Category Archives: Beginners Series

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.
  4. Mountain-forecast.com
    • 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!

Best Hills for Beginners – Beginners Series, Part 3

The next part of the Beginners Series, is about selecting the right walk for your introduction to hiking. There are so many variables, so many hills and so many experiences to choose from. I touched a little bit on choosing the right hill and the right route for your skills in an earlier post, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t done so already.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the best hills for beginners to tackle. However, my earlier advice on doing your own research and deciding if the hill and route is right for you still stands. Similarly, whilst I can recommend these hills, a lot will depend on the day, the weather and the decisions you make on the day – don’t blame me if these hills are above your skill level!

All Scottish hills can have a sting in their tail, no matter their height or geography, so please always take a map, do your preparation, carry the appropriate kit and be sensible out on the hill. And remember, take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.

Kilsyth Hills – Tomtain and Garrel Hill – 453m and 459m

Tomtain on the left, Garrel Hill on the right

These two hills are a great walk for the beginner – two hills in one walk! My report of this walk can be found here. These hills are easily accessible as they are just to the north of Kilsyth and Cumbernauld, with good links to the M80 and M9. After parking up in a great view point, the walk has boggy bits, steep bits and the views are incredible.

For the beginner, this walk gives you a flavour of what Scottish Hill walking can be all in microcosm. And if there was ever a reason to fall in love with hiking in the Scottish mountains, the views here alone are good reason.

Arthurs Seat – Edinburgh – 251m

When you talk about accessibility, there is nowhere else on earth (as far as I am aware) that has an extinct volcano in the middle of the capital city! Having walked this hill many times, I can say that whilst there is not the remoteness factor that you get from some of the larger hills on this list, Arthurs Seat more than makes up for it with its unique character and location.

The views north in Fife and south into the Pentlands are excellent, as well as along the Firth of Forth. The best thing about this hill – in my humble opinion – is that you can climb it in an hour or so from a variety of start points, and grab a coffee on the way back into town. Where else can you do that? Perfect for hill walking beginners.

Dumyat – 451m

Dumyat has a place close to my heart. Located just off campus at the University of Stirling, where I did my degree, I spent many an afternoon exploring its slopes. Some of these can be quite steep, but if you start from the bottom of the well trodden path, the hill is quite friendly all told. The views into the heart of the Ochills and Ben Cleuch are brilliant, and looking south/east/west from the prominent view point is one of the best in Scotland.

A great hill for a beginner, a couple of hours up and down (or quicker depending on your route) is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Sclad Law – 579m

Credit: getlostmountaineering.co.uk

I walked this hill in conjunction with 9 others in the Pentlands – it was an epic day out, and a whole heap of fun. Beginners will like the broadness of the ridge leading to Scald Law, as well as the views across the Pentlands and its reservoirs. The going is not arduous, but as with all the hills on this list, its always good to be prepared for anything when tackling a walk in Scotland.

Ben Ledi – 879m

Ben Ledi is located near Callendar, making it very accessible to the majority of people living in the Central Belt. The usual route takes you from the carpark up a relatively well trodden path, rising through various levels of forest and trees to pop onto the ridge. A short walk over several false summits to the true summit and the memorial cross.

I’ve included it here as the path is quite easy to follow (when not covered in snow) and the terrain is really not too bad underfoot. It is quite high, and there is a lot of climbing to do (over 750m) for a hill that is not a Munro. Be prepared for some rough weather due to its altitude and for some reason every time I have been up there, its been super windy!

How to Pack a Rucksack – Beginners Series, Part 2

How to start Hillwalking – Beginners Series

Ok so if you are coming here directly, you need to go back and read my previous post on the things to consider when planning a hill day. You can click here to access that post. There we talked about the planning that goes into a hill day to ensure everyone in your group is as safe and enjoys the day as much as possible.


In this post, we will look at one of those points raised previously, how to pack a rucksack. It is important to pack your equipment, clothing and food for your hill day appropriately, to not only avoid potential injury, but also make it easy to find and grab the item you need when you need it. Having one side heavier than the other or the weight too high/low on your back is a quick way to hurt yourself. You could be carrying the bag for 12 hours+, so it’s worth getting it right. There is also nothing worse than beautifully packing a balanced bag, and then dragging everything out of it when you realise your waterproof jacket is at the bottom (trust me!).

