Fell running in winter: 8 tips to keep safe and have fun

We are just a week into ‘official’ winter and already two storms have brought huge drifts of snow to the hills and fells.

As inviting as the fells might look right now, for those who have enjoyed short-shorts and t-shirts up in the fells for much of this year, the plummet of the mercury might come as a shock to them.

Having been a hill walker for nearly 15 years before I was a runner, I have borrowed some handy tips to help you have an enjoyable and safe time running in the hills and fells this winter.

1. Mindset

This is probably the first obstacle you have to encounter and, without considering it, could make your run very dispiriting and, at worst, dangerous.

As runners, the Alpinist-style mantra of ‘fast and light’ can sometimes overrule common sense. While in summer, a sudden downpour or gale can be quickly outrun; in winter, that isn’t the case.

Dream winter days don’t always look so great!

Before you even step out the door to go fell running, consider your ambitions. I’d advise not heading out for your weekend run with the plan to run X-distance or go for the ‘fast and light’ approach.

Instead, switch to a time-based approach and don’t be afraid to take a few extra layers and equipment (which I will talk about below). Trust me, heading out for a 4-hour run in winter will likely see you cover 16km instead of your 25km in summer.

Imagine you are heading out for a fast-hike rather than a ‘run’. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment for going slow and skimp on layers, equipment or fuel.

2. Route Planning

This is something of particular importance right now following some strong winds and snow on the high tops.

James Gibson and Tom Hollins, who both set out to tackle the Wainwright’s on 1 December, have encountered innumerable deep snow drifts which will have affected their chosen route.

If you have a long run planned for the weekend, consider the wind direction the preceding days and the snowfall. Storm Arwen brought strong northerly winds and snow, meaning much of that snow was dumped on southern slopes. Storm Barra’s westerlies probably moved the snow around to the east.

Cornices on Beinn a’ Chaorainn near Spean Bridge

Check the MWIS website or Mountain Forecast for the reliable weather up high.

It isn’t just how much effort fresh snow will take to wade through, but also how safe it is to cross. Avalanches are a common feature of the UK’s hills in winter, especially early on when fresh snow hasn’t had time to consolidate and freeze.

If you are in Scotland, I’d highly recommend checking the SAIS website and app for the avalanche forecast. The website has some great advice to spot the signs if you are on the hills outside Scotland.

I remember going a bit off-route coming down Carn Ban Mor in the Cairngorms. I was on frozen snow higher up but as I came down I heard a hollow ‘crunch’ noise on a steep slope. This was wind slab – a highly avalanche-prone formation. Safe to say I immediately returned to frozen ground to find another way down.

Similarly, wind can also create cornices which, if stepped on, can snap and send you plummeting down a crag.

3. Route Following

It is said a lot, but remember that the cold drains batteries like nobody’s business, so don’t rely on your phone for navigation.

Use all the tools available to you: Watch GPS, phone, map and compass.

The other thing to say about route following is let someone know roughly where you are going and when you should be back. Changing plan is good mountain-craft, so don’t dogmatically stick to the route you have told someone as it could be dangerous!

Of course, you will learn how to read the weather with experience and know when it’s better to just head home for a warm shower than stay out!

4. Feet

It may seem obvious, but your feet are hugely important for running and also incredibly vulnerable. Even Joss Naylor has said that you can fuel and run as good as you like, but if your feet start to suffer – that’s when you are in trouble.

Fell shoes tend not to be waterproof, and that’s fine in summer. Come winter, waterproof shoes are helpful for a thin dusting of snow to keep the wind off your feet, but what you really want are waterproof socks!

This was a game-changer for me. I started to get hot aches and itchy feet after a cold run, with swollen toes that made for uncomfortable walking. Waterproof socks really do keep your feet toasty and protected from the elements. They are also brilliant for winter cycling!

Waterproof shoes, though useful, are pants in deep snow as, once the water is in, it ain’t getting out.

5. Be more onion

It goes without saying: Winter = more layers. Choosing merino wool layers is useful in winter as their warmth:weight ratio is great and they move moisture away from the skin, which is so useful when those cold gales rush over a sweaty body.

You may not have tried it, but the double jacket tactic is regularly employed for going out into the testing weather.

Give it a try – if you don’t like it, look at wearing a proper mountaineering jacket! Likewise, waterproof trousers are super handy at keeping the wind and snow off! Look for running specific ones like the Inov-8 Trailpant.

6. Ice axes and microspikes

Two essential bits of kit for winter trips to the hills are an ice axe and microspikes.

As opposed to crampons – which require a stiff boot and have large prongs to climb on frozen ground – microspikes are flexible and wrap around your shoe, adding metal grips to the bottom of your shoe.

Ice axes are also useful for long days out up high. Knowing how to use one is also vital, so educate yourself on how to do so.

I personally use a Petzl Gully – a very lightweight ice axe that is mainly used for winter gully climbs and simple ice axe arrests – and Kahtoola Microspikes.

7. Light it up!

I may be teaching you to suck eggs here, but winter involves less daylight.

Darkness can come extremely quickly, so make sure you have a good headtorch with a decent battery life.

Top Tip: If your headtorch can be ‘locked’ (i.e. prevented from coming on), then lock it. There is nothing worse than going to grab your headtorch and find its been lighting up the inside of your rucksack for two hours!

8. Get in and get warm!

Once you finish your run, take the time to layer up and carefully heat up your extremities to prevent the dreaded hot aches!

Once you have your wet clothes off and are slowly warming up, grab that flask of tea or coffee you stashed in your car or pack to give yourself a warm fuzzy feeling.

If you need more information, I recommend trawling through the BMC and Glenmore Lodge YouTube channels for more detailed advice on how to visit the hill safely in winter.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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