Often unfairly overlooked, skiing in Scotland, on its day, is right up there with anywhere in the world. With five commercial ski areas, Scotland has plenty to offer the budget-savvy and climate-conscious skier this winter. Equally, with some great backcountry terrain, Scotland also has a wealth of options for the ski connoisseur. Topped off with an authentic ‘off the mountain’ availability of outstanding food, craft drink and friendly accommodation options, it’s a great alternative to mainland European or even further afield ski destinations.
Learn more about Winter in Scotland.
Scotland has five major ski areas, each with a respectable uplift capacity. Although lacking the snow surety and weather reliability of their Alpine cousins, each has its own charm, bargain day lift passes, and all are within shooting range of the central belt or Highland capital of Inverness for single-day missions. And when it’s good, it’s really, really good!
All the ski areas Scotland has to offer are well worth a visit: On a Wilderness Scotland Ski the Scottish Highlands trip, you will get the chance to experience several.
To get an overview:
Ski with unobstructed views over Buachaille Etive Mor, widely considered one of Scotland’s most spectacular mountains and the star of James Bond Skyfall. In the other direction, you overlook Rannoch Moor, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The 50 square miles of wild moorland is also the site of Craigh na Dun in Outlander. With 730m vertical descent (the largest in Scotland) available in good conditions, Glencoe offers far more than great views!
Easy to access from Fort William, Scotland’s newest ski area offers reliable skiing well into the spring on Scotland’s highest and north-facing pistes, accessed by the UK’s only mountain gondola and Scotland’s only quad chairlift (ok, the last two were for the real ski lift nerds). The Back Corries offer some of the best life-accessed freeride terrain out there, full stop.
With the funicular railway due to reopen early in 2023, Cairngorm Mountain feels like it is back on an upward trajectory. With a great selection of pubs, cafes, restaurants and gear shops, Aviemore is the nearest Scotland has to a ski resort
Spread out across both sides of the highest A road in the UK, Glenshee is the largest ski area in Scotland, covering three glens (The Scottish Trois Vallées?), and 2,000 acres. Glenshee is derived from the Gaelic Gleann Shith, meaning Glen of the Fairies.
The smallest ski centre in Scotland, the Lecht 2090 is designed for beginner and intermediate skiers. The comparatively low maximum elevation is more than compensated for by the small amount of snow required to cover the grassy slopes and an unusual ability to attract and hold snow. Ski in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park at the Lecht 2090, which has grown organically since the 1970s.
While there is undoubtedly a huge place for lift-accessed skiing, which is great for beginners, park-rats, racers and if you fancy some on-piste cruising, skiing in Scotland comes into its own away from the often-crowded ski fields. Immerse yourself in Scotland’s remote, picturesque and historic landscape while experiencing the pure unadulterated joy of almost guaranteed fresh tracks without any painfully cold lift-line waits.
With the chance to feel the isolation and remoteness many travel thousands of miles to find within a few hours of the road, the Scottish hills offer something for all ski mountaineering appetites, from rolling “nordic-style” hills to steep gullies. The cheapskate in me would like to point out that ski touring (usually) means you don’t need to pay for a lift pass either!
Having a pair of planks strapped to your feet doesn’t eliminate any hazards in the harsh Scottish winter mountain environment. Before heading out, make sure to have an up-to-date weather forecast. The mountain-specific forecasts for Scotland are MWIS and Met Office Mountain Forecasts. Carrying the right equipment, a good level of fitness, robustness and solid navigation skills, best developed through winter hillwalking, is essential. Getting avalanched, lost or cold are surefire ways to ruin a day’s skiing.
Don’t be deterred by a lack of confidence here; guides on our Ski Touring Scotland trip will quickly get you up to speed.
As standard, make sure to leave details about your plans with someone staying at home who can contact emergency services if you are overdue. If everything does go wrong, Mountain Rescue are there to help. Contact them by dialling 999 and asking for “Police” then “Mountain Rescue”. Be prepared to provide details about your location (ideally a grid reference), the casualty and their injuries, your party and contact details. Being registered with the 999-text service (text “Register” to 999 and follow instructions) allows this information to be sent as a text if it is not possible to call. If you are on one of our guided trips, the Wilderness Guide will deal with this, using their expertise to keep you safe and avoid any issues.
I am always surprised by how quickly I start to sweat while skinning uphill, even on the coldest days. Some like to “be bold, start cold”, while others shed layers as they go. Breathable and quick-drying base layers, with plenty of additional layers culminating in waterproof hardshell jackets and trousers, are key. Remember, down insulation is useless when wet, so think about synthetic insulation options for warmth, whatever the weather. Ensure your rucksack has designed ski attachments. Pack plenty of food and water- a hot drink is always a really pleasant surprise (I always forget I have packed one!).
