Hill Walking is a thoroughly enjoyable past time, with immense benefits in terms of health, fitness, its social nature and the opportunity to enjoy the peace and tranquilly of the mountains. Indeed, the immense growth of Hill walking in Ireland over the past few years illustrates how much of an enjoyable pursuit it truly is. However, like all outdoor pursuits it is not without its risks, which include environmental challenges and physical exertion. As a result it is important to be prepared before you hit the hills.
Your health and fitness
The first step to embarking on a hill walking expedition is to prepare your self for the physical exertion of a walk in the mountains. If you haven’t really hill walked before, it is important to start slow and start small. To begin hill walking properly, the key is to start small and hit the beginner hills first. Something that is an hour in duration with a small incline will give you a taste of what is to come, and will not put you off tackling challenging walks in the future by building you up slowly.
Now that you have your walk route selected and sorted, make sure you warm up for at least ten minutes. You can do this by walking on flat ground to start with, and then picking up your pace as you go on further, and you should stop for some stretches along the way. Take your time as you start to wind your way to the top of the mountain, nothing too fast, as slow and steady is the best way to avoid injury and enjoy the walk. You should be slightly out of breath as you climb, not gasping for air, with the stunning views taking your mind off the muscle fatigue and breathlessness. The fitter you get the more you will want to take on, and you can slowly increase your walks in duration and length, and add another peak in order to keep pushing yourself, and you can pick up your pace a bit as well. As you start to see the immense benefits of hill walking on your health and overall fitness you will start to take on more challenging treks, and enjoy your new found interest even more
Make sure you drink plenty of water during and after your walks, and do some more stretching when you finish. Indeed, the more stretching you do over the days following the walk, the less your muscle fatigue, and the greater your flexibility – which will help you avoid injury in the future.
Always check the weather before you go hill walking, even if it is just for a stroll. You need to be prepared to adjust your walk for local conditions, and it is better to remain flexible and cancel a walk, then get lost or even injured at the top of a Mountain. Whilst the Irish climate is reasonably temperate, thick fog, heavy rain and wind, ice and even snow can make the mountains a very dangerous place to be. You should also be aware of the time of sunset, as walking around the mountains at night can be very dangerous. Added to the weather the remoteness of many hillwalking destinations can limit mobile reception, and help can be a very long way away during an emergency situation.
In terms of hill walking equipment it is important that you bring along the following in order to make your hillwalk a safe and enjoyable one.
It sounds obvious but make sure you bring a map, and not just any map, but a topographical or military map. Most hill walking guidebooks do not provide adequate maps. Also, make sure you know how to read and use a map properly, if you can’t read a map, learn the right skills before you head out into the hills.
In order to use your map properly, you will also need a compass, and a compass that simply points North is not enough. As above, a compass will be no help to you unless you know how to use it properly. Make sure you know how to orientate your map properly to the ground, and you that you know how to walk on a bearing.
Bringing a whistle is always beneficial, as it can be used to alert other hill walkers if you are in distress or even lost.
Appropriate clothing is also vitally important before you head ot the hills. Wet weather clothing, including a good jacket, and waterproof pants, and warm clothing (such as a good fleece) are an absolute must.
It is also always handy to bring a High vis jacket to get attention in the case of an emergency, or to use for road movement.
A well stocked first aid kit is also vitally important, and get the training to use it.
Bring enough food for your walk, and some extra chocolate or high sugar snack is always handy, especially in the case of bad weather.
Bring enough water to stay fully rehydrated throughout your journey.
And lastly bring plastic bags for your rubbish and to water proof your gear in the case of heavy rain.
Whilst out hill walking and hiking there is no more important asset than your feet, and in order to protect your feet you need to find the right boots. Indeed, a good pair of boots will be the most important investment you will make in terms of hillwalking equipment, especially with conditions in Ireland varying between extreme wet, bog land, heather, stone and a mixture of all of the above. Your Hiking Boots will either be a source of support and comfort, or pain and aggravation, and only if you are armed with the right knowledge will you make the right purchase. So what should you be looking for?
When hiking you need to consider what type of boot will suit you. For example, walking sandals would be completely inappropriate, offering no ankle support, and no protection from the rain and bog land for Irish conditions. Hiking shoes may be appropriate for some walks, namely those that are on even and well marked paths, but they will perform poorly in wet weather and when going ‘off track’. Often the best overall option would be a high top boot, which provides good ankle support in all terrain.
