners Series, Part 4

Checking the weather should be a key part of your preparation for walking in mountainous areas in the UK. It is so simple to do and will make a huge difference to your enjoyment of the day out and potentially even save your life. We are going to look at why a good knowledge of the weather is so important, what types of weather to look out for and where you can access this sort of information before you go hiking.

Why is weather forecasting so important?

As anyone that lives or has travelled in the UK will tell you, the weather here is changeable all year. This is especially true in the hills and mountains in all areas. The weather in these areas is just as changeable, but more extreme. The weather forecast could affect your choice of clothing, what you pack, which hill you choose to attempt and even whether you even attempt the hill in the first place. It will allow you to assess whether your skills are up to the task. Can you navigate along a ridge line with snow lying and low level cloud? If not, the weather forecast showing low cloud and freezing temperatures on your target hill should make you reconsider.

Knowing what the weather is likely to do (as the forecasters sometimes get it wrong) might be the difference between taking an ice axe and not. If you don’t check and don’t take one, what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you need it? Things start becoming dangerous quite quickly. Let’s say the weather at home is beautiful, sunny and cool. You pack loads of water, sun cream and a hat expecting it to be a calm day; anticipating getting warm whilst you climb, you even put shorts on. The weather on the hills could conceivably be 15 degrees colder, windy and wet. You will quickly get cold, wet, miserable and possibly even hypothermic. I speak a bit more about preparing for your days in the hills in a previous post, which you can go back and read.

Checking the weather during your planning phase is incredibly important. Along with my route selection, checking the weather is what I spend the most time worrying over whilst planning a day out in the hills. It will also help you prepare mentally for what is to come, a 2 hour hike into the wind just to get back to the car would be good to know about in advance, for example.

What sort of information should I look at on a forecast?

Depending on where you get your forecast, it will contain different types and pieces of information. There are however several different pieces of key information that I want to know whilst planning my trip.

  • Rain – I am looking for the amount of rain (usually given in mm) due for the time I expect to the on the hill, any estimated start and finish times and how frequent any showers might be
  • Snow – similar to the above, but if I see snow in the forecast, I am going to look further into how much snow is lying and what the weather has been doing in my target area over the past couple of weeks. I will also check the avalanche forecast for the area if I see snow in the area forecast.
  • Daylight hours – pretty self explanatory. Even if you are planning a sunrise summit, or summit camp, I still want to know what the sun up/down times are.
  • Wind – the two factors that I am looking at here are direction and strength. Will I be walking into the wind on the way up the hill? Is the wind going to buffet me and gust so I find it hard to stand up? If so, should I look at a lower level walk that’s a bit safer?
  • Temperature – a key part of planning what to pack and bring with me, knowing the general temperature will help you adjust your packing and water strategy accordingly. I am also going to look for the freezing level, so that I know when to roughly expect to reach frozen ground and when I might need to consider spikes/crampons/ice axe.
  • Cloud Cover – most importantly I want to know if I am going to get a view! I want to know the level of the cloud so that I know if I am going to walking in clouds, might I be faced with a whiteout, can I handle several hours in the mist and murk?

Taking all of this into account will help me understand and prepare for a day on the hills, so that as little as possible will surprise me.

What sorts of weather are dangerous or should I avoid as a beginner?

Any type of weather can be dangerous if you are not prepared properly. That’s why I keep going back to the planning and preparation of hill walking. Its so important. An autumn day when you are unprepared is just as dangerous as deep midwinter if you don’t have the right equipment or haven’t planned properly. For me, the one type of weather that I will not walk in is a lightening storm. It usually comes with rain and a lack of views anyway, but add on the fact that if the clouds are low, you are essentially walking into a charged cloud. Not high on my list of things to do.

Lightning Strike

Whiteout conditions are also incredibly dangerous. This occurs when there is ice or snow lying on the floor and the falling snow and clouds are of a similar colour. It can be very easy to become disorientated and lose you way. It is also incredibly difficult to re-orientate yourself as there are so few reference points in a whiteout. People regularly get lost in whiteouts every year in the UK, so whilst it might sound like a rare thing, it happens all too often.

Mountain White Out

The other conditions I try to avoid are heavy snow fall, particularly if it is not really cold or there is a high risk of avalanche in the area that I am considering. Now, snow in and of itself wont put me off, but it would probably make me reconsider the hill I was targeting. With so many hills and places to explore, why would I choose one with a high chance of avalanche when I can go to another place with a much lower risk?

Where will I find this information?

Here are 5 resources that I use when planning a trip out to the hills. I use them interchangeably or concurrently, depending on what information I need at the time.

  1. General Weather App
    • These are good for understanding the weather in the general vicinity of the hills you are planning to bag.
    • Remember though that they are weather forecasts for the base of the hill, not the hill, summit or any valleys or glens you pass through.
    • Personally I would never base a trip on these forecasts alone, always in conjunction with other sources as there is not enough detail for the weather you are likely to face in the hills.
  2. Met Office
    • A useful tool looking at the various mountain areas across the UK, its located in the specialist forecast section of the website.
    • Includes loads of really useful details, and even has a hazard warning section notifying you of anything that you need to be aware of in the area.
    • You can access this service on the Met Office website.
  3. MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service)
    • This is a great resource that I check every time I head out. It gives a detailed forecast for the next three days by mountain area in the UK.
    • You can access this service on the MWIS website.
    • The mountain area can sometimes be a little hard to figure out exactly where you are or if your plan is on the edge of the forecast area. However, the forecasts are based on researchers and on the ground stations, rather than solely weather maps, so is a little more reliable in my opinion.
    • This is an incredibly detailed site, that allows you specify the actual hill you are looking to bag and find out the forecast weather. You can really get into a lot of detail here, looking at the weather in 8 hour blocks, temperature graphs and freezing points. Its a brilliant tool.
    • You can access this service on the Mountain Forecast website.
    • There is sometimes an information overload with this site, but generally all the information contained within its pages is useful in some capacity.
  5. SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service)
    • If there is snow lying, I’ll always be sure to check SAIS. Avalanche forecasts are available for other countries in the UK from the met office.
    • SAIS publish regular (daily) avalanche forecasts throughout the winter months, usually until about May time when the worst of the snow has gone from the high peaks.
    • You can access this service here.
    • SAIS only covers the main avalanche areas in Scotland, no use if you are going to Wales/England/NI or anywhere that is not covered by the forecast!

As always, prepare well, stay safe and check the weather forecast!

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