Many walking areas in Britain are accessible even to beginners, provided you're aware of your capabilities and don't overreach yourself. If you're unsure, start with easy walks through populated areas with plenty of 'escape routes' so you can cut your walk short if you get tired.
Check the forecast before you set out, always take a waterproof and keep an eye on the sky
Know where you're going and what to expect: study maps and guidebooks beforehand to get an idea of the territory. Make sure you can find your way using guidebooks, maps, navigation equipment and skills as necessary, and are properly equipped for the walk you want to do. Take a sensible approach to the weather, which in Britain is rarely severe but frequently changeable and often wet. Check the forecast before you set out, always take a waterproof and keep an eye on the sky.
Some people prefer to walk on their own, but in remote or mountainous areas this inevitably increases the risk of becoming stranded should you suffer injury or illness. If you walk on your own, consider the following:
Temperature and water
- Don't take unnecessary risks by tackling overly long or difficult routes
- Make especially sure you are fully prepared and equipped, and competent at navigation
- Carry a whistle around your neck or in your pocket, not in your pack
- Consider taking a stick, personal alarm or mobile phone
- Avoid using a personal stereo if this stops you remaining alert
- Leave a route card or note of your whereabouts and when you expect to be back
- If you eventually want to walk alone but are new to walking or just uncertain, first go out and learn with more experienced walkers
- Don't worry unnecessarily, however: statistically you are far safer walking in the countryside than on a city street
In cold weather the greatest danger is hypothermia or exposure: this occurs where the body temperature is chilled to a life-threatening level, and is aggravated by wind chill. To avoid it make sure you have enough warm clothing and extra food and plenty of water.
In warm weather, the principal hazards are sunburn, windburn and dehydration. Sunhats, sun cream, and water can prevent serious sunburn or heatstroke.
Don't underestimate the amount of water you need. Doctors recommend drinking 1.5-2 litres of water a day even for an ordinarily active lifestyle, and you will need more if you are walking strenuously and/or the weather is hot. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. Plain water is fine, but it's best to avoid fizzy drinks, as they take longer to drink, which may be a problem if you need to rehydrate quickly. Avoid drinking unboiled or unpurified water from streams.
Although many people walk to 'get away from it all', mobile phones have proved helpful in a number of emergency situations. However, they don't work in some locations, particularly in some hilly and remote areas, they depend on limited battery power, and the signals from them cannot be pinpointed with any accuracy. They are not a substitute for other safety precautions and the mountain rescue services stress they should only be used to call for help in cases of real emergency. If you do call for help, do make sure to keep your mobile turned on so the emergency services can call you back.
For information about the geographical coverage of mobile phone networks, contact the network provider, or to compare different providers' coverage, visit the GSM Association website.
You should not walk in remote areas, especially by yourself, without a basic knowledge of first aid. At least one person in a party should know how to bandage an ankle or apply a splint to a broken limb, and hill walkers should be able to recognise the signs of hypothermia and how to respond.
Carry a basic first aid kit. For lowland walking a few plasters and a small bandage will do but in the hills or rocky terrain you should include:
Sticking plasters (various sizes)
Bandages, including triangular
Painkillers (aspirin or ibuprofen)
Antiseptic wipes or ointment
Anti-histamine for stings or bites
Water purification tablets.
Ready-made first aid kits for walkers are available from outdoor shops and St John Ambulance Supplies have a kit especially for walkers.
The fundamental rule of first aid is warmth, rest and reassurance. Even more useful is a short course on basic first aid: contact St John Ambulance, St Andrews Ambulance (in Scotland) or the Red Cross.
Insects can be a serious irritant. In the summer in Scotland midges can be particularly troublesome. It's worth carrying an insect repellent, and it pays to know how to treat bites and stings. Bites from infected ticks, if left untreated, may be dangerous and in extreme circumstances may lead to a serious condition known as Lyme Disease. The risk is highest in summer, so you should wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts when walking through dense undergrowth. Check your body and limbs regularly for ticks and remove them.
Treat untethered bulls and loose dogs with caution. Back away slowly, and report the incident to the police if you consider the situation unlawful as well as dangerous.
Other livestock can usually be deterred from following you too closely by turning to face them with both arms raised. Don't brandish a stick, as this may excite them, and use an ordinary speaking voice rather than shouting. Don't walk between a cow and her calf.
In the most mountainous parts of Britain, in North Wales, the Lake District and in particular the Scottish Highlands, be prepared for more challenging weather, especially in winter. Conditions can vary dramatically from valley to mountaintop, and even in spring and summer the Scottish Highlands can rapidly turn cold and windy. 'Wind chill' - where the combined effects of high winds and cold air dramatically lower the body temperature - is dangerous and potentially fatal. It is therefore especially important to be properly equipped when walking high up on the mountains, especially in bad weather.
Warm and waterproof clothing, a map, compass and good navigation skills are essential, and in addition to your usual kit you should also carry:
High-energy rations such as mint cake, chocolate, dried fruit and a hot flask
Additional warm clothing, including hat and gloves
First aid kit (see below)
If you are likely to meet heavy snow or ice you should wear a pair of heavy-duty winter walking boots that can be fitted with crampons: these are metal spike attachments that give a better grip in icy conditions and not all boots are suitable for them. Also, you should carry, and know how to use, an ice axe. You will need to learn how to use axes and crampons properly: in the hands of a novice they can cause more accidents rather than they prevent! The winter section covers these topics in more detail.
It's especially important to be sensible about not over-reaching yourself: don't push yourself, or your party, beyond your limits, and don't hesitate to cut your walk short if you are tiring, or the weather is worsening and you are not confident of your skills and equipment.
Leave a route card with estimated timings (or other indication of your likely location) with a responsible person, and notify this person immediately as soon as you return. Once you've left these details, it's obviously advisable that you stick to your planned route as much as possible. This may inhibit flexibility, so some people prefer to leave only a general note of the area in which they'll be walking and when they expect to return, but if something does go wrong, the emergency services will be able to find you more quickly if they have a clearer idea of where you're likely to be.
If a real emergency does occur, the international distress signal is six loud blasts of a whistle, repeated at minute intervals.
It's well worth attending a course on mountain safety before you embark on more adventurous walks.