In Praise of Winter Walking

winter mountains scotland

I love walking in all seasons, but there is something really special about winter; the temperature, the low angled light of the winter sun reflecting off frozen ground and the often challenging conditions, all add up to a recipe for memorable days and magnificent views.

A covering of snow and ice really change a landscape. Every winter the green, the rocky and the heather clad hills are transformed by a covering of snow. The freeze-thaw-freeze cycles of a typical Scottish winter create hard packed snow-ice in sheltered mountain gullies and corries, which then hangs on well into the summer months. The snow piles up and is compacted on the highest tops such as Ben Nevis, where it will remain long into the spring and summer.

In a matter of hours a hillside can be transformed by high winds shifting snow, by heavy precipitation or a deep freeze. The winters here are predictable in their unpredictability, and this uncertainty has an allure. Heading to Scotland’s hills in winter you could find deep snow and treacherous conditions, or you could find firm ground and easy going. What you will definitely find is a different perspective and atmosphere to the walking in summer conditions. Careful planning and knowledge are required to enjoy winter in the Scottish mountains safely (links at the bottom to essential planning services such as avalanche information).

I enjoy low level winter wanders as much as the unique challenges of winter mountaineering on the north face of Ben Nevis, but for pure enjoyment you can’t beat a blue-sky hillwalking day, with seemingly endless views through the clear winter air.

This winter began as a stormy one. It was stormy without being that cold; high winds rather than low temperatures were the norm. Recently, more snow has arrived on the hills raising hopes of an excellent late winter season. Since Christmas I have managed a few wintry walks, ticking off some Munros and enjoying the freedom of again visiting the Highlands in winter (which, for the most part, wasn’t possible for the previous two winters).

winter munros
Grabbing a snack at the top of Meall Buidhe
A frozen Loch Callater in the Cairngorms
Heading for the summit of Stuc an Lochain in fine winter conditions

A stomp in the hills north of Glen Lyon gave clear views north and west into Glencoe and Lochaber, as well as a chance to don the crampons for the first time this winter. This walk was a real reminder of the joys of winter walking. A trip to the Cairngorms had a hint of winter, but nowhere near the extremes that it can be home to at this time of year. Dark clouds, sunlight cutting through and frozen hard ground made for good going and ever changing views.

A lower level walk up Glen Affric in between snow-capped mountains was just as rewarding and my pace was slowed significantly by the shifting clouds and the seemingly endless opportunities for a photograph. The high winds whipping plumes spin-drift snow from the ridges was spectacular from the comforts of the valley floor.

The Affric Kintail Way
Mullach Froach choire in the firm grip of winter
The remote Camban bothy

As always I’ve also been exploring local walks, where it hasn’t been very wintry at all. Occasional frosty conditions and the odd snow flurry has been about it. However, the clear cool air and the low angled light still adds something different to the winter here in the Scottish Borders. I’m still exploring new routes and link-ups to my favourite wanders and can be just as happy here as on a Highland winter epic.

I hope you have been enjoying winter in the outdoors in whatever form that takes for you. I’m hopeful that there are a few more throws of winter to come up here, and a couple more adventures to be had before the daffodils bloom!

When walking in the hills in winter it is important to be prepared. As well as having the appropriate kit and clothing it also means gathering as much information about the weather and ground conditions as you can whilst planning your walk. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service is an excellent resource for helping you plan your winter hikes. Their Be Avalanche Aware resource is a tool for planning your mountain days and helping the decision making process when out on the hill in winter. It can be found on their website: beaware.sais.gov.uk.

Both the Met Office and the Mountain Weather Information Service provide weather forecasts for specific mountain areas and are useful sources throughout the year when heading into hills.