Safety First & Survival in the Brecon Beacons

Navigation Course ©Kevin Walker Mountain Activities

Today seems a perfect day to put out a blog on safety.  The Brecon Mountain Rescue team reported record call-outs last year and judging from their regular updates on Facebook, they are still receiving a significant number of emergency calls.  It is essential that you take precaution before heading out onto the hills.  Our expert Kevin Walker, from Kevin Walker Mountain Activities, gives us his top ten tips for items you should always carry when you go out hiking.  If you have any questions, do put them in the comment box below, we’re sure Kevin will be delighted to answer them.

KEEP SAFE IN THE HILLS by Kevin Walker, Mountain Activities

I am often asked what are the essential things to take when walking in the hills.  The list is not as long as you might think.  Indeed, weight is your enemy – the more you carry, the more energy you will use, so it is actually a good idea to take as little as possible!  That said, there are a few absolute essentials.  Read on for my top ten tips for items you should always carry…

1. BOOTS

Get yourself a decent pair of walking boots!  They don’t need to be mega-expensive, but they do need to support your ankles, and have a good sole unit which protects the base of your feet and gives good grip.  They should be roomy enough that you can just wiggle your toes, but not so big that your heels lift when you walk.  On no account should your toes touch the end – even when you kick your feet forward.  A good guide is that there should be just enough room for you to insert a finger down the back of the boot when it is unlaced and your foot is as far forward as possible.  The best advice is to get your boots from a reputable outdoor shop and to have them properly fitted.  Don’t forget to wear decent socks, and avoid cotton as it retains moisture and is likely to cause blisters.

2. SUITABLE CLOTHING

Clothing should be built up in layers.  Depending on the season, start with a thin base layer next to the skin (merino wool is expensive but brilliant), followed by one or more insulating layers such as fleeces.  You’ll need something windproof as well – it’s not much use having all this warm stuff if the slightest puff of wind blows away the warmth!  Trousers should not be too baggy, but should not restrict movement.  Soft-shell garments are great for these outer layers.  Again, a visit to a good out shop is highly recommended so you can see what is available, and ask advice from the sales assistant.  Ask them what they wear, and if they say they don’t go walking, go to a different shop!

You’ll also need a decent waterproof shell – that’s jacket AND trousers!  These don’t have to be made of expensive breathable fabrics, but you will be more comfortable if they are.  And don’t forget your extremities… take a hat and gloves.

If the weather is warm and settled, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you walking in t-shirt and shorts, but make sure you carry something to cover your arms and legs in case the weather becomes unkind.  Always carry sun-screen – it is surprisingly easy to get burnt in the clean air of the hills!

3. FOOD & DRINK

If you are going any distance, you will almost certainly get hungry and thirsty, so take a few snacks and plenty of water.  It’s also prudent to carry a couple of energy bars… just in case!  Try not to munch these at lunchtime, but keep hold of them until you get back to the car – they are there for emergencies.  Take more water than you think you’ll need, and have small drinks at regular intervals rather than flooding yourself all in one go.

4. MAP & COMPASS

Unless you are following a simple, straightforward valley walk on good paths, you really should take a map and compass.  However, it’s pointless carrying these unless you know how to use them, so get yourself some training, either from experienced friends, or from a qualified outdoor instructor or recognised centre.  You cannot learn navigation simply by reading books, although they will definitely help.  When it comes to effective navigation, there is no substitute for practical experience.

BBT team: (We’re going to plug Kevin’s course here…. As he has failed to mentioned it! Check them out here)

5. HEADTORCH

Particularly from late autumn to early spring, mountain days are surprisingly short, and darkness can gather with alarming speed.  A head torch might make the difference between becoming benighted and getting off the hill safely.  Much rather the latter!  A small hand-held torch might just suffice, but a head-torch is far more practical, and it need not be expensive (although it has to be said that you get what you pay for!)

6. WHISTLE & MOBILE PHONE

I don’t want to dwell on negatives, but what if things go wrong?  Accidents happen – it’s a fact of life.  What if you twist your ankle or get “locationally challenged”?  What if you stumble across someone who isn’t as well prepared as you, and who has had an accident?  A mobile phone can be useful for summoning help (dial 999, ask for police, then ask for mountain rescue), and you can also register your phone to send emergency texts when there is insufficient reception for a voice call.  When there is no reception at all, you will find you can blow a whistle for far longer than you can shout!  The International Mountain Distress Signal is six long blasts on the whistle (or flashes of your torch) followed by a minute’s silence, repeated for as long as is necessary.  The answer is three blasts (or flashes) to let people know they have been heard.  Please don’t blow your whistle for any other reason – it could be misconstrued as an emergency signal.