A poorly packed rucksack starts with the rucksack itself. It’s about selecting the right bag for the day you anticipate. I have a range of packs which I choose from depending on what I am doing. I have three main packs that I use relatively regularly. First off, I have an old military patrol pack that I picked up when I was at university. It’s a rough, tough pack that has an internal capacity of 30 litres. The main body of the pack is one piece with 2 zipped pockets in the lid. There are also two zipped side pouches offering easier access to those urgently needed items (reference waterproof jacket above…). I use this pack when I am out for anything from an hour to about 6 hours, usually with the dog and I know the conditions mean I am going to get muddy. It’s great for slinging about and since the design hasn’t changed much from the 1980’s, it really is tried and tested. I love it.

30L Patrol Pack
30L Patrol Pack

It does have its downsides though. It’s not the most comfortable pack I own, and the low number of pockets offers little by way of flexibility in packing. You can pick up a similar pack here: link
The second bag that I use is a lighter weight day pack. It has an internal and external lid pocket, 2 side zipped pockets (not pouches like the patrol pack) drinks bottle holders, an internal drinks bladder sleeve, ice axe loops and padded straps. It’s a 25L pack. I’ve used this pack extensively on low and high level day walks in all weathers and seasons.

25L Day Pack
25L Day Pack

Things I like about this pack are it’s size, it’s perfect for me for anything up to a full day and I know I can carry it for that long, fully packed. I also like it’s fit, the padded straps and waist belt.
It does have its short comings too though, it is only 25L which in the dead of winter can be a squeeze. I also find that the lid zips have a tendency to lean meaning that whatever I put in the outer lid pocket needs to be separately waterproofed. You can buy a similar pack to mine here: link


Lastly, my largest pack. I have had this for years. It’s older than my oldest child and we have had many an adventure together. It’s a 55+5L pack, which enables me to do multi day or overnight trips. It’s set up quite similarly to the 25L pack, but bigger (obviously) and has the added separation of a 5L compartment at the bottom. I couldn’t find a good picture of this pack, so here’s one of me wearing it on the top of Ben Lawers:

Top of Ben Lawers
Top of Ben Lawers

That was a good day out that. Here is a link to where you can purchase a similar pack: link


Anyway, select the right type and size of bag for your planned trip. that way you won’t end up taking too much equipment or run out of space leaving vital items behind. Once you have done that, you can pack the relevant equipment into it. As a minimum I will always carry the following. In the depths of winter and the height of summer:
Map

Compass

Water bottles

Food

Waterproof Jacket

Fleece – here is a link to a review of the one that I use most regularly

Spare Socks

First Aid Kit

Head Torch (here is a link to my new Head Torch Review)

Spare batteries for Headtorch

Phone, Keys, Wallet, Cash (All bundled as one)

Woolly Hat

Thin gloves


I will then add specific items depending on my planned route, likely weather, terrain/conditions underfoot etc. This is things like gaitors, over trousers, ice axe, goggles, ski gloves etc. The list could potentially be endless.


There are thousands of resources online as to how you then go about putting the chosen equipment into the rucksack. Here are some of my favourites.


Winfields Outdoors

Much Better Adventures

The British Mountaineering Council


Once you have selected the bag, the right kit and packed the kit into the bag, you’re ready to rock. In the next in this series, I will be looking specifically at the kit I take with me on my mountain days and why I think you should consider them too. As always, comment below on the things you think I should have in my bag or missed from the article.

Thanks

Dave

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How to Start Hillwalking – Beginners Series, Part 1

How to start Hillwalking – Beginners Series

So you’re here to find out about hiking in Scotland from someone who’s had a fair few hill days, some big, some small. You’ve checked out a few walk reports, you’ve seen photos of the beautiful scenery that Scotland has to offer and you’re thinking about giving it a go. You’ve searched for “hillwalking for beginners” and ended up here. So, where do you begin? Here are my top tips for things to do before setting off into the wilderness on your first hill walk.


1) Do your research

For a hill fanatic like me, this isn’t as much of a chore as it sounds. As you grow to love the hills and wild places in Scotland, you’ll start looking forward to this part of the trip and even plan multiple trips all in advance! 

