Planning a trail walk


The Ramblers Association, a national organization to protect the interests of walkers, was formed in 1935. In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act appeared, from the impetus of the post-war spirit of reconstruction, but it was not until 1965 that the Pennine Way was opened. It was described as Britain’s first long-distance footpath by some who forgot the Ridgeway was in use about 10 000 years ago, the Roman High Street along the Lakeland fells nearly 2000 years since, and, much more recent, the Corrieyairack Pass and other military roads across the Central Highlands in Jacobite times.

I have been lucky regarding access to the countryside, never even thinking about it and tramping through many wild areas oblivious to any problems: South Africa; Zimbabwe; the mountains of Sicily, Crete and Cyprus; Nepal; Spain; right across the long axis of Iceland; French alpine valleys, Alaska and Canada. In other places I have been equally fortunate, but with organized groups when I suspect that somebody else may have sorted out the access problems before we went. These areas included four mountain ranges of Iran, Turkey, Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. It seems a pity that after such freedom from other peoples we have to be so circumspect in our own country. I once had to pay to climb the High Rocks at Tunbridge Wells, and I wondered at the time what were the legal implications of payment, but I did not return because there were better chimneys beyond the fence, outside the paying area, and Harrisons Rocks (free) were not far away.

Some wild areas in Britain are restricted because they lie within

Ministry of Defence training areas. They are shown on the maps as danger areas and are well marked by warning notices. If live ammunition is not used on the ranges they are sometimes open to the public at weekends and holiday times. Contact the relevant Range Liaison Officer.

While considering access, I should mention insurance. It would be remiss to go to wild areas in the Alps, say, without rescue cover, because you, or your estate, could be charged thousands of pounds for recovery by mountain teams or helicopters. Up to now, and long may it remain so, all rescue and recovery services have been absolutely free to all in Britain. Recently in Scotland, fired by publicity over the high fatality rate of walkers and climbers in the Highlands during recent winters, there have been proposals to compel mountaineers to insure themselves against the cost of rescue operations. Most outdoor people, and the volunteer rescuers themselves, have condemned the suggestion, since they rescue not for profit but for humanitarian reasons.


I went to Napes Needle, on Great Gable above Wasdale, for solitude, on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November; but there were 40 other people clustering around the base of the rocks. I have an idea that such a large number in those circumstances was extraordinary, but I am talking about 30 years ago and I am sure there are even more people there now. Good winter weather provides challenging walks, hard frosts, clear skies and breathtaking views. The point I am making is that you may be pleasantly surprised, but if you walk up to the top of Snowdon on a summer bank holiday in glorious weather you can expect that hundreds of other people will have had the same idea.

You can plan to avoid crowds if you want to. I walked seven days of the Pennine Way with my wife one summer. We went from Keld southwards and we saw nobody walking the same way. Every day, for about two hours in the afternoon, we were confronted by up to a dozen groups of two or three walking from Edale towards Kirk Yetholm, and then we would see no one for the remainder of the day. We were lucky, too, with the weather, because it was behind us, wind set in the north-east.

Planning a long time ahead for the season is much easier than planning for the British weather. It depends on what you want to do. I would avoid visiting the Lake District or North Wales in the height of the summer, because of the crowds and the difficulty in finding accommodation. If I had a choice I would avoid the Hebrides and Highland Region from July to September because of the terrible midges. It is probably better to go to Skye or the mountains of Harris in late May or early June, but even then you may not escape their attentions.

A harsh fact about the British seasons is that the worst weather is likely when the days are shortest, and benighted walkers would have 16 hours of darkness to survive. Because only eight hours of daylight are available, early starts are imperative. In the Northern Highlands on 21 June, on the other hand, it would be possible to set out after supper, especially with a good moon, knowing there would be only a couple of hours of twilight before it began to get light again.

You may wish to choose bad weather seasons. I went to Sicily and climbed Mount Etna in an exceptionally bad winter. There was snow lying right down to the Mediterranean, and it took four days to walk up all the way from sea level to the summit crater rim. One night we pitched our tent inside a barn because the snowfall was heavy with a strong wind. There was no traffic moving through the deep snow on the roads above 1828m (6000ft); and the restaurant, observatory and ski tows at 2740m (9000ft) were being destroyed by an eruption at the time. We were sure it was much more interesting than going there in summer, and we had the hill to ourselves.

