Wintery Walks: Long Distance Paths For Winter

This is a scheduled post. I am currently walking the Wales Coast Path to raise money for the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team. (Update: I completed the Wales Coast Path on 7th February 2022 and raised £1,300)

It is completely understandable that so many hikers hang up their boots for winter; resigning themselves to short day walks and perhaps a Christmas stroll to justify the full gluttony of turkey time. The long, bright days of summer are months away still, and the amount of layers alone required now totals the pack weight of a whole July kit. As for camping; staying long hours huddled in three layers of bags, wearing a hat and gloves to sleep in, only to wake to frozen boots and an icy ground that has seized your pegs is not a strong competition for a warm bed and an evening with mugs of hot tea binge watching The Circle.

I’m on the Wales Coast Path myself right now. Well, not right now; this is a scheduled post so ‘right now’ it’s actually the middle of November and I’ve just spent the day making my old hiking boots into pot plants, much to the bafflement of my cats (who promptly tried to eat the flowers) and going to the shop to buy hummus and carrots and flour without scouring any calorie to weight ratios. But, assuming that I haven’t miserably quit and come back and rewritten or deleted all my scheduled posts, you can assume that I’m currently somewhere on the southside of the Llyn Peninsula (Edit: Yes, yes I am! Just passed Aberdaron), tent on back, pole in fist, living off of Idahoan Instant Potatoes with handwarmers shoved between layers of gloves.

Maybe I’m biased, or in denial, or I’m still trying to convince myself that this is all fun (Edit: The golden hours are glorious, the frozen tent in the mornings not so much…) but I think heading out on a long distance path in winter has its own joys for those who are prepared to and curious about the challenge. It’s a different world out there in January compared to June and a path you’ve taken before in summer will show you another face in winter.

Pros and Cons

Everyone can list off the cons of such an endeavour; it’s bloody cold, ice is a nightmare, long hours of darkness, pack weight becomes significantly higher, many facilities are closed, rain and fog and clag will remove the reward of great views and stunning scenery, nature is half dead and, perhaps most prominently, many paths will be far more dangerous and carry more risks. And, to reiterate, it’s bloody cold.

Well, here I counteract with my list of pros; for someone who is experienced, fit and prepared, it is a new challenge for their endurance. Paths are also far less busy; 36,000 people thru-hike the West Highland Way each year, but over 80% of that number do it between April and September so for those that appreciate having more popular trails mostly to themselves with a greater chance to see the wildlife there is definite appeal. In terms of terrain; for hikers with the knowledge, fitness and practice to head to higher ground; much of the peat and bogs that can turn some areas into a chore will have become more solid (albeit through freezing). Many campsites and B&Bs will have shut for the season, but those that remain open often are far cheaper now. The sky becomes incredible, with many of our best sunsets, cloud inversions and celestial activity happening in the bleak midwinter; if you’re far enough north then the Aurora Borealis might check in with you.

Last but not least, many farmers bring their cows inside for the colder months and slugs go underground at 6 degrees C. No running from fickle bovines and no sluggy morning tents!

How to Choose a Long Distance Path for Winter

A path that is rated ‘easy’ may have far more hazards than a harder rated path come winter. The Dales Way, which I walked in November, is an ‘easy’ path however much of it goes along a floodplain and the first day strides beside the notorious Strid which has been known to rise very quickly. If you opt to do a valley and river based path, you will have to do so being incredibly mindful of how much rain is expected and being ready to divert quickly.

A high level route would not be a suitable route for a novice in winter due to how variable conditions can be on ascent and how exposed the hiker becomes. However, a kitted up and experienced hiker might find the terrain easier to walk on; many of our sadly balded mountains are notoriously boggy, but guess what! Freezing conditions usually cause these areas to harden. Hurray! If a climb to a camp is timed right, the sunsets on clear winter days are easily among our island’s best, and the cloud inversions of cold winter mornings are incredible.

