How to start Mountain Leader Training when you can’t get to the mountains

Have you been thinking about the Summer Mountain Leader qualification, and not really sure how to start down the road towards it? Or just a bit curious about what the qualification actually involves?

In June 2021, I completed the six-day Mountain Leader training course at Glenmore Lodge, in the Cairngorms, but the journey to becoming a Mountain Leader didn’t start (or end) there. I’d been thinking about doing the qualification for years beforehand, and started filling in a log book when I was 18, but it wasn’t until very recently that the stars aligned*, and I finally had the free time, a bit of spare cash in my account, and easy access to a suitable training environment. And then… Covid-19… National lockdowns… Stay-at-home orders… You know the rest.

*and I got over being a master procrastinator, easily distracted by shiny things, penguins, and old wooden boats.

Looking down into the Loch Avon basin in the heart of the Cairngorms plateau.

But you don’t actually need to be in the mountains to prepare for being in the mountains. There are plenty of things that you’ll need to get set up before doing the training course, and with a little initiative and adaptability there are ways of building up your skills and practising parts of the syllabus.

So here are a few steps that you can take on the journey to undertaking the Mountain Leader training course, or to consolidate your experience before the assessment, without actually setting foot on a mountain.

Ten Ways to Start Mountain Leader Training without a Mountain

I thought I’d share some of the ways I managed to prepare before participating in the Summer Mountain Leader training course. Some might seem extremely obvious, others much less so, but I hope this list proves helpful in some way, even just to give you a structure to make your own preparations around.

Is Mountain Leader training right for me?

People have varied reasons for undertaking the Mountain Leader qualification. If you’re looking to start a career in the outdoor industry, it’s a standard qualification recognised by employers, outdoor organisations, and various service users across the country.

What areas do you visit regularly and would be looking to lead others in?

After completing the six-day training course, as a Mountain Leader Trainee, doors start to open for finding opportunities, including paid work, with other Mountain Leaders for leading groups on hiking trips and supporting events across all levels of outdoor terrain.

The training course alone might be enough to build your confidence and increase your skills for spending more time in the mountains, and undertaking more challenging personal expeditions, either solo or in small groups. The training and qualification are what you make it, and there are endless opportunities for passionate and enthusiastic Mountain Leaders.

If you’re not sure if you’re quite ready for Mountain Leader yet, or that it might be beyond the scope of the landscapes you’ll be walking in, there are a couple of other qualifications that might be of interest to you.

  • Lowland Leader
  • Hill and Moorland Leader

But even if you choose to pursue one of these other qualifications instead of the Summer Mountain Leader, you’ll find this advice will still be useful.

Summer Mountain Leader preparation

1. Do the essential admin

Register with Mountain Training, the network of organisations responsible for delivering training and qualifications across the UK and Ireland, to join the candidate management system. This is an online portal to manage your progress through the qualifications and track the training you’ve completed, and search for opportunities with different training providers. This is also the same place to register for the Lowland Leader or Hill and Moorland Leader training schemes. There’s a one-off fee for registration, and you’ll receive a digital candidate handbook for the qualification with the training process and course syllabus. 

It’s also a requirement to join one of the mountaineering councils to participate in any ML training courses; choose the most relevant to you from the British Mountaineering Council, Mountaineering Scotland or Mountaineering Ireland. I joined Mountaineering Scotland, and got a free beanie hat, a quarterly magazine, and access to a wide range of discounts on gear, training courses, and accommodation. Membership also provides insurance while completing the ML training course and gaining consolidation days before the assessment. Mountaineering Council membership is required for Hill and Moorland Leader trainees, but not for Lowland Leaders.

Free hats are the best hats. (And overseas mountain experience doesn’t always translate into relevant Summer Mountain Leader QMDs, check with your instructor on the training course.)

Costs: Mountain Training registration £45; Mountaineering Scotland training candidate membership £26.50/year

2. Fill in the digital logbook (DLog)

The candidate handbook** you get when you register for Mountain Leader training has information about the mountainous areas of the UK and Ireland where you can gain experience for the Mountain Leader qualification, and sets out the criteria for a Quality Mountain Day (QMD). You’ll also get access to a digital logbook, known as the DLog.

