Ultimate Guide to Winter Mountain Running 2018

Winter is coming – you’d better be fit and prepared to run in these conditions! But if you are they will be some of the best days you’ve ever had.

All three of us who front CGR are runners. Dave runs mostly to be fit for his climbing and to keep his weight down. Richie is a ‘retired’ Karrimor’ runner who’s still pretty keen and handy and has swapped competitive running for competitive Cyclocross racing and Kev who eats up the kilometres in the French Alps. What we all love though, is winter running and we all spend times running in the mountains when we aren’t climbing in the mountains. We don’t know what it is but running through the mountains in winter conditions just seems to tick a lot of boxes. It’s a definite though, it’s hard to have a rubbish day out running!

Why would you want to run in such a hostile environment? Winter in the UK uplands is very harsh, even if it isn’t snowing the temperatures can be below freezing;, the wind seems to cut through every layer you have on. Your hands feel like blocks of wood and every rock you land your feet on seems to be covered in slime. But, to be honest on that special day, when the wind is at your back running along the plateau, the clouds roll back and the sun shines on that white neve (snow that has thawed and refrozen which has awesome friction). Those are special days and worth every gram of sweat to achieve. Mostly though, winter running in the mountains involves a lot of sweat, gnarl and pain – oh and getting wet, did we mention that?

So, if we’ve persuaded you of the joys of running through the mountains in winter what do you need to know to get yourself into it. Well, it is very different to summer as you can imagine as the weather is your main opponent. It can change in an instant with very little warning and no amount of weather forecasts can guarantee you the weather they display on your laptop or phone screen. We have found that the MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service www.mwis.org.uk) offers the best forecast for UK mountain conditions. They’ve been doing it for many years and have a great team of forecasters who work closely with the Met Office. So, for planning we use MWIS and then use the Met Office app for more up to date information on the day and by the hour if needed. Still we’ve lost count of the times we’ve cursed the Met Office when we’re looking at the sun/cloud icon on our phones in the rain! Oh, did we forget to mention the suffering? Yes, yes you’ve got to like that – you’ve got to like that a lot 🙂

Navigation

You should never go out into the mountains (in summer or winter) without the ability to navigate using a map and compass. A quick look at the Mountain Rescue stats will highlight what happens when you venture out without that ability. The fact that you are out running, moving light and carrying minimal kit means that you need your day to go smoothly and knowing where you are, were you are going and if you are travelling in the direction you need to be is the difference between an enjoyable and challenging experience and an epic. Don’t get us wrong we use our phones for location all the time, we also use it to help us know that we’re going in the right direction. But we don’t rely on it, we know from bitter experience that relying on a phone alone will lead to it dying when its most needed. So, phones usually stay on airplane mode and they only come out when needed. That means that most of the time we’ve got just a map out – which we’ve printed off from a OS Maps subscription onto waterproof map paper. We’ve also found the BMC Mountain maps very good (but I like to have 1:25000 as it ties in with the maps on my phone). They are most useful for multi day trips as they are the lightest maps going. You will also need a good compass and it’s also a good idea to have all your critical directional bearings drawn on your map with permanent marker so you can just set the compass and go.

Clothing

Winter running poses more demands on clothing systems than in summer. That said we are running so we don’t need to take all those extra layers we might take on a hike. Versatility is key and systems that work so we don’t need to be taking clothing on and off or on the move.  Start with a good pair of winter running leggings, these should be dedicated winter weight leggings. I’ll then have a good quality pair of boxers under them (if you can get windproof all the better) Don’t think for one second though that that will keep the wind out, it won’t and if you want to be more windproof I would suggest a pair of Gore Windstopper tights.

Dave fully kitted out for a winter mountain run!