Both valley and mountain paths up in Scotland (or in certain areas of the Lake District, Snowdonia and Northumberland National Park) will offer the chance to use bothies, and winter is the true time to really, really appreciate the affirming, restorative and special nature of these primitive huts, especially if you find one with a fire. Be aware that some will be closed for stalking seasons; check on the Mountain Bothies Association website before assuming that the bothies present on your route will be open. Please also remind yourself of The Bothy Code before you head out.

Coastal paths are more inclined to erosion during winter, due to being battered by the harsher weather during that time. Fortunately they tend to quickly have diversions put into place and for a walker not wanting to feel too remote, generally pass through a larger number of settlements, villages, towns and communities as well as being, overall, less challenging terrain than paths inland. Part of the reason I chose the Wales Coast Path for this current challenge is that, for much of it, my greatest everyday challenge would be the weather – not the navigation, resupply, water, last minute emergency accommodation, enduring challenges of daily ascent, significant risk of injury or, er, phone signal. Coastal paths come with greater risk of exposure to storms and will almost always be constantly windy, but the consistency of the sea in sight is a stabilising factor for those concerned about navigating changing landscapes and poor visibility and can easily give some of the most stunning views, especially of the night sky.

In terms of temperature, the further southeast you go, the less cold and rainy it is expected to be compared to those who journey northwest. Coasts are more exposed to wind and rain whilst hills and mountains will see more snow and ice than lowland regions. If you want to keep things a bit more predictable, keep inland, away from mountains and floodplains, look for a path in the south, and head northeast; in the opposite direction to the wind and rain.

In short:

  • Easy river routes can become hazardous floodplains
  • Exposure and chanageability of a high level route unsuitable for a novice, but offers rewards of firmer mid level terrain and amazing inversions for a seasoned hiker.
  • If heading into Scotland, utilise bothies.
  • Coastal paths exposed to storms, wind and rain but generally have less terrain based challenges, pass through more towns, and are easier to navigate. Amazing night sky.
  • North is colder and rainier than south, coast and height more exposed than inland and lowland.
  • Head northeast away from the direction of wind and rain

My Recommended Long Distance Paths for Winter

Loch Ness 360°, Scotland, 80 miles

Exactly what it says on the tin; this path is a circumnavigation of Loch Ness utilising part of the Great Glen Way (another trail frequently recommended for winter walking) and the South Loch Ness Trail. Starting in Inverness, you’ll hike high into the forested northern hills overlooking the famous lake and Urquhart Castle, before turning south through woods and moorland to a changing view towards the Great Glen and the Caledonian Canal. Climbing up from the southern point, you visit Loch Tarff and the Upper Falls of Foyer then walk via the corkscrew road to the River Ness, before findng yourself back where you began in Inverness.

This is a trail with both a low level and high level variant, allowing you to adapt it to your ability, or alter as you go along depending on the weather. It gives the hiker fantastic views, but also the shelter and warmth that forests provide those bringing a tent along. The trail itself is not waymarked, but the two trails that comprise it are. Navigation aids are still essential. Generally well maintained but requiring stamina for all the undulations. Don’t be too concerned; there’s enough towns and villages and settlements on the way to ensure there’s a whisky for you each day if you’re so inclined.

And who knows? Maybe with the grand bulk of the tourists gone, Nessie might be more sociable.

Check out the official site here and the LDWA entry here. The official site even recommends the best places to visit along the path in winter. My favourite Scottish hiking vlogger, Hounds of Howgate, documents his own walk along the trail here – John and his dog set off to start on Hogmanay 2018 (though for some weird experiment with keto he also decided not to eat for the whole trail. Perhaps don’t do this).

The Snowdonia Slate Trail, Wales, 80 miles

Credit: Ramblers

Want to be in the mountains but not quite ready to hike out The Cambrian Way over New Year? Want to wild camp among the peaks without committing to their topmost summits…but also would quite like the choice to? Are you fascinated by social and industrial history as well as deeply evocative landscapes? Like a ruin or two? Well, consider the Snowdonia Slate Trail.

