Despite being the highest mountain in South Wales, standing at a hefty 886 m (2,907 ft), Pen y Fan has long been a holiday hotspot thanks to its reasonable road access and friendly paths up. To be frank, in good weather, Pen y Fan is an easy walk if you don’t mind a bit of thigh-burn. As a result, it attracts many people who don’t often climb mountains, if ever. This tends to lead to the question, what should you wear up Pen y Fan?
I’m going to keep this short and sweet, because you want to summit a mountain goddamnit, not hear me wax lyrical about the pros and cons of merino. However, first I need to talk a little bit about why walking up Pen y Fan can be both a breeze and a disaster.
Oh the fickle mountain weather
The first time I climbed Pen y Fan I was 5 years old and the weather was so horrendous that we could barely even find our way from the summit back down again. It was summer. No matter which mountain you’re climbing, it’s always worth remembering that what seems like a sunny day in the valley may not be a sunny day on the summit.
Mountains attract changeable weather and summits can be exceptionally windy, seeing you cling onto the trig point for dear life as you watch dense cloud bubble and bloom up as if from nowhere. The temperature drops, the rain begins and before you know it, you can’t see the path but you do remember there’s a precipitous drop somewhere around here….
Equally, you might find yourself halfway up Pen y Fan wishing you’d packed the factor 50, a sun hat and wondering why you’re here in the first place when you’d much rather be swimming in a glacial lake. Mountain weather is a fan of extremes. That’s why it’s an extreme sport. Forget knife-edge arêtes and rock falls, it’s the weather you need to watch out for.
Because I’m assuming that experienced hill walkers and mountaineers won’t be searching for what to wear when mountain climbing, this blog is aimed at people who have little experience in such pursuits, who are hiking in the warmer months and simply want to spend a few hours or a full day hiking to Pen y Fan and her sister peaks.
If you’re not sure which route to choose, check out my blog post, the Best Route up Pen y Fan to Avoid the Crowds.
What Should You Wear and Pack for Walking Up Pen y Fan?
Walking up Pen y Fan doesn’t take very long and if you have reasonable fitness, you could technically be up and down in two hours on the shortest route. The longer route from Taf Fechan (which I love) can still be done in around four hours. Therefore, you don’t need to take a heap of stuff plus the kitchen sink with you.
Clothing (don’t hike naked)
- Breathable base layer — choose a fabric that wicks and absorbs sweat. You can strip down to this if you get hot.
- T-shirt/shirt/long-sleeved top — sleeves keep the sun off as well as keeping you warm. Having this extra layer available gives you room to layer up or down as you climb.
- Thin jumper/fleece — climbing in good weather can be a sweaty experience but don’t underestimate the chill as you stop on the summit, in possible wind and definite drop in skin temperature.
- Windproof raincoat — the wind holds an awful lot of responsibility for making you cold as it whips moisture from your skin. Often, you can hike on a warm day in just a base layer and a windproof coat. If it’s windy, the thickest jumper won’t keep you warm so opt for a lightweight, windproof raincoat (y’know, it might rain too).
- Leggings/hiking trousers/shorts — I’ve started hiking in leggings because they keep me both, cool, dry quickly and keep the sun off. Hiking trousers are also good as they’re often quick drying, breathable and have lots of pockets (love a pocket). Shorts need to be carefully considered in line with a summit weather forecast on the morning you hike.
- Hat — A hat that shields you face from the sun, stays put in wind and keeps rain out of your eyes is worth its weight in gold.
- Socks — hiking socks have come a long way in the last couple of decades and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that they’re worth spending money on. Well-fitting hiking socks with compression sections stay in place, don’t rub and often have magic wicking abilities.
- Hiking boots/shoes — I’m on the fence here. I’ve always been a diehard hiking boot wearer but recently my ethos has changed a bit. For rocky, treacherous ground, ankle support is great, making high-topped boots ideal. But beware the thick soles. Clumpy and rugged, they avoid rob you of feeling the ground and prevent you from being as nimble as the mountain goat we both know you are inside. If rain hasn’t fallen recently, well-fitting trainers with trail soles are fine for wearing up Pen y Fan. If you have fickle ankles or there’s any suggestion of mud and rain, do wear proper boots. I’ve started moving over to barefoot soled shoes as I find feeling the uneven ground makes me better balanced than in my thick-soled Scarpa boots. But it’s a personal thing. Whatever you do, don’t wear smooth-soled shoes, ballet pumps, fashion trainers, heels (do I need to say this?). Your shoes need to grip the ground.
- Sunglasses — Aside from the damage UV does to your eyes, squinting is tiring, gives you a headache and doesn’t look great in that summit shot. Wear Cat 3 or Cat 4 sunglasses.
- Gloves — If the weather is undecided, take gloves. The summit of Pen y Fan is an exposed place and gloves can have a significant effect on your comfort.
- Neck gaiter — Thin neck gaiters (or Buffs) are proof that genius is often the simplest thing. Neck gaiters keep the sun/wind off your neck, keep you warm when its cool, wipe sweat from your brow when you’re hot, can cover your mouth/head/god anything. In a pinch, you could use yours to blow your nose. They dry quickly too.
What Else Should You Take Up Pen y Fan?
Where’s that kitchen sink?
- Rucksack — You’ll need a well-fitting, comfortable rucksack/backpack that will fit everything below plus any layers you want to strip off/carry. A breathable back system is essential to keep your back from getting horribly sweaty but it doesn’t need to cost the earth. No other bag type is suitable so leave satchels and handbags at home.
- Water — Think how much water you need and take more. Sure, it’s heavy, but it’ll get lighter as you drink it. Pen y Fan isn’t a technically challenging mountain but she’s still a mountain and hiking her is difficult. Even if it’s not very hot, you’ll lose water through your breath. Take water and remember to drink it.
- Sunscreen — UVA isn’t stopped by clouds for a start. If it’s breezy, it can be easy to forget how powerful the sun’s rays are but when you get home, you’ll wonder why your face is bright red. Take sunscreen and broad spectrum lip balm. Reapply it regularly.
- Food — I’m a fan of the ol’ box of pasta salad personally, along with some form of flapjack. Take food, ideally that which won’t blow away or dehydrate you. Mountain hiking is hard work and there’s nothing better than a summit snack.
- Map and compass — learning how to read a map and use a compass is always a good idea. That being said, Pen y Fan’s Pont ar Daf route is straightforward as to not require a map, as is the horseshoe Taf Fechan route. Still, if the weather might turn on you, cloud quickly scuppers your vision and a map and compass come into their own.
- Learn from the witty MyOpenCountry guide or from the Ordnance Survey.
- Camera — If you don’t take a picture from the summit, did you even walk up Pen y Fan?
- Phone — Pen y Fan has reasonably good 3G and phone signal but obviously it depends on your carrier and is not something to be relied on. It’s sensible to take your phone should you get into trouble or need to help someone else who is in trouble.
Should you get into trouble, the Central Beacons Mountain Rescue Team operate in the area and can be reached by calling 999 and 112 and asking for the Police and then Mountain Rescue. However, it’s far better to avoid getting into trouble in the first place by being prepared, not underestimating the mountain, not overestimating your ability and aborting the hike if the weather turns nasty. Pen y Fan’s been there for a long time and she’ll still be there in better weather.