Heading for the hills? Here’s what to wear and carry
First, a little admission: you don’t actually need a lot of kit to go hiking. That makes it one of the cheapest and most accessible outdoor activities. But by layering up in suitable outdoor clothing rather than just heading out in jeans and trainers, you can make a hike much more comfortable and therefore more enjoyable. Similarly, if you’re planning to venture into remote or upland areas (i.e. the sorts of places without decent roads or phone signal to rely on if you get in trouble), it’s good sense to carry a few bits of additional kit to help you stay safe. It might be the difference between ending your day happily ensconced in a local pub rather than being airlifted out of a crag by the local Mountain Rescue helicopter.
What to wear
This next-to-skin layer boosts warmth and wicks away sweat to help keep you warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and as dry as possible at all times. Whether to go long-sleeved or short-sleeved is down to personal preference, as is whether you wear a synthetic or merino wool layer (or even a technical layer that is a blend of the two). Merino is usually warmer and tends to smell less, though synthetic layers are improving in performance all the time. Layers with a stand-up collar can help to protect the back of the neck from sun or windchill, and a chest zip can also aid cooling. Thumb loops are useful in eliminating draughty gaps between sleeves and gloves.
The most common midlayer is a polyester fleece, which is light, warm, soft and quick-drying as it doesn’t absorb much moisture. One drawback of regular fleece is that it is not windproof, which is one reason why alternative midlayers have become increasingly popular. This includes ‘hard face’ fleeces with a durable, windproof outer, as well as ‘active insulation’ pieces and hybrid garments, which are made from a combination of fabrics. These are designed to be as warm as fleece but lighter and more breathable.
In cold conditions, you can take an insulated jacket as an additional warm layer, that can be worn instead of or in addition to a midlayer. Your insulated layer is typically either a down jacket for maximum warmth or a synthetic insulated jacket that will continue to insulate even if it gets wet. It’s almost always a useful spare layer to carry in the hills too.
Outer layer or shell
This is an outer layer – usually a waterproof jacket or ‘hard shell’. If you’re fairly confident it isn’t going to rain, you might wear a soft shell jacket as an outer layer rather than a full-on waterproof. A soft shell is a breathable, weather-resistant (but usually not 100% waterproof) jacket, built for comfort and flexibility. If you’re completely sure it’s going to stay dry, you might just take a light windproof jacket or pullover as an outer layer. Needless to say, in Britain, most people take a waterproof…
For most conditions, the best option will be a pair of lightweight hiking trousers (or pants, if you prefer), made from a quick-drying fabric. They should be comfortable, with plenty of stretch and/or a tailored cut that permits freedom of movement.
Overtrousers or rain pants
Waterproof trousers that you pull on over your walking trousers if the heavens open. Look for a pair with a long leg zip so you can get them on and off easily, and which you can also use as vents if you’re struggling uphill in wet weather.
Often overlooked in terms of importance, in my experience decent walking socks are almost as important as your footwear in avoiding blisters and hot spots. Hiking socks are designed to offer cushioning in key areas and are made from wicking fibres to move moisture away from your skin and help prevent sweaty feet. Different ‘weights’ (thicknesses) of walking sock are available for different conditions and seasons. Many walkers opt to wear a pair of thin liner socks under a thicker outer pair.
Boots or trail shoes
Whether you opt for trail shoes or hiking boots, make sure they fit well – that factor, more than anything else, is the key to comfort. After that, features like cushioning, stiffness, waterproofing, traction, protection and support are all important.
Not everyone wears them or packs them, but gaiters are useful for boggy terrain and very muddy conditions. The ideal pair of gaiters are lightweight but robust, breathable, easy to fit and should form a good seal between your boots and trousers, to stop water soaking your feet.
Woolly hat or beanie
Always take a beanie in the hills. Temperature drops as you gain altitude, so your ears will appreciate it.
Because there’s nothing worse or more debilitating than cold hands. Take a thin liner pair and, in cold weather, a thicker (ideally waterproof) pair.
What to carry
Most walkers tend to carry a pack with a capacity of 20 to 35 litres. For winter hillwalking, you’ll generally need a pack of around 45 litres to accommodate extra kit.
Use a rucksack liner to keep your kit dry. You can buy roll-top dry bags in many different sizes from any good outdoor shop. If you’re on a budget, rubble sacks are a good substitute. These are basically heavy-duty polythene bags, and can be purchased from most DIY stores.
Not essential, but will help prevent a cold, wet and muddy bum if you want to sit down whenever you stop to rest and get some food down.