A (more or less) circular route, visiting all of the regions famous ranges. From the Yr Wyddfa massif as your backdrop right at the start, you undulate via the Moelwynions down to the marshes on the edges of the Rhinogydd before finishing through the Ogwen Valley under the shadow of Tryfan. Whilst traditionally a low level route, there is ample opportunity for prepared peak baggers to attempt winter ascents along the way whilst still providing a challenge on its own. The path follows the history of the local slate mining industry and winds around lonely ruins of barracks way up above remote waterfalls, and stares down the black holes of quarries which were the death of many men.

Not for a novice; the trail was slippery and often fickle even back in August when I hiked it, but it offers a person good at self navigation ample opportunity for personalisation. It is waymarked, but navigational aids are absolutely essential especially in open country. Clothing to tackle the changeability of mountainous exposure, as well as to deal with mud and marshes is vital. There’s many a pub and a caff along the way, and the hostels in this area tend to remain open to welcome all-weather adventurers. You won’t be the only mad wanderer around these parts, but there’s plenty of space this time of year to be as alone or as sociable as you like. No big queues up Snowdon right now!

See the official site here, the LDWA entry here, and get the Rucksack Readers (boooo) guidebook here.

The Shropshire Cakes and Ale Trail, England, 110 miles

Who says you have to sacrifice good cake and craft ale on a LDP? Calories to weight ratio? Bugger that! How about a winter walkabout with cake and ale as an actual goal?

The wonderfully named Bobby Bibby has put together three such ‘Cakes and Ales’ trails, the two others being in Warwickshire and Wiltshire. However, I feel the Shropshire version offers the most rewarding walk (though I can’t speak for all the treats). It ventures down the Severn from Bridgnorth and then up Titterstone Clee hill. Onward via hill forts to climb Offa’s Dyke and over the Stiperstones outcrops where, hopefully, if the day is clear, you can have views out to the Welsh border over the Shropshire Hills. If it isn’t clear, oh well, a moorland descent to the ‘Little Switzerland’ of Church Bretton offers some refreshment before the final push up Caer Caradoc and Wenlock Edge before arriving again at Bridgnorth.

Whilst I cannot promise that Bibby’s guidebook is up to date anymore post pandemic, I’m sure the market towns visited still provide a delightful choice of desserts and beverages. A winter trail for those that want some upwards motion, that relish the idea of days spent striding through moorland and (more predictable) hills before arriving at an obscure village for a local pint as the evening draws in. The 110 miles are divided into seven sections by Bibby.

There is accommodation en route, not always on route, though campsites in the area open this time of year are few and far between. Wildcamping is easier than in surrounding counties. There are no waymarks and it is not named on maps; navigational knowledge and aids are a must.

Visit the LDWA entry for the Shropshire Cakes and Ale Walk here

The Fife Coastal Path, Scotland, 115 miles

Credit: Embrace Scotland

One of Scotland’s Great Trails, The Fife Coastal Path starts at the Firth of Forth and makes its way to the Firth of Tay over rocky beaches, through woodland and in and out of wildlife reserves visiting estuaries and fishing villages, as well as the hub of St Andrews, on your way south.

In fact there are fifteen award winning beaches for a stunning shoreside wildcamp! As long as you’ve informed yourself about the tides that is… With ruined castles and abandoned coalyards along the way you not only absorb the varied scenery of Fife, but the varied history as well. For the eagle eyed there are pictish and prehistoric carvings to be found also.

You can spend a day in busy St Andrews, or choose to prolong your time on the more remote stretches instead. Waymarked, but (you know it by now) navigational aids are a must.

Visit the official site here, the WalkHighlands site here and the LDWA entry here. Buy the guidebook here.