On my torso I have a winter weight thermal. You can start the run with that on and you will probably get quite hot when when you start going up, if you buy a half zip top and roll the sleeves up that will help. As the wind gets up (which it often does ) I’ll then pop on a wind proof jacket or a gilet (vest).  Always make sure to preset the hood at home so that you’re not having to faff around when that wind is blowing  around on the summit. Rich has become a big fan of the super-light Polartec Alpha tops such as the Adidas Agravic Hooded jacket (reviewed earlier this winter) and the sadly discontinued INOV-8 AT/C Thermoshell. Polartec Alpha works brilliantly when you need breathability and insulation combined. You should also have a superlight hardshell in your pack for extra protection against hail, rain and horizontal snow. This will be in you pack most of the time though (if you’ve planned your day right of course). When the wind howls though we’ve found that we’ve aften got the hardshell on over the windproof. We’re not ones for carrying waterproof pants, although that’s just our personal preference and there are some excellent lightweight ones out there that pack down tiny.

One item of clothing we never skimp on for winter is a decent insulating jacket. For UK weather we usually opt for synthetic fill. UK weather is too damp for down. I’m not saying a full on Scottish winter climbing belay jacket is needed, but it does need to be good enough to keep you warm when the proverbial hits the fan. Also, it’s nice to have a warm layer when you stop to take in the awesome view for a few minutes. I know that some might feel that it takes a lot of room up in the pack – but it is wise to have that safety margin. Hobbling down with a twisted ankle takes a lot of time – you might as well be warm! A warm ‘puffie’ or light duvet jacket is great for pre and post race comfort and although synthetic is the best bet for wet conditions some of the recent the water resistant down jackets also work brilliantly and still have an edge on warmth to weight but check the forecast even water resistant down is no use in the rain!

Richie with pack

Richie heading up into the snowline with the Salomon S-Lab Trail 20 pack.

And talking of packs – Dave uses a 15L pack. The main thing is that the pack doesn’t sway around or move on your back. This may be a bigger and heavier pack that you are used to carrying so make sure it has plenty of shock cord and compression straps to keep everything tight in the pack. The newer adventure race packs often work well but be careful to choose one that will stow an ice axe.

That covers the clothing essentials as well as a pack – all super light and compressible and it’s great fun to spend many evenings looking at how all this packs together and how it can be accessed when needed. The secret to clothing is anticipation. It’s no use trying to put that extra hardshell on when the gale is blowing on the summit – stop for a few minutes just below where it’s often a little calmer and put it on then.

If you’re winter running in the UK seeing the sun might be a rare, but welcome, experience. In the Alps the combination of sun, altitude and snow make sunglasses a must. However even in the UK some form of eye protection is a good idea on the sunless days. A low light lens will protect your eyes from wind whipped dust, snow or hail as well as guarding against branches is you’re descending through trees. Anyway as everyone knows sunglasses are cool and if you’re suffering to stay with your mate they help mask that pain face!

Other clothing essentials to consider are gloves. A pair of windstopper gloves for the main run and maybe a lighter pair to keep as dry for the descent back to the valley. Socks, I like to wear compression socks if the weather is forecast to be dry and ground conditions are likely to be good but for snow or wet ground I’ll wear a waterproof sock as well as Gore-Tex shoes. Talking of shoes – ideally they need to be a little stiffer that a normal running shoe so look for a more specialist shoe. Why stiffer? Well for some of the day you may need to be wearing spikes or even lightweight crampons (if you are planning to get into some steeper ascents/descents). Also remember that snow will get into shoes easily so you may need a set of gaiters to keep your feet drier and warmer (they will never be completely dry). We’ve been using running shoes with integrated, zipped gaiters this winter which have been proving a great hit with Dave and Kev.

Gaitered running shoes are great for soft, wet snowy terrain. Testing the Scarpa Neutron Gaiter shoes.

So, we’ve got our feet sorted out let’s look at covering steep ground. The big question is crampons or spikes? If you are just beginning to get out into the mountains or lacking in experience I would say stay away from steep ascents and descents and cut your teeth getting out and running over a variety of snowy terrains. For most runs spikes will work well and if you are experienced then Dave has used them to come down from Helvellyn in the Lake District via Swirral Edge. Spikes are good as they are lightweight, are easy and quick to fit and take up little pack space. They are also useful for verglassed rock and path as well as steep grass. Crampons are only suitable for steeper ground and more experienced mountaineers, they don’t work well with running shoes as the sole is too cushioned for them to work effectively. That said some crampons will work OK and you’ll find plenty of footage of Uli Steck or Killian Jornet running in crampons. Dave has used the Grivel G12 crampons for Grade 1 Gulley terrain to good effect – they are heavy however and he says you wouldn’t want to run all day in them and they are hideous to run over vergalsssed rock in. In fact they can be very dangerous in that type of terrain.

