Winter running – reducing the risk

Moving quickly in the mountains is a pleasure, and that means packing light. As winter conditions arrive in Snowdonia there are always people who are not ready for the conditions they face – and they end up on BBC news, or worse, dead, or both. There is currently controversy about whether mountain running, especially big mountain running in tough conditions with light equipment is ok – some high profile runners like Kilian Jornet with big publicity machines are very visibly pushing what the understood limits are and what is thought to be possible in inspiring envionments. But those judgements aren’t being taken lightly or without a serious apprenticeship in the hills.

Rhobell Fawr summit selfie
Rhobell Fawr summit selfie

Please don’t think that what I am saying is you should or shouldn’t run in the hills in winter conditions. I’m not. With the correct knowledge and judgement it is rewarding and largely controllable activity where the risk can be reduced to an acceptable level. Equally, this isn’t intended to be a “this is the right way or only way” type post. It is meant to give a few pointers  to those who are thinking about making their first few steps into running in our wilder places during the winter months. For those that know more, or have a different point of view, please feel free to comment, so that can be incorporated too.

I posted a picture of me on the top of Rhobell Fawr, in running gear, and it sparked a fair few private messages. I hope this post answers some of my thoughts.

The most common question was how do you stay safe, what do you take?

My answer is simple, knowledge. 

An accident in winter conditions escalates quickly because when travelling light, staying warm depends on being mobile. A sprained ankle is potentially lethal in remote locations, hypothermia the killer. Knowing the terrain is sensible, being able to navigate is mandatory. Knowing where safety is, and being able to get to it is really essential. Having some basic hill skills can make the difference between being uncomfortable, or a whole lot worse.

What do I carry? As well as clothing for moving, (including hat, gloves and the right footwear for the day) I tend to pack an extra warm layer, and a base layer for my core. If needed, I’d make a judgement as to whether the layer I was wearing was wet enough to justify stripping it off, getting a dry one on next to the skin and re-dressing. A shell layer is essential, and full body cover makes a real difference when you’re forced to slow down. A headtorch is sensible on short winter days, even if you don’t plan to use it. Map and compass – should be second nature in wild areas.

[EDITED to add feedback] It was pointed out by Janson Heath and ‘Forest’ Bethel that depending on how far aware from help you are, a sleeping bag, or highly insulating thermal layer (down or primaloft) are sensible additions. Additionally a long day might be made so much better with a lightweight cooker and some hot food.

Like anything, there is no point carrying anything you don’t know how to use. I carry one more sweet snack than I need, as sometimes a quick sugar hit will help with decision making. I also carry my hill safety pack (295g) which carries a few things that I’m confident in using.

Emergency kit for running
Emergency kit for running

It has a SOL emergency bivvy bag. My opinion is that blankets are a waste of time. When you need thermal protection, only getting in a bag, and being able to sort stuff out makes a difference. The SOL bag is a great, reusable bit of kit. I carry a Peperami, food and energy helps with making decisions, not essential but I like it! I carry one number 8 wound dressing, and a 10cm x 10cm low adherent pad. This is for the biggest wound I think I could cope with on my own. Most likely a rip on barb wire, or possibly a puncture wound on a fall. I also carry a 9cm x 6cm adhesive wound dressing to cover small lacerations. Whilst on the first aid theme I have a small kit, this has two steri strips, five normal plasters, three easy access plasters, some fabric strip plaster, 3 small pads (5cm x5cm). Narrow zinc oxide tape, 2 safety pins and 3 benzalkonium chloride antiseptic wipes and 4 panadol complete the first aid kit. I also carry a small lock knife with 2 m of paracord as a lanyard, a sharpie pen (will write on plastic) and a red light that has an SOS flash function. All this goes in a heavy duty double ziplock bag, to keep it dry.

I also carry the knowledge of how to use those things, and a good deal of ability to improvise. I am aware that, in reality I am more likely to use the stuff on others, rather than me. If I can move then I’ll get to somewhere less exposed, this kit might just help in the situation where I can’t move. Knowing to get insulated, off the floor, out of the wind and ideally in somewhere visible seems obvious, but when did you practise it? Why not practise it? I’d suggest some time on the hill, or out in the wilds with a good friend in winter conditions. Try taking a rucksack with plenty of warm clothes. Stop for lunch in your running kit, note how long things take to change in your ability to function, physically and mentally.

 I look through my kit every couple of runs, check everything is dry and usable. I also practise my own skills. Use it or lose it is true, and when you need your skills to deal with a situation isn’t the time to practise.

Carrying an ice axe and running crampons isn’t a discussion for here. Yes, they have a place, but due to the skill needed to use these in a running environment I’d suggest the potential number of competent users are limited. The chances of hurting yourself by having these with you increases dramatically, especially if inexperienced. If you are heading to terrain, or ground conditions that need these tools, then you must have practised extensively in a way that already provides you with the required knowledge. My feeling on this is, if you cannot arrest on a technical axe, from every orientation of fall, go run where there isn’t ice. If any of that doesn’t make sense to you then you shouldn’t be in that environment.

When I’m running solo in hard conditions I remove an element of risk by going places where I know I can communicate with others. If I honestly thought to stay safe I would have to endanger the lives of Mountain Rescue volunteers, the only position I have is – don’t go there. But, in the eventuality that I have acted in a reasonable and educated way, the back up of emergency cover is silly not to take. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT. However, I have used a phone to give me an alternate, earlier finish point, where I have judged that continuing to plan would be silly. Use phones with discretion in the wild, they can be a useful tool, but not to be relied upon. Tell someone where you are going, how long you’ll be and check in with them. [EDIT to add comment from John Taylor] Remember that the international mountain distress signal is three blasts on a whistle, with a minute delay. In the Alps and the UK this is six blasts, also with a minute delay. The reply from rescuers is three blasts in both cases. Before you add an extra whistle to your kit list it is worth checking your bag or headtorch to see if there is an integrated one already.

Fell shoe print in the snow
Fell shoe print in the snow

You can learn skills a number of ways. Find a knowledgeable friend who will show you, or go on a course. But, practise, practise and practise again.

Practise grows judgement, sound judgement brings safer adventures.

So, there is no simple  “buy this and pack it” advice from me. Exploring wild places is massively rewarding, and competent people make it look deceptively easy. You can, and should explore. You should do this from a position of knowledge.

Know the limit of your ability, know the weather, know the ground conditions, know your kit, observe your surroundings, be prepared to change your plans to suit the conditions or changing conditions. Be prepared to cancel your trip and come back another day.

Have fun, be safe, learn lots and don’t be the next to appear on The News.