Step by step
Most importantly, ask yourself whether your planned walk is within your capabilities, both physically and in terms of skills such as navigation. This applies even when choosing and following a short, easy circular walk from a book or leaflet: there's no point in exhausting yourself by pushing yourself too hard, even where it's safe to do so. If you start with easy walks and build up 'step by step', you will soon learn what your capabilities are and you will also find, if you walk regularly, that your abilities will soon expand. It's always better to underestimate rather than overestimate: it's best to come back happy and with a little energy to spare than stiff, sore and exhausted, or worse.
it's best to come back happy and with a little energy to spare than stiff, sore and exhausted, or worse
A map is simply an accurate picture of the ground as seen from above, scaled down from life size and using symbols to represent particular features and landmarks. The meanings of the symbols are shown on the key at the side of the map. To measure the approximate distance of your route, take a piece of thin string and lay it carefully along the exact route on the map, then lay it straight along the scale line on the map's margin. As an extra guide, OS walkers' maps are divided into squares, each representing one square kilometre on the ground. Height and relief (the way the ground rises and falls) are shown on maps both by 'spot' heights - a symbol with a height given in metres - and by contours, lines that link together points of the same height.
The principal source of maps in Britain is the Ordnance Survey (OS). The OS publishes two main series at a scale large enough to include enough detail for walkers: the 1:50,000 Landranger series (2cm to 1km or 1.25" to the mile) and the 1:25,000 Explorer series (4cm to 1km or 2.5" to the mile).
Planning a route
Start by asking yourself what sort of route you will enjoy: what sort of places you'd like to visit, what sort of terrain you want to walk through and how long you want the route to be. Mostly you will want to use off-road paths and open country: roads are not only unattractive, but also unsafe and uncomfortable to walk on. You should consider:
Help ease congestion in popular countryside areas by using public transport. If cars are the only alternative, you'll need to park vehicles safely and without causing annoyance or obstruction to others.
Length and timing
The average walker takes an hour for every 3-4km, plus around 30 minutes for every 300m climbed (Naismith's rule), but you should adjust this for your own abilities, or those of the least experienced and able member of your party. Hills, muddy or uneven path surfaces, high winds and bad weather can also slow you down. Build in time for rests, breaks and sightseeing, and don't forget to take into account daylight hours and public transport times.
Look for good places to stop and eat at an appropriate point in the walk. If you're taking a packed lunch, think about the availability of shelter in case the weather's bad. If you're relying on a pub or café in remote country, check the opening times in advance.
You may find a walk that perfectly suits your needs in a guidebook. Alternatively, with basic map-reading skills you can devise your own route from scratch. Even when following a guidebook or waymarked route, it's best to carry a map, in case the description doesn't match the ground layout and you get lost, or if signs have been eroded or vandalised: you will also gain a better idea of the surrounding countryside.
On most walks you can simply memorise your route or highlight it on the map, but consider preparing a route card for more demanding walks
Keep things flexible and include extra time for changes of plan. As well as the potential problems such as bad weather, tiredness or injury, and blocked paths, you may also find you'll have a more enjoyable walk by taking time to explore interesting features or alternative paths you find along the way. It's also worth noting any 'escape routes' and alternatives at the planning stage. On the day of your walk, check the weather forecast: a good online source is the Met Office or BBC Weather.
On most walks you can simply memorise your route or highlight it on the map, but consider preparing a route card for more demanding walks. This should define the location of checkpoints along the way (grid references), times between checkpoints, bearings and your 'escape routes' in the event of accident, or bad weather. It's also a good way of leaving details of your route with a responsible person: see the article on Safety issues.
Away from home, check the availability of accommodation in advance and, especially in popular areas in the warmer months, you'll probably need to book in advance too.
The Rambler's Yearbook and Accommodation Guide lists over 3,000 bed & breakfast, farm and guest house addresses throughout Britain where walkers are welcome: it's available from the Ramblers' Association (free to members), who also now list B&Bs on their website. Some long distance paths have their own accommodation guides, many available from the Ramblers. Britain's 800 Tourist Information Centres provide local accommodation lists and in some instances can make reservations for personal callers.
