With most of the trees now bare, December has brought us fog and frost, even a bit of snow before a turn to milder but more unsettled weather. Getting out might not seem quite as inviting now but actually, why not. It feels more treasured to fit in a little walk, cycle or run in these shorter winter days. To manage to use the few hours of daylight, or benefit from a gloriously sunny morning sandwiched in between wind and icy rain.
The Ramblers are encouraging people to 'Walk in Winter' over the coming months in their latest campaign, right through until February. So people continue habits perhaps started back in spring lockdown or begin walking as a regular form of exercise and discover the many health benefits. To not be put off by the colder weather but to include walking in a weekly or daily routine for their own physical and mental wellbeing. It is something to enjoy locally, on your own, with the dog or children or with a small led group. COVID secure led walks have started back up across Britain, following the local restrictions and with smaller numbers, but they are managing to get out.
Our UK weather is so changeable that you could walk each day of the week and experience every kind of weather. At the start of this month, we’ve seen snow and rain, gusty winds and calm, frost and fog and some winter sunshine. A bit of preparation and suitable clothing should make a winter walk quite joyful, unless perhaps you are trying to encourage teenagers to join you. Still worth a try, they can be so unpredictable and might thank you one day. Anyone with small children will understand the need to get outside.
Why venture out?
It reduces stress, once you are all out and underway. You might not feel that way, encouraging your household to actually get out of the door or find all the wellies and gloves, but it will. It’s a change of scenery, some fresh air and often quite beautiful if you can find woodland, coasts or a park with trees. You just have to get over that feeling of hibernation and being at one with the sofa. There are birds and nature, clouds and the sky to admire and just to pass the time and relax.
There will be new photography opportunities too, something for your Insta. The light is so different at this time of year with lengthy shadows and dark tree shapes. It can give a feeling of freedom, with all the other restrictions. Getting younger children outside is a winner, a bit of space, free entertainment. Wellies and puddles are a great combo. You may not have any choice if we see any decent snow, they will be leading the way with a sledge.
Joining a group or walking with someone else can be a great encouragement and motivation to actually bother. It is also a great way to discover new local routes. Getting your 'steps in' or recording on a walking app can also help. It can all be viewed as offsetting, to begin with: exercise against maybe eating more in the cold winter months, fresh air and movement against the rest of the day with too much screen time. Until going out for a walk does become a valued routine in its own right.
It also gives time to breathe and notice what is around us, hopefully, finding some things to appreciate. We can’t travel far but there are often lovely little walks nearby that are quite different now from the summertime.
Understanding the weather forecast
Of course, the weather is quite different now and daylight is limited. For some, winter brings the challenge and excitement of ice climbing and snow on mountains. If you are just looking to have a jaunt up a hillock, or round a nearby pond or community woodland you might want to choose the best weather window, if you do have some leeway.
If you are looking ahead at the forecast to decide maybe whether to head out on Saturday or Sunday, morning or afternoon, it is worth looking at the bigger picture rather than just a weather app with symbols for your specific location. People often say” it changes every time I look at it”. Showers are the worst for this and the most problematic weather to explain. You could be looking with a display line of nine rain symbols but actually, there is just a high risk of showers. These are hit and miss and often bring gusty winds, you might as well take your chances and a raincoat. If they are forecast to be heavy or thundery then extra care will be needed.
Don't forget to look at the wind direction and strength. It might look sunny outside but an east or northerly wind will give the air quite a chill. Take care for icy stretches if heading out early in the morning on more rural roads to reach a starting point.
If there is a large band of frontal rain heading in from the west, any changes in timing or position north/south will make a difference. On a narrow view on a weather app, it will only show as rain or no rain. If you understand that a frontal band is approaching from the west in the morning you could check the radar before your outing and see where the rain is, maybe adjust your timings.
Weather warnings also need some understanding. Just because a location isn’t in a warned area doesn’t mean that the weather will be fine. It could also see severe weather (such as heavy rain, strong winds, snow) but the impacts from this haven’t been deemed high enough (by the UK Met Office) to warrant a warning. A further explanation of weather warnings and decision making can be found here.
Weekend Weather (updated midweek)
19th-20th December - After a lot of rain, particularly for SW Britain, on Friday and Friday night conditions will be sodden and muddy this weekend. Many areas have been very wet over the past week with pathways squelchy and slippy. Waterways will see higher levels and there have been spring high tides, adding to the wetness. However, even though conditions underfoot won't be great there will be bright skies and sunshine, particularly for eastern Britain. Further west showers feed in, with Saturday being quite mixed for Wales, western England and SW Scotland.
By Sunday, there should be fewer showers but still plenty for western Wales and clusters through the English Channel again clipping the south coast of England.
Both days will be cooler than on Friday, which will be very mild. Saturday will see fresh southerly winds and Sunday moderate SW winds with temperatures around 8C but feeling colder in the wind. The only signs of snow will be for the very tops of northern hills from the showers coming in from the west.
What to take
Walking boots or sturdy shoes are best but trainers are often fine, and wellies are great with thick socks as long as you aren’t hiking too far. Persuading youth out of those tiny trainer socks is a worthwhile undertaking. If you are going on a short walk then a waterproof coat and gloves may be fine, perhaps a hat or headband if it is windy or frosty. In winter, it is never quite as it looks out of the window. If heading a bit further, maybe spare socks (it is very wet underfoot), snacks to lift everyone's spirits or bribe the children, walking poles and a flask. 2020 surely has seen a revival in the Thermos flask with cafés not reliably open or people reluctant to get involved in Track and Trace for just a cup of tea.
You may want to be back inside before it gets dark but if you are heading out in the afternoon it is getting dark early now, especially on cloudy, grey days. A head torch is helpful and bright or reflective clothing. Don’t be that person in a black hoodie/coat, dark trousers on the roadside who is near invisible on a rainy evening.
It does get colder and more windy with height, layers are very important when walking and a hat or buff can make a big difference. Getting too hot and sweaty on the way up a hill could leave you chilly if you sit down for a rest or on the way down. A passing shower can lower the air temperature significantly but once the sun reappears it can feel pleasant again. Being able to adjust your clothing is important. Snacks again are key.
Where to go
Where have you not been in ages, that is actually a lovely local walk? Where would visitors or tourists bother to go, that we might have forgotten about or just not got round to? The Ramblers website has plenty of suggestions for British walks. The Ramblers Routes online walks collection has free access for walks under 3 miles. WalkNI has lots of walks on their website too for Northern Ireland. Winter may not be the season to first try Munro bagging if you haven’t done much hill walking before. But heading out on a beautiful crisp, frosty day is just wonderful, at sea level or inland. And even on wet, blustery day, getting home with rosy cheeks can feel exhilarated.
Do make sure you follow the national codes for the countryside and the walking Corona Virus advice for your region.
If you are heading up hills, or across moorlands and fields you may need a bit more planning depending on experience and more consideration of the weather, including letting someone know where you are heading and expect to be back. Even if you are an experienced walker or climber, a healthy respect for the winter weather should not be set aside.
Christmas is going to be different this year and things to do list needs adapting. Don’t just keep the walk for Christmas Day or Boxing Day, head out sooner. #WalkinWinter.
Images 3,5,6 courtesy of RamblersGB