10 Tips on How to Keep Warm During Winter Hikes in UK
The winter is a spectacular season for hiking in the UK, with snow-capped hills and mountains and frozen waterfalls in our stunning landscape.
Getting out into the great outdoors is wonderful at any time of year, but it’s vital that you know how to keep warm during the cooler months to ensure you don’t risk hypothermia on your winter hikes in the UK.
Plus, you’ll enjoy it so much more if you aren’t freezing!
What is hypothermia?
This is when your body temperature gets below 35C, which doctors say is a dangerously low temperature.
There are three stages of hypothermia:
- Shivering and shaking and reduced circulation.
- A slow or a weak pulse, a lack of co-ordination, slowed breathing, confusion, slurred speech, irritability, and sleepiness.
- Slow or weak breathing or a lack of breathing and a lack of a pulse.
Hypothermia at any stage must be treated quickly, and the person affected will need prompt medical assistance. Anyone with them should try to warm them up gradually while waiting for help.
Where are the coldest winter temperatures in the UK?
In 2021, the coldest UK recent temperature was -23C, recorded at Braemar in Scotland. In fact, Scotland has average minimum temperatures of -2C during the winter and is the wettest place in the UK too.
In England, temperatures vary widely between the colder north and warmer south. In the north of England, average daily winter temperatures vary between 0C and 7C.
In Wales, the coldest recent temperature was -17.5C recorded in Powys in 2010, though Wales tends to have milder and wetter winters than the north of England, reaching -5C on colder days.
Northern Ireland also has milder winters than England though it does tend to have a good deal of winter rainfall. Average winter minimum temperatures are just above freezing.
So, as you can see, it gets a little chilly here in the British Isles!
Before you go on your winter hike, it’s important to do your research
Forewarned is forearmed! Always check the weather report for the area you’re walking.
If you’re walking in the hills, the Met Office has a useful mountain weather report for the main mountain ranges in the UK, including the Brecon Beacons, Cairngorms, Snowdonia, Peak District, Late District, and Mourne Mountains.
It warns you of potential hazards including poor visibility and gives the wind direction and speed. It gives the wind gust in miles per hour at different altitudes, too. Crucially, it will give you the temperature and the ‘feels like’ temperature which takes into account the wind chill. Watch out for the recent rainfall figures – they will help you know whether the ground is sodden.
For those walking in the Scottish mountains, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service gives warnings of the risk of avalanches.
Going on a long hike? Plan your route. Look for places along the way where you’ll be able to shelter, have your meals and drinks, and get warm for a while. For those combining a hike with winter camping, look for a sheltered place to make camp.
If you’ve never been to an area before, social media groups of local walkers are a useful place to ask questions and look out for any up-to-date local tips about where you’ll find a shelter or a bothy and any local rules about campfires.
Always tell someone your route and your expected timings. A friend or family member raising the alarm speedily could be the difference between you getting hypothermia or not if things go wrong.
Here are our top 10 tips for staying warm on winter hikes:
- Layer your clothes. The layers trap air between them and become warmed by your body heat. Typically, experienced hikers will use three layers or more during winter. Your thermal base layer should be of a moisture-wicking material to take perspiration away from your skin. Cotton doesn’t do this, so don’t wear cotton next to your skin. Choose merino wool or polyester instead. Make sure your base layer has long sleeves and covers your legs. Next, add a thin fleece for your upper mid layer and wear hiking trousers over your thermal leggings. Take a look at our guide to buying the right walking trousers. Add a lightweight down jacket over the top of your fleece. Your outer layer should be wind and waterproof as we never know what weather we’ll face in this country! Add a waterproof jacket and waterproof over trousers. Remember: If temperatures improve and it hots up, you can always remove a layer and stow it away in your rucksack. If temperatures plummet, you can’t add layers you don’t take with you.
- Choose the right footwear. Wear two pairs of thermal socks to trap the air around your feet and warm them up. This also helps to prevent blisters, so it’s a win-win! Choose thick leather walking boots for winter and ensure they have recently been waterproofed with dubbing and waterproof spray. There’s nothing worse than having to walk in soggy, cold socks and you can easily end up with blisters from that. You can also choose sheepskin-lined walking boots for added warmth. Always take a spare pair of warm socks for emergencies, like having to walk through a stream.
