Winter is Coming: Layering and Packing for Winter Mountains

Keen to get out in the white stuff? Here’s adventurer Will Renwick’s complete guide to tackling winter hills and mountains for walkers and hikers, fully prepared for the elements.

21st December 2023 | Words by Will Renwick

Pre-dawn starts, the crunch of snow as you make the first tracks of the day, the sip of a warm drink as steam rises from your thermos flask, bluebird skies and jaw-dropping silence – nothing beats a winter day out in the hills.

Of course, any trip to the UK’s mountains requires suitable planning and preparation, but when winter comes around things go to a slightly different level. Even as far south as Bannau Brycheiniog (the Brecon Beacons) or on Dartmoor, the weather can be much more extreme in the winter months. You may encounter sub-zero temperatures, ferocious windchill and snowstorms that reduce visibility to zero. Navigation can be trickier to say the least and the risk of hypothermia is real if things go wrong. The terrain can also be much more treacherous, often calling for the use of ice axes, crampons and – crucially – the skills to use them effectively. There are further considerations too. The daylight window is shorter, your backpack will be heavier and there can be other hazards like avalanches to be aware of.

Still, far from putting us off, overcoming these challenges is just another part of what makes winter so rewarding. It all just takes a bit of due care and attention and the right level of preparation…

Will Renwick

Packing for a winter hike

Here are some absolute essentials to take, particularly when snowy conditions are forecast.

  • Sunglasses or goggles
    These are absolutely vital if there’s snow on the ground. As well as allowing you to see in whirling spindrift, tinted goggles or sunglasses can also prevent damage to your vision from snow dazzle.
  • Suncream
    This is another essential if there’s snow on the ground. Snow can reflect a significant amount of sunlight, intensifying your exposure to UV rays.
  • Navigation
    GPS devices are great for navigation and the same can be said for phones (as long as they don’t die on you). Just ensure you’ve always got a paper map and compass as well though.

  • Head torch
    We’d advise carrying two head torches. That’s one main one and one as back-up. Even if you’re not intending to stay out after dark, days out in the hills don’t always go to plan.
  • Batteries and power banks
    Cold temperatures can suck the life out of a battery in an instant, so make sure you’ve got back-up for your devices – especially your phone – in the form of spare batteries or a portable power bank.
  • First aid kit and whistle
    Essential on any hike, whatever the length or time of year.

  • Shelter
    An emergency bothy bag-style shelter or a bivy bag can save your life if you’re injured or accidentally benighted.
  • Extra food and water
    Carry a small dry bag containing extra food reserved for emergency use. If you can’t carry extra water, consider taking a small water filter or purifier with you, or even a backpacking stove and mug so you can melt snow.

  • Extra layers
    Bring beyond the minimum expectation, just in case.

  • Technical equipment
    If you’re venturing onto steep terrain where you can expect frozen ground and/or snow and ice, you’re going to need technical pieces of equipment for safety. This includes hardware like an ice axe, a pair of crampons and potentially also snowshoes, an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and snow shovel.

Will Renwick


Keeping warm is obviously very important in winter, but bear in mind that the primary aim isn’t necessarily to be as warm as possible. Instead, look to stay at a consistently comfortable temperature where you’re warm enough but also not breaking into a sweat. Sweating can lead to problems when you stop moving or if temperatures drop further, as the moisture on your skin can make you feel much colder, potentially leading to hypothermia, especially if you're not appropriately dressed for the conditions. The best way to maintain a consistently comfortable temperature? The answer there lies in layering.


Let’s start with the first layer: your baselayer. Having a baselayer top and bottoms will go a long, long way to making your day out in the hills an enjoyable one. Look for layers that are close fitting and able to hug the contours of your body without feeling restrictive. Whether you choose a natural fabric or a synthetic one is down to personal preference, though merino wool is generally considered to be the safest bet when dealing with very cold temperatures, because it regulates temperature well and is also able to wick moisture away from the skin.

