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Hillwalking - a beginner's guide

Sounds simple doesn't it? Hillwalking, 'the pastime of walking in the hills'



Let's begin by defining some terminology, starting with what we mean by a hill. At first glance, this seems straightforward - a hill is 'an area of land that is higher than the land that surrounds it.' This definition can also be used to describe a mountain, but there are notable differences between the two types of terrain. The risks associated with hills and mountains can be vastly different, and the skills and equipment required to safely ascend a mountain differ from those needed to walk to the summit of a hill.


To make matters even more confusing, especially in the UK, we have many different words for hills, such as fell, pike, tor, brae, moor, peak, and even down! These names often describe the hill's habitat, such as moorland, or a specific feature, like a rocky outcrop on the hill's summit known as a "tor". Others come from old English words, like "down," derived from the word "dun," meaning hill.


Hill or Mountain?


There is no universally accepted definition of a mountain. However, we can usually identify specific characteristics that distinguish them from hills. Typically, we associate mountains with height, steep slopes, and prominent summits. In contrast, we generally assume hills to be lower in height and more rounded. While this may not always be the case, these differences are usually sufficient for most situations.


Height is the most significant factor that distinguishes mountains from hills. Specifically, a mountain is defined as being over 2000ft with a notable prominence over its surroundings. In contrast, a hill is not defined but is generally assumed to be any feature below this height.


The route and our ability define a walk.


Hillwalking is self-explanatory. The difference between a hill and a mountain for this activity concerns what can be walked. Take Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), for example. It's a clear mountain based on its height (3,560ft), prominent peak, and steep slopes. However, there are many routes up to its summit, including steep faces, challenging ridge traverses, walking paths, and even a train.


What makes a hill walk is the terrain and the route, not the feature being ascended. The definition of a hill walk is a route that can be walked without the need for technical gear like ropes or climbing skills.



Many routes in the higher ranges of the UK require scrambling on some or many parts of the route. Scrambling is a climbing grade that involves using hands to balance and usually does not require technical equipment such as ropes. However, scrambling should be regarded as climbing, especially for inexperienced hikers. While theoretically, a scrambling route is between a walk and a climb, technical difficulty can be subjective. Higher grades of scrambles are actually climbs and require ropes and harnesses.


How to start hillwalking


Understanding some basics before going on a hillwalking adventure is essential. First, hill walking involves walking up and down hills, and even if we're well-conditioned, walking up hills requires more effort than walking on flat terrain. Gravity adds forces for ascending and descending hills, so the steeper the slope, the greater the effect. However, we don't need to be athletes to consider hill walking. It's essential to ensure we're healthy and fit with no health conditions preventing general exercise. If walking is a regular part of our life, hill walking is just another activity.


Keep it simple and short


As with any new activity it is best to start simple, keep to shorter distances, lower heights and less steep routes. Before familiar with the terrain and you have gained some confidence it is probably best to avoid heading out on remote walks alone. Walk with a friend or find a group which can cater for beginners.


Navigation and route selection


As a beginner it is advisable to keep to designated paths and trails but these are unlikely to be signposted throughout the route, signs can be easily missed and routes often criss cross with agricultural trails and tracks cut by livestock and wildlife.


To avoid getting lost and losing confidence as you become familiar with hill walking it is best to gain some basic navigation skills such as knowing how to read a map and use a compass. This also helps when familiarising yourself with routes. Being able to read a map and be familiar with features will enable you to select routes for example which avoid steep terrain or wet boggy ground.


A short note on GPS. Apps for phones and stand alone GPS devices are great tools for navigation but still require familiarisation with map reading and compass bearings. Also electronic devices need power and batteries run down. Mobile phones and even GPS require a signal. Never rely on devices alone for navigation.


Check the weather!


Weather is an important factor to consider for any outdoor activity, especially hillwalking. It not only affects our enjoyment of the activity, but can also pose significant risks and even be life-threatening. The temperature, wind, rain, and snow can all impact our health and make navigation more difficult.


To avoid such scenarios, it is recommended to check local weather forecasts before heading out. The Met Office Mountain forecast is a reliable source of information and is preferable to national weather or TV/radio forecasts.


Remember to tell someone where you plan to walk and when you will return.



Clothing and equipment


As a beginner you will face a vast amount of choice and potential expense. However, at least initially, hillwalking need not involve the expense of purchasing lots of new clothing or technical equipment.


There are a few key items we believe are necessary to make the adventure as comfortable as possible and as you gain experience you will find your own preferences for what to wear and what to take along with you on your adventures.


Expect the unexpected, especially over high ground it is not unusual to experience all seasons in one day, regardless of the time of year – follow the layering principle.

Be prepared!


  • Walking boots – with good support for your ankles. Ensure the sole is not too flexible and has good grip - Vibram or similar soles. Gortex or similar waterproofing is also recommended.

  • Socks – good quality walking socks, warm but also high wicking/breathable. Natural material such as wool. We recommend using liner socks to help prevent blisters but, this is a personal choice.

  • Walking trousers or shorts – light weight, quick drying. Jeans are not suitable! If wearing shorts either carry zip on legs or a pair of long trousers in case of change in weather conditions.

  • Base layer – woollen or similar natural material, the main wicking layer worn next to the skin.

  • Mid layer – fleece or similar

  • Insulation layer – optional additional layer, jacket or Gillet, to provide additional warmth, useful for stops to retain body temperature.

  • Waterproofs – the outer shell layer to provide protection against water and wind (jacket and trousers)

  • Hat – woollen hat

  • Gloves – weight of gloves depends on your own comfort, if you experience cold hands, we recommend light weight gloves while walking and heaver mid weight gloves for stops.


Equipment


  • Small ruck sack / day sack.

  • Walking poles (pair) - are highly recommended for this route

  • Water bottles (see water and food)

  • Head torch

  • Basic first aid kit - Plasters, blister plasters (Compeed or similar), painkillers e.g., paracetamol, ibuprofen, chamois cream, antiseptic cream or similar (for friction sore spots), sunscreen (high factor), wet wipes.

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Food & Water


It is important to carry enough food and water to sustain yourself during your walk. High energy foods such as cereal bars, nuts and fruit are good snack options. Carry plenty of water, as a guide 1.5 litres, more if a warm day.


Think local


It's important to remember that you don't have to travel to popular hiking destinations like Snowdonia, Peak District or Scottish Highlands to enjoy a good walk. If you're not located near these areas, there are likely numerous great hillwalking spots closer to you that are far less crowded. You can check out local walking groups or consult guide books for ideas.


So, go ahead and take a walk! Following this basic advice can be the most rewarding decision you'll make. Choose your destination, gather your companions, breathe in the fresh air and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature.




Our outdoor programme focuses on inclusivity, catering to both cautious enthusiasts and beginners. We provide options that range from easy and approachable to more challenging adventures; we create an environment where everyone can discover the joys of the outdoors at a pace that feels right for them.










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