For the same reason, you may choose to go walking on footpaths in bad weather, and some of those days will be the most memorable, but it is best to temper ambition to experience. The more you get to know the game, the more you will change your objectives with a bad weather forecast, and the quicker you will retreat.

Walking in heavy rain can be enjoyable if your equipment is good and the gales are not too strong; but check that every stream on your route is well bridged, because they so quickly rise into dangerous spates. It is important to remember how wild the weather can become in winter.

Weather forecasts

The only people out of range of accurate weather forecasting are those on long expeditions in remote, hilly areas where am/fm radio reception is poor. Mobile telephones may be out of a walker’s range from the point of view of both price and receiving capability but if a telephone can be used, Mountaincall gives 24-hour forecasts in mountainous areas of England, Scotland and Wales.

Leaders of walking groups who can get a forecast should take on the responsibility of doing so and letting everyone know about it. Weather is all important in the outdoors, and because planning must take expected conditions into account, I use all the modern sources available. Weather forecasts are found in the newspapers available in most popular walking areas; there are displays of weather and avalanche information in outdoor equipment stores and ski complexes; televisions with Ceefax and Teletext are often available in hotels, youth hostels and so on; and car radios and telephones provide a means of listening to forecasts. Local signs of approaching fronts can be useful, and meteorological office forecasters may be grateful for up to the minute news of local conditions.

A lot of my walking is done fairly close to the sea and I find shipping forecasts useful for the general synopses; they are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 0033, 0555, 1355 and 1750 hours. Sea areas most useful for conditions which will later affect walkers are those on the west side of the country because the general movement of fronts is from the west: Lundy for Dartmoor and South

Wales; Irish Sea for Snowdonia, the Lakes and the Galloway Hills; Malin for the Southern Highlands; Hebrides for the Western Isles and Northern Highlands. Particularly useful for walking areas round all the coasts is the Inshore Waters Forecast broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 0655.

A helpful leaflet, ‘… here’s the Weather Forecast’ is obtainable from the National Meteorological Library. The leaflet has up-to-date weather advice to the community and details of specialized services provided. TV weather symbols, fronts and cloud types are colourfully illustrated.

Food and drink

Breakfast before you leave is almost as important as what you take with you. I try to drink three or four cups of tea, as well as plenty of milk with my cereal. Carbohydrates are important and fibre is good, so perhaps toast and baked beans would be a good choice if you could take it at that time in the morning. If a really long, hard day is planned, vast amounts of eggs, bacon and sausages may seem necessary, but they will probably lie quiescent for a time with no immediate advantage. It is better to eat more for the evening meal the day before. You are, in any case, hardly likely to die from malnutrition on a one-day trip.

Catering for a single day’s walk that will last between five and eight hours is fairly easy. Decide what sandwiches you want for lunch and make them up in a convenient plastic box, or even buy them ready-made on your way to the start of the walk. A packet of potato crisps will not go amiss; other popular items are small packets of biscuits, nuts and raisins, and trail mix (various nuts with dried fruits such as sliced banana, pear and apple flakes, and sliced coconut kernels). One apple or orange will not pose too much of a weight problem for one day, and will be very welcome when you are thirsty, but either eat the peel or take it home with you. People are getting the message about litter, and leave fewer polythene bags, botdes, drink cans and sardine tins than formerly, but I still find heaps of orange peel. It is supposed to degrade biologically, but it takes an awful long time to disappear.

It is vital to have quick energy foods available for an emergency, especially if there are any diabetics in the party. Glucose sweets and chocolate bars are ideal, but they often get eaten before an emergency occurs. If the walking is strenuous or competitive there is more likelihood of the blood sugar level getting too low. Rather than having one organized lunch stop, at a set time or place in the middle of a walk, it is probably better to keep some food in a handy pocket and nibble away, little and often, when you feel like it. There are usually plenty of opportunities during stops while people tighten their boot laces, take off an anorak, read the map, take photographs and so on. About the worst place to stop and eat is the top of a windy hill as you can cool down very quickly, especially if you have been wearing too much or hurrying. Start off feeling chilly so you will not sweat too much, then put on spare clothes when you stop to eat.