Spikes are great for softer snow and icy descents. For steeper ascents crampons would be more useful.

On top of that you shouldn’t be venturing out into the mountains in snowy conditions without an ice axe. We recommend a nice light one, but not the lightest you can buy. UK mountain conditions are very different to Europe, the snow is often shallower with rock or grass under or it is bullet hard. So prefer a slightly heavier weight one works best for UK conditions but in The Alps you can get away with a super light axe. The vast majority of your runs will however will have the axe stowed away. This can pose a problem with many running packs as many are not designed for mountain use. Some of the more recent designs however, do have an axe loop so keep an eye out when buying one. That said with a little ingenuity you should be able to stow a light and compact axe to a pack. Just remember to deploy it earlier than you think you’ll need it. Standing around on steep ground trying to take you axe out will definitely give you the hebee jeebies!

Other items that you will need to pack are a decent headtorch, it’s an absolute pain to have to use a sub standard headtorch when you’re on technical ground. If you are pIanning a lower level run in the morning then an emergency torch is best. If you are planning to be out all day then something a little more powerful will be needed. At least 300 lumens and if it’s rechargeable them make sure it’s fully charged before you leave the house! A nice lightweight hat or even a headband works well for headwear. Merino may be a little warmer but will not dry as quickly as PowerStretch. Dave likes to carry a lightweight emergency bag and a tiny first aid kit too. If you shop carefully you can buy amazingly light and compact emergency items.

Finally poles and watches – We are all a huge pole fans and wouldn’t be without them. Many of the main brands now have super light and compact poles. Look for folding ones made from carbon fibre and if you can get one’s that fit snow baskets then that will help n deeper snow. And watches – I personally prefer a tracking watch to using Strava as every time we’ve used that in the mountains our phone has died within a couple of hours. Just that combination of continual use, cold and damp seems to kill iPhones with astonishing regularity!

So, we like a watch which is more useful for tracking the day out as well as offering a ton of metrics for analysis later!. Remember though that you will need the skill to convert a grid reference to where you are on a map as a watch will not have good enough mapping. Look for a modern tracking one with a HR function so, like Dave, you can monitor your whole life! We also recommend supplementing the HR with a chest HRM as that will give you some added metrics and is more accurate at reading your heart rate. But then if you are a serious runner you’re likely to already have these so there’s no need to change that. Just remember to disconnect it from your phone (or easier pop your phone on airplane mode for the run) and have it fully charged before you leave home.

So that just about covers it, with all that kit you should be fine for a day out running in the mountains. Remember that you should be able to get it all in a small specialist running pack that cinches tight to your body and I haven’t discussed food and drink (Dave is an energy bar and jelly baby man with a small amount of hot drink in a 500ml Nalgene bottle – he’ll top up at streams when I’m thirsty). No kit however will be a substitute for good general fitness, a weird love of suffering and pain but when it all comes together running through the mountains will be some of the best runs you will ever have.

Happy adventures,

Dave, Kev and Rich.

 

Ultimate Guide to Mountain Running Kit List

We have tested all the kit featured in this recommended kit list it will be a great start to get you on your way to being prepared for everything winter can throw at you.