- Ensure you have thermal gloves and a thermal hat. You should also consider layering gloves, with a thin thermal touchscreen pair inside your thermal mittens. They will allow you to use your smartphone in an emergency without exposing your hands to the elements. Choose a hat that covers your ears and keeps your head warm as you walk. A lot of the body’s warmth is lost from the head.
- Take outdoor activity hand and foot warmers with you. They heat up quickly and will help ensure you don’t get frostbite in wintry conditions. You can buy six pairs of instant hand warmers for between £5 and £10, and five pairs of instant footwarmers for £5.
- Wear a face scarf. One of the quickest ways to get cold is by breathing in icy air, so cover your mouth and nose with a walker’s face or neck scarf. This is especially important if you have a respiratory condition like asthma. Choose a breathable merino wool tube scarf for a warm and comfortable hike. A tube scarf will allow you to pull it down easily to eat or drink.
- Take flasks of hot drinks and a food flask with you. Ensure you have enough to last you for the length of your hike, whether you prefer tea, coffee, hot chocolate, hot squash, or soup. A food flask will allow you to keep a hot meal warm as you walk, whether that’s macaroni cheese, cottage pie, or a curry. That’s your choice! Ensure your flasks have good thermal seals and won’t let you down while you’re out on the hills. Try them out before you go.
- Ensure you have the means to light a fire. Always keep matches, a flint, or a lighter with you in case you need to start a fire to keep warm. A little dry kindling would also be useful. Keep them in a drybag to ensure they will work.
- Take a lightweight portable camping stove on longer walks. This gives you the ability to boil water and make a fresh hot drink or a hot meal long after your flask has run out of tea. A lightweight Tranjia stove set won’t weigh your rucksack down too much but will enable you to cook and stay warm.
- Keep moving. Movement helps keep us warm as the body works and sweats, releasing heat along with the perspiration. Sitting down and staying in one place for too long stops that process and the sweat starts to cool, making you feel the cold more. Keep walking, even if you’re walking slowly. If you must stop, choose a sheltered spot out of the wind. Look for a hollow or shelter under trees to stay out of the cold breeze. Wind chill can make a -5C temperature feel like -10C, especially in the mountains.
- Take a thermal survival blanket. If something goes wrong or you need to stop for a while, a lightweight survival blanket will help you stay warm by retaining body heat and reducing wind chill. You can buy them from as little as £4 and having this blanket could save your life.
Other winter walking essentials
Trekking poles – The top accessory for any winter walker. They help you balance, negotiate tricky and slippery terrain, and they take the pressure off your knees while walking.
Over-boot crampons – Ideal for snowy and icy conditions. Crampons and ice cleats help you grip and keep your footing and can be bought from around £8.
Gaiters – They create a seal between your boots and trousers, helping to keep your feet dry and warm in wet and windy conditions.
Dry bags – It’s so important to keep your spare socks, phone, and any extra layers you pack dry. A rucksack cover helps, but dry bags for inside your backpack give you peace of mind.
A whistle and a mirror – If something goes wrong on your hike, you’ll need to raise the alarm. Short, sharp blasts on a whistle will help do that, and using a mirror to signal will help people spot you at a distance.
A walker’s rain poncho – We do tend to get torrential rain in British winters, don’t we? Even your outer waterproof layer might not be enough in heavy rainstorms. A lightweight rain poncho with a hood gives you an extra layer of protection.
A head torch with spare batteries – I gets dark early in winter, and walks can take longer than we planned, so take a head torch with a spare set of batteries. That will help light your way home.
A map, compass, and GPS – Walks in winter can suffer from poor visibility because of low cloud and driving rain, or snowstorms, and walkers can easily lose their way. It’s vital to be able to work out where you are and navigate your way home.
Plenty of food – You’ll be burning more calories on a cold winter walk than on a summer hike, so ensure you have enough food to keep you going.
Walking in winter can be a magical experience, but only if you know you can keep yourself warm and safe.
When you have the right gear, you know your route, and you’ve planned for everything…it’s time to lace up those walking boots, pull on your woolly hat, and get out into that beautiful winter landscape!