To participate in the Mountain Leader training course, you need to have completed a minimum of 20 QMDs and recorded information about them in the DLog. It can take a while to add all your information, especially if you’ve been hiking for a while, but it’s really simple and straightforward to use, and satisfying to complete. You can also use the DLog to record any international trekking, mountain walking, or any Quality Hill Moorland Days (QHMD) you’ve done.

**I recommend printing yourself off a hard copy and highlighting all the most important information. But that’s also because I really love highlighters and stationery.

3. Recommended reading

My bible for all things outdoor-related has always been Mountaincraft and Leadership by Eric Langmuir. There’s been a copy kicking about the house since I was a child, and I’ve dipped into it over the years to back up my growing skills and experience ever since taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme as a teenager.

Hillwalking by Steve Long is considered to be the official handbook for the Mountain Leader qualification, and covers much of the same information as Langmuir, including route-finding and navigation, risk assessment and incident management, understanding terrain and weather, and equipment choices. The newest edition also includes the latest information about access to the countryside, and accessibility for working with groups with different ability levels.

Just a few of the books, guides and maps to help you on your way to Summer Mountain Leader.
In addition to textbooks, there’s stacks of relevant knowledge in nature guides and ID leaflets.

The usual companion book to Hillwalking is Navigation in the Mountains by Carlo Forte, which is a detailed reference for all things navigation, from traditional techniques to using GPS and digital mapping technology. Another useful resource is Outdoor First Aid by Katherine Wills. It’s a requirement of the Mountain Leader qualification to complete a 16-hour assessed first aid training course, and this book gives an idea of the scenarios that might involve.

Other books to pique (peak!) your interest or help with planning mountain days might include Walking the Munros volume 1 and volume 2, Walking in the Cairngorms and Mountain Walking in Snowdonia, all published by Cicerone guides. Winter Skills by Andy Cunningham and Allan Fyffe will give you a taste of what could be your next step after completing the Summer Mountain Leader qualification.

Reading through back articles of UK Hillwalking and The Great Outdoors magazines online, and the Walk Highlands blog, can give you insightful views into specific issues, details about routes and expeditions in different mountain areas, and guides about good gear.

And if you love reading for fun, you might like some of the suggestions in my Armchair Travel mountain selection as a study break reads.

4. Get hill fit

This can a tricky one when you can’t get to the hills, as it can be quite difficult to replicate the same type of energy expenditure elsewhere. But any kind of regular cardio exercise from running or cycling, or going to the gym, won’t do you any harm. A long walk, wherever you are able to go for one, with a fully loaded backpack will help to build up your mountain fitness, and you can practice other skills as you go.

Something else you can try is orienteering. As well as improving or maintaining fitness, your navigation and wayfinding skills will benefit immensely. Many urban and country parks and woodlands have fixed orienteering trails, and may also host orienteering events and club sessions. More details can be found on the British Orienteering website.

5. Master map reading and navigation

There’s plenty kit you could buy before doing the training course, but the most vital bits of equipment you’ll need will be a good compass, like the Silva Expedition 4-360, and the relevant maps for the area you’re in. I think it’s worth having copies of both common OS map scales, the 1:25,000 Explorer series (orange covers) and the 1:50,000 Landranger series (pink covers), and the Harvey’s mountain map for your preferred areas, to learn the differences and similarities in how they present information.

Get familiar with the different maps at home. Use them to plan some of your QMDs and make up route cards for hikes you’d like to take, working out distances, ascents and descents, and timings. I’ve got a few tips for planning a route you can check out here. Remember, when it comes to completing the ML assessment, your instructors are looking for a range of experience in different mountain areas in the UK and Ireland, so it might be worth hunting around for discount deals and special offers on bundles of maps.

Familiarise yourself with the different types of mapping available, both on paper and digitally.
Navigation is the most important element of the Summer Mountain Leader qualification.

Orienteering will really help you to nail translating map information to on-the-ground action, but you could also look at the possibility of booking a specialist navigation course. Sometimes it just helps to have someone to talk it through with. A range of options are possible, from a few hours to a full day or weekend, aimed at beginners to advanced level refreshers, both in-person and online. A quick google search will give you an idea of what’s available in the area you would prefer.

Costs: Silva compass between £24 and £38, depending on the model; Aquapack waterproof map case around £20; Ordnance Survey maps around £7 each; Harvey’s mountain maps around £16 each.