7. SURVIVAL BAG

If you have to spend an unexpected night in the open, or if you are unable to move because of injury or severe weather, you are going to get very cold while you are waiting for help to arrive!  Hypothermia is a distinct possibility, so it is useful to carry a survival bag – a thick plastic sack large enough to get in.  To use it, you pull it on over your head, and poke a hole in the corner so you can breathe.  It also helps if you sit on your rucksack to insulate yourself from the ground.

A survival bag is far more useful than a “space” blanket.  Because these foil sheets work by reflecting body heat, they are about as useful as a chocolate fireguard if you are cold, and, more importantly, they do not stop heat loss through evaporation.  Survival bags are cheap, can be easily carried, and can save lives.

8. FIRST AID

It is useful to carry a small first aid kit in case of minor injuries such as cuts, grazes, scratches, and blisters.  This doesn’t need to be anything fancy – perhaps a small selection of adhesive dressings, some antiseptic wipes to clean wounds of grit and dirt, and a couple of bandages or wound dressings.

9. RUCKSACK

You will obviously need something in which to carry all your stuff, so get yourself a small day sack – one of around 15 litres should be plenty big enough.  Don’t get one that’s too big, or you will be tempted to fill it with unnecessary bits and pieces!

10. A HUGE HELPING OF COMMON SENSE

It’s amazing how many people leave this at home!  Like the woman who tried to climb an icy Pen y Fan last winter wearing Ugg Boots! (“…but I wanted to keep my feet warm!”)  Luckily, she only got a short way before slipping and breaking her wrist… “luckily” because, had she slipped further up the path, she may well have slid for a considerable distance and broken something more vital.  So think before you go, let someone know where you are going and what time you intend getting back, get a decent, local weather forecast, and try to imagine what conditions are going to be like on the tops (almost always colder, wetter, and windier than the valleys).  And when you’re out and about, don’t be afraid to turn back if it all gets a bit unpleasant.  After all, the hills will always be there for you, and you will enjoy them far more on a better day.

All the items above are essential in summer conditions.  In winter you will need some other stuff as well – not just extra insulating layers, but possibly even ice axe and crampons.  Bear in mind that the most common cause of walking accidents in winter is simple slips on easy ground – if you trip on even a gentle icy slope and you are wearing your waterproofs, you could slide a long way and gather a surprising amount of speed.  The sudden stop when you hit that rock is going to hurt!

Recommended reading…

“Navigation – Finding Your Way on Mountain & Moorland” (see the link on my website at http://www.mountain-activities.com/links/summary.htm.

To find out about my hill skills and navigation courses, guided walks, and walking breaks, visit my web site at www.mountainacts.co.uk.

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6 Responses to Safety First & Survival in the Brecon Beacons

  1. Great tips Kevin. I particularly like the last one. Never ceases to amaze me number of people I see who go out walking in trainers, esp on Pen-y-fan (if climbing from Storey Arms) and children who are poorly equipped. Common sense very much left at home!

  2. Brian says:

    Excellent tips. I’m always horrified when I see people heading up from the A470 car park wearing t shirts and flipflops. I got looked at like I was mad when I told my brother I had two survival bags in my kit when we climbed the Pen in August – well, it was blowing a gale and about 4 degrees on the summit, but I was happy 🙂
    Only one of your tips I neglected was the sun screen. We were up there at the start of June last year and I got horribly sun burned…

  3. Julie Bell says:

    Hi Kevin,
    just to reiterate the point about flip flops, I actually saw a woman with bleeding feet last summer at the top of Pen-y-fan. Boob tube, virtually non existsnt denim shorts and bleeding feet made a great statment…….. (mind you Gandolf and the Hobbits I met on the way down did have proper walking boots on under the fancy dress)
    Often people ask me about recommended walks in the pub and I always ask “have you got the right gear with you” before recommending a walk. It is amazing what people think is safe gear. They think I’m a bit mad when I kindly suggest espadrilles are not “stout walking boots” (in the words of my old guide leader!) Think I’ll copy this out and leave it around the pub this weekend as a not so suble hint!
    Julie

  4. I have been thinking about this and perhaps this might come under an alternative heading – Keeping the Hills Green – but something I always take with me is a bag, just in case I come across rubbish which has been wantonly strewn on the landscape. It’s a sad fact, but the more popular this beautiful landscape becomes, the greater man’s impact. Together, we can keep it clean (or something along those lines!)

    • Kevin Walker says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Alexis. My motto has never been “to leave the mountain in the state in which you found it”, but “to leave the mountain in a BETTER state than that in which you found it”! My blog, however, was very much about the essentials for safe and enjoyable walking – so I make no apologies for the omission!!

  5. Pingback: Walk Wednesday: Historic Aircraft Crash Site in the Brecon Beacons #Vampire | Brecon Beacons Tourism's Blog

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