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How to stay safe while hiking in the UK's hills and mountains

The UK’s wildest places are more popular than ever and being safe should be top of the agenda when planning a trip. Here, we take you through essential advice from an expert.  

Stob Ban in Glen Nevis, taken from Sgurr a'Mhaim.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 30 Apr 2022, 06:07 BST

Walking in all its forms has never been cooler, more aspirational or more accessible. And whether hill walking up Scottish Munros or going off-grid on a wild hike, with a few skills and a bit of kit, a whole new world of adventure opens up — offering a lifetime of diversions in the most dramatic parts of the UK.

However, some of it is rather more adventurous than many realise. Often this is a thrilling surprise, but sometimes it’s an unwelcome one. So, it’s important to know how to approach the highest, wildest places in Britain in a way that’s going to guarantee a lifetime of return-trips — rather than scare you off on day one.

Below, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions, and recommend a full packing list.

Where should I go to get started?

Several national parks are packed with beginner-friendly peaks that offer the perfect balance of spectacle and accessibility. Try Ambleside or Keswick in the Lake District, Dolgellau or Capel Curig in Snowdonia, Brecon or Crickhowell in South Wales, Hathersage or Castleton in the Peak District and Crianlarich or Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. (How to Spend a weekend in Fort William and Glencoe.)

Bear in mind that any hill can be dangerous in bad weather so use judgment based on your own experience — and never climb up anything you may not be able to climb back down again.

Any tips on starter hills? 

Start on something small, quick and rewarding with clear paths. Loughrigg Fell, Lingmoor Fell or Catbells in the Lake District all pack excellent views into an achievable package. Mam Tor in Derbyshire, Clougha Pike in Lancashire and Roseberry Topping in North Yorkshire all have a distinctly wild feel, great views and some rocky bits to grasp hold of. Ben A’an and Conic Hill in Scotland are eminently achievable hills amid stunning scenery.

If you want something higher, try Bowfell or the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District, Snowdon via the PYG track or Cadair Idris in Snowdonia, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, or Ben Lomond in Scotland's Southern Highlands. 

But British mountains aren’t hard to climb, right?

Don’t be fooled. It’s true that all but a dozen or so mountains in the UK have at least one relatively easy route to the top. By which we mean you don’t need to use your hands or ropes, or be able to handle overtly ‘technical’ ground — which is rocky, steep and requires care and caution. But mountains are just the objects you need to surmount: you need to consider things such as distance, time, your own fitness and — most importantly — the weather. 

While hiking Britain's hills and mountains, a paper Ordnance Survey or Harvey map, a compass and some basic skills are essential – regardless of whether you're using a smartphone app.

Photograph by Getty Images

Is the weather worse in the mountains than at ground level?

Often, yes. It can be better, with crisp cloud inversions and clean air all contributing to the fabulous views and the general feeling of wellbeing that walking at height gives. But the main thing to remember is that weather has more of an effect on you while you're in the mountains than it does at ground level. Up there you can’t just nip into a cafe or grab a change of clothes, so if you’re out for the day or up high, you need to have everything you need to protect yourself from whatever’s likely to come along — be it a fresh wind, blizzards or burning sun.

There’s a reason Edmund Hillary and his team trained for Everest on Snowdon, and many a high-altitude mountaineer treats a wild winter day in Scotland with the same degree of caution as the Himalayas. The mix of unpredictable weather, the presence of heat-sapping ‘wet’ cold (as opposed to ‘dry’ cold, such as the kind you find in the Alps and other more reliably frosty places) and the tendency to switch very quickly between conditions makes Britain surprisingly formidable, particularly in the cooler months. It’s best to prepare for everything. And don't just watch the forecast on the news or your smartphone – develop a bond with the Met Office's Mountain Weather forecasts, or – even better – the MWIS Information service for detailed reports where your headed. 

How do I find my way?

There aren’t many signs in the British hills and while there are paths aplenty (as well as plenty of places without) they’re only any good if you’re on the right one. A paper Ordnance Survey or Harvey map and a compass are essential, as are some basic map-reading skills that allow you to orientate yourself, read the landscape around you and judge steepness and distance. There are also many courses for more advanced skills.

Can’t I just use my phone?

If you have a good smartphone satellite navigation app, your map and compass may well spend most of their time in your rucksack. But they need to be there if you need them, as they give you options if, for any one of a dozen reasons, your smartphone suddenly becomes unavailable or decides not to work. In terms of apps, forget Google Maps: you need an app that works offline, gives detailed terrain and a grid reference. OS Maps, OutdoorActive and Topo GPS are three of the best available. You’ll probably need to pay for the detail you need, but if you want to use your phone as a navigation tool this is as essential as fuel in your car or food in your stomach.

If you’re going down the smartphone route, you also need to ensure your phone has enough battery in reserve in case you need to use it for its primary function. For this reason, a battery pack — or indeed, a spare, rugged phone with a longer battery life purely for making calls stashed in your first-aid kit — is a good idea.

Hikers ascend Ben Lomond, Scotland.

Photograph by Getty Images

What if something happens up there?

