How to start Hillwalking – Beginners Series
So you’re here to find out about hiking in Scotland from someone who’s had a fair few hill days, some big, some small. You’ve checked out a few walk reports, you’ve seen photos of the beautiful scenery that Scotland has to offer and you’re thinking about giving it a go. You’ve searched for “hillwalking for beginners” and ended up here. So, where do you begin? Here are my top tips for things to do before setting off into the wilderness on your first hill walk.
1) Do your research
For a hill fanatic like me, this isn’t as much of a chore as it sounds. As you grow to love the hills and wild places in Scotland, you’ll start looking forward to this part of the trip and even plan multiple trips all in advance!
Research is key to any successful hill day, it allows you to consider all the variables from the comfort of home, so when you’re making decisions on the hill, you‘re prepared with the knowledge beforehand.
First off, you need to consider and select which hill you are aiming to bag. You’ll need to think about the distance it is from home and your travel times, safe parking spaces if travelling by car, the abilities of those in your group and the sort of walk you are looking for. Do you want a close by afternoon in some low level hills, or are you looking for a monster day encompassing multiple high level summits? Does your group have the skills to tackle airy ridge walks or are they more suited to a path or track all the way to the top?
Once you’ve selected your hill, the next thing you want to do is look at your route. Route selection is maybe the most important key to an enjoyable walk. You can look at walk reports from other walkers (like me!) or from another site such as walkhighlands.co.uk. There are literally thousands or reports on there for all manner of hills and walks to choose from. I’ve spent many an afternoon lost in others reports envisioning walking in their footsteps. They also have a handy grading system to help you select the right route for your skill level.
Make sure you also check your maps to identify your chosen route and that the terrain and relief is something that you can handle. Map reading and the ability to relate what is on the paper to the ground is a key skill that every hill walker should have and practice regularly. There is no point packing a map and compass if you don’t know how to use them. You can get a great starter compass here.
Once you’ve selected your hill and your route, make sure you check the weather. Weather in Scotland is notoriously fickle, and even a weather forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service can sometimes be inaccurate. Saying that, these guys are the best in the business as far as I am concerned and my go to weather reports for all my walks. I’ve explored weather forecasts in another post for you to look at.
With regards to the weather, it is the biggest unpredictable factor in your day. If you select the right hill and consider the time it will take to cross the terrain, the only thing stopping you are the conditions in which you’re walking. Even the simplest route can be turned into a nightmare with the Scottish weather. I’ve experienced snow in August, whiteouts, gales, rain travelling uphill, freezing fog and temperature inversions. Just to mention a few of the less normal conditions that I have faced. Knowing what the weather is likely to do in advance allows you to pack the right kit and prepare yourself mentally for what you are letting yourself in for!
2) Pack your kit in advance
Once you have done your research, you can begin to pack your kit. I plan to do several posts about bags, packing and equipment, so I will cover the detail there. However, you’ll need to consider things like your clothing, how much water you will want to carry, food, first aid, navigation tools and any special equipment you might need for example.
If you can get the main parts of your bag packed the night before you depart, it takes away a lot of the difficulties on your hill day. In my experience, making decisions about what clothing is most appropriate at 4am when you get up is not the right time to be making that call. You will inevitably forget a critical item that you will be desperate for later in the day.
3) Plan your travel to and from the hill
Now you are pretty much ready to go, how are you going to get there? Many of the hills in Scotland are quite remote and for many the easiest way to get to the foot of the hill is going to be by car. Try and use public transport wherever possible to reduce the number of vehicles going to these remote places, but sometimes a car is the best way. Plan your route, know where you are going to park and how best to get to that point. How will you recognise that point in the dark? Is your walk a loop back to the start or do you need to consider another method of transport back to your car once you are off the hill?
You will also figure out what time you will need to leave. My preference is to leave and walk early, so that if anything goes amiss during the day, I am not chasing the light towards the end of the day when I am tired and prone to making mistakes. That normally means an early start, which suits me anyway.
You should also be able to make a rough guess at what time you’ll get back. It is important to leave your time of departure, arrival and return back to the car with someone who is not coming on the walk. Also tell them where you are going, your planned route and what time you will check in with them if you have phone signal. In the case that something goes wrong or you suffer an injury on the hill, you want someone to send the cavalry to come and get you. If no one knows where you are and that you are running late, getting the attention of someone who can help you could be much more difficult.
Overall, the more you research and plan, the more enjoyable a day you will have. The biggest factor though is the better prepared you are, the safer you and your walking partners will be.
Thanks for reading, please leave a comment below if you think that there is anything that I have missed, or if this has been helpful for you planning your first hike in Scotland. Let me know how it goes! To read the next part of the Beginners Series, click here for more information on how to pack your rucksack.
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