The Dales High Way, England, 90 miles

For a challenging yomp across the Dales high country; rack up 13,900ft of ascent on this trail from Saltaire to Appleby-in-Westmoreland. Starting on the brooding Rombalds Moor, immerse yourself in the drama of Malhamdale before taking a breather along the Ribble prior to a sturdy climb up Ingleborough and a flirtation along the flank of Whernside. Ending with a ridgewalk through the smooth green marble-like hills of the Howgill Fells before a final descent to Appleby.

I posit that the challenges of the ordinary Dales Way, seen as a much easier route, might actually equal that of the High Way come winter (due to so much of it being on a floodplain) and with the adorable, lush charm of the valley now more mediocre, hell, you may as well go high! For those looking for a physical challenge in the most lovely part of England, the Dales High Way will more than deliver to a fit and prepared hiker. If you cracked out the Yorkshire Three Peaks this summer and want something new to boast about, go and see what’s up down yonder.

Waymarked, but navigational aids are a must. Challenges come with the variability of ascent and descent and the risks of exposure. Be prepared for ice or snow higher up, even if there is none at lower levels.

Visit the official site here, the LDWA entry here and buy the guidebook here.

Edit: After I wrote and scheduled this, author and record breaking fellwalker James Forrest and his partner, fellow professional hiker Nic Hardy, announced they were about to set off on a winter hike of the Dales High Way in the wake of Storm Barra. To see how the journey treated them, visit @jamesmichaelforrest and @adventurer.nic – fair warning; it was definitely type 2 fun.

The Pilgrims Way, England, 133 miles

Credit: TrekAddict

This historical pilgrimage route goes from Winchester to Canterbury Cathedral, where the shrine to the martyred archbishop, Thomas Beckett, stands. Sharing its path with parts of the St. Swithuns Way and the North Downs Way, it winds through Hampshire, Surrey and Kent primarily along an old chalk ridge, avoiding the worst of the sticky mud below with the flinted hills rising above. A journey above the peaceful scenery of southern England with long views from the Downs, taking in market towns with their own ancient churches and chapels along the way.

For those less inclined to brave the full blasts of the wind, this ancient route can still be exposed in winter, but can offer a solitary and reflective week long ramble in the footsteps of history.

The Pilgrims Way is not waymarked (or certainly not enough to be deemed fully waymarked), though the basic route is clear and it does utilise the waymarks of St Swithuns Way and The North Downs Way. Navigational aids are still recommended. Cicerone guidebook is available here (also describing the alternative route from London), and the LDWA entry is here.

The Antonine Trail, Scotland, 71 miles

Credit: The Herald

If you’re looking for a wintry coast to coast walk along a Roman Wall then the obvious choice has to be the Antonine Trail (…right?). This path follows the 71 miles from Dumbarton to Edinburgh along the placement of the Antonine Wall and is part of the longer John Muir Trail.

The Antonine Wall, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was built in the reign of the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, with the first ditches dug for the turf and timber barrier in 142AD. Whilst less of the wall remains now than its flashier cousin to the south (most of it is in deep ditch ruins), the route still passes seventeen fort sites to properly fulfil the history buffs. Some still have the man traps used to ensnare intruders.

Aside from simply walking along an ancient wall route, the trail ventures along the River Clyde, the Erskine Bridge, and the Forth and Clyde Canal. It goes by the site of the Cadder Mining Disaster and pops in at the Falkirk Wheel passing by a number of stones placed to honour the Goddess Victory all along the way. In terms of terrain, the route is low-level and travels through urban areas as well as open country sections. You’ll only be walking to a maximum height of 486ft and covering a very manageable 5,007ft in total. Accommodation is available throughout, though wildcamping may be less viable on some sections. It is not waymarked, though the main 37 miles of the wall have their own sign, and, despite the fact that you’d think following an ancient wall would be obvious, navigational aids are a must.

The guidebook, by Cameron Black, separates the trail into eight stages and is peppered with historical information, colourful illustrations, and Black’s individual sense of humour. This is a trail for those who want a Scottish winter walk with the sense of accomplishment that walking the entire length of an ancient wall brings. It’s for the history enthusiasts, and for those who want to take on the challenge of a winter LDP, but are wary of exposure and also appreciate the choice for a little bit of comfort.