6. Don’t get in a knot over ropework

It’s important to remember that the training course is exactly that, training, and if you’ve never used ropes before, don’t sweat it***. The training course is an opportunity to see how it’s done properly, play about with the equipment, and practice the skills for yourself.

***This is very much a “you had to be there” sailing joke about ropes for my mate Dan.

However, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a few basic knots beforehand, such as an overhand knot, figure-of-eight, bowline, and a clove hitch. Practice tying these in different types of rope, in bits of twine you keep in your pocket, in your shoelaces, while wearing gloves then again while wearing mittens. Once you get fluent with these knots, find a new knot to learn. (This tip comes to you courtesy of Andy, one of the skippers I sail with regularly, who always made us take a bit of rope to the pub to practice knots with).

If you’re already familiar with using a rope, you can work on vital steep ground skills at home like descending the stairs safely and belaying various household appliances.

7. Join the Mountain Training Association

Though it’s not an essential requirement, and can wait until after you’ve done the training course, but by joining the Mountain Training Association you’ll have access to a wide range of workshops to learn new skills or develop your existing ones. The e-learning modules on the website are worth checking out.

There’s usually a programme of member meetings and events where you’ll have the opportunity to meet with like-minded people and join others for days in the hills (though with Covid-19 restrictions, this has been much reduced at present). Many of these events happen away from the hills, all across the country, so there’s likely to be something in your area that can aid with your preparations for completing the qualification.

8. Get back to nature

An important part of the Mountain Leader qualification often overlooked is an understanding of mountain environments in the UK and Ireland, the forces of geology and glaciology that shape them, the resulting ecology and natural landscapes, and of the human history they shaped. You should also be able to identify some of the common flora and fauna you might spot on your hikes.

On your next local walk, take a camera and a couple of identification books with you, and use some ID apps on your phone, like PlantNet, Birds of Britain, and Mountain Flora and Fauna. Practice identifying the flora and fauna that you spot (my top tip is to start with trees and flowers; they’re less likely to fly away before you get a good look). They may not all be the same as upland species in your area, but it all adds to your overall knowledge.

Taking a slow walk with a wildlife ID guide encourages you to notice the little details in a habitat.
Learn the typical plants, birds and mammals that you might find in upland habitats in the mountain areas of the UK.

Recommended books to probe deeper into the subject are Nature of Snowdonia by Mike Raine, Hostile Habitats: Scotland’s Mountain by Mark Wrightham and Nick Kempe, and Regeneration: The Rescue of a Wild Land by Andrew Painting. Read more about the wildlife and ecology of mountain and moorland habitats in Scotland on the NatureScot website.

The weather is another area worth learning more about. Take the Come Rain or Shine course by the Met Office on FutureLearn to make a deep dive into understanding weather systems or watch the Mountain Weather Information Service weather planning films.

Cost: Mountain Flora and Fauna app £1.99; recommended books around £20 each.

10. Practice campcraft in the garden

During the Mountain Leader training course, you’ll spend at least one night under canvas. If you’re very new to wild camping, or if it’s been a while since you last used your camping gear, make sure to give everything a test run before you go, and have a little bit of fun too.

Fill your pack with all the kit you’ll need for an overnight wild camp (you’ll get a good idea of the weight), take a walk where you can, then return home to set up camp in the garden. Practice pitching your tent a couple of times, cook dinner outdoors, then spend the night in your tent. It’s the ideal way to check you’re comfortable and confident with everything, and if you’ve forgotten anything you can just pop indoors to pick it up.

Camping in the front garden of my parent’s house, where I stayed during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020
Trying out a few luxuries in my camping set up; good coffee and a good book.

It will also give you the opportunity to work out if you’d like to upgrade any of your gear, maybe a solo camping tent, new sleeping bag or mat, a better backpack or waterproofs, and a bit of time to research what’s available and affordable. The Outdoor Gear Exchange UK group on Facebook is always a good place to start.

I hope you found this list of things to do in preparation for your Mountain Leader training course helpful. Some of these suggestions may be very obvious, but I think others are much less so, and hopefully all will give you an idea of how to put together your plans for preparing for the course.

Are you starting to work for your Summer Mountain Leader or a similar qualification? I’d love to know what you’ve been up to in your preparation.
Leave a message in the comments below, and give me a follow on Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to follow your progress.
Did you find this information useful? Pin it to your hiking boards for later.

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

Author: vickyinglis

These Vagabond Shoes are longing to stray.

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