Becoming a Mountain Leader

knoydart summerBecoming a mountain leader has been one of the best and most rewarding learning experiences of my life. I passed my Mountain Leader Award in 2004 and then went on to gain the Winter and International Mountain Leader Awards. Together with the Lowland Leader Award and Hill and Moorland Award, these are part of a family of five professional walking and trekking qualifications, covering UK and Ireland, offered by an organisation called Mountain Training. Gaining a walking qualification – whatever the level – is a challenging, absorbing and satisfying experience that takes time and committment. It also opens up opportunities to work and volunteer in the outdoors.

Understanding what’s involved in gaining these qualifications, however, isn’t always so straightforward and I often get asked to explain the process. This blog article outlines what’s involved with links on where to get more information and advice on which Award might be best for you. The blog also offers some clarification on  how these qualifications relate to supervising Bronze, Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions.

So the Mountain Training website is key place to get information on these qualifications. It is the place to go to register for the scheme, look for training and assessment courses, log your experience and search for and record continuing professional development. Mountain Training is a collection of awarding bodies for skills and qualification courses for walking, climbing and mountaineering for the UK and Ireland.

The five walking qualifications are listed below together with links to the respective candidate handbooks:


The Expedition Skills Module is an optional module available to holders of the Lowland Leader and Hill and Moorland Award. The module trains and asseses candidates in the skills required to lead others on camping expeditions.The award extends the scope of the Lowland Leader and Hill and Moorland Award’s to include leading multi day camping expeditioins within the respective terrain and conditions of the reward held.

Each qualification relates to different types of terrain and conditions. This is called the scope of the award.

Award Scope of the Award
Lowland Leader Award Leading groups on walks in lowland countryside and woodland terrain: on paths and tracks that are both in the landscape and on the map; in summer (i.e. non-winter conditions); no further than 3km from point of access like a layby, car park or populated area. Walks must not cross hazardous terrain like cliffs, very steep slopes, water hazards.
Hill and Moorland Award Leading walks in open, uncultivated, non-mountainous high or remote country known variously as upland, moor, bog, fell, hill or down: encompassing walks that may be ‘off path’ but not including movement on steep or rocky terrain. Leaders and their group must be able to exit areas of remoteness in a few hours, returning to a building with a telephone or accessible road. Areas of remoteness must be bounded by well-defined geographical or man-made boundaries.
Mountain Leader Award Leading walks (including multi-day camping expeditions) in mountainous terrain in summer conditions, which means ‘non-winter conditions’ when snow and ice don’t prevail. Note that summer conditions can’t be fixed to a particular time of year; for example, during a mild winter ‘summer’ conditions may prevail in December*.  The Award does not provide a rock climbing qualification, nor the planned use of a rope. The qualification provides technical competence in leading walkers in the hills and mountains; managing hazards like steep ground and river crossings.
Winter Mountain Leader Award Leading walks in mountainous terrain in winter conditions when snow and ice prevail. The qualification provides technical competence in leading walkers in winter conditions; managing hazards like poor visibility, cold weather injuries, strong winds and avalanche prone slopes. The qualification does not provide a climbing qualification. The use of ropes is excluded (other than for emergency situations).
International Mountain Leader Award The scheme provides training and assessment in the skills required for leading and educating groups worldwide in summer conditions and also on easy snow-covered, rolling, Nordic-type terrain in the “middle mountains” in winter conditions. The scheme does not involve the techniques and equipment of mountaineering, alpinism or glacial travel.

*Typically winter conditions prevail in Scotland during the months of January to March but may extend from November to May depending on local conditions.

winter knoydart

The syllabus for each award scheme includes three core components: navigation skills; leadership and party management; and, environmental knowledge. The level of knowledge and capability in these three areas increases as you progress through the awards, each award becomes progressively more challenging. In addition to navigation, leadership and environmental knowledge there are some award specific skills like: avalanche awareness in the WML and IML; ropework in the ML, WML and IML; and river crossings in the ML.


Each of these awards opens up opportunities to volunteer or work in the outdoors. Note that the requirements organisations offering volunteer and work opportunities vary. Also note other training and experience may be required. Here is a list of examples:

Examples of Opportunities Award (higher award also applicable)
Lead a walk for a walking club in lowland countryside and woodland terrain LL
Coach, train and supervise Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award expeditions in lowland countryside terrain LL with Exped Module
Coach, train and supervise Bronze, Silver or Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions in hill and moorland terrain. HML with Exped Module
Become a course tutor for the Bronze National Navigation Award LL
Become a course tutor for Bronze, Silver and Gold National Navigation Awards HML
Lead walks in places like the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Dartmoor, Exmoor National Parks. HML
Lead walks up Britain’s highest mountains in non-winter conditions. (e.g. Munros – Scottish mountains over 3000ft, mountains in Snowdonia and Lake District National Parks) ML
Lead trekking expeditions overseas with World Challenge ML
Lead a camping expedition along the West Highland Way HML
Lead a walking holiday in Scotland for a hiking company like About Argyll Walking Holidays ML
Lead groups in winter conditions in the Cairngorm mountains, using equipment like crampons and ice-axe. WML
Lead a trek in France, in the Alps or Pyrenees IML
Become a snowshoe guide IML


The structure of the award schemes – for all of them – is much the same; comprising of the following stages:

