Hillwalking Glossary

Some basic information on hillwalking in Scotland

Abseil: To descend steep ground rapidly by a controlled slide down a fixed rope. To increase control, an abseil friction device is used, through which the rope, normally doubled, passes. The abseil device is attached to a harness, which also increases comfort. Abseil is the German term, used in the U.K. The French term is rappel, used in the U.S.

Avalanche:The downward slide of an area of snow. Commonest after heavy snowfall before the snow has a chance to become settled. May be wet or dry. A particularly dangerous form is slab avalanche, formed by wind packing. This can break away when walked over. Assess avalanche potential by digging a trench and looking at the profile. Avoid slopes for at least 24 hours following heavy snowfall. Look up the The Scottish Avalanche Information Service which provides avalanche reports and forecasts daily from mid-December to mid-April. Don't walk too close to steep edges, there might be a cornice.

A head covering, originally woollen, covering head and neck, with an oval 'window' for the face. Provides excellent protection in winter conditions.

A pass, often crossing a low point between hills.

When navigating by map and compass in mist or over unfamiliar ground it will be necessary at some point or more to take a bearing, which will be a number, in degrees, to be followed for some distance or until a landmark is gained. Most compasses divide the horizon into 360°, starting from the North, so that East is 90° etc.

An overnight stay in the mountains with minimal equipment; may be voluntary or involuntary due to accident, nightfall, bad conditions etc.

Large bag used to shelter in if benighted on the hillside. Most basic model is a poly bag; deluxe models are of Gore-Tex and are sometimes used for deliberate bivvies when a tent is not carried.

An old cottage or house used in a casual fashion by walkers and climbers. There are many such bothies, especially in Scotland, open to all. Many are maintained by volunteers, the members of the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) being prominent. Bothies are not to be confused with club huts which are generally locked and available by prior booking only. A bothy will have shelter but no other amenities. Bring your own stove and expect to sleep on the floor. See Howff.

Brocken spectre:
An optical phenomenon seen in the hills, when close to cloud level. If the sun is strong enough, it will produce a shadow of yourself onto the cloud wall. The shadow will also be ringed with a halo. You see the same thing often from a plane.

A pile of rocks placed by walkers, sometimes to mark paths, often to mark a summit. Indiscriminate building of cairns can be an eysore, and particularly useless collections are usually knocked down by the informal arts committee network found throughout the country.

Chest strap: This strap joins the two shoulder straps of a rucksack to each other

Col: The low point on a ridge between two peaks.

Compass bearing:
A direction given as an angle relative to magnetic north.

A line joining points of equal height on a map. This makes it easy to see the shape of hills.

Walking along the side of a hill, whilst maintaining the same height. Sometimes done to avoid a rocky step in a ridge, or out of laziness, to avoid walking over a bump.

Gaelic for the feature found in glaciated mountains, a scooped-out hollow usually backed by a ridge or plateau and often containing a small lochan.

A hill over 2500 feet with a descent of 500 feet on all sides. See Key-Facts.

An overhanging wall of snow formed by the wind and found at the top of gullies and steep slopes. When walked over or during a thaw it can break some distance back from the visible edge, thus making it a dangerous feature.

A metal framework fastened to the underside of winter walking or climbing boots. Commonly each walking crampon has 8 or 10 downward pointing spikes. Allow safe and easy movement over snow and ice. Two extra, front-pointing spikes permit climbing to be done.

A small light rucksack, suitable for short walks.

Distress Signal:
Britain uses the International Alpine Distress Signal. Using a torch or whistle, give six signals in fairly quick sequence, wait one minute and repeat.

A hill over 2000 feet high in the Scottish Lowlands, originally listed by P. Donald. See Key Facts.
Fleece: A synthetic material, mostly polyester, which has properties which are good for hillwalking. Sweaters made of fleece are warm (reasonably so, even when wet), dry quickly and are comfortable. Also used for gloves, hats, etc. Not windproof, so used in conjunction with a shell garment.

Damage to flesh usually in very cold weather. Can occur below about -6°C, especially if wind is present. Flesh may be exposed, inadequately insulated, or too tightly constricted, preventing sufficient circulation. Numbness of affected area, whitening of skin are signs. Shelter from wind and gentle warming of area is best treatment. See Windchill.

Rough, crystalline igneous rock forming much of the Cuillin Ridge in Skye. Generally dark brown or black in colour.

Coverings for the lower leg, which stop water and snow getting into walking boots. Vary from the simple, over the top of the boot kind, to the type which covers all of the boot upper. Usually have a convenient front zip and sometimes an instep strap.

Scottish name for a valley. Famous glens include Glen Coe, Glen Nevis, Glenmorangie etc. Less famous glens include Glen Affric, Glen Etive and Glenisla.

