Author John D. Burns is passionate about getting people out and about in the great outdoors, enjoying our National Parks, green spaces and wild landscapes. He has written extensively about his passion for being in nature, and knows more that most about what can and does go wrong from his time working in Mountain Rescue. Here he fills us in on his tips for how to stay safe on your next trip out with the help of Paul Besley's new book, 1001 Walking Tips.
The last couple of years has seen an influx of newcomers to the wonders of exploring out outdoor spaces, which has come hand in hand with an influx of Mountain Rescue call-outs as the inexperienced or under-equipped explorers find that the beautiful wild spaces are more than just a pretty instagram picture. Paul Besley, author of 1001 Walking Tips and member of Mountain Rescue has seen this first hand, and it was his motivation to write 1001 Walking Tips; to educate new and experienced explorers alike and keep them safe on their outdoor adventures. Paul is an advocate for how being amongst nature forms such an important part of our mental, as well as physical, well-being, but wants to help keep those out and about safe on their excursions.
One winter’s day I was descending a steep icy slope coming down from cliffs where I and a few other had been climbing. It was fairly tricky terrain, so you had to focus on where you are placing your cramponed feet and making sure got your ice axe into something solid. I was focusing on the descent when I heard the unmistakable sound of crampons scratching across rock followed by the thump of tumbling rocks.
I turned round and was horrified by what I saw; a figure behind me no longer in contact with the mountainside but in fact flying through the air upside down. He was too far away for me to be able to do anything to help him and I could only watch in horror as he pirouetted through the air. He literally tumbled directly over my head travelling toward, what I was certain, was complete disaster.
In one of the most remarkable twists of fate I've ever seen somehow this falling climber managed to land on his feet. There was a tremendous thump as his crampons dug deep into the ice. He and I both froze for a moment as he stood only feet away from me, carefully examining his limbs. I'm sure that he was as certain as I was that he must have broken at least one part of his anatomy. When we made eye-contact he was wide-eyed and ghostly pale. After a few moments both he and I realised that he was completely unhurt, and he set off on shaking legs towards the Glen below. Somehow disaster had been avoided.
I have been wandering the hills for over 40 years and I suppose the fact that I'm still here suggests that I do have some grasp of mountain safety. That doesn't mean that I am someone who doesn't make mistakes, I make mistakes constantly, but I also suppose I must have some idea of how to get myself out of scrapes when I get into them.
Outdoor safety perhaps contradicts what you might think of as outdoor adventure. Without some degree of risk there really can be no adventure. From the years that I spent in mountain rescue I got some insight into some of the things that can turn an incident that was simply inconvenient into disaster. From my experience serious accidents come about normally from multiple factors. For example when I did a lot of winter climbing it was abundantly clear to me that a small slip or a shortfall was something that was easily survivable provided your anchor was good. So my climbing motto, “Set up every belay as if your life depends on it because one day it will” can be also be applied to any outdoor adventure; “invest in the skills that will look after you”.
Here are some of my ideas about basic safety and perhaps some little tips that might make a big difference if things don't go the way you planned when you're out on the hills. Paul Besley’s new book, 1001 Walking Tips, will help every walker or explorer to keep safe on their outdoor excursions so I’ve signposted some specific tips that will help you invest in my safety highlights and hopefully keep you safe.
I long resisted the urge to use GPS navigation systems. I felt that they put a barrier between me and the landscape. Despite my misgivings, about a year ago, due to failing eyesight I had to give in to using satellite navigation systems. Not getting lost in the mountains is among one of the most important aspects of staying safe particularly on long distance walks. It doesn't matter how advanced your outdoor gear is, or how much you paid for your outdoor clothing, if you don't know where you are you're in for a long and uncomfortable ride.
I found GPS navigation systems and location apps, together with systems like ‘what3words’ to be extremely effective. Despite the obvious convenience of GPS systems when you're walking in the hills, my view is that it's still important that you have the navigation skills to use a map and compass. The problem is that it is not enough to just carry these basic items of outdoor kit when you're hillwalking or winter walking, if you spend most of your life navigating using GPS you won't be practised at using a map and compass. The skills involved in navigation with these basic pieces of kit take time to acquire so my advice would be for everyone to try and navigate as much as you can using a map and compass and trying to use the GPS system only when all else fails with. It's very tempting just to whip out a GPS in bad visibility and locate yourself in seconds but if you only ever use a map and compass in good weather and you'll never really learn to master those skills.
When you look at accidents on the hills it is often a combination of small things that have combined to create a disaster. Loose snow gaiters or misfitting crampons are not particularly significant until you trip over your gaiter straps and find your crampons come off in the ensuing tumble. Or a low battery in your torch which just won't matter until you actually need it. There is an inherent danger in all uneven terrain so it's important that you make sure but even these small things are given the attention they deserve.
When I was learning to navigate in the hills during the 1970s I would frequently rely on the existence of cairns in the Lake District to find my way. I relied on these little navigational happily for a few years until, during a particularly nasty Blizzard, a cairn directed me completely the wrong way. I realised then that I had no way of knowing whether the bloke who built the cairn it was also lost. From then on, I ignored these little rocky navigational aids and found my own way.
Similarly, it's quite common for parties to rely on one person as the navigational officer. “Jim He's good with a map and compass he'll find us the way.” Which is all okay until Jim makes a mistake. I think it's important that everyone in a party navigates. Unless you're with a reputable guide you can never be certain not the person you are relying on has not made a mistake. If everyone in a party of three or four is navigating, then the chances of a serious error are very small indeed.
Ultimately, be well-educated. Read books like 1001 Walking Tips or find high quality guidebooks written by reputable, local guides for the area you will be exploring like the Day Walks series by Vertebrate Publishing, and get familiar with your basic equipment such as a map and compass.
Even now, despite my experience in search and rescue and my many years packing outdoor kit, I still find it useful to have a packing list for the different types of activities that I do. I have a list for when I go to a bothy, a list for when I go hot tenting, and a list for other activities such as winter hillwalking. The last thing you want to do when the mists come down and you're disorientated on a hill is to reach into your bag and realise you left your compass behind.
Blog written by John D. Burns, bestselling and award-winning mountain writer who has spent over forty years exploring Britain’s mountains. Originally from Merseyside, he moved to Inverness over thirty years ago to follow his passion for the hills. He is a past member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team and has walked and climbed in the American and Canadian Rockies, Kenya, the Alps and the Pyrenees.
His first two books, The Last Hillwalkerand Bothy Tales, were both shortlisted for TGO Magazine’s Outdoor Book of the Year. His third book, Sky Dance, published in 2019 and his latest book, Wild Winterjoined the collection last year. He continues to develop his career as a writer, blogger, outdoor storyteller and podcaster while exploring the wild places he loves.