With the weather opening up to more sunshine and hotter days, it's time to dust off the winter blues and begin getting outdoors again.
While many took to hiking during the lockdown as a safe measure of escaping the indoors, this summer promises to be bigger and better than before with little to no restrictions stopping us from going anywhere.
However, if you are thinking of getting up on top of the falls, it's a good idea to think about your safety when adventuring in The Lake District.
In light of this, we spoke with Zac from Fell Top Assessors to get the ins and outs of hiking safety and who better to guide us through this than one of the individuals who make it their mission to climb Helvellyn every day to assess the safety of the fells for others.
What are some common mistakes you see when people go hiking?
I think the main thing we see is a lack of awareness of what the hazards are and a lack of knowledge or a lack of experience, it's not that people are doing anything wrong it's just that they don't have anything to base their judgments on.
It's things like not asking the question ‘what if?’ So if they haven't got the right gear with them or they haven't got navigation. The vast majority of the time they'll get away with it and they'll have a great day out in the hills. That's how most of us have learned, we’ve gone out and we’ve made mistakes and we’ve learned from them, as well as going out and walking with more experienced people. It's very much the process we all go through.
We're seeing more and more young people on the hill and bigger groups actually. When I started going it was 2-3 people and now we're seeing 20+. However, it's changing the dynamic, the personal responsibility which was very much what was taught to me. Self-reliance, taking responsibility for your decisions, taking responsibility for the knowledge you've got. It's how you become a better walker, mountaineer, climber… and a safer one!
The common mistake is just a lack of awareness of what the hazards are and what you can do about them.
What would be the best way for someone to gain more experience?
Traditionally, people would go out with people with more experience and learn from them. It's important to add that just because someone has been doing it for 20 odd years, it doesn't mean they’ve been doing it the best way or the safest way… they may have just been lucky or it might not have been taught!
There are plenty of courses and providers offering training in navigation, ropework, camp craft, and again there are professional bodies like the association of mountaineering instructors and mountaineering instructors.
They'll give you a shortcut in gaining that experience, it's a cost to start with but it'll give you a huge leap in the right direction, you'll start to know what you don't know and ask the right questions and hopefully, also increase your enjoyment.
We do it for enjoyment and there are no rules out there, relatively… haha. You can go out and set the level of risk as you set fit with what you're comfortable with. The challenge is giving people the skills and the knowledge to judge that risk and decide what they are comfortable with in the outdoor environment.
There's also a lot of information online for weather conditions, which is what us Fell Top Assessors do. We also advise on what suitable kit to take.
Again, there's information online that's not current best practice. There are lots of techniques that have worked for a number of years but there are better ways of doing things that have evolved through a lot of experience and a lot of chatting. But it's just building that knowledge base really and becoming self-reliant.
What are some issues, even people with experience, have come across?
I mean, probably the most dangerous part of the day is driving back home when you're tired! Hiking is pretty safe in this country. We do have the backup of a very good mountain rescue service, all volunteers, no central funding or anything like that but the capability they have and the resources they have are absolutely incredible.
There's usually a chain of things happening throughout the day, small mistakes, small decisions, and when an incident happens you can take it back to all these decisions earlier in the day. Not looking after yourself, and not making good decisions earlier in the day.
If you keep yourself well-fed, well-hydrated, you've got the right clothing on so you're comfortable, you're not hungover at the start of the day, you've made a sensible plan based on the weather, all those little things if you get them right, it's a lot easier to make sensible decisions throughout the day.
You're not as fatigued, you're not focussed on the fact you've got cold hands because you didn't bring your gloves.
Humans will always have accidents, we’ll always make mistakes and you can't legislate for it. We definitely don't want to legislate for it because the hills, that's the attraction for a lot of people.
So we’ll always have accidents and it's staking the odds in your favour, by also having the right kit, checking the weather, all those sorts of things. And then just what if? If I do have a problem, if I go over on an ankle or my map blows away, what do I do then?