Footwear

Scarpa Neutron Gaiter

 

The Scarpa Neutron Gaiter are perfect for the soft, wet conditions found in the UK hills and mountains. They have a more flexible midsole and work great with spikes. I have also used them successfully with crampons but only for softer snow. They wouldn’t work so well with ice and hard neve. They size in full sizes so he opted for the UK 9 and not the size 8 which came up a little tight. They have fitted well with the quick lace system which tucked away nicely in the OutDry laminated gaiter. Talking of which the gaiter did up tightly and never came undone, even on the most technical if terrain and the Vibram Genetic sole has plenty of rugged lugs to help grip on that sqeaky snow terrain. Worn with a pair of Seal Skinz socks I have never suffered with cold feet with the Neutron Gaiters on and the slightly stiffened toebox help to protect cold feet from the worst of the stumbling around at the end of the day. Not the lightest pair of trainers I’ve ever worn but definietely the best winter trainers I’ve ever worn and they double up as a great hiking boot too!

SRP £170 and available direct from Scarpa UK

Dave reviewed the Scarpa Neutron Gaiter and they come in a men’s and women’s version in a variety of sizes but one colour option.

Clothing

Mammut Go Dry baselayer

A nice baselayer that has proved great for those warmer winter days and fits perfectly under a warmer outerlayer. My favourite combination was the Mammut Go Dry Longsleeve and a shelled microfibre jacket. The smooth surface of the Go Dry top meant that is was easy to slide the jacket on and off when needed. I liked the quick drying nature of the Symbitech material (which was super quick to dry out) and the fact that I didn’t smell like my son’s socks when I got back to the car. The cut is slim and although I often size my baselayers on the large size I could have got away with a size Medium (hopefully all this running is paying off and I’m losing weight which is the plan!). A nice baselayer that I’ve been wearing all winter for running, climbing and mountaineering.

SRP £49.00 and available from Mammut direct with sizes from XS to XXL. Womens version comes in XS to XL both come in colours Black and Light Blue. If this isn’t warm enough for you then there is the Go Warm top.

Patagonia Nano Air Hybrid Vest

I’ve worn the Patagonia Nano Air Hybrid Vest all winter for all my trail running. The combination of the Nano Air front and waffled knitted back works really well with a trail vest on. Super breathable and once you have a windproof on over this and a baselayer that’s going to be about it. The 40g of FullRange insulation packs a heat punch well above it’s weight (which is insanely light at 180g) it stuff into the side pocket of my ultra mountain vest with ease. I would say Patagonia should have ditched the handwarmer pockets for a zipped chest pocket but hey ho, you can’t have everything. I’ve worn this for bouldering, trail running, winter climbing and rock climbing. The ultimate versatile mountain vest. If you get a cold back and want something warmer then the  full Nano Air vest might suit you better. You can read Dave’s full review of the Nano Air Hybrid Vest here.

SRP £140 and available direct from Patagonia EU 

Rab Shadow Beanie

Mostly for winter running I wear a headband and cap combo, but sometimes when the wind is blowing hard and the temperature plummets a full on hat is a godsend – that combination of hat and hood has saved my bacon on more times than I care to remember. So I never go without a hat stashed away somewhere and the Rab Shadow Beanie is a great choice. Made using a combination of Polartec Power Stretch top and  Polartec Wind Pro around the ears the Shadow Beaning fits snug and tight so no amount of wind is going to shift it. Superlight at 48g and super compact so it stiffs into the tiniest vest pocket why would you leave it at home? The flatlock seams means you can wear it under a helmet too.

SRP: £23 and available direct from Rab UK

Adidas Terrex Climaheat Agravic Down Hooded Jacket

adidas-terrex-climaheat-agravic-down-hooded-jacketWater resistant down has come on in leaps and bound in the last few years. Although it doesn’t rival synthetics yet in truly wet conditions it now resists wetting out and loosing loft in damp snow etc. The Adidas Terrex Climaheat Agravic Down Hooded Jacket makes an excellent pre and apres run jacket to keep you warm as well as a good carry along for lunch stops. The Terrex Climaheat Agravic Down Hooded Jacket is tailored on an active slim and cut. Strategic differentially cut baffles and stretch panels under the arms allow unrestricted movement. An Elasticated collar and tight fitting cuffs seal in the heat effectively keeping you snug. The chest pocket reverses so you can stuff the jacket away and includes a clip in loop (the very snug cuffs preclude its use as a climber’s belay jacket to be honest though). It’s a great jacket to pull on after a cold run – almost like snuggling under your duvet at home!

