Tom on a QMD hike in Scotland

My husband Tom just completed his Mountain Training but it wasn’t until a chance meeting with one last year that we found out what an ‘ML’ was, what they do and that Tom could become one – a seed was planted. So, I wanted to run through a few of the basic details about the Mountain Leader qualification and share how Tom got on with his, just in case it plants a tiny seed for someone else.

What is a Mountain Leader?

“You can get paid to take people hiking?!”

A Mountain Leader or ‘ML’ is a qualification that equips a person with the ‘skills required to lead others on walks in the lowlands, hills and mountains of the UK and Ireland’ including proficiency in navigation and map reading and mountain safety. Covering any hikes up to a ‘Grade 1 Scramble’ – without the planned use of rope.

What sort of things does the Mountain Leader training cover?

  • Leadership / group management
  • Navigation
  • Route planning
  • Outdoor first aid / emergency procedures
  • Safety in the mountains / environmental dangers
  • Weather
  • Equipment

Alternative awards if the mountains aren’t your bag:

Who can be a Mountain Leader?

Anyone, to a point. There are criteria that you must meet, including being at least 18 years old and having some experience of mountain walking, but if you’re passionate about hiking and are keen to progress your mountain skills or you would like to begin a career leading others safely on expeditions then keep reading.

For some keen hikers, the ML training is a natural progression, buffeting their experience with additional safety and navigation and going on to complete the assessment is not necessarily a priority. Whilst for others, the goal is to lead, which might include taking Duke of Edinburgh groups out on expeditions or charity hikes.  

To start the course you must meet the following criteria: states that you must:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Have at least a year’s worth of experience of mountain walking
  • Be interested in leading groups in the mountains
  • You must be a member of a mountaineering council: BMC, Mountaineering Scotland or Mountaineering Ireland

How do you prepare for the training?

Firstly, you are expected to register to join the scheme and then you begin a logbook, there is an ‘official’ online logbook called the ‘DLOG’. You will need to record any mountain walking experience that you have, and any hikes you do that qualify going forward. These hikes are what the scheme calls Quality Mountain Days ‘QMDs’.

In order to start your training, you are required to log at least 20 of these hikes. QMDs are defined as days that ‘make a positive contribution towards a person’s development and maturity as an all round mountaineer.’

This means the QMDS should test you. If you only want to head out hiking on the dry days for a couple of hours on beautifully waymarked familiar routes then re-think the Mountain Leader training.

It’s on the bad weather days, when you’re wet and have poor visibility but have to map-read and navigate off the mountain that you find out what you’re made of and that’s when you gain that all important experience that makes you a great Mountain Leader. (It’s also when you find out if your waterproof jacket is waterproof.)

Therefore, before a hike qualifies as a QMD there are essential elements that the hike needs to involve, such as planning and leading, physical and mental challenges and certainly navigation. Checking weather conditions before you go – consider and prepare for adverse conditions and find hikes where the terrain is ‘comparable to that found in UK and Irish hills’. There’s no point doing all your QMDs in the lowlands, these won’t qualify. And ensure that your hikes also include an ‘ascent of a substantial peak’, and that the journey takes at least five hours.

The combination of all of these elements is what makes a QMD a QMD – there’s always an opportunity for a lesson.

It does mean that using your phone or GPS device for navigating during these QMDs and training is a no-no but once you’ve completed your ML assessment you are free to use what you like, so you can get Hiiker back up and running!

Now with HiiKER’s new explore functionality, you can use amazing maps that are used by Mountain Leaders across the UK and Ireland, such as OS, Harvey Maps, EastWest Maps and OSi.

What does the training entail?

Once you’ve recorded at least 20 QMDs it’s time to book your Mountain Training with an approved provider. It lasts 6 days and includes mountain skills including safety on steep ground, night navigation, an overnight expedition and river crossings.

Tom leading on ML Training

After this training you will then have an opportunity to develop your skills further and strengthen any skills you might have struggled with that were identified during training. Between your training and your assessment (sometimes called the ‘consolidation period’), you are required to attend first aid training and record more QMDs. You should have a total of 40 in your log before your assessment, and these must also include at least 8 nights camping. Then, it might just be assessment time.

This is a personal decision; for some they will go for their assessment months after training, having developed their skills and confidence in the mountains whilst others will collect more QMDs and experience over the next couple of years before attending their assessment – only you know when you’re ready.

I chatted to Tom (my husband) who has recently completed his Mountain Leader Training.

What inspired you to do your ML Training?

ML Training, North Wales

“It was during a hike with Abbie Barnes of Spend More Time in the Wild on her ‘Abbie Bikes Britain mission that we met a Mountain Leader and I picked his brain about ML and if he recommended it. Later that day we then got to meet the Director of Blackdog Outdoors Andrew Higson, and hearing his story, about how Blackdog began and that they employ MLs to take people out hiking for mental health I thought: ‘you can get paid to take people hiking? why am I not doing this!’

The seed was planted and 8 months after that hike I have now done my training and look forward to the rest of my ML journey.”

Was the ML Training what you expected?

“I did my training in Llanberis, North Wales with Phil George and it was so much better than I could have expected. We learned essential life skills; honing our map-reading, studying minute contours and depressions, looking for landmarks that you wouldn’t have noticed before – reading the land. This was all about preparation for safety in the mountains, how essential it is to have navigational skills in case your tech fails and you have poor visibility; about having the right gear and equipment with you but also the confidence and knowledge of when and how to use it.

Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail I thought I was ‘experienced’ and I was also always eager to be as light as possible but Mountain Leading is a different beast to tame. There’s a time and a place for ultralight, and Mountain Leading is not it. There is a fine balance because you don’t want to be weighed down by unnecessary items but things like, carrying extra food in case you have to change the route, or in case of an emergency. And carrying an emergency shelter so you can protect your group from weather if things get bad. ML really is about looking at the big picture and thinking about your group – getting them up and down safely and happily.”

Did the training put you through your paces?

“Yes, in the best way. It forced us out of our comfort zones and forced us to, well, lead.

For night navigation on the course, we set out at midnight, this was after a full day of hiking in windy wet conditions. We were really put to the test with 40 mph winds that night, even being forced to move camp due to the gusts; disorientating visibility and tiredness setting in, we each took it in turns to navigate through the darkness – it really put it into perspective how bad conditions and tiredness could, without the right skills, get people into serious trouble, and quickly.”  

Camp on ML Training expedition night, North Wales

It sounds like the training instilled a deeper respect for hiking in the mountains?

“Definitely! There is no point risking it because things can go wrong quickly in the mountains. I was astounded to hear how often Mountain Rescue can ‘talk someone off’ a mountain, which only instils the importance of preparation, carrying the right equipment, having experience of hiking in adverse weather conditions and never underestimating mountainous weather is in preventing dangerous situations.

Having learned too about exhaustion and knowing that for my younger self the goal was always to be totally exhausted by the end of a hike, but as I discovered, a smart Mountain Leader needs to have a reserve of energy, preferably enough to go backup and down again if need be.”

Have you thought about your assessment?

“I now feel more confident in my own ability out there; knowing how to help others if things go wrong, like navigating in poor visibility or leading people off a mountain in the dark. But I have lots more QMDs to collect before I book my assessment but the training has equipped me with the skills I need to get there, so hopefully by the end of this year!”

For full information and how to register go to: