Venturing beyond your local patch? Here’s how to tred a new trail in confidence.
Fun things first: what are you looking for in the walk you’re planning? 15 miles or five? Sweet valleys or gnarly hills? Is there a summit or spot you’re desperate to reach? Would you like a circular route, linear, or out and back the same way? Clear paths or trackless wilderness? Are you walking in a group? Are you clear what everyone wants?
Drag the maps out and start studying; less like homework, more like “Ooh, look where we can go.” If you don’t have the paper map for where you’re going, you can access Ordnance Survey maps for free at www.bing.com/maps. Do you have a particular target to aim for – a summit, a waterfall, a pub? Pinpoint it, see what paths run nearby, then trace them out to possible start points, picking the ones that look most enticing. Less single-minded? Scan the map for bits that catch your eye – hills, monuments, forests, rivers – then see how they can link to each other, and to a start point. Tally your plan against your original wish-list to make sure it’s got everything you want, and trace round it to check for hazards like bogs or cliffs, adding detours if necessary.
Get to it
Yup, we know it’s obvious, but do check you can get to it. It’s all too easy to design mouth-watering routes only to find getting there means three buses and a canoe. Check parking if travelling by car, or public transport at www.traveline.co.uk or call 0871 200 22 33. Also study timetables to see if a linear ‘walk-one-way, bus-the-other’ route works.
Suss it out
Your route may look peachy-perfect, but a map can’t show you every last detail. Play detective and visit www.geograph.org.uk, a site that collects photographs from every map square in the UK so you can suss out where you’ll be hiking. And use the satellite view on Google maps to see how clear (or otherwise) the paths are.
Ever heard the one that begins “It didn’t look far on the map”? Estimate how long your route is by counting the map squares it crosses: each one represents one square kilometre of ground, so straight across the middle is one kilometre, but diagonally from corner to corner nudges 1.5km. Paths rarely oblige and run straight though: paper-based navigators can lay a piece of cotton or thin wire along the winding route, then pull taut to measure the total distance, or invest in a map-measuring wheel. Digital navigators can plot routes on sites like www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/osmaps/ (£23 a year for Landranger and Explorer mapping, or free with a Country Walking subscription) or access Where’s The Path (wtp2.appspot.com/wheresthepath.htm) for free, which lets you devise routes and runs Landranger mapping and Google satellite side by side.
You know how far, but how long it will take depends on terrain. On average, walkers cover 4km an hour, or 1km (or map square) every 15 minutes. A climb slows things down by one extra minute for every 10 metres up, so an ascent of 200m adds 20 minutes (tot up the contour lines to calculate the climb). Rain, wind, mud, rough ground, and walking in a group can all reduce speed, but most importantly, so can enjoying it all: exploring, gawping at the view, stopping for snacks. Add 15 minutes for every two hours, plus 45 minutes for lunch, and an extra 30 just in case: then work out what hour of the dawn you need to set out to finish in daylight.
Your route needn’t be set in stone – changeable weather, energy levels and conditions all affect plans, so note any potential short cuts back if the heavens open, or longer loops if the sun beams brightly.
Stepping out on a walk of your own devising can be nerve-fraying to start with, so a route from an expert makes a good launch-pad: follow it round, and note where and why the writer chose a particular path. Then start tweaking, adding an extra loop, cutting a corner off, adjusting it how you like; then it’s just a short step to building your own hikes from scratch.
Keep things easy-going: a bad experience where you end up lost wondering what Bear Grylls would do, can put you off walking for life. Aim for short routes – say four to six miles – on good tracks and paths, and nowhere too remote; think Derbyshire dales and South Downs rather than the wilds of Scotland.
With the kids
Avoid “I’m bored” wails by devising a varied route; children don’t tend to appreciate miles of bleak wilderness like we do. Bridges, streams, boulders for clambering, trees for climbing, are all good, and build in a short-cut back, as kids’ energy can flag suddenly. And even if in pre-brood days you avoided adventure trails and country parks, they offer a great environment for walking en-famille.
Friends in tow
Inspiring a love of walking in hike-phobic friends can be a thankless task, so you need to plan a route with things they already love (pubs and tearooms) and things you know they’d love if you could only get them there (incredible views). And a bus-stop halfway round could save a relationship getting tense over what ‘a bit of a stroll’ really means.
Once you’re super-confident planning path-based routes, the world of access land opens up. Kick-off with routes that mix reassuring rights of way with sections across trackless empty hills, and design it so there’s an unmissable feature – like a lane or river – at the end of the access leg, rather than a pin-point feature which is easy to miss.
With just one glance at the map, you can plan hikes on Britain’s toughest moors and mountains. If you’re doing a series of steep climbs, counting contour lines to estimate walk-time is dizzying; it’s simpler to just drop your hourly average down to 2km an hour. And in terrain like this, be absolutely sure of your quickest way back if conditions turn grim.