Staying Safe on the Fells

Read so far
5 min to read

By Rachael Parkin

Coniston Mountain Rescue answered over 50 call-outs throughout 2018. The calls covered everything from walkers missing in wintery weather, people in need of medical assistance, injured mountain bikers and even stranded dogs. Some callouts required the presence of up to 20 mountain rescuers, all of whom work as unpaid volunteers.

And this is just the Coniston team, similar teams are based at Cockermouth, Duddon and Furness, Kendal, Keswick, Kirkby Stephen, Langdale Ambleside, Patterdale, Penrith and Wasdale and together attend to around 500 call-outs every year. Each team consists of highly trained volunteers who are fully prepared to turn out in all-weather, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

No one embarks on an adventure in the beautiful Cumbrian fells expecting to have to call for help. Everyone simply wants to enjoy the wonderful open spaces, stunning scenery and experience the invigorating and exhilarating feeling that a day of exercise and fresh mountain air can bring. However, there are many things you can do for yourself to reduce the chances of needing to call out mountain rescue and to ensure that you, and everyone in your party, has a safe and enjoyable day spent walking in the glorious Lake District.

Help yourself to stay safe with this checklist.

What will the weather be like?
Check the local forecast but also, because conditions can differ dramatically on the fells, always check the mountain weather forecast too. The weather can make a big difference to your day; e.g. hot weather can make you dehydrate quicker, wet weather can make you cold quickly, windy weather can slow you down so you need to allow extra time. One of the biggest enemies of the hillwalker, however, is cloud. Navigating in dense hill fog becomes much more of a challenge than on a clear day – many of your points of reference disappear in the mist and it is very easy to become disorientated. Knowing the forecast can also help you judge whether the day is a day for walking or whether the day is one for the pub! Therefore it is vital to be as prepared as possible for whatever the great British weather may throw at you.

Do I have the right kit?
• Are you wearing appropriate, waterproof footwear? This should ideally be walking boots with ankle support to aid you on uneven or rocky ground and reduce the risk of an ankle injury; a simple twisted ankle can suddenly become a major problem if it occurs in a remote location. Additionally, even on a hot, dry summer’s day, the ground can be very wet underfoot. If your feet are wet then you’re much more likely to get blisters which can slow you down or make continuing with your walk very difficult.
• Do you have the right clothes? Wear or carry suitable clothing including waterproofs and several insulating layers that can easily be added or removed when necessary. Hat and gloves; even on a warm day the temperature can be significantly lower on the summits, add in the wind chill factor and you may be glad of a hat once you’ve gained some height.
• Do you have enough food and water? It’s important to keep your energy and hydration levels up. Carry high energy snacks that you can eat on the go to keep your energy levels up throughout the day. You will never have a better excuse to eat chocolate than when you are climbing a mountain!
• Do you have a first aid kit for blisters or minor injuries? Treating blisters early can stop them from spoiling your day.
• Is your phone fully charged? Ensure that your phone is fully charged before setting off and if you have a portable charger then bring that along with you. Using GPS on your phone will cause your battery to drain much more rapidly than it normally would and it’s important to have some charge left towards the end of the day in case an emergency should arise. Put your phone in a watertight bag if rain is likely.
• Carry a torch and a whistle; a torch in case you’re on the fells longer than planned and a whistle to aid any rescuers in finding your location when they are close by.
• Consider carrying a flask of hot drink in winter and remember your sun cream for summer. The pleasure of a mug of hot tea upon a cold summit should never be underestimated! And neither should the strength of the sun be on a clear summer’s day; up on the fells there can be little to no shade and exposed skin can burn quickly.
• Pack a survival bag (just in case!)

Do you know where you are going?
Plan your route. Consider the time of year and terrain – in winter it gets dark very early and you can easily run out of daylight. Carry a map and compass and know how to use them; maps can‘t run out of charge like your phone can! If walking alone then tell someone where you are going, your planned route and what time you expect to be back. Consider planning “escape routes”. These are places where you can safely cut short your walk if required.

Do I have the right skills for the day?
Plan for the least able member of your group. Know your limits and the limits of everyone in your party and remember to allow enough time to complete your planned route. Keep your party together and keep a special eye on the youngest, oldest or weakest member. Be aware of the warning signs of hyperthermia and heat exhaustion. Be prepared to turn back if necessary.

Know-how and when to get help. Accidents can and do happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of how prepared you are. If you suddenly find yourself in difficulty and in an emergency then call 999 or 112, ask for the police and then Mountain Rescue. Once you’ve called for help stay put, stay warm and await rescue. If you come across someone else in trouble then don’t put yourself at risk. Call mountain rescue and await help.

Know how to avoid unnecessary dangers. Lookout and take care to avoid precipices and unstable boulders, very steep grass slopes, steep snow slopes and snowy ridges, as well as gullies, gorges and streams in spate. Known hazardous “hot spots” such as the Bad Step on Crinkle Crags, Jacks’s Rake on Pavey Ark and the Wasdale Screes can all be easily avoided by a simple detour or by taking an alternative route.

If walking with a dog then there are a few additional things to consider. Be aware of local livestock at all times and keep your pet on a lead if there is a chance that they may worry grazing sheep. Consider the terrain and whether your dog can cope with that terrain; several dogs have needed rescuing from Scafell Pike as they have not been able to manage the loose scree, rocks and boulders on and approaching the summit. Consider whether there are water sources along the way, particularly in warm weather. Finally, be aware of precipices and don’t let your dog stray too far from you. In the mountains, your voice can echo and dogs have been known to follow the sound of your echoing call and run in completely the wrong direction to find you, resulting in a lost dog and a frantic owner!

In addition…
Consider downloading What3Words App which is being increasingly adopted by rescue agencies. The app divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigns each one a unique 3-word address (for example the summit of Coniston Old Man is ///premises.proved.chuckling whilst the Coppermines’ Office is ///requires.jousting.dared. The app uses GPS and doesn’t need a mobile signal to work. It provides you with your exact location which can then be easily communicated without the use of grid references.
Pre-registering with emergency text service allows you to contact the emergency services via text. To register simply text the word “register” to 999. You’ll get an automated text reply. Read the message then reply by texting “yes”. You'll then get a text telling you that your mobile is now registered.

At the Coppermines we want everyone to enjoy the sense of freedom and adventure the stunning Lakes has to offer. By taking a few, simple safety precautions you can help minimise the risk of a preventable callout to Mountain Rescue and ensure that you get to spend a wonderful and safe day walking in the spectacular Lake District - that is memorable for all the right reasons.

For more information on Coniston Mountain Rescue or to donate then please visit their website.