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Essential Equipment – Three Seasons

The following items are normally regarded as essential for high-level three season hill walking in the UK,  three season conditions normally means typical spring, summer and autumn conditions, but exclude full winter conditions.  Winter conditions in the mountains require additional equipment, normally including ice-axe and crampons, plus the appropriate skills and experience to use them properly.

This list may appear to be excessive, but remember that weather conditions can change very rapidly in the mountains and that conditions on the mountain tops will be very different to that in the valley.

       Waterproof / windproof outer layer (including protection for the legs)

       Warm inner (base) & mid-layer(s)

       Suitable footwear  (see notes below)

       Map, compass and watch

       Torch / head torch and whistle

       First aid kit – lightweight and simple

       Adequate food and drink – drinks bottle – flask of hot drink in cold weather

       Rucksack to carry it in

Unless summer weather conditions are warm, dry and settled it is advisable to add:-

       Hat / balaclava and gloves

       Spare warm clothes (extra layers for cold conditions or emergencies)

       Survival bag or lightweight bivvy shelter for group use (highly recommended if there is a chance of being caught out overnight)

       High energy emergency food - only intended for use in an emergency

       Resealable plastic bags to keep equipment dry

Depending on the season and the activity, the following may also be required:-

       Helmet - advisable for some scrambling routes


       Insect repellent (anti midge) especially in Scotland

       Good sunglasses / alpine goggles - the snow covered summit of Ben Nevis in early summer sun can be very bright!

       Sunblock / sunhat

       Ice axe and crampons for winter / early spring mountain walking

Other useful items include:-

       Mobile / cellular phone (recommended)

       Walking poles

       GPS receiver and spare batteries

       Camera (and film for film cameras)

Fluid intake – In warm summer conditions dehydration can be a real problem, the body will use much more water climbing than walking on the level. Take plenty to drink, as you become more experienced you will become better able to judge the amount of fluid your body requires under different conditions.  Special water bottles (hydration packs) can be fitted to some rucksacks that allow you to drink via a tube on the move.

Choice of what to drink "on the hill" is mostly down to personal preference, but it is necessary to replace the sugars, salts and minerals lost through exercise and perspiration, hence an "isotonic" sports drink with a good balance of carbohydrates and salts may be beneficial and should also reduce the occurrence of muscle cramps.

Weight –  avoid over packing your rucksack – choose the items to be taken carefully, don’t take more than required, and reduce the weight carried as much as possible without compromising your safety. Too much weight will slow you down, spoil your enjoyment of the day and make it more likely that you will become benighted!  Getting the right compromise is something that comes with experience.

Equipment Notes

Clothing – Several layers of clothing to cope with different conditions are better than one thick heavy layer.  Conditions at altitude are almost always much colder and windier than in the valley.  Warm and windproof clothing may not be required when climbing the mountain but they are likely to be required during rest stops, on the tops and during the descent later in the day.  The layering principle of outdoor clothing is designed to cope with widely differing conditions by adding or removing layers as required.  Pay particular attention to the base layer because this must wick moisture away from the body without causing too much heat loss.  Thermal fabrics are much better than cotton in this respect and can be used as a T shirt in hot weather.  Fleece in its many guises is the most popular choice for the mid-layer.  A windproof and waterproof outer layer is essential in all but the most stable summer conditions.  Modern breathable fabrics are more versatile and comfortable than conventional non-breathable shell garments.

Jeans are far from ideal because they are heavy, cold and uncomfortable when wet.  They should be avoided except for low level walks in fine weather.  If using shorts it is advisable to carry alternative warmer leg wear.  Remember that legs are very vulnerable to cuts and bruises during rock scrambling.

Footwear – The choice of footwear depends on the seriousness of the route, but good quality, good fitting comfortable boots, are probably the most important part of your kit.  Trainers do not support and protect the feet and ankles adequately, modern light-weight mountain walking boots do – don’t buy heavier boots than required for your intended level of activity, take advice from a good specialist retailer (look at the suppliers list on this site) and try on as many types as possible. Ask to have your feet measured and take your favourite walking socks with you to the shop. Alternatively ask the retailer to recommend suitable socks before trying the boots on.

BEACON Tip: if you are planning to start hill walking in spring or summer, perhaps with a view to later having a go at more serious winter hill walking, then start with comfortable boots suitable for three season use, i.e. spring, summer and autumn. Later, when you are more experienced, you can buy crampon compatible winter boots if you require them. It is better to have two pairs of boots that are ideal for their respective jobs rather than one pair that is a poor compromise for both.

Map and compass (plus a watch) – essential whatever the weather.  A good map scale for mountain walkers is 1:25,000, such as the OS Explorer series or the very easy to read HARVEY Superwalker maps. 1:50,000 scale maps (e.g. OS Landranger) cover a larger area and are ideal for planning activities in an area, and in many cases give adequate detail for walkers, but usually the greater detail of the 1:25,000 scale maps will be beneficial on upland areas.  The map used for mountain navigation needs to be capable of being used in high winds and rain and normally it will require some form of map case to protect it.  The easy to use BEACON guide-maps use detailed HARVEY mapping, are weatherproof and are designed for use on the mountain with a compass and GPS if available.  They can be easily slipped into a secure pocket for quick reference.  Use a full sized map of the area to plan your routes in advance and take it with you in the rucksack.

Don't rely on being able to follow clearly marked paths in the British hills, even in good weather.  A good walker’s compass (e.g. SILVA, Suunto, Recta) with a protractor base and a Romer scale for measuring distances on the map is essential for checking direction, and setting and walking on accurate bearings.  Make a habit of keeping track of your position on the map even when the weather is good – it’s good practice, it adds to the enjoyment of the environment and helps a lot if the visibility suddenly deteriorates. See the Mountain Navigation pages for more on navigation with map and compass.