SRP: available from Adidas UK (currently seems unavailable on their UK site)

Pack

Salomon S-Lab Peak 20

slabpeak20Rich can still recall the slightly bemused looks of the fell running community in 1985 when the original dark green KIMM Sac appeared at the Karrimor Mountain Marathon at Troutbeck – much Mickey taking over mesh pockets etc. but soon dedicated race packs were (almost) everywhere. Arguably the biggest revolution in running sac design since then has been the advent of the ‘running vest pack’ with Salomon firmly in the vanguard. For winter running you will often need to carry a bit extra: waterproof, spare warm layer, windproof/waterproof leggings, spare gloves, headtorch, bivi-bag, running spikes/crampons, ice axe, poles, compass, map, food and drink and so on. The last thing you want is this lot bouncing around irritating you mentally and physically. Salomon’s S-Lab Peak 20 is the pinnacle of their pack range and the largest capacity of the S-Lab series and probably the largest size you’d want to run with. A kevlar cord compression system eliminates all bounce – this is the best carrying 20 litre running sac I’ve used and carrying a small load is no issue. A double ended central zip enables access to all areas of the pack with ease – handy if you need to get your spike/crampons out from the bottom of the sac when you’ve gone that little bit too far across the slope before deciding you need them! Multiple front pockets accommodate two flexi flasks (not included) up to 500ml though I could squeeze in the 600ml Hydrapaks, with other pockets taking phone, compass, gloves etc. All these pockets serve a purpose if you’re racing they save you precious seconds and maintain flow but even if you’re not they help you stay moving and reduced stopped time which prevents you getting chilled on those long winter runs. A padded back can be removed to cut weight and if you prefer a bladder to the flexi flasks this is catered for as well. A clever pole holder allows you to stash poles on the go but I must admit my shoulders lacked the flexibility to achieve this with any ease. I added a bungee loop to the side to facilitate this rather than using the packs side pockets – problem solved. In a welcome nod towards kit checks and safety on long mountain runs a space blanket is included. The only missing element is an axe holder – easy enough to use the compression system but if you tend to need an axe a lot on your runs then look at the X-Alp 23  which is more alpine focussed with dedicated axe loops and even a crampon/spikes pocket

SRP £170 available from Salomon UK

Hardwear

Grivel Ghost

PHL_ice axe GHOSTThe lightest ice axe Grivel have ever made (264g for the 48cm version) with a steel pick and head (the adze is aluminium). If you are mountain running in winter there may be times when you need a little extra security, perhaps crossing a steep névé slope, where an ice axe that allows you to cut steps, get a little extra traction for a steep step or if it comes to the worst perform an ice axe brake (make sure you get some training or practice this first though!). Grivel have a justifiably excellent reputation for their snow and ice hardware – it’s in their DNA being based just south of Mt Blanc and they’ve been doing it for 200 years now. The Ghost is the perfect runner’s or ski tourers ice axe, strong enough for the job but still feathery light and the slightly curved shaft aids he ergonomics of ice axe braking. Perfect! The only slightly negative feature is the angled ‘spike’ which is just the shaft cat at an angle with a foam bung to stop it filling with snow. In icy conditions or hard névé I prefer a steel spike and Grivel have actually catered for this as of 2018 with the Ghost Evo which has a slightly more aggressive pick but more importantly a steel spike for piolet cane action.

SRP £85 available form Grivel UK

 

Grivel Ran

For most of your runs spikes will be more than adequate – only if you are planning to venture into more technical mountaineering terrain might you need to use crampons. The simplicity of spikes and the fact that they weigh much less and take up less pack room make them the ideal choice. The Grivel Ran are what we think are the best of the spikes on the market. No adjustment needed just pull them on when you need them and off when you don’t the velcro ‘power strap’ makes a adjusting for a precise fit a breeze. Be sure when you are looking for running spikes to get spikes and not the coiled wire variety and you’ll need to be extra careful with you footwork when descending icy and rocky terrain. The Grivel Ran also come in a light version which knocks a whopping 170g off your pack weight and add £5.00 to the price. My preference is for the normal Ran as they are more suited to the shallow snow and rocky terrain of the UK mountains. They come in 4 sizes s – XL.I tested the Medium which fitted my size 8.5-9 trainers perfectly.

