Safety on walks
Planning your route
If you've chosen a route from Walkhighlands there's a written route description available, but except on the easiest waymarked grade 1 walks, you need to also make sure you can follow the route on the map – an Ordnance Survey or a Harvey Map is best. Identify any points where the terrain or bad weather might present difficulties and work out how you can avoid them.
Before committing to a particular route, think whether everyone in your group is fit enough, experienced enough and properly equipped for the journey. We all like to be pushed a bit sometimes – it's how we progress – but make sure you're not asking too much of yourself or anyone else. The best way to progress is to start easy and build up gradually or join a hillwalking club to get more experience with like-minded people.
Weather and ground conditions
This is more than just checking the weather forecast. It's as basic as considering whether it will be summer or winter conditions. If it's a spring trip, will there be late-lying snow to consider? Has it been raining a lot recently? If it has then stream and river levels may be higher than normal.
For the weather to expect on the day the most reliable mountain weather forecasts can be found from the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) and from the Met Office. Check the forecasts in the days before your trip and have a final check on the day itself.
Remember, there's more to checking the forecasts than just finding out if it'll be sunny or rainy for your trip. You should make use of the forecasts to help you decide where to go in the first place and to fine tune your plans. Remember, too, that one of the main considerations in any weather forecast for hillwalks is not whether or not it will rain, but information about the strength and direction of the wind.
What to wear and what to take
Make sure you have all the right kit for your journey, including both clothing and equipment – and not forgetting adequate provision for food and water. Your should carry a paper map, a compass if your route is a hillwalk, and a headtorch for longer routes. It may help to make a list of your essential kit and tick items off as they go into the rucksack.
For clothing, a layering system is most effective for the conditions you will expect to meet in the Scottish mountains. This consists of a base layer, a mid layer and an outer layer. The base layer should be quick drying and wick moisture away from your skin, so this is best being made of either merino wool or manmade fibres. Cotton is very slow to dry and, once wet, will chill you. The mid layer is for insulation. This will most likely be a thin fleece or wind shirt in summer, or a thicker fleece in winter. The outer layer is for protection from wind and rain, and should be of a waterproof fabric.
Navigation – more than just an arrow on a screen
Every year walkers get into trouble in the Scottish hills due to errors of navigation. Many of these have been carrying GPS or smartphone devices. The problem is that even if you have a smartphone or GPS with full OS mapping, it can't read and interpret the map for you. All it can do is show your position - being able to actually interpret the map correctly remains an essential skill.
When planning and following a route you need to be able to understand the map and gain information from it such as the steepness and nature of the terrain, and the presence and rough idea of the size of streams and rivers – not to mention the presence of cliffs!
Once you are familiar with the map, you need to learn to plan and follow a route. This means being able to identify a practicable route on the map and then to follow it on the ground.
The basics of navigation are not complicated, but they do require to be properly understood and practised.
- Study the map and plan your route so that you know where you want to go and how long it will take
- Always set the map in relation to the ground
- Learn to use the compass before you need to use it for real
- Have the map and compass to hand during the walk
- Check your position regularly - know where you are
Visit the Mountaineering Scotland website for a detailed guide to navigation skills and the use of a map and compass.
On Your Walk
Mountain paths are not signposted and even those marked on maps may sometimes be difficult underfoot and hard to follow on the ground. It's very easy to follow a sheep or deer path that leads to nowhere, so use your map and keep track of your location at all times.
Your route may involve traversing different types of terrain, from heather and peat bog to rocky paths, which can make walking slow and exhausting. Rivers and burns can rise rapidly and become impassable.
Throughout your walk, you need to consider whether whether you need to change plans. This could be because the weather is worse than expected or has deteriorated, because a river is too high and a crossing would be hazardous, or progress to the current point has been slower than intended and pressing on with your original route may risk being benighted. Always have an alternative in mind if you need to alter your original objective in this way, and be prepared to turn back if necessary.
During the summer months you may find patches of snow. You should avoid these areas unless you have winter skills and equipment. Remember, many mountain accidents result from a simple slip. It can snow during any month of the year in the Scottish hills.
Hillwalking in winter should be regarded as mountaineering and requires extra precautions. Daylight hours are shorter and weather conditions are more severe. Gain experience in summer conditions before venturing out in winter. See our page for more details on winter skills and safety.
This page has been produced in association with Mountaineering Scotland.