It’s important to adopt a self-accountable attitude in the hills, as when you’re miles from a road there aren’t the same kind of emergency services to call on. Thankfully there are, however, highly skilled volunteer mountain rescue teams in most regions with the ability to search, administer first aid or summon air support for more serious injuries if possible and necessary. All would rather bring a walker home who called them than look for one who hasn’t come back, so if you feel your safety could be at risk dial 999 and ask for the local police, then mountain rescue — to ensure you’re connected to a local team. For added safety, install the OS Locate app on your phone so you can give them your accurate location. 

If you have no signal from your provider and need to make an emergency call, try dialling 999 or 112 anyway: your phone will look for any available network to piggy-back onto. Also register your phone with Emergency SMS before you go — sometimes a text can get through when a call can’t.

So can I walk in the British hills all year round now?

Not quite. In the mountains you could say there are really only two seasons — summer and winter. Walking on snow and ice in high, steep places on days of short daylight and cold winds brings with it a new set of variables, and you need to be prepared for them. On the highest mountains, ice and snow can start to appear in October and lie until May, with even smaller hills in the Lake District and Snowdonia still icy long after the daffodils have popped out in the valley below. Snow covers paths, masks terrain and is very hard to stop on if you slip. It also makes areas such as the Cairngorms and summits such as Ben Nevis resemble the Arctic, and every year people get into difficulty or die having fallen foul of the environment they were heading out into.

That said, the colder months can be a wonderful time to go hiking – so the answer is to learn a set of winter skills. There are places to get an introduction online, but nothing beats learning these skills in person. A course will not only teach you how to handle winter terrain, but how to enjoy it, navigate it, and develop your own judgement along the way. Alternatively club together with some mates and hire an instructor for a day to run you through the basics – you won't regret it.

You’ll be introduced to crampons — metal claws you strap to 3-4 and 4-season boots — and discover that ice axes aren’t really for hacking your way up ice cliffs, but for stopping potentially catastrophic slides down slopes you probably wouldn’t look twice at in summer. 

While it's easy to get sucked in to buying lots of expensive new kit, there are a select range of essentials that you cannot do without.

Photograph by Getty Images

PACKING LIST


Gloves and a warm hat should be in your pack no matter when you plan to hike, as should a headtorch. Outside of summer, pack spares.

A pair of 3-season or 3-4 season boots are a must if you’re starting out — both to protect your ankles, support your feet and for handling the rough ground. Most boots built for walking strike a balance between sturdiness and lightweight — and it’s worth paying more for a waterproof lining, as any extra weight on your feet, like soaked-in water, will assert itself far more than weight on your back. Modern boots don’t need breaking in, but ensure they fit properly: many retailers have staff trained to assist you in this. Chuck a decent pair of walking socks in the basket too – avoid cotton unless you're particularly keen on wet, cold feet.

Go for quick drying, lightweight trousers — avoid jeans — and a top that is high-wicking (i.e. moves chilly sweat away from your skin). If you already have base-layer gear for the gym or running, that’s a good place to start.

You’ll then need a warm layer such as a fleece, either to wear in cooler seasons or to stash in your rucksack, just in case. Many modern insulated outdoor jackets also have a windproof shell and a hood, which makes them extra useful. When dressing for the day a good rule of thumb is to start off slightly chilly – you'll warm up pretty quickly as you walk.

Then you’ll need a waterproof, as few things make a day as miserable as being wet. You can pay anything from £50 to £500 for a waterproof jacket. The more you spend will buy you more refinement, durability and better manufacturing standards. You don’t necessarily need Gore-Tex, but make sure your waterproof jacket is ‘breathable’ (i.e. it let’s sweat out but doesn’t let rain in), has good pockets in sensible places, a good hood and still covers your backside when you bend over or reach up. Many go cheap on waterproof trousers, as you’re less likely to wear them as much — but the same principles of comfort vs enjoyment apply.

As for something to carry it in, rucksacks are measured in litres, with 20-30 litres perfect for day-walks and 50-65 litres more geared for lightweight overnight camping trips or winter expeditions. Always try a rucksack on with something in it: more expensive models may come in different back lengths, which is an important consideration if you’re particularly short or tall. And always buy one with a hip-belt — this does wonders for stability as well as comfort.

Beyond the gear, you'll need to pack food and first aid. Pack a couple of litres of water and high-calorie food. Other smart items to take include a couple of metres of gaffer tape wound around a pencil; this can be used for everything from making a tourniquet to mending a map. A basic first-aid kit with a whistle, painkillers, blister plasters and spare laces are always a good idea. A set of lightweight waterproof bags keeps your kit organised and dry in your rucksack; raincovers help, but not always that much. Trekking poles may look over-the-top but they are an asset on steep ascents, so if you’re prone to joint pain or need to get your fitness up, consider them — they really make a difference. A lightweight emergency shelter is an excellent, cheap addition to your rucksack and can give you a little sanctuary from the weather whenever you need it, from a tea break to an emergency.  

Browse through our range of specialist equipment lists suited to every type of adventure

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