A Beginner’s Guide to Hill Walking

It all started the day you got off the bus one stop early and walked home. You felt good. You felt fit. You got some air in your lungs. This new you loves walking!

Now you walk to and from Tesco Express instead of getting in the car. You even went for a walk around the park on Saturday and quite liked it. Maybe all those people traipsing around the countryside at the weekend aren’t retired, boring and a little bit vegan. Maybe they’re like you: young, dynamic, full of beans and loving life.*

*Author’s note: Many of them are young, dynamic, full of beans and loving life. If you know me and you’re thinking “that doesn’t describe you at all, Mark, you’re in your mid-30s and really quite cynical”, then please don’t let one exception to the rule diminish your newfound enthusiasm.

If this all sounds a bit like you and you don’t know where to start, it’s been incredibly serendipitous that you’ve found this article.

Walking around the UK National Parks is my favourite thing to do. I’m particularly fond of the Peak District, but there are special places in my heart for the Brecon Beacons, Cotswolds, Lake District and basically anywhere in Scotland. You get to be outside, see some incredible scenery, spend some decent time with your mates away from a screen, and take in a lungful or two of fresh, country air. What’s more, it’s free! Actually, it’s not free. People keep saying it’s free, but everything below costs some money. But once you’ve spent that money, it’s mostly free!

Allow me to be your guide into the wonderful world of hill walking…

Walking Boots

These are the most important things you’re going to buy before you set off into the hills. There are so many boots available that it can be daunting, but you can quickly discard 80% of the options. Heading up Kinder Scout on the weekend? You’re not going to need ski boots or alpine boots. It gets rainy and boggy up there, so you can probably discard the lightweight approach shoes as well. This leaves you with proper walking boots to choose from. I tend to go for waterproof ones that cover and support my ankles, because history tells me I’ll mistake a 6-inch deep puddle of cow shit for solid terrain on every walk. Choose wisely.

Now you’ve picked a pair you want to try on, turn your attention to the weird ramp thing in the store that looks a little like someone built a zen garden bridge over a tiny shed roof. Put some boots on, pretend you’re in a playground made just for you – your own little miniature mountain range of felt – and have a good old go on it.

Your inclination at this point is going to be the same as when the hairdresser shows you the back of your head or when the waiter asks you to try the wine. You’ll go through the motions and nod like you understand why you came here in the first place, but it’s all a bit of a mystery. Let me be the one to let you in on the secret…

When you’re approaching the ramp and during your arduous ascent of Mount Felt, notice what your heel is doing inside the boot. There should be a little movement. Not much, but a little. A heel that doesn’t move beckons the Coming of Blisters and Misery. A heel that moves too much beckons your boot being left stuck in cow shit while you hop around a farm track trying to keep your balance. Nobody wants to end up hiking home in footwear accidentally made from wattle and daub. Summit the top of the ramp. Survey the view. Now, walk down it and concentrate on your toes. As you descend, you don’t want your toes to hit the front of the boots. Why? Well, why would you? It sounds like a terrible way to live.

Even if you’ve found a pair of boots that you love, be that annoying customer who wants to try on another two pairs by different brands. This is like speed dating with footwear. Choose the wrong ones and it’s going to cost you money and ruin your day. Get the right ones and you’ll love them until they’re old and baggy and you fancy something new. See? Just like dating, but with boots.

Waterproofs

If the Inuit apocryphally have 50 words for snow (they don’t), then the British must have at least 7 or 8 words for rain. When I first started walking, I skimped on waterproof jackets because they were expensive – I regretted it. More recently, I’ve upped my waterproof game to include ExPed dry sacks after I walked through a cloud for three hours. My waterproofs couldn’t cope with the deluge and my phone finally died a soggy death after being subjected to 360-degree rain and a waterfall going the wrong way.

The British weather can change in minutes and you can easily find yourself exposed to the elements with very few options for shelter. A good waterproof jacket, over-trousers and dry sacks will make sure you and your equipment get home safely. Dry sacks might seem like a luxury, but even if your rucksack has one of those integrated raincovers, you’ll soon discover that they’re universally crap. There’s no misery quite like being wet and cold while you’re walking, let alone on the drive home. Trust me on this – after you’ve bought boots, this is where you need to put your money.

Walking Poles

Some people love to use walking poles because they can really help with balance and spread impact, especially on slopes. Other people say that they make you look like a bit of a tit. Those people are judgemental. Get yourself some poles if that’s what you want to do.

Headlamps

I always take a headlamp walking with me in winter, just in case I don’t make it around the walk before the sun sets. I’m also a massive fan of night walks, which bring an entirely different, majestic, awe-inspiring peacefulness to hill walking that I don’t think enough walkers experience. I’ve had a few headlamps over the years, but I currently use a Petzl REACTIK which I love. At the very least take a torch with you if there’s a chance you’ll get caught out by nightfall, but the joy of shining a light from your forehead is one that can’t be described sufficiently with words.

If you do get a headlamp, remember this: all your life you’ve been taught to look at people when they talk to you. If you’re wearing a headlamp, don’t do that. Your forehead has 220 lumens beaming out of it. How much is 220 lumens? Enough that you won’t have any friends left if you keep looking at them with the thing turned on.

Navigation

Do you know how many times I’ve been 4 miles into a 9 mile walk, my phone battery has died and, all of a sudden, I’m without the ViewRanger route I’d been relying on to get me home? Never. Not once. I always carry a battery pack with me whenever I’m outdoors and I always carry a map and a compass. I haven’t needed to use a paper map to get me home safely in 5 years, but it goes into the bag with the same assurance as the waterproofs and headlamp. Maybe I’ll never need it, but it’ll be there if I do.

You don’t want to be the lone walker sat weeping into your Camelbak reservoir harvesting tears for when you’ll need them to stave off dehydration in 3 days time. Get a map and learn how to read it. I shan’t explain how to use a map and compass here because:

  1. It’s already a very long article, isn’t it?
  2. It would require me to draw diagrams and I’m just not that confident in my ability to do it justice. I’m much more adept at tracing.
  3. Ordnance Survey have done a bloody good job of explaining it here. They even sell compasses. Compi? Compasses/compi. Whatever. Get one.

And that is all you need to get started! All that’s left is for you to point yourself in the direction of one of our astonishingly beautiful National Parks, find a decent pub for the way home, and get outside!

I hope you love it as much as I do. You never know, next time it might be me you walk past in the Peak District as you raise your hand and say “Walker ahoy!” just as all walkers do when they pass each other.

Do they really say that?

Surely not.

But everything else in the article seemed so helpful…

Maybe you should practice it in front of a mirror just in case.

“Walker ahoy!”

Mark

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