A Guide to Mountain and Hill Walking
Hill walking is a great way to get healthy, have a good time and explore some stunning landscapes. We've put together a guide on the benefits of hill walking, equipment needed for hill walking, training and how to get started.
Walking terminology: Fell walk, Hill walk, Trekking & Mountaineering.
Walking is still the most popular and generic term to describe a whole range of hill and mountain walking, and there are various differences between each term.
Hill walking is a term used mostly in the UK and Ireland to describe the act of walking in hilly or mountainous areas.
Hiking can be used to describe longer, more demanding walks. What confuses it further is that in Australia may use bushwalking and the New Zealand’s refer to it as tramping. A good example of this would be a multi-day route such as the stunning South West Coast path. If you wanted to check out this amazing route but have someone else help organise it all and make sure your luggage is handily transferred each day, check out Compass Holidays who organise some fantastic tours both here and all over the UK
Mountaineering is typically more demanding than both hiking or hill walking. What is deemed a hill walking route in summer can turn to a mountaineering route in Winter due to the hazards of snow, ice and weather conditions. This requires a more specialised set of skills to navigate with extensive use of compass, maps and even the use of a harness, ropes, belay devices, crampons and ice axes. Mountaineering is the act of scaling mountains, which can differ from summer hikes up mountains through to more extreme ascents of Everest. In the UK the common certifications for qualified instructors are the Summer Mountain Leader award and Winter Mountain Leader award, which provide the necessary skills for the different environments. Winter Mountain Leader qualification is more advanced due to the nature of equipment, navigation and risk management in a more hazardous environment. If you're looking to take things up a notch and explore the mountains in the winter then it's worth investing the time and money to make sure you've got the skills to keep you safe. Scottish Rock and Water have a variety of courses led by professionals, with the added bonus of being in some stunning landscapes!
Fell walking typically describes walking across high, barren landscape, most commonly referring to walking in Northern England such as the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.
Nordic Walking is a technique of walking using walking poles, which aid in walking and help to provide more of a full body workout. It originated from professional skiers who trained in the off-season by walking with their poles, which caught on as an excellent way to get exercise.
Geographic terminology: Hills vs mountains vs Fell
Fells: From Wikipedia: A fell is a high and barren landscape feature, such as a mountain range or moor-covered hills
Mountains: generally considered to be a natural elevation rising to a summit, attaining an altitude greater than 1,969 feet (600m), and with a prominence of at least 98 feet (30m) above the surrounding landscape in all directions, according to the Simms classification.
Hills: there’s no clear winner of a definition, but obviously a hill is a clear geographical feature as an area of land higher than the surrounding area, but not as high as a mountain (1,969 feet (600m)).
Want to learn more? Read our post about the Highest Mountains to Climb in the UK .
Is walking uphill good for you and can you lose weight walking up hills?
Yes, Yes and Yes. From a physical perspective, any activity that keeps you moving enables you to burn calories and therefore lose weight. Hill-walking is an even greater way of losing weight than normal walking as the effort of defying gravity more and climbing an elevation adds to the work required and therefore the calories burnt. Of course if you eat your weight in energy bars to get to the top then your benefits of losing weight will be reduced. Getting a fine balance between having enough energy and nutrition for your walking with not over-doing it, will ensure you lose weight and stay physically healthy.
It would be fair to say also that the further you go the more calories you'll burn too! It's not rocket-science, though as mentioned above, you do need to carefully balance this to make sure you don't put yourself in danger. For a range of epic hiking challenges, all under the watchful eye of a pro, have a look at the brilliant Robustours , operating mainly in the north of England, including the legendary 100,000 step challenge!
From a mental wellness perspective getting outdoors can be a great way to unwind, relax and get back to our most basic state of operating as humans, away from laptops and tablets. Hill walking adds to this further by providing stunning views, a sense of accomplishment and confidence in achieving goals!
If you need any other excuse to go hill walking, a famous mountaineer once very famously said “Because it’s there”, when asked why climb Everest . There’s something very rewarding about making it to the summit of a hill or mountain. Not only are you often rewarded with stunning views, there’s also that sense of achievement having worked up a sweat, got active and managed to reach your goal. It’s then the trek on the way back down that works a different range of muscles and allows you to continue taking the views in, which provides a great end to a day!
Of course if you want to add an element of competitiveness to the hikes then this will help fitness even more! Orienteering is both good for body and mind, combining good map reading and navigations skills with fitness to get between checkpoints as quickly as possible. There are various companies who can help, but Acclimbatize have the amazing Peak District National Park as a playground to provide some stunning settings for orienteering courses or training days.
Essential Hill Walking Equipment
Getting the right hill walking equipment can be the difference between a fantastic day out and 50 shades of grim, or in a worst-case scenario an embarrassing call to mountain rescue to help you off the mountainside.
So what is essential hill walking kit? This differs based on where you’re going hill walking and what the weather is. But as a starter here goes:
Hill Walking Clothing
- The climate at the summit of hills can change very quickly (especially in the UK), so essential hill walking equipment will protect you for all weathers. As one of the main hill-walking legends himself put it “There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” Alfred Wainwright.
- Make sure you’ve got full body waterproofs, both a jacket and trousers. Take a carrier bag to waterproof out your bag. And add a carrier bag to protect essential items like your phone.
