The recent gales and the flurries of wind-driven snow in my garden leave no doubt that winter is heading our way.
This time of year is a favourite with many of the folk who spend time in the hills. The pale light, cast by a low sun and reflected off the landscape’s winter coat can be exquisite and air-clarity is at its best.
We Borderers are lucky to live in a real gem of a playground, but the games we play in winter can very quickly become serious.
We may not have the dramatic grandeur of the Highlands, but the weather in our uplands can be every bit as fickle, and the beautiful rolling nature of our hills can make navigation pretty tricky at times.
The Border Search and Rescue Unit can call upon its two-dozen-or-so active members – all volunteers – at any hour of the day, 365 days of the year.
We are now busy gearing up for the heavy-weather call-outs that we get throughout the winter. These may be as simple as helping the ambulance service to reach snowed-in casualties in their homes, but can also involve mass turn-outs on snowy nights on the hilltops, searching for lost walkers.
We are very keen to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors – it is a passion all team-members share, and would like to offer some advice on staying safe outdoors through the winter.
The areas we would like to highlight are: equipment to carry; navigation (knowing where you are and how to get where you’re going); keeping warm; and knowing what to do if things take a turn for the worse.
z File a route-plan before you leave. Make sure someone knows where you’re going. If you change your plan, try to phone home with the changes.
z Pack ‘light’. Many winter incidents are caused by people not having a head-torch, and spare batteries. Most modern head-torches use LED technology, meaning they weigh much less and last for much longer than their predecessors. Don’t get caught out in the dark.
z Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. The weather can change incredibly quickly in the winter hills. Even if it is calm and sunny when you set out, there’s every chance it will be blowing a hooley and tipping down sleet by lunchtime. Take spare warm layers, hat, gloves and – most importantly – a waterproof outer layer.
z Carry a mobile phone, and make sure the battery is fully charged before you leave.
z Make sure you can spot the early signs of hypothermia. Early signs include uncontrolled shivering, lethargy, confusion and lack of coordination. Carry warm, spare clothing, a water and windproof layer and extra food to keep energy levels up. A hot flask is also essential. Hypothermia kills. If you’re struggling, find shelter from wind and rain.
z If you go out in a group, consider investing in a group shelter big enough to fit everyone in.
z Even in our local hills there is plenty of ground sufficiently steep to make ice-axe and crampons essential in winter conditions. Make sure you pay attention to the weather; cold temperatures with snow on the ground leads to hard, slippery conditions underfoot. If you’re not suitably equipped, avoid steep ground.
z GPS – many of today’s smart-phones have built-in GPS (satellite navigation). If you’re relying on this, make sure you know how to use it, and what the figures mean. It’s no substitute for a good working knowledge of map and compass, but it can be handy in pinpointing your position if you’re lost in very poor visibility.
z With all electronic equipment, make sure you leave home with fully charged batteries. Batteries can be much less efficient in very low temperatures, so carry spares. Keep electronic equipment close to your body (in inside pockets) to keep it warm and working properly.
z Have escape routes worked out in advance. If you become lost on high ground, call home to report your last-known position if you have a signal, then retreat to lower ground, out of the wind and the cloud if possible.
z If you’re in a group, keep together, especially in poor visibility.
z If things go belly-up and you need help, call 999 or 112 and ask for the police and then mountain rescue. The following information will make your speedy rescue much more likely:Location – this can be a map grid reference, lat/long coordinates from a GPS or just a rough approximation of where you think you are; the condition of any casualties; the number in your party and mobile phone numbers of anyone in your group.
Every year we have call-outs to attend people who have come unstuck through neglect of the basics. Accidents will happen, but keeping safe in the hills is almost always a simple matter of proper planning, suitable equipment, recognising your limitations and sticking to the sensible side of dangerous.
If this article has been useful, or if you enjoy the outdoors, please donate to the Border Search and Rescue Unit by texting “BSAR41 £3” to 70070 (the amount can be anything from £1 to £10).
We have average annual expenses, including purchase and maintenance of vehicles and equipment, of about £30,000 – the majority of which we raise through charitable donations.
Visit www.bordersar.org.uk for further information.