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A quick guide to walking and hiking

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

A beginners guide to hiking

One of the UK's favourite outdoor activities, walking and hiking are a great way to get exercise and reconnect with nature, friends and family. There are wonderful places to walk everywhere you go in the UK, from river, canal and coastal paths, to moors and downs, to our mountains and wild places. This beginners guide explains a bit about what walking is and then describes the risks you should be aware of, the skills and kit you need, and where you can walk in the UK.

What is hill walking?

Hill walking is the official term in the UK that differentiates the outdoor pursuit of walking from simply taking a stroll around your local park (although your park is a pretty good place to start!) By definition, hill walking is taking a walk in a hilly or mountainous place in conditions that do no need you to use specialist equipment, like ropes and crampons. However, in the UK it is often a catch-all phrase for hiking and trekking over a whole variety of terrains.

How do I get started?

There is no easier and cheaper way to get started with outdoor activities than walking, and in the UK you're likely to be within a 30 minute drive or train ride of some really amazing places to walk, even if you live in the middle of a city. You can check out great places to walk near you with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder (limited to Hampshire at the moment). If you start easy, in good weather, at a place with well marked trails, then you can probably get started right away.

If you want to progress onto more challenging walks, then you can hook up with a friend of family member who has some experience. You can also join a walking club or group (such as the Ramblers), hire a professional guide or get yourself on a short course to learn some essential skills. You can find guided walks with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder (just filter your search to select instructors and guides.

What are the risks?

Walking is probably the safest way to enjoy the outdoors, but there are risks involved, especially when you start venturing into high, rugged or remote areas. The risks of getting lost or stuck, getting too cold or too hot, or having a fall can all be easily managed by having a plan, being careful, learning a few skills and not over-stretching yourself. For more on how to stay safe when walking, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for walkers.

What skills do I need?

As you start to progress onto more challenging walks you should begin learning some of these basic skills.

Planning a hike with a map
Walking skills - Know how to plan a route

Know how to plan a route

A proper walk needs proper planning. For this you need to learn how to use a map, ideally an Ordinance Survey map. You also need to know how to judge the difficulty of the ground you will cross and estimate how quickly you will cover distance.

Navigating with a map and compass
Walking skills - Know how to navigate

Know how to navigate

There is a temptation to allow technology to navigate for you. But, there really is no substitute for having a physical map and knowing how to navigate with it; after all, you need a backup if your phone signal or battery fail you.

Walkers crossing a stream
Walking skills - know how to cross difficult ground

Know how to cross difficult ground

Even on marked tracks you could encounter tricky and possibly dangerous ground. The skills to cross a stream, scramble up rocks, walk on ice or in snow, and even just cross a slippery grassy slope are all important to learn.

Military Mountain Rescue helicopter
Walking skills - Know how to act in an emergency

Know how to act in an emergency

Accidents can happen anywhere, but the more remote you are the more you need to know how to react. Having basic first aid skills and knowing how to get help are essential if you're heading out on a more challenging walk.

What kit do I need for walking?

You need very little to get into hill walking. Whilst there is temptation to spend a lot of money on top end clothing and kit, you can probably get started with what you already have. What to wear and take with you will depend on how long you’re going for, the difficulty of the walk and the time of year. But, in the UK it’s always best to go prepared for a bit of rain, just in case… so always pack a waterproof jacket.

Packing list for walkers

  • Sturdy trainers, or boots with ankle support for rugged terrain

  • Spare socks (kept dry)

  • Waterproof jacket

  • Multiple warm layers (rather than a big thick coat)

  • Gaiters or waterproof trousers if its likely to be wet

  • Ordinance Survey map and a good quality compass

  • Fully charged mobile phone (kept dry)

  • Emergency kit (including whistle and torch with spare batteries)

  • Plenty of water and snacks

  • Any medication you might need to take

  • Sun cream and sun hat if it's hot

  • Gloves and warm hat if it's cold

  • Small rucksack with waterproof cover or dry bag

Where can I walk in the UK?

In the UK we all benefit from years of hard-won campaigning to make our countryside and wild places accessible. However, you can't simply walk anywhere you like (apart from in Scotland where you pretty much can thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003).

In England and Wales, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives you the right to walk freely over designated ‘Open Access’ land (yellow shading on Ordinance Survey maps) . Essentially, this covers mountains, moors, heathland and downs. Everywhere else, the Public Rights of Way network applies (green lines on Ordinance Survey maps). As well as being clearly marked on Ordinance Survey maps, there are nearly always signs that will indicate where you can and can't go.

Where do I find more information about walking?

The British Mountaineering Council (the BMC) is the UK's representative body that exists to protect the freedoms and promote the interests of climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, including ski-mountaineers. The BMC website offers a huge range of advice on where and when to walk, staying safe, developing your skills and supporting the environment.

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