Everything you need to know about hill walking

Our complete guide to the know-how, gear and skills you need to make the most of the UK’s finest uplands

LONG SUMMER DAYS provide a perfect opportunity to experience the UK’s spectacular hill and mountain scenery. If you’ve never ventured out onto the lonely moors and rocky routes found in Britain’s uplands it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are our top tips to help you make the most of the diverse landscapes on offer.

The hills don’t come any wilder or more dramatic than Torridon  in north-west Scotland | Fotolia.com

The hills don’t come any wilder or more dramatic than Torridon
in north-west Scotland | Fotolia.com


Mountain weather in the UK is notoriously changeable. Temperatures can fall by an average of one degree for every 200 metres you travel uphill, while wind and rain can make it feel cooler still.

 Consulting a detailed weather forecast such as the Met Office mountain area forecast or the Mountain Weather Information Service will help you to plan your route, taking into account factors such as the wind speed and direction. For example, you can plan to walk uphill with the wind on your back, returning to your start point via a valley for added shelter.


Finding your way through the hills is a satisfying skill once you’ve got the hang of it. High-quality maps are produced by Ordnance Survey and Harveys, costing as little as £5. When navigating in the hills, make use of ‘The Three Ds’: Direction, Description and Distance.

 Keeping your map ‘oriented’ like this, you’ll be able to work out which way you need to walk. | Martin Sweeney

Keeping your map ‘oriented’ like this, you’ll be able to work out which way you need to walk. | Martin Sweeney


Using either the landmarks you can see around you, or the red  ‘north needle’ on your compass, turn your map so that north on the map is in line with north in real life. By keeping your map ‘oriented’ like this, you’ll be able to work out which way you need to walk. For even more accuracy you can use ‘compass bearings’, a slightly more advanced technique.


Whichever map you choose, time spent at home learning what the symbols mean makes it much easier to interpret the map quickly when you’re doing it for real. Contour lines mark changes in height, showing hills and valleys, and can be used to work out whether you should be travelling uphill or downhill. Linear features like rivers and boundary fences can be followed as part of a route. Other features can be mentally ‘ticked off’ as you pass them.


Use the scale on the map to accurately measure the distance between your start point and the next ‘checkpoint’ on your route. Walking at an average speed of 4km per hour (for adults) and adding 10 minutes for every 100 metres going uphill, you can estimate how long your journey should take. If you have travelled for significantly longer than expected, it’s time to stop and reassess where you are.


Keeping an eye on the weather, taking time to plan your route carefully and leaving plenty of time for your walk can all help to avoid difficulties in the hills, but unexpected events can still occur.

There won’t always be signs along a route, but when there are they can be useful for checking your bearings | Visit Wales

There won’t always be signs along a route, but when there are they can be useful for checking your bearings | Visit Wales

Mountain Rescue Teams in the UK are staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers and can take some time to arrive, so if you can get yourself off the hill to a safe place this is the best course of action.

If you do need help, call emergency services on 999, 112 or 911 and then ask for Mountain Rescue. If you can provide detailed information about your location and circumstances, help will arrive more quickly.

In some areas mobile coverage can be poor, so registering your phone with the 999 text service in advance gives you a better chance of summoning help (text ‘register’ to 999 and then follow the instructions given).


If you’re not sure about any of the skills described in this article, it’s worth taking some professional instruction to give you the confidence needed to enjoy the hills.

The National Navigation Award Scheme (NNAS) is a good way to improve your map-reading skills, while the Mountain Training UK Hill and Mountain Skills scheme will provide you with an all-round introduction to the skills needed in the hills.

Visit Wales

Visit Wales


Being well-equipped for hillwalking makes a significant difference to both safety and enjoyment, but obtaining decent clothing and equipment doesn’t have to cost the earth. As a minimum you should ensure you have the following:


Waterproofs need to have taped seams (a strip of waterproof fabric glued on the inside of any stitched areas to prevent water from entering). Lightweight pac-a-mac type garments really don’t offer much protection in anything other than the lightest of showers, but can be useful as a wind-proof layer. Waterproofs with a breathable membrane, like Gore-Tex, allow perspiration to escape, helping you stay warmer, drier and more comfortable on warm days.

Avoid cotton and denim clothing in the hills. Cotton absorbs water and sweat, making it uncomfortable against your skin and cooling you down rapidly. Synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester (such as those found in ‘fleeces’) are far better at keeping you warm. Natural alternatives include merino wool and bamboo clothing.

Wearing several thinner layers such as a T-shirt, fleece and waterproof jacket, is more flexible and suited to UK conditions than one thick, warm layer. If you overheat, you have the option of removing a layer and putting it away temporarily.

Walking boots

Getting your boots right is crucial

Getting your boots right is crucial

Aim for good three-season boots with a stiff, lugged sole. There is little to choose between leather and fabric boots, but if buying purely for summer use you may find synthetic types a little lighter on the feet over long distances.

All boot manufacturers use a slightly different template for their footwear so take the time to have a proper boot fitting at a reputable outdoor equipment shop. Failure to do this could leave you with painful blisters after a long day’s walk.

New boots should always be worn around the house first, then for progressively longer periods outside to help your feet get used to them before any big hillwalking trip.

Map and Compass

Satnavs and mobile phones are readily available and can be used to pinpoint your location. Remember, batteries for GPS units and smart phones run out quicker in cold conditions and poor satellite coverage means that the devices may not work well in areas of thick woodland. Always carry a map and compass – the ability to read them is essential in the hills too.

Other accessories

Your rucksack needs to be big enough to carry food, 1-2 litres of water, spare clothing, a torch, first-aid kit and any extra items you choose to take. A warm hat and gloves should always accompany you, but on hot summer days you might also need a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream.

A lightweight ‘group shelter’ or ‘bothy bag’ costs around £15-20 and provides impressive warmth in an emergency, and comes in handy if you just want to get out of the wind to eat your sandwiches!

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Words: Martin Sweeney