  1. Meet the prerequisites for registration for an Award Scheme (e.g. meet the age requirement; membership of a organisation like British Mountaineering Council or Mountaineering Scotland)
  2. Create an account with Mountain Training’s Candidate Management System (CMS) or log in if you already have one. CMS is an online database that enables candidates to register for schemes, log their experience, search for and book onto a training or assessment course, and also search for and record their continuing professional development.
  3. Register for an Award Scheme (e.g. Lowland Leader, Hill and Moorland, Mountain Leader).
  4. Meet the prerequisites for the training course. Prior to attending a training course, you will need to have completed a specificed minimum number of walks on suitable terrain (see table below).
  5. Undertake the training course (see table below).
  6. Complete the consolidation period between training and assessment where the candidate develops their skills and experience, paying particular attention to any areas of development identified during the training course.
  7. Meet the prerequisites for the assessment. Prior to assessment you will need to have completed a specified minimum number of walks on suitable terrain (see table below).
  8. Undertake the assessment (see table below)
Award (click on link for more info) Training prerequisites and course duration Assessment prerequisites and course duration Approx cost
Lowland Leader Award 10 lowland walks

Training course is two days long

Hold a two day / 16 hour First Aid course

Min 20 Lowland Walks

Assessment course is two days long

Registration costs £45

Approx £250 total for training and assessment (non residential price)

Hill and Moorland Award 20 quality hillwalking days

Training course is three days long

Hold two day / 16 hour First Aid course

Min 40 quality hillwalking days

Assessment course is three days long

Registration costs £45

Approx £400 total for training and assessment (non residential price)

Mountain Leader Award 20 quality mountain days

Training course six days long

Hold two day / 16 hour First Aid course

Min 40 quality mountain days

Assessment is five days long

Registration costs £45

Approx £700 – £1200 total for training and assessment (residential price)

Winter Mountain Leader Award Hold the Mountain Leader Award

20 winter quality mountain days

Winter training course is six days long

Hold two day / 16 hour First Aid course

Min 40 winter quality mountain days gained over at least three winters

Completed and logged at least 10 grade 1 or above named UK winter climbs

Assessment is five days long

Registration costs £55

Approx £1000 – £1300 total for training and assessment (residential price)

International Mountain Leader Award Hold the Mountain Leader Award

20 quality international summer mountin days

20 quality winter days in the UK or overseas

Referee endorsing your experience

The summer training course is five days long (including speed navigation Test)

Winter training course is five days long

Passed Speed Navigation Test

Hold two day / 16 hour First Aid course

Min 60 quality International days (30 summer, 30 winter)

Summer asssessment is four days long

Winter assessment is five days long

Registration is £77

Approx £4000 for all the course and assessments (residential price)

Additional travel related expenses

To find a training or assessment course click here.  Also, here are a few links to providers of training and assessment courses (all Scotland based):

Having undertaken the assessment, candidates either pass, fail or are deferred. Deferral means that the candidate has failed to meet the required standard on part of the syllabus and is required to return – usually for a day – to be reassessed.

Having gone through the awards myself here are some top tips for candidates preparing for assessment:

  • Don’t take any short cuts when it comes to the consolidation phase. In my opinion this is the most important part of the whole process, when you gain more experience and develop your skills. Be honest with yourself in respect to whether your day on the hill is really a quality day; for example, if you have gone up and down Ben Lomond in four hours by the main path, for the third time….. this won’t count as a quality day. I also think it is a good idea to do more quality days that the minimum required.
  • Go out and do skill specific training. So rather than just go out with the aim of bagging some mountain tops, going out to practice something specific: like, mirco-navigation, night navigation or ropework. It’s also very beneficial to go out with an aim to learn about mountain flora and fauna. Mountain Training produce award scheme checklists that set out all of the skills, knowledge and competencies you should have before assessment. It is good idea for candidates to study the checklist and identify any areas you need to work on some more. National Navigation Award courses – Bronze, Silver and Gold – offer really good skill specific training for candidates preparing for assessment. Aspen Outdoors Ltd run courses throughout the year. For more information click here.
  • My third bit of advice is to team up with others preparing for assessment, for examples others that may have been on your training course. I learnt a huge amount from working with other candidates.

The last part of this article offers some clarification about how these qualifications relate to the supervision of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions. I sometimes hear leaders say that the Lowland Leader Award qualifies you to supervise Bronze expeds, the Hill and Moorland Award Silver expeds and the Mountain Leader Award Gold expeditions. Whilst that may be the case, linking these qualifications to levels of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award misses a very important point: that the qualifications required of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award superviser should be dependent upon the terrain the expedition route goes through. You may; for example, have a Bronze expedition route that goes through a relatively remote moorland area, where participants are more that 3km from a point of access. In those circumstances the superviser should hold the Hill and Moorland or higher award. Similarly you may have a silver route that runs through lowland countryside terrain and remains, throughout its course, within 3km of a road or populated area. In those circumstance the Lowland Leader Award would be sufficient. Importantly, the competence and qualifications of the superviser should be matched to the terrain and conditions of the route.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

One thought on “Becoming a Mountain Leader

  1. Stuart McCartney

    Hi Alastair
    Great article and pics especially on the Alpine ridge with ropes.
    This looks like IFMG territory.
    Hope your as well as you look,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s