To be blunt, not checking forecasts before heading into the hills could be your quickest way to exiting this dimension. In summer you'll most likely get away with being caught in a shower you hadn't expected and didn't prepare for, but in winter there are many more things to consider if you want to stay safe, have a great day and most importantly get home at the end of it all.
So what do we look at before heading out onto the hill?
1. Weather Forecasts
Forecasts have never been more accurate and it has never been easier to check them. Most major weather sites now even have apps you can download.
Different forecasters use different models so it is actually a good idea to look at a few sites to help build a picture. This way you can go onto the hill with a best and worse case expectation.
Our top pick sites are:
Mountain Weather Information Service - UK wide. App available too (Mountain Forecast).
Met Office Mountain Weather - The option to type in specific hills too (App also available)
Mountain Forecast - Type in pretty much any mountain in the world!
Lake District Weatherline - Lake District specific
Windy - A fab visual weather app for your phone
Make life easy for yourself by either downloading the apps or putting all the websites into one folder which you can mass open at the click of a button!
Don't forget that the forecasts can change and will be most reliable the closer you are to the intended adventure day. We only really rely on forecasts 24-36 hours before the day.
2. Avalanche Forecasts / Info
There is no avoiding the fact that there is a lot of science behind everything to do with avalanches, but a little bit of information can go a long way.
If you're keen to get stuck in to winter hill adventures then I really would advise getting some formal training to help make you more aware of the considerations surrounding safe travel. Our winter skills courses for starters are an ideal intro.
Fortunately there are online resources to help us along the way.
Scottish Avalanche Information Service - Scotland has 7 avalanche assessors which head out on a daily basis and provide a general report for that area. Download the app and you will automatically get the information as soon as you enter that area.
Obviously this is very Scotland specific however the site also has some excellent resources to read through such as the 'Be Avalanche Aware' document (also available in the app).
Lake District Weatherline - Throughout winter there is a 'felltop assessor' which scales Helvellyn in order to provide a ground conditions report. They will generally provide key avalanche related information (such as slopes to avoid, hazards etc)
A great habit to get in to on the lead up to your adventure is to check the reports every day in order to help build a picture as to what changes are happening up on the hill.
3. Social Media
My top pick is a forum on Facebook called 'Ground Conditions in UK Mountain Areas'. The name speaks for itself and the group really comes alive. On a daily basis throughout winter there will be a whole range of reports and pictures posted by members of the group which will hopefully shine some light on what you should expect.
Don't forget a lot can change in just a few hours so only use the pictures as a way of building a picture.
4. Route Preparation
The chances are you already have a route in mind but do use the above information to make an educated decision as to whether it is still feasible for you on not only a safety front but also a fitness and ability (navigation, technical) approach.
Be aware of what time the sun sets and get on to the hill accordingly. It is always easier to start a day in the dark than finish one, and even if you're not planning on being out in the dark pack a torch anyway.
Remember ground conditions and the additional weight is likely to slow you down compared to your summer pace to make sure you plan a route accordingly. Having built in escape routes if you do get tired or the weather changes is advisable.
We personally like using 'Bing.com' mapping to scroll around looking at places to walk and to plan routes. You can swap to Ordnance survey mapping and by right clicking you can also measure distance.
Once you have a route planned don't forget to let someone know where you're going!
5. Winter climbing - keeping it ethical
As great as winter climbing is, it is also a fab way of destroying the fells (or killing yourself) if done when done 'out of condition'. Fortunately most climbers are aware of what to expect to see from a route that 'in condition' but now thanks to the BMC you can now view turf and air temperature readings for Great End, Helvellyn and Cwm Idwal from the comfort of your sofa!
6. Final Kit Check
You don't want to get on the hill to discover your crampons have lost a screw or that you've left the gloves drying on the radiator from the last adventure. Give your pack a quick once over and make sure all you need is there.
When it comes to carrying kit, if you're unsure as to whether to take it then it's best to chuck it in just in case! This goes for crampons and ice axes too, they're no use to you when they're sat in the boot of your car as you try and cross that patch of ice you hadn't planned on seeing.
Join Lakeland Mountain Guides this season for either a 1 or 2 day winter skills course to help you become safe and confident in the hills of winter. Winter guiding and navigation courses are also available!