SRP £30.00 and available from Grivel GB direct.

Leki Micro Trail

leki-microtrailLeki are the grand daddy of the pole market, they’ve been at it for over 60 years and basically just make poles for everything from downhill skiing to Nordic walking. Their trail running pole range has something to suit everyone and the cross fertilisation from XC skiing has led to probably the best performance strap system available. The Leki Micro Trail is a non-adjustable carbon fibre three part folding pole weighing in at 188g per pole. The unique ‘Trigger Shark’ handle and strap (developed from their XC race range) provide a powerful connection between pole and wrist that can be released at the push of a button when you need to fiddle with map and compass, negotiate obstacles etc allowing you to stash the pole whilst the strap remains as an unobtrusive ‘mit’ on your hand/wrist and then reconnect when you’re off running again. Genius.

SRP £124.95 stockists via Ardblair Sports

Accessories

Rab Phantom Grip Gloves

Superlight, windproof and super grippy. The Rab Phantom Grip Gloves use top quality Polartec Wind Pro fabric to keep the chill at bay. Breathable enough to wick away the sweat on the uphill sections and the hardface tech keeps the wind off. The excellent grippy palms make gripping pole handles and compass bezels a breeze. Once these are on you’re going to want to keep them on!

SRP £35.00 and available direct from Rab UK

 

Rab Ark Emergency Bivvy

Running is a go light sport, that’s part of the attraction. But on a long winter run there are a few things that although you wouldn’t take on a summer run that in winter might just save your life. A shelter is just such an item and the Rab Ark Energency Bivvy is ideal for that situation.At just 105g and a tiny pack size there is no excuse to not take it with you. Yes it’s orange but it definitely isn’t the sweat bag you used to take on your D of E! A great combination of windproof outer layer and reflective inner should keep you warm and dry(ish) until the chopper arrives -let’s just hope it stays permanently in your pack and you never need to deploy it!

SRP £17.00 and available from direct from Rab

Petzl Actik Core Headtorch

More compact and lighter than it’s big brother the Petzl Reactic + the Petzl Actik Core is the perfect trail running headtorch. Yes for summer runs I carry a much lighter one (I often have a e+ Lite) but I do a lot of running in the dark throughout the winter. The Petzl Actik Core features an impressive 350 lumens of light that works nice and simple by clicking the top button until you get the lighting you want (full beam for me and it stays on full beam) and the rechargable core battery charges quickly and lasts for hours. You can carry a spare for longer days out or better it is easy to load AAA batteries so I carry 3 x AAA Lithium batteries which are lighter and last longer. The headband has reflective decals but as the headtorch has an IPX4 rating don’t be submerging the whole unit in order to wash off sweat and grime.

SRP: £50.00 and available from various retailers

Smith Attack Sunglasses

smithattackSmith’s top of the line Smith Attack sunglasses are a joy to wear and use. Unlike some brands you get a great hard case and the essential (for the UK) additional low light lens. The ChromaPop™ lenses give excellent clarity and detail as well as good depth perception (so useful when descending in flat light). The lenses are shaped to provide good coverage and ventilation and the lack of a rim means no visual intrusion on your peripheral vision. What really sets these glasses apart though is the Smith MAG™ interchangeable technology which is simply the best lens changing system I have come across, it truly is effortless. A clever magnetic ‘clothes-peg’ type clip allows effortless, force free lens swaps – alright you still need to clip in the nose piece (I’d be tempted to buy a second nose piece to be honest, not that it’s difficult to swap) but the Smiths would win any quickdraw lens swap. This ease of switching lenses means you’re more likely to keep your eyes protected as you don’t mind switching from dark lenses to low light lenses rather than just ‘going without’ to save some hassle.

SRP £195 available from Wiggle

 

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