Drinking a lot before you set out will cause problems of getting rid of the surplus. If you are leading a group of both sexes you might consider asking one gender to go ahead for a hundred yards at a suitable plantation comer. You must guard against dehydration. If you do not drink enough before the walk you may feel thirsty all day and your enjoyment of the outing will be spoiled. Water, possibly flavoured with a fruit cordial, in a plastic bottle that holds about 1 litre (1.75 pints) is useful, or you can carry containers of high energy drinks.

I broke so many glass vacuum flasks that I stopped using them for years, but my whole lifestyle has been changed by the purchase of a large stainless steel vacuum flask. It is just past its guarantee date, but it seems to be indestructible. I never take it on long expeditions, because of its weight and because I carry a stove on those occasions, but on day walks the thought of five small cups of hot coffee is irresistible.

Beware of drinking from hill streams below houses, farms and ski complexes or, indeed, in any highly popular districts or in periods of protracted drought. Elsewhere, particularly in the remoter areas of Wales, the Lakes, Pennines, Scottish Uplands and Highlands, the water is extremely palatable, and I have indulged for over SO years without ill-effects. In your turn, be careful not to spoil water supplies. The further from crowds the less the chance of pollution. In some areas, for example the African bush, Turkish Taurus mountains and Cyprus, finding water can be your main problem, and purifying tablets and special filter pumps may be necessary.

Equipment for a day walk

The minimum equipment required for a day walk in reasonable weather (spring or autumn) on footpaths is listed below.

Everybody should carry a rucksack, if only for convenience in changing into weatherproof clothing, which might happen five or six times a day in showery weather. If you cram all the gear into a communal rucksack it causes a lot of confusion, and possible disputes about the honour of who should carry it. If the group decides to split into smaller groups with different objectives, more confusion arises.

Each rucksack should contain:

– Spare fleece or fibre pile jacket in addition to the one worn

– Spare set of socks

– Breathable outer anorak with hood

– Breathable or neoprene overtrousers

– Torch

– Whistle

– Lunch and emergency chocolate bars

– Filled vacuum flask or water bottle

Each rucksack should have a whistle permanently attached to it. They are cheap enough to be able to do this, and it is cheaper in the long run as fewer get lost.

The group should have several maps and compasses. Maps blow away fairly regularly, or they get soggy and useless if they are not properly protected. If the group splits, each will require navigation gear. For the same reason there should be at least two first aid kits.

Route cards

I sometimes work 200km (130 miles) from home, and to stretch my legs during the journeys I often park on a very quiet back road in Lower Speyside (in Banffshire, Scotland) and walk to the triangulation pillar on top of Ben Aigan (471m/1544ft). It is an easy walk – a forest ride and a bit of moorland – and it takes less than an hour because the lane goes more than halfway up it; but

I always telephone ahead to let somebody know where I am going to be walking. The car might lie there for weeks undisturbed if I had a mishap.

Even on low profile walks it is a idea to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return, or the time at which they should start worrying about you, and this is the purpose of a route card. It is always solo walkers that absorb most search hours by rescue teams when they go missing; especially if no route plan has been left with a responsible person. Good choices to leave your route card with are a friend, relative, youth hostel warden, hotelier or guesthouse owner.

If you are with a few friends of equal competence in reasonable country, the need to tell somebody diminishes; but if you lead a group of novices, especially children, a proper route card is obligatory. It may seem a safe bet to be able to follow waymarked footpaths, but there are many tracks across wild, open country. It is easy to lose a track in a blizzard and waymarks may get obliterated.

If you fill in the details of the weather forecast at least you will have checked it, and the same goes for bad weather alternatives and escape routes. Completing a route card serves as a reminder that all these aspects of your walk should be considered. Times entered in the route card are your estimation of how long it will take you personally. Your estimations will get more accurate with experience. Factors that will affect your time include distance walked and height gain. It is normal to allow 15-20 minutes for each kilometre (½ mile) of horizontal distance, and to add to this one minute for every contour line crossed when ascending. This only applies to 1:50000 maps with a vertical interval between contours of 10m (32.8ft). Other factors affecting overall time are: the weight of rucksack; the lack of fitness of any member of the group; the weather; the length of rest stops; any difficulties and obstacles. Usually, gentle descents will take about the same time as level walking for the same distance.