Research is key to any successful hill day, it allows you to consider all the variables from the comfort of home, so when you’re making decisions on the hill, you‘re prepared with the knowledge beforehand. 

First off, you need to consider and select which hill you are aiming to bag. You’ll need to think about the distance it is from home and your travel times, safe parking spaces if travelling by car, the abilities of those in your group and the sort of walk you are looking for. Do you want a close by afternoon in some low level hills, or are you looking for a monster day encompassing multiple high level summits? Does your group have the skills to tackle airy ridge walks or are they more suited to a path or track all the way to the top? 

Once you’ve selected your hill, the next thing you want to do is look at your route. Route selection is maybe the most important key to an enjoyable walk. You can look at walk reports from other walkers (like me!) or from another site such as walkhighlands.co.uk. There are literally thousands or reports on there for all manner of hills and walks to choose from. I’ve spent many an afternoon lost in others reports envisioning walking in their footsteps. They also have a handy grading system to help you select the right route for your skill level. 

Make sure you also check your maps to identify your chosen route and that the terrain and relief is something that you can handle. Map reading and the ability to relate what is on the paper to the ground is a key skill that every hill walker should have and practice regularly. There is no point packing a map and compass if you don’t know how to use them. You can get a great starter compass here.

Once you’ve selected your hill and your route, make sure you check the weather. Weather in Scotland is notoriously fickle, and even a weather forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service can sometimes be inaccurate. Saying that, these guys are the best in the business as far as I am concerned and my go to weather reports for all my walks. I’ve explored weather forecasts in another post for you to look at.

With regards to the weather, it is the biggest unpredictable factor in your day. If you select the right hill and consider the time it will take to cross the terrain, the only thing stopping you are the conditions in which you’re walking. Even the simplest route can be turned into a nightmare with the Scottish weather. I’ve experienced snow in August, whiteouts, gales, rain travelling uphill, freezing fog and temperature inversions. Just to mention a few of the less normal conditions that I have faced. Knowing what the weather is likely to do in advance allows you to pack the right kit and prepare yourself mentally for what you are letting yourself in for!

2) Pack your kit in advance

Once you have done your research, you can begin to pack your kit. I plan to do several posts about bags, packing and equipment, so I will cover the detail there. However, you’ll need to consider things like your clothing, how much water you will want to carry, food, first aid, navigation tools and any special equipment you might need for example. 

If you can get the main parts of your bag packed the night before you depart, it takes away a lot of the difficulties on your hill day. In my experience, making decisions about what clothing is most appropriate at 4am when you get up is not the right time to be making that call. You will inevitably forget a critical item that you will be desperate for later in the day. 

3) Plan your travel to and from the hill

Now you are pretty much ready to go, how are you going to get there? Many of the hills in Scotland are quite remote and for many the easiest way to get to the foot of the hill is going to be by car. Try and use public transport wherever possible to reduce the number of vehicles going to these remote places, but sometimes a car is the best way. Plan your route, know where you are going to park and how best to get to that point. How will you recognise that point in the dark? Is your walk a loop back to the start or do you need to consider another method of transport back to your car once you are off the hill? 

You will also figure out what time you will need to leave. My preference is to leave and walk early, so that if anything goes amiss during the day, I am not chasing the light towards the end of the day when I am tired and prone to making mistakes. That normally means an early start, which suits me anyway. 

You should also be able to make a rough guess at what time you’ll get back. It is important to leave your time of departure, arrival and return back to the car with someone who is not coming on the walk. Also tell them where you are going, your planned route and what time you will check in with them if you have phone signal. In the case that something goes wrong or you suffer an injury on the hill, you want someone to send the cavalry to come and get you. If no one knows where you are and that you are running late, getting the attention of someone who can help you could be much more difficult. 

Overall, the more you research and plan, the more enjoyable a day you will have. The biggest factor though is the better prepared you are, the safer you and your walking partners will be. 

Thanks for reading, please leave a comment below if you think that there is anything that I have missed, or if this has been helpful for you planning your first hike in Scotland. Let me know how it goes! To read the next part of the Beginners Series, click here for more information on how to pack your rucksack.

Thanks

Dave

  This page contains affiliate links to products. I may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, at no additional cost to you.