12 Must-Pack Items For Winter Mountaineering

What to take with you for a day out on the hill can be a tricky decision, and definitely gets trickier as you head out in winter and at higher altitudes. You’ve got to strike the right balance between bringing enough equipment to make your time safe and enjoyable, but not packing every piece of kit you own until your pack bursts at the seams.


Here’s some tips and advice to get you thinking about what essential items you need to pack and why. For more information check our guide to mountaineering clothes and hardware.

1. Rucksack

Usually a little larger than your average summer day sack, winter packs need the additional space to hold the bulkier kit necessary for winter assents; so something around 45lts is usually enough for a day on the hill. For safety and comfort it is vital that the pack fits you correctly, with hip and sternum straps that distribute and stabilise the load. You may find that winter mountaineering packs are a simpler design as this minimises the amount of zips and buckles that can freeze and fail. Also, think about the size and accessibility of the buckles as you will probably be wearing gloves and therefore have limited dexterity.


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2. Synthetic Outer

Synthetic insulation makes for a great mid layer, but some synthetic jackets are also designed to be worn over a waterproof jacket when stationary. These trap lots of warm air and stop you from getting chilled during rests or at a belay station. It must be a synthetic jacket rather than a standard down, as synthetics can get wet and still keep you warm. When on the move the jacket is stuffed back into your bag, even if wet; at the next stop the jacket is removed and worn over your waterproof once more.


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3. Dry Bags

When the weather is against you it often feels like, no matter what you do, some water will inevitably creep into your rucksack. Some choose to use a rucksack liner to protect the entire contents of the pack, whilst others prefer to have many, smaller dry bags. Colour coded for convenience, dry bags enable you to rummage around and locate specific items whilst keeping everything else in the rucksack nice and dry; no matter how much snow or rain is blown in.


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4. First Aid Kit

Whether its falling ice, loose rock or slippery ground; the mountains can be a dangerous place. It is therefore highly advisable that you take, and know how to use, a first aid kit. Even the simplest piece of first aid can be crucial, and modern kits are light and very effective. The BMC and their associated partners run many winter mountaineering courses. For more information on how to stay safe in the winter hills read our article; Skills in the Winter Hills, with Heather Morning from the MCofS.


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5. Torch

When heading out into the mountains during winter it is important to get an early start to ensure you make the most of the limited daylight. However, you also need to be prepared for delays and ready for an early sunset. Head torches are a brilliant choice as they free your hands on tricky traverses and broken ground, but for many, a bright, handheld torch is fine. Just make sure to check the batteries before you leave.Head torches are a brilliant choice as they free your hands on tricky traverses and broken ground, but for many, a bright, handheld torch is fine. Just make sure to check the batteries before you leave.


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6. Food

Nothing works up an appetite like a long, cold day out in the hills and you should eat enough food to keep up your core temperature, energy and concentration. Many choose to bring a good variety of sugary snacks and more substantial carbohydrates and proteins. There is also a large range of high energy foods specifically created to help overall sporting performance. For more information, check out our guide to energy and hydration.


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7. Water

It is essential to remain hydrated when exercising. Make sure you have a water bottle in an accessible part of your pack and drink a little and often to remain hydrated. Bladder packs are useful as the hose keeps water constantly at hand, however in really cold conditions they have been known to freeze. If you like to have a warm drink, you can bring a small thermos for an additional treat; tea or coffee for a caffeine boost or maybe hot ginger, which apparently helps circulation.


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8. Compass, Map & GPS

Whether you have fully embraced the technological age of the GPS or are proudly standing by your more traditional map reading skills, one thing that is vital on the hills in winter is a firm understanding of navigation. Maps and compasses are a must, but if you want the added security and certainty provided by a GPS unit than a working knowledge of these devices can be a brilliant additional skill. You can read more about navigation by going to our Silva, 1-2-3 Navigation  tips page.


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9. Emergency Shelter

Getting caught out in bad weather does not have to be a problem, as long as you are prepared. Obviously the weather forecast should be consulted beforehand, but if a passing patch happens to stop you in your tracks then bunkering down in a group shelter is a great way to keep up morale, stay warm and sit it out. They are so small and light, you only really need one per group. They also make great rest stops for a more enjoyable lunch in less than idyllic weather.


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10. Spare Hats And Gloves

Almost always guaranteed to get wet, misplaced or blown away, the British mountains in winter go through gloves at an alarming rate. Waterproof membranes such as GORE-TEX® can help to keep your hands dry, but in order to be completely safe it is important that you keep a spare pair, or two, in your rucksack. Hats too are likely to get wet or lost, and a dry hat at the right time can make a huge difference to your day.


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11. Emergency Whistle

Like the first aid kit, an emergency whistle is one of those pieces of equipment that you take out in the hope that you will never have to use it. However, for such a small and unobtrusive object, they can make a huge difference to your safety. In poor visibility they are perfect for helping a rescue team or group member pin down your location.


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12. Mobile Phone & Dry Bag

Fortunately the mountains are still a place of relative technological isolation, but this does not mean that there is no place for a mobile phone. Kept secure in a waterproof case, a phone can be the best and quickest way to call for assistance in an emergency. Signal may be patchy, but a walk to some higher ground or an exposed ridge can often give you enough signal to call for help.


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