Youth hostels and camping barns are operated by YHA England & Wales and the SYHA: contact them for details. Independent backpackers' hostels are detailed in the Independent Hostel Guide (see below). For very simple accommodation in remote parts of Scotland and northern England, contact the Mountain Bothies Association.
Details of official campsites can be obtained from Tourist Information Centres. 'Wild' camping is not allowed in Britain except with a landowner's permission, though in remote areas it may be tolerated in practice.
Clothing and equipment
Though not essential on undemanding walks, most regular walkers find that a little good kit makes their walking more comfortable, efficient and pleasurable, and in difficult terrain, the correct gear can literally be a lifesaver. Consider acquiring the following basics:
Boots © Microstock Man
While some walkers use walking shoes, walking sandals or even good trainers, a pair of proper walking boots is probably the best all-round solution. Buy boots appropriate to the sort of walking you want to do, from a reputable dealer who will be able to advise you on the best choice. Beware of 'fashion' boots that won't stand up to serious use. Pay attention to getting the correct fit, and wear them with good walking socks to help prevent blisters. Break them in gently - don't go out on a long walk in a brand new pair of boots!
: Windproof and waterproof, not just showerproof, with a hood (or provision for a hood), and spacious pockets, preferably in a 'breathable' material, of an appropriate weight and style to suit the kind of walking you want to do.
Mid- and base layers:
In good weather you can wear ordinary T-shirts, shirts, jerseys or sweatshirts. But if you're wearing a rucksack, or working up a sweat, avoid cotton - especially as a base layer (next to your skin). High-tech fleeces and 'wicking' base layers used with a breathable waterproof outer layer will be much more comfortable in intensive use.
Avoid cotton - especially as a base layer (next to your skin)
: Casual trousers or tracksuit bottoms may chafe in intensive use. Again, cotton is best avoided as it holds water and will leave you feeling very cold if it gets wet. Modern walking trousers are lightweight, loose-fitting, quick-drying and have handy pockets. Some people prefer shorts, at least in fine weather but they will leave you more vulnerable to nettles, brambles, ticks and sunburn. Jeans are unsuitable: most are cut too close so they restrict movement, aren't warm enough and take far too long to dry.
A lot of body heat is lost through the head, so in cooler weather choose a warm, insulating hat that can be worn under a jacket hood. (You can always take it off if you get too hot). A sunhat with a brim is advisable for summer use.
To walk correctly you'll need to swing your arms, so you can't keep your hands in your pockets. In winter, or at higher altitudes, or if it's windy, you'll appreciate having a pair of lightweight gloves to hand.
a daysack of around 20 litres capacity is fine for walks of a day or less but will quickly become uncomfortable across the shoulders if loaded too heavily, while a large but half-empty rucksack is unnecessary weight. For weekends and short breaks, or when you need to carry more equipment, you need a medium size of 30-55 litres; for longer holidays, or for serious backpacking with camping equipment, a large pack of 55-75 litres. Bear in mind that you may start off wearing more gear in the cool of the morning, so you'll need some space in your bag to stow garments these garments when the day warms up.
For effective navigation, you'll need:
Navigation compass © vagabondo
perhaps also a guidebook or route card. Some walkers find GPS satellite navigation units useful but they are not a substitute for traditional navigation and route-planning skills, which are required to use them most effectively. Unlike compasses, GPS systems can run out of battery power and may lose satellite contact in bad conditions.
in lowland areas you can probably follow a map alone, but using map and compass together, provided you have the basic skills, will help you follow your route with much more accuracy, particularly in woods. In the hills a compass is essential, especially when visibility is poor. Choose an orienteering or protractor compass with a rectangular baseplate of reasonable size (so it can be turned with gloved fingers), and clearly marked with kilometre scales that can be read in poor light.
You may also need:
- Extra clothing, especially in winter
- Food, unless you're absolutely sure you'll be able to find food along the way
- First aid kit and any medicines you might need
- Mobile phone
- Reliable watch: to help judge speed, monitor progress and plan for future journeys
- Torch: just in case!
- Polythene bag or map case: to protect non-waterproof maps and guides
- Full water bottle and/or thermos flask, adequate for your walk
- Finally, ensure that you make room for non-essential things like a notebook, camera and binoculars or reference books on wildlife and the local area for the area you're in