Torch and whistle – both are useful for attracting attention in an emergency.  The internationally recognised distress signal is 6 long blasts / flashes repeated at one minute intervals.  The reply is 3 blasts / flashes.

A head torch or small hand torch can prove a very useful aid to a safe return from the hill in failing light. Head torches such as the popular Petzl zoom can be fitted with a halogen bulb which gives a bright white light which is good for map reading (but shorter battery life).  The modern high intensity LED head torches give a very bright white light and are very reliable.

First Aid Kit – make up a small kit in a waterproof pouch to suit personal requirements or buy one designed for walkers. Suitable contents could include a crepe bandage (very versatile), medium wound dressing, safety pins, safety razor blade, plasters, blister kit, Paracetamol, lipsalve, etc. Groups will need a more comprehensive kit.

BEACON Tip: make your first aid kit a more versatile emergency kit by adding other useful small items such as waterproof note paper, pencil, water sterilisation tablets, miniature tin opener / penknife, miniature survival compass (in case your main compass is lost or damaged), waterproof matches and striker, a little cash etc.

Rucksack – a good quality rucksack is a good investment.  It is almost as important for your rucksack to fit comfortably as it is your boots.  Make sure it is big enough to carry the maximum load you need to carry (depending on your level of activity) but don’t buy a bigger rucksack than you require – again take advice and try on as many as possible before making your choice, with comfort and stability being the prime requirements.  A rucksack for scrambling needs to be stable, neat and uncluttered.  No rucksack is completely waterproof, so protect important kit with resealable plastic bags and/or use rainproof sack liners / sack covers.

Mobile (cellular) phone –  mobile phones are well worth carrying in most areas and can be a very useful safety aid, but can not be relied on completely in the mountains as the terrain will often block the signal.  Normally better reception is found on the tops, but sometimes the phone can be fooled by receiving too many signals from distant base stations. If a phone is carried check that the battery is fully charged before you set out, and know your own phone number.

In an emergency dial 999 or 112 from any phone (free) and ask for the police who will contact the local (volunteer) mountain rescue organisation.  Be ready to give as many details as possible about your exact location (give grid ref if possible), your phone number, the number in the party, nature of injuries etc. Make sure that the emergency operator knows that you require mountain rescue assistance and what mountain area you are in, so that you can be put through to the correct control centre.

GPS – BEACON Guides give a list of key waypoints for GPS users (generally to 8 figures, i.e. 10 metre resolution) and the map is designed to be easily used with hand held GPS units – unique National Grid references with a two letter prefix are used.  Given a suitable map, a good GPS receiver can be a very useful supplement to mountain navigation and make a map even more useful but should never be used as the only means of navigation at the expense of conventional map reading and compass skills.  Check  the batteries are fresh and take a spare set (or two). Lithium cells are an excellent (but expensive) choice because they have a high capacity, long life, and work well at low temperatures.

Set the GPS display co-ordinates to OS British National Grid (BNG) and the map datum to Ordnance Survey 1936 (OSGB 36). Most GPS units display 10 figure grid references, when entering 8 figure waypoints set the last digit of both the Eastings and the Northings to zero.

Ideally store key route waypoints into your GPS (from your Beacon guide-map for example) before you set out. Waypoints may be entered into the GPS manually or via a computer using a suitable interface cable and software.

At the start of a walk check that the position report from your GPS receiver agrees with your known position, then at suitable points during the walk use the GPS to confirm your position on the map.  If you are using stored GPS waypoints follow the ground (or path) between the waypoints, i.e. don’t expect to walk in a straight line, point to point.  Become familiar with the operation of your GPS before using it in a serious situation.   See the Mountain Navigation pages for more information.

Weather Forecast – check the weather forecast before you set out and be prepared to change or abandon plans if the weather is unsuitable. BEACON Guides normally contain a phone number which gives weather forecasts especially prepared for hill walkers in the relevant area (these are usually premium rate numbers that may not be accessible from all mobile phones). The Met Office withdrew its Mountaincall phone & fax service in May 2006, and replaced it with a free web-based service, but the Lake District is well served by a sponsored phone line service called Weatherline (note new number) - see the main links page for up to date info.  Mountain weather is notoriously changeable and difficult to predict accurately so always be prepared.

Scottish Midges - midges can be a real nuisance in the highlands in summer (especially if camping), they tend to be most active in the evening and early mornings. Fortunately a good breeze will keep them at bay.  Beacon Top Tip: there are dozens of chemical repellents on the market, none appear to be completely effective, but one of the best user-friendly products to use in Scotland that we know of is Avon's Skin-So-Soft Dry Oil Woodland Fresh body spray. This is a cosmetic (moisturiser) product that is not actually advertised for its insect repellent qualities, but you will find it on sale at very many shops throughout the highlands of Scotland and is used extensively by the locals. Avon has now introduced a range of insect repellents marketed under its SSS brand, but we have not tried these yet.

Route Card – if going on a mountain walk, especially if you are on your own, or leading a group, always leave behind details of your intended route and when you expect to be back so that the emergency services can be alerted if you fail to return.  A Route Card is an ideal way of noting down the key details.  Leave it with a friend, family member, or at the hotel / hostel etc, even left in your car is better than no record at all of where you might be.  Remember to report your safe return and let them know if you change your plans – the rescue services don’t like finding out a missing walker has been sitting in the pub while they have been risking life and limb looking for him or her on the mountain!   Click on Beacon Route Card for an example format.  A new on-line version has recently been issued by the Scottish Police - see going-to-the-hills.