Skis with frame or pin ski touring bindings and suitable ski boots are the basic bits of gear required. Although fairly heavy, using Daymaker or Contour binding adapters mean alpine DIN-certified downhill bindings can be used to walk uphill, switching back to the original bindings to ski back down. Masochists might choose to bootpack (walk in their ski or mountaineering boots) uphill with skis attached to their rucksacks and switch into their ski gear to enjoy the downhill run. For long snow-free walk-ins, it can be worth wearing a pair of approach/trail running shoes or lightweight walking boots and carrying skis and boots, it’s all part of the adventure and adds to the reward.
Snowboarders fear not, as split boarding is also a superb option to explore snowy Scottish hills too.
In addition to ski poles, to move gracefully uphill, you will also need some skins fitted and cut to your skis. Ski crampons (harscheisen) suitable for both your bindings and underfoot ski width can make walking up moderate-steep icy or hard-packed slopes easier.
There is no good reason not to wear a helmet or carry an avalanche transceiver (turned on), shovel and probe while carrying a lightweight ice-axe and crampons can be a useful “get-out-of-jail-free” card in the event of catastrophic equipment failure, in addition to opening access to some gnarlier terrain.
There are plenty of brilliant outdoor shops across Scotland, where helpful assistants will provide pressure-free advice, and there are plenty of rental options. For secondhand (and environmentally friendly, low carbon) bargains, eBay and various Facebook groups often come up trumps.
Although the Scottish mountains are relatively small in stature, they can pack a serious punch, so many of the risks involved with ski mountaineering at higher elevations remain. There were 162 reported avalanches in Scotland in the 2021/22 winter, and due to the increased distance it is possible to cover in the mountains on skis and the angles and aspects of slope that are fun to ski, avalanche risk must be taken exceptionally seriously.Familiarise yourself with, and use, the Be Avalanche Aware Process. Learn how to use your avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and regularly practice rescue scenarios.
Avalanche forecasts, which combine weather forecast information with observed snow conditions, attempt to predict likely avalanche problems and levels of avalanche hazard in different areas around the mountain. The next day’s forecast is uploaded in the afternoon/early evening and accessed at www.sais.gov.uk. Some theoretical knowledge and the ability to interpret these forecasts is crucial to help you successfully evaluate risk levels and how danger levels can dramatically change across the mountain.
To get this, consider learning from the knowledge and expertise of a qualified and experienced mountain professional by joining a guided touring trip. Before heading out independently, an avalanche awareness course is a superb investment.
With sufficient snow cover, it is possible to ski anywhere. During lockdown, many enjoyed skiing in their local hills (e.g., the Pentlands and the Ochils), having brilliant days in ranges that are normally overlooked on the way to bigger hills. Since reliable snow cover in local hills is a pipedream, the larger hills in Glencoe, Lochaber and the Cairngorms are a good bet but still within a short-ish drive from the central belt. North of the Great Glen, there are many spectacular hills (e.g., in Torridon) and home to some superb skiing, making a multi-day excursion an excellent choice when blessed with good conditions.
By 2019, Helen Rennie had skied every month for a decade in Scotland, including through the summer months: With a sufficient level of motivation, flexible attitude and willingness to walk to snow, skiing in Scotland is almost always possible. Even with a largely un-snowy looking hillside, enjoyable lines can often be found as windblown snow tends to collect, then persist in great depth, on lee (downwind) slopes, in burn (stream) lines, gullies and corries, so targeting these (generally north- and east- facing) areas, with an understanding of when windblown snow can constitute an avalanche hazard, is a good tactic.
That said, there is no denying skiing is best when faced with a white mountainside. Skiing in Scotland requires a “go when it is good” opportunistic approach, which can be any time between October (very unusual) and May. Generally, the best time to find snowy conditions is towards the end of February into March. While a decent base of snow can build up between December and the end of January, short days, harsh winds and wildly fluctuating temperatures can limit skiing opportunities. An optimistic attitude and experience knowing where will be out of the wind and holding the best snow (a great reason to hire a guide) dramatically increase chances of “getting lucky” with the weather. Spring snow in Scotland is often superb, especially when combined with stabler weather, longer days and warmer temperatures typical in later March, April and May.
Similarly, snow farming means snow persists in ski areas too. Ski touring has been largely embraced by the ski areas, with several offering discounted “Ski Touring Passes” allowing access to uplift, leaving you to journey onwards from the top of the resort. If you do choose to skin through commercial ski areas, follow Mountaineering Scotland’s ‘Snowsports Touring Code’.