Starting out in rambling
Except for the most demanding walks, you won't require much specialist equipment so walking can cost you next to nothing. You can go on your own, relishing your independence and sense of individual adventure, or ramble with friends and family, or make new friends by walking in a group. Walking will keep you healthy - even half an hour of brisk walking every day can help prevent heart disease, keep weight down and improve your mental well being. It's also the most sustainable means of transport, so you can feel righteous that you're saving the planet while you walk!
It's best to begin gradually, learning the basics in safe surroundings and perhaps with other, more experienced walkers. It's best to start by underestimating rather than overestimating your capabilities: you'll soon learn how far you can walk before you begin to feel tired. Don't push yourself too hard on distance and terrain: the idea is to enjoy yourself, and if you end up too stiff and sore, it might put you off going out again.
Skye © Joe Gough
Begin with short walks along reasonably level paths. Populated areas are fine to get started - if you get tired, there'll be transport and accommodation near to hand and you can easily cut your walk short, or get help if you get into trouble. Consider towpath and riverside walks, or low-level walks near to town or city centres.
You can start with very short walks, of say 2-3km (1.5-2 miles); you can easily increase the distances covered once you get to know your capabilities. There's no target to aim for: do only as much as you enjoy. While some long distance walkers might comfortably cover 30km (20 miles) in a day, most walkers are satisfied with much less.
Most people can walk 3km (2 miles) in an hour. In most terrain this still allows plenty of time to take rests along the route, and to enjoy your surroundings. Experienced walkers generally walk a little faster. Climbing hills takes more time: the usual rule of thumb is to add half an hour for every 300m climbed. You'll find you walk faster on smooth surfaces such as metalled paths and good tracks, while more difficult surfaces such as mud, sand and uneven ground can slow you down considerably.
Walking in towns and cities
Towns and cities offer public parks, canal towpaths, riverside paths, traffic-free pedestrian routes (perhaps shared with cyclists), commons, woodlands, heaths and nature reserves. Many towns also now have 'heritage trails' which mainly follow streets and pavements, introducing you to the history and the architecture of the town. On the outskirts of cities you will often find Country Parks, usually with signed walking routes and some paths suitable for disabled people.
To find out more, ask at your local library, council offices or Tourist Information Centre. Browse the web. Most bookshops stock books of local walks. See also the Ramblers' Association series of regional guides and the list of urban walks on their website.
Walking in the countryside
England and Wales have a network of 225,000km (130,000 miles) of 'public rights of way', paths crossing private land, which every walker has a legal right to use
England and Wales have a network of 225,000km (130,000 miles) of 'public rights of way', paths crossing private land, which every walker has a legal right to use, and which are shown on Ordnance Survey maps (see below). There are many other paths, sometimes called 'permissive routes', which you can use by permission of the landowner: there is usually a sign on the path indicating this. Not all paths are easy to use, however, and it's possible that you will encounter blocked or overgrown paths, particularly in arable areas.
There are also areas of 'access land' - open, uncultivated countryside where you are free to wander at will. Most access land is shown on the newer Ordnance Survey maps (see below). Over the next few years another 4 million hectares of open land in England and Wales will become access land under new laws.
In Scotland there are many miles of public paths (the exact figure is unknown) and a tradition of free access to open countryside. Legislation currently going through the Scottish parliament will replace this with new legal rights of access.
An easy way into the countryside is to follow 'promoted routes': these vary from short circular walks and nature trails to lengthy challenges such as the 1014km (630-mile) South West Coast Path, a 'National Trail'. Promoted routes don't have to be walked their whole length in one go: many people use them as the basis of shorter walks.
Brecon Beacons © tony_64
There are countless guidebooks covering particular areas and themes, usually concentrating on circular walks. Check carefully before you buy to see if it contains routes that are within your capabilities, in terms of distance and difficulty. Walk suggestions also appear regularly in magazines like Country Walking, available from newsagents.
Most places in Britain are perfectly safe for beginners to walk in. But there are a few remote, highland areas, particularly in parts of Wales, Scotland and northern England, where walkers need to take care, especially in bad weather. In these areas beginners should keep to well-marked paths in the valleys and lower slopes: stay away from the high tops unless you know what you're doing and you're properly equipped, or in the company of an experienced leader or guide.
For more on where to walk in Britain, your rights on public paths and the implementation of freedom to roam in open country, visit the Ramblers' Association website, or contact the Countryside Agency or Countryside Council for Wales (ask for the free leaflet 'Out in the Country'). For more on the access situation in Scotland, contact the Ramblers or Scottish Natural Heritage.
For more on walks in your area, ask at your local library, council offices or Tourist Information Centre or look in a local bookshop. See also the Ramblers' series of regional guides and website long distance walk pages and, for a comprehensive guide, the Long Distance Walkers Handbook and Path Chart from the Long Distance Walkers Association. For National Trails contact the Countryside Agency or Countryside Council for Wales; for Scottish Long Distance Routes contact Scottish Natural Heritage.
Walking with a group
If you're uncertain about finding your own way, aren't confident about going out on your own or just want some company, you could walk with a group led by an experienced walk leader. See the articles about walking clubs and events to find out more about group walks.
The Ramblers Association maintains a list of walking holiday operators in Britain and the sorts of holidays they offer
There are also a wide range of guided walking holidays in Britain and abroad, many of which are suitable for beginners. The Ramblers Association maintains a list of walking holiday operators in Britain and the sorts of holidays they offer.
Using a map
Most walkers find that map reading enormously enhances their enjoyment and opens new opportunities. With a map you can devise your own routes, get a better idea of the surrounding countryside and possible detours and shortcuts, and also get back on the right track if you get lost.
Britain's national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey (OS), publishes two excellent series of walkers' maps. The Landranger series are general-purpose maps suitable for most walks, especially in more open areas, and the Explorer series (sometimes called Outdoor Leisure maps) are even more detailed maps that should meet every walker's need.
Basic map-reading skills are easy to learn, and you can gain experience by walking a route from a guidebook and attempting to follow the same route on the map, relating what you see on the ground to the map. Start with an easy, safe route and go in good weather where you can clearly see the surrounding countryside. Once you're confident with reading a map, you can use it to plan your own routes. The next stage is to use a map in conjunction with a compass.
There are numerous books, leaflets, CD-ROMs and taught courses to help you learn these skills. Even with modern devices such as GPS satellite navigation systems, a map and compass are still the most reliable means of navigation and are essential if you're out in the hills. For more, see the section on preparation.
What do I need to take?
Waterproof jacket - essential in Britain © Sarah Stirling
For most walks in Britain, very little. For short walks in urban areas or easy countryside, all you need is a good, comfortable pair of shoes that won't cause blisters, and ordinary comfortable clothing. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes appropriate to the weather: in Britain it's always advisable to take a waterproof jacket in case of rain. To carry your supplies, the most comfortable and practical solution is a small rucksack.
Go for tough shoes that are a good fit, with arch support, a slightly elevated heel and 'breathable' uppers: these may be casual shoes, good quality trainers with heavy soles, or proper lightweight walking shoes or boots. But for highland walks over difficult terrain, good walking boots are essential.
As with any other physical exercise, you will need to replace fluids lost through exertion: regular tap water is fine, though some walkers also like to take a hot drink in an insulated flask, especially in colder weather. If you're on a longer or more intensive walk then it may be worth considering carbohydrate drinks (see the health/nutrition section). Food will boost your energy, and give you the opportunity for an enjoyable break.