Visit the LDWA entry for the Antonine Trail here.

The Taff Trail, Wales, 55 miles

Credit: Sustrans

No, no, no! I hear a few of you cry; none of this is what I want. I want a really accessible trail I can crack out over a long weekend. I don’t want to deal with coastal winds or snowy mountains, I just want to be out somewhere beautiful away from the visiting in laws before I actually lose my mind. Winter makes me miserable but the outdoors makes me happy.

OK, how about a 55 mile trail that’s made for hikers and cyclists to share? You know then the trail will be maintained and pretty level (though it does have its ups and down) PLUS it’s somewhere really lovely! You’ll get your bearings as you venture out of Cardiff along river and through moorland, glimpsing the nearby market towns until they melt away into the theatre of the open Brecon moorland. It’ll give you three or four days and two or three nights which is short enough to keep it simple, but long enough to clear your head and deposit you home rewarded. How does that sound? You’ll pass viaducts and the sobering site of the Aberfan disaster, venture by rivers and feel pretty wild, without going too wild.

It is waymarked and marked on the OS maps you know you should be carrying by now, with enough exit points to keep it safe enough so your mum doesn’t worry (too much). You’ll have a lovely time, thank me later. Oh, and chat with the cyclists – they often bring loads of snacks (advantages of being less quibbly over an extra 100g of weight).

See the official site here, the LDWA entry here, and find the guidebook here.

Also consider:

The Great Glen Way

The South Downs Way

Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path

The East Highland Way

The Pennine Bridleway

Health and Safety

Sorry to end on a ‘boring’ note, but I feel it is my due diligence here to address health and safety. There is no downplaying that fact that undertaking a long distance path in winter comes with far more risk that in summer, especially for those who, like myself, tend to hike alone and choose, for a variety of reasons, to primarily stay in a tent.

First Aid, Safety and Navigation

It would be irresponsible of me to suggest a novice long distance hiker or a person with below average fitness will be fine. If you fit those descriptions but would still like to tackle a winter path, strongly consider going as part of a more experienced group and/or walking inn to inn and staying in B&Bs, hostels and guesthouses each night.

I would also seriously recommend making sure your first aid skills are up to date. If they are not, consider a three hour St John’s Ambulance course – it is not outdoors specific but will give you a large amount of overlapping skills and the confidence to utilise them if need be. If you have a standard first aid kit, I have examined and explained the contents of it here.

If your navigation is lacking or plain non-existent, look to educate yourself through the Ordnance Survey’s YouTube channel or booking yourself onto a course with a company like NavTrek. I highly recommend taking more than one form of navigational aid – even if you have a downloaded route on your phone or a GPS, bring a paper map as well in case of technical failure or the impact of the cold causing short battery life.

Make sure someone has an idea of your itinerary, even if you are going in a group, and I highly recommend that either yourself or someone in your group carries an InReach device. These are expensive, but will grant you and the people that care about you a great deal of peace of mind knowing that you can reach an appropriate emergency service or Mountain Rescue Team should things go wrong.

There are risks of accident and injury all year round. When walking in winter, the main specific risk is hypothermia which can come on quick but not necessarily be easily identified immediately by its victim due to causing confusion and cognitive impairment. Please note the symptoms here as discussed on the UK Hillwalking site (and the NHS for good measure).

Keep a close eye on the weather and be prepared to divert your course or to take a safety-based rest day. Many hikers use the DarkSky app as it is hyperlocal and constantly updated, and the Mountain Weather Information Service is invaluable for those heading to mountainous regions, even if you are remaining on low level routes.

In short:

  • Consider group walking and sleeping inside at night, especially in inexperienced
  • Keep first aid and navigational knowledge up to date
  • Give someone a copy of your itinerary
  • Consider an InReach device
  • Be vigilant about the weather

*I have no affiliation with any of the companies listed, I just think they do great work.