Now you need to consider the material of the boot, and you have two main options, leather or Gore-Tex. Both are waterproof, and have different strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking, leather boots will last longer (with the right care and maintenance) but will become heavy when wet. The lighter your boots, the easier your walking will be. It is generally agreed that one pound extra footwear weight can be compared to five pounds of added backpack weight. Hiking Boot manufacturers are constantly working on creating lighter Hiking Boots while maintaining the support and other features needed. Look for breathable and watertight materials that will allow moisture to leave the inner parts of your boots but will not let water enter. Look for fully gusseted tongues that cover the openings of your uppers.
Gore-Tex boots tend to be lighter, even when wet, and will also breathe, so that your feet and ankles do not over heat. So think about the conditions you will face whilst out trekking and make a choice based on these conditions.
Also, your boot should support the arch of your feet in a way that your feet are not flattened out under heavy pressure. A curved shank between midsole and insole is often inserted to provide arch support. The sole should give the needed friction on all expected surfaces. To achieve this goal, your Hiking Boots should have deep-lugged soles of tough rubber.
For the type of hiking you will do in Ireland, generally a mid-weight or B class boot would be the best. These are boots intended for less smooth trails and light off-trail terrains. Their increased support will also help on longer or even multi-day hikes. They are generally made out of slightly tougher leather or a combination of tougher synthetic materials and leather parts. The sole and the general construction are less flexible and give increased support to your ankle and bridge.
Hiking Boots come in different sizes that adhere to the Shoe Size standards of the various countries that produce and sell them. It is critical that you get the right Hiking Boot Size. Take a look at the international Chart for Shoe and Hiking Boot Sizes. There is nothing worse than being out on the mountains when you start getting a blister or hotspots.
Whilst out hill walking you will find yourself moving through a variety of terrain. This will include sodden bog land, thick heather and gorse, forest and even snow. In such conditions your balance will be tested to the limit, and it will be up to your coordination and leg strength to keep you on your feet, after all, your legs are your main source of balance. However, it can help to have some extra assistance in the sometimes very difficult task of staying upright, and this is where a good set of walking poles can be worth their weight in gold.
When out hill walking and trekking you will need to bring everything that you will need with you, and in alignment with the hill walking code of leave no trace, you are going to have to bring it back out with you as well! This will mean packing water, food, tents, clothing, first aid kits, torches, maps, compass and a myriad of other equipment, which can add up to a hefty weight. This means that comfort and support are going to be incredibly important in order for you to have an enjoyable hill walking experience.
There are a veritable plethora of backpacks available to the would be hiker, and these vary in style, size and weight. Starting with the smallest first, there are a number of small day packs and waist pouches that may come in handy for a short trek or hike. Whilst technically they may not constitute a back pack, they can come in very handy, and are so small and light weight that you will forget you are wearing them, which means you are free to enjoy the hills without carrying a large burden. When you select a waist pouch, make sure the pouch is located at the base of the spine in the curve of your back, which is also very importantly close to your centre of gravity. The limited space means you will probably only get to carry a water bottle and a few other basics, and any more equipment will negate the effectiveness of the pouch and force you to go to the next level of day pack.
Most day packs are about 15 to 35 litres in size, with shoulder straps and usually one main compartment. Whilst they are great for a day trip, they are not big enough if you are intending to overnight. If you are looking for a day pack that will cater for a heavier load, look for one with a waist and chest strap. This will increase the overall support and stability of the day pack, and allow you to increase your load without putting undue strain on your body,
Many backpacks are not completely waterproof, and they usually have a built in splash cover, which you can use to cover your entire back pack if it rains, effectively placing your backpack in a waterproof sack. This feature is very handy during rain, during river crossings and to keep your backpack protected from moisture (dew) overnight. Dont worry if your backpack doesn’t have one built in, as you can buy these separately.
Most backpacks have exterior straps that allow you to fix equipment to the outside of the pack. These can come in handy for anything from hiking poles, Ice axes, crampons and any other extraneous equipment you have brought along! Hopefully you won’t need these in Ireland. With any back pack it is makes good sense to invest in a hydration pack/ water bladder. Some packs come with them already fitted, and most of them have a small compartment where you can put them, with room for the drinking tube and valve. These hydration packs are extremely handy, as you can drink whilst walking, and do not have to stop to remove a water bottle. As a result you will be far less likely to experience dehydration, as you will tend to sip water more regularly, as opposed to guzzling it.
Other Safety Tips
Always hillwalk as part of a group – never walk alone. That way, if your or another member become injured, you have someone close by to give assistance.
Always let someone know where you are going walking, and what time you expect to be back.
Carry some form of communication, such as a mobile phone, but be aware that you may not have reception in some areas of the mountains. In which case you will need an alternative. If an emergency arises, immediately contact the emergency services and stay where you are, and stay calm.
When walking on roads stay in a single file, wear a high vis vest and walk in the right hand side of the road.
Lastly, ensure you do not stray onto private property or into areas of conservation, and close gates behind you.