Will Renwick

Mid layers

Mid layers, which should be your main layers of insulation, come in many forms. Fleece jackets are popular for their breathability, warmth, moisture resistance and fast drying times but they can be quite heavy and bulky. Down quilted jackets bring an almost unrivalled warmth-to-weight ratio and are extremely packable but the insulation, unless protected by a hydrophobic water-repellent treatment such as Nikwax, can easily lose its thermal performance in wet weather.

If the forecast predicts wet winter weather, then our recommendation is to choose a jacket with synthetic insulation. Generally, this type of insulating fill isn’t as warm or as light as down but it tends to be more reliable in damp conditions and, in winter, the ability to trust your kit is essential.

Will Renwick


Whatever the season and whatever the weather, it’s essential to have a waterproof layer with you. In summer, a lightweight and trim-fitting rain jacket is usually fine but, come winter, you’ll need something that can comfortably accommodate multiple layers underneath. Useful features to look out for include weatherproof zips with internal and/or external storm flaps, ventilation zips and volume adjustment at the hood.


Extremities like hands and feet tend to get colder faster than the rest of the body due to their distance from the core, where the body’s heat is generated. Additionally, blood circulation to these areas can be more restricted in colder conditions as the body prioritises keeping vital organs warm, resulting in less warmth reaching the extremities. As such, protecting your extremities during a hike is vital for temperature regulation, injury prevention, overall comfort and safety.

Will Renwick

On your hands

In winter, always make sure you’ve got a pair of waterproof gloves or mitts – ideally a spare emergency pair too. A common system is to wear a pair of ‘thinnies’ or liner gloves underneath a chunkier pair of insulated waterproof gloves or mitts. Hestra’s Touch Point liner gloves are an excellent example. This means that your hands still have some protection from the cold even if you have to remove an outer glove, say to tie a bootlace, adjust a crampon or buckle a rucksack.

On your feet

Don’t assume your normal hiking socks will do the job in winter. Instead, invest in a decent pair of technical winter or mountaineering socks like those from Darn Tough or Horizon, ideally with a high proportion of insulating fibres like wool or hollowfibre polyester in the fabric blend. Make sure your socks aren’t too tight as you don’t want to hinder circulation to your extremities (in fact, the same advice applies to your gloves). You might also want longer calf or knee-length socks for winter. These can aid circulation to feet and toes.

On your head

An exposed head can actually lead to a drop in your overall core temperature, so headwear is a total necessity in winter. Opt for a hat or beanie that has a wicking material like wool against the skin, complemented by a water-resistant exterior. In harsh conditions, consider layering your headwear by utilising a baselayer-type hat underneath a thicker one. It's also highly beneficial to cover your neck with something like a scarf or neck gaiter (e.g. a Buff).

Will Renwick


A simple daypack will often do the job in summer but in winter, with all the above gear, you’ll likely need a backpack with a capacity of at least 30 litres. If you need to carry crampons, look for bags that have outer stash pockets made from durable, spike-resistant materials. Most technical packs are fitted with bungee cords and/or webbing straps that let you secure an ice axe and trekking poles securely.


If there isn’t snow or ice on the ground, a solid pair of waterproof hiking boots will be fine. If there is a risk of snow and icy conditions, you’ll need a pair of boots that are warm, weatherproof and also capable of taking a crampon. To gauge their compatibility, check whether they have a B rating and whether that matches the type of crampon you are using. For instance, B1 boots go with C1 (strap-on) crampons, B2 with C2 (semi-automatic crampons) and B3 with C3 (fully automatic or step-in crampons).

Will Renwick is an outdoors writer, long-distance runner and backpacker, originally from Cardiff. At 22, he was the first person to walk the entire perimeter of Wales. More recently, he ran all 189 of Wales’ mountains in one continuous fastpacking journey, a feat chronicled in the short film Taith Galed, currently touring across the UK.


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