Suffering for art is not something I believe in; I like being comfortable. Most of my favourite images happened in atypical weather. The first sign of fog or snow and I’m out with my camera. Even rain can bring interesting light and unusual sights. Fortunately, being comfortable usually equates to being safe. If heading into the Cheviots or a remote stretch of the Northumberland coastline, preparing for bad conditions can save your life. Without proper equipment and knowledge, mishaps become disasters. As the Scouts say: Be Prepared. Even benign landscapes on sunny days can jump up and bite you.
Hillwalking in Scotland one winter, the weather changed abruptly. A violent squall accompanied by a deluge of freezing rain and snow knocked me off my feet. Furthermore, visibility completely vanished and the ridge turned white. I grabbed the bothy shelter from my rucksack. Huddled beneath it, I opened my flask of hot chocolate and waited, cosy and dry, until the elements improved. Without proper preparation, the outcome of that trek could have been very different.
When I got back, I told a friend what had happened. That evening I went to the village pub and someone came over to ask if I was okay. They had heard I was in hospital after being blown off the mountain. Chinese whispers!
Accidents can happen on a deserted beach, in the open countryside and especially up hills. If you are heading out, especially on your own and even in summer, give someone a copy of your route and you planned return time. Also, write it down. Don’t rely on them remembering the details for the Coastguard or Mountain Rescue teams.
Good quality, layered clothing is essential. Avoid cotton, it absorbs moisture and feels cold against the skin. Prepare for heat as well as cold; heat stroke is just as dangerous as hypothermia. Wear a hat and good walking boots too. Carry water and high-energy snacks. Pack a basic first aid kit and learn how to use it. Check the weather and, if photographing the coast, the tides and sea state too.
Mobile apps can use GPS to log your location so your family can see where you are. Make sure your phone is charged, but don’t rely on it to get you out of trouble. I have problems getting a signal in my kitchen and service cannot be guaranteed in the shadow of Helvellyn. Much of our coastline is without a phone signal too. Take a whistle to call for help. Six blasts repeated every minute is the recognised distress signal.
Can you read a map and navigate? Would you be able to find your way off a hill in poor visibility? Walking to the top is easy; it’s upwards all the way. Coming downhill, a multiple of possible routes lead in different directions to the bottom. The quickest descent – plummeting several hundred feet in a few seconds – isn’t what you want. People fall off the north face of Ben Nevis because they cannot navigate in thick cloud.
Of course, we are never prepared for every eventuality. However, we can reduce the risk of coming to harm. But, remember why you went there. Alone or with a friend, there’s no beating the tranquillity of the great outdoors. Not able to see or hear any sign of human life is an experience like no other. Cresting a ridge and coming face-to-face with a stag is amazing – not getting your camera out in time is frustrating. Not Prepared! For that reason, I missed the photo of a stag, so here’s a tree sparrow instead!