- Appropriate footwear. Don’t use old boots. I’ve seen people’s boots deteriorate half way up a hill, making mountain rescue have to come to save the day. Make sure your boots are appropriate for the terrain you’re about to experience. And don’t underestimate how much of a beating they can take climbing hills, especially with rocks.
- A hat, gloves, neck scarf and spare fleece and warm clothes. Enough warm clothes to keep you warm when not on the move.
- A suitable base-layer, ideally with wickable material that dries quickly and lets your sweat evaporate more easily. This is essential not just for comfort, but to stop you getting too cold when you stop.
Nutrition & hydration
- Trail mix - mixing together high energy snacks such as nuts, sweets, chocolates and cubes of cheese into a sandwich bag can be a great way each whilst on the move. Put the bag of trail mix in your pocket and snack while walking. This enables you to stay energised and the mix of sweet and savoury doesn’t dampen your appetite too much unlike if you rely on sugars and energy bars solely. The energy from the fats of the cheese and the nuts take longer to break down by the body and provides an excellent source of longer term energy, whilst the sugars in the chocolate and sweets (I recommend Harribo), give a shorter fix of energy
- Sandwiches and ‘proper food’ - For the occasional stop, make sure to take some solid foods like sandwiches. Cheese, Jam or peanut butter sandwiches are a good source of energy.
- Sugars - in case of the ‘energy crisis’ , as sometimes it’s inevitable to run a little short of energy. Perhaps you forgot to eat earlier on or you’re just feeling low on energy. Having some sweets nearby can be a great way to keep you fuelled.
- Caffeine - in the form of tea or coffee can be a great way to get a little extra energy.
Note - what you eat should not be completely new to the system. Stick to foods you’ve eaten before and know won’t upset your stomach. The last thing you want is to be at the top of the mountain with a dodgy stomach!
- Crampons and Ice axe: for winter mountaineering, the use of crampons to get grip on snow and ice, and ice axes to aid with grip can be used. It’s essential to practice using these before going on a mountaineering expedition as they can take some getting used to.
- Walking poles: Not always essential, but can be used to take weight off your feet and lessen the impact on your joints. They can help with keeping good posture and can make it easier to walk if used correctly.
- Belay device, harness and ropes: If going up particularly challenging, steep areas or ridges with big drop-offs, sometimes the use of ropes can aid safety in the case of an accidental fall. If climbing, these are essential pieces of kit.
- First Aid Kit and Medicines: very important if going up particularly challenging terrain
- Head torch and spare batteries: In case it gets dark due to the sun setting or a storm setting in, a head torch can be very useful, if not vital.
- Group Shelter: can be used to set up quick camp, in the case of an almost immediate storm, should you wish to shelter temporarily.
- A whistle: In case fog sets in, you get lost or perhaps injured, and you need to help others find you.
- Mobile phone: fully charged. Don’t rinse through the battery using instagram in case you need to call for emergencies. Know the mountain rescue number or in the worst case call 999.
- To carry all of this … a good backpack, preferably with a built in hydration system so you can constantly take on water as you move, to avoid constant stops.
- Relevant map for the hills you’re climbing and compass and the ability to read them.
- GPS nav systems are getting better and battery life is increasing but they should never be relied upon solely in case of the classic battery failure
This is just a starter list, but make sure you check with your expedition leader for a full kit list.
If you'd like to learn how to use these and feel more confident heading off the beaten track on your own, then why not book onto a navigation skills course? Our friends at Pure Outdoors have been teaching people to navigate since 2006 and run a great selection of courses in the stunning Peak District National Park.
Hill Walking Training
If it's skills you're after improving, and learning from the best, then you can't go far wrong with Plas y Brenin , the National Outdoor Centre. Based in Snowdonia they have a huge range of courses and challenges to get involved with, and are a fantastic starting point.
On a more general level, there’s no better way to get fit for hill walking than actually doing hill walking itself. Practice on smaller hills to get fit for larger days out. Of course, that’s not always possible (e.g. you live in London and the biggest hills we have are mole hills (Joke)). There are some hills in London, with the tallest hill being Hampstead Heath at 134m which is a good training ground. For training outside of just doing more hill walking, here are some alternatives:
- Get on a stair climber at the gym, as a great way to practice building muscular strength and endurance
- Go running (cycling or anything that increases your heart rate), to build your aerobic capacity (the ability to breath under continued physical exertion)
- Focus on being able to carry a heavy backpack. Deadlifts, squats and lower back exercises can be a great way to build strength for carrying a bag all day
- Standing up at work helps to build your body to be used to being on your feet for most of the day, making it easier to be out on the hills all day
Whatever training you take up, remember, consistency is key. For hill walking training to be effective, it’ll need to be done over several months to fully reap the rewards of more enjoyable times on the hills!
How to get started with Hill Walking?
The beauty of hill walking is that it's easy to get involved and almost anyone can do it. Round up a group of friends, organise a date and a place to meet and get going. And if your immediate friends aren't up for it, then it's easy enough to find some who are! Large Outdoors organise a fantastic range of trips and hikes to suit all levels, and all are aimed at groups to make it a more sociable trip, with solos very welcome. Check out our post The Highest Mountains in England to find a great place to explore. Alternatively, join an organised hill walking group or find and instructor search through hundreds of qualified instructors who provide the best walking experiences to make the most of your next hill walking day out!