Most British walkers use the Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25,000 Explorer series, although Harvey maps are also a practical alternative, particularly if walking in upland areas. Scottish walkers often seem to use OS Landranger 1:50,000 maps, which give broader coverage per sheet. Buy weatherproof versions – much easier than carrying an old-school map case.
Always a sensible thing to carry, and essential if walking in remote areas. Silva and Suunto are the best-known manufacturers of trusty and reliable baseplate compasses.
I don’t often see walkers with guidebooks in the hills, but a well-written guidebook can make a real difference to the quality of your walk. I never head to the Lakes without a Wainwright in my pack.
First aid kit
A wide range of outdoor first aid kits are available – the best ones come in a waterproof pouch and include a range of sterile dressings and bandages. If you make up your own first aid kit, place it in a zip-lock bag to ensure that the contents don’t get wet.
A head torch is more practical than a hand-held flashlight, and is useful if a walk finishes in the dark. It can also be a useful signalling device in emergencies. Always carry spare batteries.
As outdoor instructors and mountain rescue teams always tell you, this is the easiest way of attracting attention in an emergency, as a whistle carries much further than the human voice. Many rucksacks now incorporate a safety whistle as part of the chest strap buckle.
Survival bag or storm shelter
Carry a survival bag in case of emergency. Alternatively, a storm shelter (sometimes known as a ‘bothy bag’) is another good addition to your pack, and not just for emergencies – they can also be used for lunch stops in poor weather.
Water bottle or hydration bladder
Take a water bottle of at least 1 litre in capacity. Many walkers use hydration bladders. These have integrated drinking tubes that work with most modern rucksack designs, and make it easier to stay hydrated during active walks.
Take a mix of slow-release carbs for day-long energy, and fast-release food for a quick energy boost. Pack a little more food than you need in case of emergency.
Small repair kit
Items such as safety pins, duct tape and a spare boot lace or length of paracord can be useful for making emergency repairs to clothing and rucksacks, or for replacing a frayed lace.
Although signal in remote areas can be patchy, it’s still wise to carry a fully charged mobile phone, particularly if you have registered it with the emergency SMS service. If your phone doubles as your GPS, consider taking a portable battery charger and your phone charging cable.
If you have one, by all means take it on your walk, but never rely solely on GPS as an alternative to a map and compass. You may want to take spare batteries or a portable battery charger and cable, as above.
It’s a good idea to keep your phone and valuables in a waterproof pouch, particularly if carrying them in a jacket pocket. Aquapac is the best known manufacturer of waterproof cases for electronic devices.
Many walkers use trekking poles to reduce the impact of walking on their joints. Almost all poles are best used in pairs, and are of either telescoping or folding design. Most rucksacks also have attachment points for stashing your sticks when you’re not using them.
Nothing ruins a walk like wet feet, so carrying a spare pair is a good idea.
A more practical alternative for hiking than a scarf, a neck gaiter or Buff offers extra protection from wind chill for the neck and lower face.
Factor 25 or higher offers the best protection from UV rays.
Offers protection from midges, mosquitoes and other biting insects, which can make walking a misery.
A wide-brimmed hat or a baseball cap can help to prevent sunstroke.
Good-quality sunglasses can protect your vision by blocking UVA and UVB light. Look for sunglasses labelled as ‘UV400’.
A double-walled metal vacuum flask is the best way to keep tea, coffee or hot chocolate warm throughout a long walk, while being robust enough to carry in your pack.
For winter hillwalking, an ice axe is often essential – but make sure you know how to use it. If not needed initially, use the attachment points on your pack to stow safely. Drop the shaft through the loop, adze facing away from the pack, and then secure the shaft to the pack using the top bungee cord or webbing of the pack, so that the lower loop wraps securely around the head of the axe, and the pick cannot catch on anything.
Another winter hillwalking essential in icy conditions. Use crampon crowns or, better still, a crampon bag/safe to enable you to store your crampons inside your pack. Strapping them to the outside may make you look badass, but it’s not very practical.
Thick waterproof gloves are a vital bit of kit in winter conditions. I wear a pair of thin liner gloves (with e-tip fingers so you can still use a smartphone or GPS) and carry a thicker waterproof pair that fit over them, to put on if the weather turns really nasty. Mitts are the warmest option of all, but bear in mind that they are not very dextrous.
Mountaineering or ski goggles protect the eyes from spindrift in snowy conditions.
In winter conditions, you might wear tights or leggings under walking trousers or mountaineering salopettes, and a heavyweight thermal baselayer to boost your core warmth.