This article’s predecessor described an effective layering system for hiking. This time I will trace the thought process I go through before heading out; helping to ensure my mountain days are as productive and enjoyable as possible for all concerned.
Route... where? Mountain or moor? Coast or hill? The Lake District ranks highly but I’d almost as soon visit the superb Scottish Highlands, the stunning Snowdonia or even the moors and coasts of the West Country. We Brits are spoilt for choice so do your research, get excited and start planning your adventure.
OS Maps is an invaluable planning tool. A typical excursion is a ‘horseshoe’ walk looping around to finish where it started. Linear routes are useful for bagging many summits but the logistics of travelling to/from the start/finish require more consideration. Stay on paths initially, going off-path is great fun but involves terrain such as screes, scrambles and marshes that are far more technically challenging.
Difficulty... compare your adventure to your own abilities. Navigation is the prime difficulty encountered by fledgling walkers. Throughout the summer the Wasdale Head Inn sees a welcome horde of late-night walkers who’ve taken the wrong path off Scafell Pike. Those lucky enough not to injure themselves during the dark descent find themselves a long walk (or £80+ taxi ride) from their car in Seathwaite. Imagine being on your summit in close to zero visibility; could you find the right path down? If you can’t read contours, take a bearing using a compass and pace a distance book yourself on to a Learn to Navigate course.
Once you’re happy you can meet the navigational demands of the route consider the ascent and the distance. The sum difficulty of the route should be within your ability. Bear in mind a 5km/hr walking speed assumes a good level of mountain fitness so the initial timing OS Maps provides you with may not be accurate to you. I find most people are happy moving at around 3km/hr and then I factor in extra time for breaks.
Finally tell someone where you’re going and what time you’ll tell them you’re down safely.
Plan B... you bit off more than you could chew. It happens to all of us. Excitement has ridden roughshod over your rational faculties and you’ve only just come to realise today’s adventure was in fact a two day expedition. On reflection you’ll learn from the experience. Right now you need to get back asap.
You should already know where your escape routes are. Mardale Head or the Wasdale Skyline Circuit have multiple options for early and direct returns to the car park. Whereas the Kentmere or Fairfield Horseshoes only offer the choice to go back or keep going. Know your route and have a Plan B.
If rain is due to fall I personally always look at wind direction. If the weather is coming from the west the rain will fall predominantly on the western slopes of the western mountains. Place yourself in the Eastern Fells on some east-facing slopes and you’ll be making the best of bad luck. Sometimes this means getting a little bit less wet, but equally I’ve been walking in glorious sunshine looking at the view over Ullswater while Thirlmere (just over the hill to the west) was drowning.
Of all your outdoor kit I’d expect your rucksack to be your most long-term investment.
Buy one that fits, is durable, isn’t too heavy and you’ll have a piece of kit that’ll last for the next twenty years or more. If your rucksack doesn’t tick all these boxes expect to find yourself buying a new one far earlier than necessary when you’ve grown older and wiser. My first rucksack was a Crux AK47 (5*/5*) and is still going strong today.
Finally try the rucksack on in the shop before you buy. The waist strap should be tight around the top of your hips while the shoulder and chest straps remain a tad looser. This will ensure the weight stays near your hips keeping you balanced and sparing your shoulders no end of suffering.
Note: almost all rucksacks are marketed using the meaningless ‘water-resistant’ epithet. Unless they’re marketed as ‘waterproof’ you’ll need to keep the contents in drybags, or plastic bags if you feel like saving money.
WHAT TO PACK?
The key to the balance between a light rucksack and being prepared is in justifying each item you carry. Below I’ve provided my kit list along with my own justifications, and of course some completely impartial recommendations. and justified them.
Navigation... impossible without a map (either laminated or in a map case) and compass and impossible without knowing how to use them. Don’t rely on your phone instead as you probably won’t have signal. I also carry a simple Garmin GPS which will spit out a grid reference, can’t say I’ve ever used it outdoors, but as the technology is there why wouldn’t I take it as a precautionary measure for my groups?
Note: the all-important needle in your compass is affected by magnetic fields like, for example, those found in the speaker in your phone, or in a walkie-talkie, or even around batteries like those found in your head torch. I usually have my compass on a piece of elastic around my wrist which is then tucked into my sleeve, while the rest of the gear stays well away in my rucksack.
Emergency... start with one of the many pre-assembled First Aid Kits on the market (again, know how to use it). Supplement with a SAM Splint, some climbers’ fingertape and a waterproof pen and you can start to consider yourself prepared. A fully-charged phone (with a portable charger if out for more than one day) in a waterproof drybag is of equal importance. Before you go find out how to call Mountain Rescue and register with the 999 Text Service. Then check your signal intermittently while walking so if something happens you know where you need to go to call for help.
Night... darkness comes on quickly in the mountains, or rather sometimes your route takes longer than planned, so at some point after viewing a spectacular sunset you may find yourself with a long, dark walk back. I always carry two headtorches with the Petzl Myo (5*/5*) being the main choice and the Petzl Tikka 2+ (3.5*/5*) as back-up for either myself or someone in my group, oh… and spare batteries for each.
The remainder of your kit is all about dealing with the myriad difficulties (everything from the annoying to the outright painful) the outdoors will throw at you…
For cold or wet weather an additional windproof and insulated jacket, a hot drink in a thermos mug, hat and gloves and a group shelter. Mountain Rescue teams use these shelters to keep casualties warm but you’ll more commonly use yours to get some respite from the rain and wind while taking a break.
For hot weather 1.5 litres of water in a resilient bottle (Nalgene 5*/5*), sun cream and water purification tablets so you can get more drinkable water from outdoor sources if necessary.
For general comfort midge repellent, a blister stick, antibacterial hand gel, a tick remover, some painkillers and some tissue. Additionally as outdoor equipment always reaches the end of its life while you’re using it a small knife, cable ties and a needle and thread will do for impromptu repairs.
I keep almost all of the above in a cable organiser allowing me to see everything at a glance. This is then stored in a dry bag and always placed in the same part of my rucksack. Check your kit beforehand. Then afterward make it a habit to replenish supplies that were used.
The above might seem like a long list, and compared to others it may well be either excessive or minimal. Whenever anyone tells you to ‘go lighter’ or ‘be more prepared’ remember it is you who’s got to lug the rucksack up the mountain and it is you who’s got to deal with what happens while you’re there, as such it is your decision. I’ve made recommendations from my own years of trial and error, but from here the contents of your rucksack along with the consequences of not carrying something are entirely up to you.
IN SUMMARY: SIX QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF...
Where to go?
What’s my Plan B?
Am I carrying everything I need?
Remarkably simple questions. With practice this process can take less than half an hour yet in answering them you’ll dramatically improve your mountain experience. Our final tip? Don’t forget your lunch.
Fancy becoming more independent in the mountains? Go out with one of our qualified, experienced and enthusiastic Mountain Leaders. Take a look at our Experiences and Challenges page. Or alternately get in contact on the Bookings page. You can also like our Facebook page for regular updates on new articles.
All articles are written from a humble and deeply personal perspective. Where facts or recommendations are given these are taken from research and experience. We hope these articles help you in your quest to enjoy the mountains and that they portray our passion for what EA Mountain Skills does.