Equipment

Be sensible when considering your clothing and sleep system; do not be someone who learns the hard way that sometimes a heavier pack is completely justified when the added weight is caused by items designed to keep you protected and alive in winter.

These items do not have to be expensive, but do make sure you have outer clothing designed with a high degree of wind and waterproofing and inner layers that are made of a material that will not hold onto water and will dry quickly (no cotton – ladies, check your bras). Be mindful of your hands and feet; bring more spare pairs of socks that you normally would; wet feet in February is a far bigger deal than wet feet in August and anything that gets wet will take far longer to dry. It is likely that you will require a few different gloves; I am currently walking with three pairs of gloves (liner copper threaded gloves, insulating merino wool gloves, and heavy ski-style, weather resistant gloves) often all worn at once (Edit: One merino glove has been misplaced and I really feel it!). Frozen hands are agony and you can’t do bugger all once they go – there’s no opening your pack or holding onto anything, they are just useless and painful and awful.

Heading into upland areas may well require you to bring crampons, heading into lowland areas may well require sturdy gaiters. Do your research on what to expect from your route.

If you are staying in a tent consider your whole sleep system. It is borderline useless to have an expensive bag that claims a comfort level of -12 degrees if you have a sleeping pad with an R rating of 1.5. You will both feel the cold more from the ground, and lose more of your own heat to it. Even with a good bag and good pad you might well be wanting both a liner (if only as a vapour barrier against condensation) and a bivvy. I currently have a mini (300ml) hot water bottle with me as well. (Edit: It is absolutely making the difference between a tolerated night’s sleep and a comfortable one.)

A four season tent does not really make things any warmer for you. What they are designed to do is withstand heavy wind and snow far, far better so it depends on the path you choose whether you feel one may be necessary.

Even if you normally go stoveless, carry a stove. The ability to heat water is the ability to heat yourself when the cold is taking over and hypothermia is becoming a risk. Keep in mind that any sleep system cannot generate heat, it can only keep in the heat that is already there so climbing in cold will take you ages to warm up. Doing a whole bunch of star jumps and running a few rings may be the last thing you want to do when you’ve got your tent all set up after a long day of windy, wet miles but that last burst of heat you generate will be what your sleep system is working with all night, and a final filler of a hot meal waiting after you’ve jumped around, got into your dry camp clothes and quickly cocooned yourself is keeping you safe, not just sated.

In short:

  • Wind and waterproof outer layers
  • Moisture wicking, quick drying inner layers. No cotton.
  • All parts of a sleep system need to be effective to keep you warm
  • A four season tent might not be necessary
  • Carry a stove. Hot water is important.
  • Make sure you are warm before getting into your bag.

If You Experience an Emergency

Finding yourself completely lost or injured in the middle of nowhere is utterly terrifying, and your health and your safety should always be an absolute priority regardless of time of year.

  • Do not try and be stubborn or be concerned about ‘causing a fuss’ and attempt to keep going when chances are you will make the situation worse.
  • If the incident occurs in the day, do not wait until light is fading to call for help. Especially now we have shorter daylight hours. The more hours of light Mountain Rescue has to work with, the quicker they can aid you.
  • Do not wait until your phone battery is down to 20% after trying to navigate your way out of a misdirection. Even if you have a power bank on you.
  • An InReach device has a long (many days) battery life and instantly contacts the local emergency services and rescue teams regardless of signal. These are expensive, but if you are heading out regularly they are worth your consideration.

Where there isn’t a Mountain Rescue, there will be a Lowland Search and Rescue; these teams are all wilderness search and rescue teams and operate in all open country areas across the country where it is difficult for the traditional emergency services to reach.

To contact Mountain Rescue, call 999, ask for the police, then ask to speak to Mountain Rescue and you will be connected immediately to your local Mountain or Lowland Rescue. If you have an InReach device, you only need to push the SOS button.

Stock art by Jossnatu and Tartila

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