To slide down a snow slope using boots as though they were skis. Difficult to perform and potentially very dangerous. Usually metamorphoses into an uncontrolled fall leading to an unrehearsed demonstration of ice axe braking.

An igneous rock forming much of the Cairngorm mountains and other hills in Scotland. Generally gray in colour and crystalline.

Grid Magnetic Angle:
The difference between Grid North and Magnetic North - must be taken in to account when navigating with map and compass. The OS gives some good advice on all this.

Grid reference:
A grid reference is a way of specifying a location in the United Kingdom. Each area in a 1: 50 000 map is subdivided into one kilometre squares. Using these squares, mentally divided into tenths, a location can be quoted as a six-figure grid reference accurate to 100m.

A rift or narrow depression running up cliffs and hillsides. In descent, best avoided, unless it is a well-known and easily followed route. Often contains running water and loose rock.

Hike: The N. American equivalent of hillwalking.

Hillwalk: The ascent of hills for pleasure, normally with little or no technical climbing necessary. The emphasis for safe hillwalking is on good navigation and a reasonable degree of fitness. In Scotland, the ascent of Munros, distinct mountains of 3,000ft (914m) or over is a popular pastime.

A shelter found in the mountains, often under a boulder which has been made relatively weather-tight by adding rocks, inserting turfs of grass etc. Can be very convenient for accessing remote hills and climbing areas but requires a certain toughness of character. Strangely enough, the desire to use howffs often diminishes with age. But then tents are lighter now...

Many walking and climbing clubs maintain huts which can often be booked by members of other clubs. The MCofS can provide a list. To prevent vandalism these huts have to be locked, as opposed to open bothies. Well-known huts in Scotland include the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut (CIC) on Ben Nevis, belonging to the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and the Glen Brittle Memorial Hut in Skye, run by the British Mountaineering Council and the MCofS. Most huts sleep from about 8 to 20 or so.

A potentially serious condition caused by a drop in core body temperature, often due to bad weather and/or fatigue. Also known as exposure. Inadequate clothing and cold, wet conditions are common contributary factors. Learn to recognise exposure conditions, maintaining good body stores of energy by proper and frequent ingestion of food and avoiding unnecessary fatigue. Stay fit. Be aware of wind chill.

Ice Axe:
Winter climbing tool designed for walking and climbing over snow and ice. Used for balance, step cutting, and (in climbing) front pointing. Normally used with an integral wrist loop. Any user must learn and practice braking or self-arrest, allowing one to stop a slide on a snow slope using the axe as a brake.

Lapse Rate:
This provides some idea of the temperature difference between the valley and the summits above. You may start a walk up Ben Nevis, for example, at a fairly comfortable temperature, and end up on the summit more than 10°C lower. Roughly, an isotherm map for a hill based on annual mean temperatures, would have contours showing a 1.7°C to 2.8°C drop in temperature for every 300 metres gained. So a Munro of height 950m might be some 6° or 7°C colder - and that does not take into account the effect of wind chill.

Layer Principle:
Over the years, and using (though sometimes unconsciously) methods of many native races, the most common way of dressing for the mountains has been arrived at as being in three or more layers, each with their specific function. From skin to outside then we find: underwear, not only to keep warm, but to help wick moisture from perspiration away from the body; a shirt, for warmth; a fleece sweater, for warmth; and an outer shell, which is wind- and waterproof. As the weather and day demands, layers are chosen and adjusted according to conditions. The idea, as so crucially used by the Inuit of the Arctic, is not to get too hot, too cool, or wet. So, when you start off on a walk, assuming conditions allow, start cool, otherwise sure as fate ten minutes later a layer will have to be removed. When you halt or get to a top, put something on before you cool down too much. Keep the layers loose and not too close a fit, employ full-length zips.
Lightning: Very rarely a hazard in Scotland, you will be relieved to hear. An approaching electrical storm is normally accompanied by thunder, heavy rain, extra static in the air. Leave high and exposed points before it hits.

Magnetic variation / declination:
The difference between true north and magnetic north. About 2° to 4° west (in 2016) throughout much of Scotland. A component of grid magnetic angle

Pronounced mijy. An interesting biting insect normally active in Scotland between April and October. The most prevalent species is Culicoides impunctatum, and it is the female that bites. Hills, climbs, and even holidays have been abandoned due to this tiny insect, which owes much of its power to sheer weight of numbers. The latest insect deterrents sometimes prevent them biting, though not landing. A midge head cover can be purchased from good outdoor stockists, which at least allows you to cook your dinner outside (though how you then eat it makes for an interesting problem). They are poor fliers, so pray for a breeze. Camp by the seaside. Live in dark caves (they are photophobic). Go for long runs. Stay indoors. Avoid July and August. Known in N. America as no-see-ums or punkies. The West Coast of Scotland harbours the very worst, especially Skye, Applecross, Torridon. The Cairngorms are better (less rain). You think this entry is too generous? Wait and see.

