The Lake District is the UK’s adventure capital, and the fells offer endless possibilities for exploration. However, whilst thousands of people conquer the fells each year without incident, the increase in popularity of the Lake District as a tourist destination has led to an increase in work for the mountain rescue teams that operate in the area.

According to the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team, in 2018, the ten Cumbrian mountain rescue teams collectively responded to 654 emergency call outs. Volunteers who work with these teams claim that many of these calls could have been avoided if the walkers involved had followed some basic mountain safety guidelines. Common mistakes made by walkers who have needed help include relying on mobile phones for navigation with no maps or compass, not checking mountain weather forecasts before setting out, not taking adequate clothing for the conditions, and setting off late in the day with few hours of daylight remaining.

Whilst there is no doubt that hill walking is a fun activity that has enormous benefits to the individual in terms of health and well-being, there is an element of risk involved. Even with all the best planning, accidents can happen, so it’s important to be as prepared as possible. The mountain rescue team members are volunteers, so by taking steps to ensure you remain safe on the mountains, you are also ensuring that these volunteers are not putting their own safety at risk in coming to you unnecessarily. As we are heading into the warmer months, you might be planning a Lake District adventure of your own, and here we have some safety points for you to consider.


Hiking in the Lake District

The Lake District fells might not reach the same lofty heights of other mountain ranges around the world but that doesn’t mean you should underestimate them. Here in Cumbria, our weather is dominated by the Atlantic winds, meaning that walkers can be exposed to torrential rain and buffeting wind speeds. Good clothing will help you to stay warm and safe during these difficult conditions.

You should have sturdy walking boots. Trainers lack the grip and ankle support needed. In addition, you need warm, waterproof clothing. Even during the summer months when it feels warm at the level of the lakes, by the time you reach the summit, you might find it quite chilly. Furthermore, if you do have an accident it will be vital for you to keep warm as you wait for rescue. Layers work best as you can add or remove as needed.

A hat and gloves are essential in the winter months, whilst a sunhat will help to protect you from sunstroke during the summer.


Scafell Pike Mist

Scafell Pike Mist

Firstly, and most importantly, you will need a map and a compass, and the ability to use them. If you are new to navigation then we recommend that you sign up to a navigation course. There are several organisations in the Lake District who offer these courses and these skills can mean the difference between having a successful walk or ending up as another mountain rescue team statistic.

You might have a map and GPS facility on your mobile phone, and it’s clear that mobile technology is incredibly useful for navigation. However, batteries can run out of power, GPS can be hindered by thick cloud cover, and your handset can easily be dropped and damaged, especially in cold and wet weather. None of these apply to paper maps and compasses, which is why it’s important not to rely solely on your phone for navigation.

You will also need a torch. Even if you set out early in the morning at the height of summer there is always the possibility that you may end up lost or injured and on the mountainside after sunset. A torch will not only help you to see in the dark, but you can also use it to signal for help to any rescuers. As a side note, if you are out in the dark and not in need of assistance, you should take care not to switch your torch on and off repeatedly to create a flash effect, as this is widely accepted as a signal for someone who requires emergency assistance. There has been a recent case where a group of walkers did just that, and were surprised and somewhat ashamed to be greeted by a mountain rescue team.

Other essential items include a whistle that can be used to alert any potential rescuers to your location, and a small first aid kit so that you can treat any small cuts from falls.

You may wish to consider taking walking poles. These can help steady your feet when descending and reduce on your leg joints, therefore decreasing the possibility of injury. Finally, you could also consider taking a survival bag or storm shelter. Normally bright orange, these can help to keep you warm and dry, as well as providing rescuers with something that is easy to spot.

Food & Drink

Father & son having lunch on a hike

Fell walking uses a lot more energy than regular walking. Furthermore, in colder weather you will burn more calories as your body tries to keep warm. Along with your sandwiches, take plenty of energy rich food with you to last you for the day. Oatcakes, flapjacks, cereal bars, trail mix, nuts and seeds are all rich with slow releasing energy and are ideal for maintaining your energy levels throughout the walk as you can graze on them. Sweets and chocolate are good for giving you a short term boost, especially towards the end of the walk when you might be feeling tired.