It's not trying to put people off but it's worth having a think and if I do twist my ankle and I do have to wait here for two hours for mountain rescue to come get me, how cold am I going to get? Have I got a survival bag to get out of the wind and rain?
The most common call-outs are twisted ankles, falling over damaging a wrist or collarbone, with the older generation it tends to be heart attacks and medical conditions but that's just as likely to happen shopping as it is up on the hills really, it just obviously takes people longer to get to you.
As well as people getting lost! Poor decisions during the day, too ambitious with your plans, or your navigation wasn't up and you got lost during the day and you're coming down in the dark and it all gets a bit stressful.
They're lost or ‘temporarily misplaced’ and they can't get themselves down off the hill and that's when the mountain rescue teams have to go out a search for them and technology has made that easier but what it comes down to is putting people down on the hill and escorting people off.
Can’t you get an app on your phone which can locate you in two words?
Yeah so the whole planet has been divided up into 3 meter squares and each one has a unique three words. It's a system that works but there are better systems.
Ordnance Survey does an app called OS locate and it will give your location in the UK in a six-figure grid reference and that is someone that you can give a mountain rescuer and they can plot it on their map and come and find you.
Whereas What Three Words, if the mountain rescuer doesn't have a signal the mountain rescuer cant come and find you. I won't give it too much grief haha, there are better ways of doing it but if that's the only thing someones got on their phone then it's better than nothing.
What would you say are the prime conditions for hiking?
In terms of making life easy for yourself, blue skies make navigation very easy. Certainly looking at the views and stuff, that's why people go to the hills so mentally you'll be in a better place on a nice day. Navigating in poor visibility is quite mentally draining and stressful at times.
Then there's the really stunning conditions, cloud immersions, you start out in the valley thinking this is going to be a pretty grotty day and you just pop out of the clouds and it's just the peaks of the lake district that are the really special ones.
The other way of looking at it, the really bad conditions and I'm not saying don't go out in bad conditions, it's a different sort of challenge. It's going out challenging your kit, your physical fitness, your knowledge, and your skills in that environment, and having an adventure, an adventure does have an uncertainty of outcome.
Poor visibility definitely adds to the challenge of navigation and that's probably where people are less confident, even experienced walkers struggle with their navigation. Then there's the wind.
This winter we’ve had gusts of 80, 90 mph and that's enough to blow anyone over, the winds tend to be lighter in spring and summer. Physically it's really knackering fighting against the wind all day so yeah the wind can blow you over with risk of injury.
It also puts people on edge, if the wind is blowing all day and you're fighting against it, stuff won't stay put, your rucksack strap is smacking you in the face all day, it just puts people on edge.
It's really obvious to see, you'll go out with a group on a windy day and everyone will be on edge and a bit angsty and disagreements will happen. So, that's all part of the challenge
Heavy rain as well, even in summer months, with the temperature down in single figures, with a lot of wind and a lot of rain, perfect conditions for hyperthermia.
If your kit isn't quite up to it and you get soaked and the wind is dropping the temperature even further and you're not eating or drinking and feeding and hydrating during the day, you can very quickly drift into hyperthermia, where your core body temperature drops and you start making silly decisions.
It's worth having a think and if I do twist my ankle and I do have to wait here for two hours for mountain rescue to come get me, how cold am I going to get?
Which tools could you use to help you hike?
Traditionally, the most important is a map and compass, they are the basics for navigation. A lot of people do have experience from D of E or scouts or something like that. Despite all the apps and technology, they are still the fundamentals.
The other thing is enough warm and waterproof clothing for you to be comfortable up there. When you're moving you will generate heat but if you've sweated into your kit and you stop it's surprising how quickly your temperature will drop and how very quickly you'll feel too cold to get going again. So even on nice days it's good to carry an extra layer in the lakes, one or two to be honest.