Mountain rescue: In Britain, despite some efforts to make it otherwise, mountain rescue is undertaken by teams of volunteers, under the overall control of local police forces. There is, as yet, no requirement to have insurance against rescue costs in the U.K., though obviously with increasing numbers of people on the mountains and increasing costs this may change in the future. The Royal Air Force, who are involved in most rescues requiring helicopters, recently managed to beat off a dastardly plan by some politicians to introduce commercial helicopter rescuing. The RAF find that civilian rescuing is an invaluable part of their training. The volunteer teams find ample sources of funding for equipment etc, and take a view that what they do is fun.

A hill included in Munro's tables. Approximately, this means distinct peaks over 3000 ft high. See Key Facts.

Pass: A route over a low point in the mountains, usually over a ridge and connecting two glens.

Plateau: A flat area which is raised above the level of the surrounding land e.g. the Cairngorm mountains have lots and lots of them!

A crest formed where two opposing faces of a mountain meet. Often narrow and exposed, e.g. The Aonach Eagach Ridge in Glen Coe.

Right of way:
In the UK, there are certain paths along which people have the right to travel in all circumstances, except when closed for specific disease control reasons (livestock disease, not the Plague!) In Scotland rights of way that are not walked on for 20 years can be lost, hence the value of bodies such as The Scottish Rights of Way Society, or ScotWays (

Nylon bag, carried using shoulder straps, and used to hold equipment, clothing etc. for walking and climbing. There are various sizes of sacks.

A saddle is a low col.

Climbing a slope steep enough to require the use of all four limbs, but not of sufficient difficulty to count as rock climbing.

An area of loose, unstable rocks, often under a cliff, from which weathering has detached them.

The outer layer of clothing. Should be windproof and waterproof. Is normally a jacket or anorak.

Walking on a route which is neither around an obstacle, nor straight over the top, thus minimising effort. Also rudely fighting your way through a busy crowd to reach the bar.

Space blanket:
Light-weight sheet made using aluminium foil and, in a heavier model, a nylon backing. Minimises heat loss through radiation when wrapped round an exposed walker. Of debatable use in the mountains, due to winds. Better use may be made with a bivvy-bag.

Beautiful, if sometimes uncomfortable presence of dry snow being blown into air-borne plumes and banners. Very uncomfortable if coming down a gully when you are going up the gully. Seeks out any tiny gap in clothing and melts immediately on contact with warm skin. If you see such a plume of snow blowing from a mountain summit, you know the high weather is severe.

Spot height:
The height of a specific location marked on a map. Often this will be somewhere like the summit of a mountain.

A stile is a construction, normally wooden, for crossing hedges and fences.

A shelf of flat ground on the side of a slope.

Traverse: A long walk at height, often connecting several summits. Outstanding Scottish traverse is that of the Cuillin Ridge in Skye. Can also mean a short section on a hillside where one cuts directly across a steep slope, perhaps using a ledge. (Also known as contouring, as one is taking the line of a contour or line on a map marking points on a slope at the same height.

Trespass: In the UK, the laws of trespass are very complex, and in particular, they are very different between Scotland and England/Wales. It has long been held by walkers that there is no trespass in Scotland. While this is not strictly true, there certainly seems to be fewer problems, in part due to the nature of the landscape and the generally lower levels of intensive farming.
Recently, the trail-blazing Land Reform (Scotland) Act was passed in Parliament, setting out the rights of both hill users and land owners. Basically, unless walking too close to a private dwelling, as long as one avoids damage to crops and disturbance to livestock or ongoing stalking, one may walk almost anywhere. Common sense above all!

A thin, transparent coat of ice covering rocks. Extremely slippy and awkward to walk over. The equivalent of black ice on roads. Avoid if possible.

Carried by many hill users for use in an emergency. It's sound carries better than the human voice, and with less effort. Not much use in a noisy gale though!

White out:
In poor light conditions, with falling snow or thick mist and snow-covered ground, the horizon may disappear, ground and sky merging. Needless to say, this is not only disorienting, but dangerous, as it would then be quite easy to walk off the edge of a drop. Avoid.

The effect of low temperature is compounded by the heat-extracting effect of the wind (it is, after all, one way they rapidly freeze animal carcasses!) To provide an example, a 20-knot wind at 10°C will be the equivalent of freezing point in still air, as regards heat loss. If it's below freezing and a wind is blowing, then look out for frost-bite. Wear a windproof and cover your head, including ears, and hands. The wind speed, incidentally, is usually more than double at heights of over 900m compared to low ground. Below is a snazzy chart showing the effect at various wind speeds and actual temperatures.

Wind Chill