Staying hydrated is essential, even in cold weather, where dehydration can be a factor in hypothermia. You should carry a minimum of 2 litres of water with you, and more may be needed if the weather is particularly warm. As this will add to your rucksack weight, you could consider carrying water purification tablets to use with water obtained from fast flowing streams (stagnant water should be avoided). We would also recommend using a hydration pack / bladder rather than a water bottle, as this can give you quick and easy access to your water. On warm days, you can also carry rehydration tablets to add to your water, as this will help you to replace essential salts.

Planning Your Route

Walking along Dow Crag

Walking along Dow Crag

Before setting off into the fells, it is vital that you prepare and plan your route carefully. Many of the call outs made by mountain rescue are as a result of poor or no route planning. If you are using a suggested route in the guidebook, then make sure that you use an Ordnance Survey map when it comes to navigating the route. If you are not using a guidebook, but are planning on walking somewhere you are not familiar with, then as well as using the map it is a good idea to research the route as much as possible online. There is a good possibility that one of the many walking bloggers has covered your chosen route and you will be able to get useful information, such as how easy or hard the terrain is, etc. This information is not always evident from an OS map and sometimes paths that are marked on the map have been severely eroded and become impassable, which is why some research is essential.

There are several factors you should consider when planning your route. Firstly, consider the distance and steepness of the walk. A 5K walk might seem easy enough, but it is considerably harder when you are also ascending several hundred metres. Choose something that suits the fitness of everyone in your group.

You will also need to consider the steepness and terrain of the route. Ridge walks can be thrilling, but in strong winds they should be avoided. A long steep section will slow you down considerably. Scree is common in the fells of the Lakes and can be hazardous to walk on, especially on steep sections. Scrambling sections might be fun for some people in your group, but others may suffer from vertigo and become stuck during the ascent / descent out of fear. Other hazards to consider include ice and snow during winter that require extra equipment, and bogs and fast flowing streams / rivers after periods of heavy rain that need crossing points.

Finally, if you are planning a long walk with multiple peaks, then make sure you have identified any possible escape routes. These are routes that you can use in an emergency to cut your walk short to get back to your car or to a place where you can summon help. Even if you don’t have an emergency on the route, you may be delayed for other reasons and need to cut your walk short.


Snow covered Lake District

The weather in the Lake District can change dramatically from one hour to the next. You may also find that whilst there is beautiful sunshine in one valley, in the next valley over there could be torrential rain. Wind speeds of 80-90mph are not uncommon here, and low cloud cover can seriously inhibit vision on the fell tops. For this reason, it is important that you take note of weather conditions before you set off.

Do not rely on national or regional forecasts when checking the weather, as these will only give a generic forecast for the area and do not take into consideration conditions on the fell tops. Instead, you should use a weather forecast specific to the fells. There are several services, including the Met Office Mountain Weather Forecast , the Moutain Weather Information Service, and Lake District Weatherline, which is operated by the Lake District National Park Authority and includes information gathered daily during the winter months from the summit of Helvellyn by the Fell Top Assessors.

If the weather is going to produce arduous walking conditions along your chosen route then do consider an alternative, especially if you are a beginner fell walker. Remember that walking into strong winds will require more energy and make you tire faster. Heavy rain can cause flooding which could make your route impassable. Low cloud will result in poor visibility towards the summits. The Lake District has plenty of low level walking routes that offer suitable alternatives during poor weather.

On the Day of Your Walk

Hiker at Helvellyn

Hiker at Helvellyn

On the day of your walk make sure you set out at a reasonable time to ensure you have enough daylight hours to complete the walk. During the winter months it will get dark from 4pm and so it’s important to get an early start on those longer walks.

Make sure you tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back. If you are visiting the area then you can tell staff at your accommodation. Alternatively consider texting a friend with all the details and ask them to seek help if they do not hear from you within a certain time frame.

Finally, if you do need to contact Mountain Rescue, you can do so by dialling 999 and asking for the police, and then for mountain rescue.