Then the little things like having a head torch with you, if you're planning a long day, you might be coming down in the daylight but it only takes a wrong turn or a twisted ankle and you're coming down in the dark. If you've got a torch it's not a problem, you might miss pub closing time but it's not an issue in of itself.
If you haven't got that torch, all of a sudden you're relying on someone else to come and get you. This whole idea of self-reliance and personal responsibility is very important to a lot of us that go to the hills.
Mountain Rescue are delighted to come out and help people, they're well trained and have the funding but it's saving it for those who really need it, rather than those who have just had an issue and don't have the kit or experience to sort themselves out.
There are lots of very useful apps, everyone likes their phone and it is a very useful tool. There are a number of mapping apps, ordnance survey, memory map, view ranger- they are some of the good ones and they do make navigation easier as long as the battery is still going and they've got a signal or it hasn't rained on it or you haven't dropped it in a puddle.
They will increase people's safety but be aware of the limitations of technology in the hills.
If you're using your phone for everything, trying to use it for navigation, photography, logging everything on strava, listening to music, you'll very very quickly chew through your battery and if that's your only means of navigation, you've got a problem.
What should you do in an emergency?
If it all has gone wrong and you are going to need external assistance, to call mountain rescue it’s 999 or the European number 112, they'll get you to the same police operator.
If your phone doesn't have a signal, it is still worth trying 999 because even if it hasn't got its native signal it will use whatever signal it’s got. So if you're with EE and you don't have an EE signal, your phone will use Vodafone or 3 or whatever to make a 999 call.
Mountain Rescue will then try to phone you back, you won't be able to speak to Mountain Rescue directly at the time, they are all volunteers so you'll speak to the police officer operator and they'll speak to a Mountain Rescue team leader and they'll try to ring you back.
Obviously, if you’ve not got your native network then they won't be able to ring you back, so it's really important to think about what information you're going to give the operator, bear in mind they may be sat in a call centre in London, they may have never been to the hills before they may not understand the limitations on you know “we’ll have an ambulance to your in 5 minutes” no you won't.
So think about what information, if you're only going to get one phone call out, that you need to tell Mountain Rescue. Get that out to the police operator. Another thing worth doing is the 999 text service, everyone needs to register for that, it's free.
Originally it was for the harder hearing but we realised it worked really well in the hills because you need a lot less signal to get a text message out and your phone will continue to try and get that message out as you're in the hill.
You do have to register your number here: https://www.emergencysms.net/
The rest of it, depending on where you are in the Lake District, it can quite possibly be 2-3 hours before they get to you, even longer if they are looking for you. So it's then just getting yourself sorted, get yourself out of the weather as much as possible, look after yourselves, eat, drink.
This idea of don't feed anyone because they might need an operation is fine on the high street but you need to fuel their system. The anesthetist that's going to put your mate under is dealing with full stomachs all the time. Anyone who has a car crash is going to have a full stomach so it's not going to stop them from having an operation.
Think about making yourself visible, we all like to wear black, blue, grey clothing, that seems to be the fashion but you're almost impossible to see lying in a heap somewhere, even in the snow. So make yourself as visible as possible.
The international distress signal is 6 blasts on a whistle every minute or 6 flashes on a head torch every minute and keep going until a Mountain Rescue trip over you. If anyone hears 6 whistles or sees 6 flashes they're going to raise the alarm so just keep going until Mountain Rescue finds you.
Tips and Tricks
The biggest piece of advice is to be prepared to turn back, you might have invested a lot of time, money, emotion in your day out on the hill but… It's an old saying “the mountain will always be there so make sure you are too.”
So recognising that conditions are not great or you're not feeling great or something one wrong and being prepared to go away and come back when you're ready to climb that mountain.
One of the best websites for getting people ready is BeAdventureSmart, it was put together with national parks and Mountain Rescue and it has 3 simple questions:
- Do I have the right gear?
- Do I know what the weather will be like?
- Am I confident I have the knowledge and skills for the day?
Three really simple questions that anyone can ask themselves and hopefully, that will steer you into a good day.