Hill Walking Tips

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Glen Coe, Scotland

Hill Walking Tips Glen Coe Reviews

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Hill walking Apr 22, 2011
Hill Walking tips

These tips are for hill walking as an activity, rather than strolling on little rolling hills in the lowlands.

Hill walking is one of the best activities for a traveller in Scotland.  The landscape is at its finest away from the crowds at the foot of the hill, and you can get a real sense of the grandeur of the country.  You’re in with a good chance of seeing wildlife, moving at walking pace quietly.  Also, the Scottish cuisine is not of the least calorific sort, but a day hill walking will burn almost as many calories as you can throw down your neck.  However, there are some important things to bear in mind.  Hill walking isn’t without risks (people do die from time to time, and you can certainly get hypothermia easily if you aren’t paying attention to conditions) and there are also some potential problems that could ruin your day if you’re not prepped.

Know your mountain

The high mountains aren’t necessarily the dangerous ones.  All mountains have risks – they have significantly worse weather than lower down, accidents aren’t all that rare, and even mountains that are popular with tourists can have navigational problems, sudden cliffs, and poorly maintained paths where you can stray or hurt yourself.  But the pony track up Ben Nevis is generally viewed as easy (from a technical mountaineering point of view), with no actual scrambling and a well defined path, where some smaller mountains have poorly defined paths or no clear path at all, scree slopes, or paths along very narrow ridges where it would be easy to get it wrong.  Read a good guide book and do a little homework on the mountain before you go up. 


And believe the guidebook.  I’m always shocked by how many people start climbing something like Ben Nevis at four in the afternoon in April.  If the guidebook says that a mountain takes five to seven hours (e.g. Nevis itself), check the time for sunset and add an hour for twisted ankles or lunch.  If sunset is 8pm, don’t set off after 12pm (seven hours, plus one hour safety time). 

Check the weather forecast for the mountains

And the weather report for Edinburgh isn’t good enough.  The weather conditions in the mountains can be very different from the foot of the hill, let alone the cities.  Almost all Scots who do this regularly will tell you stories of being on a narrow ridge in a white out.  Don’t do it to yourself.

And carry rain gear anyway

Weather changes fast in mountains.  Don’t count on it being sunny just because the weather report says it is.  It would be deeply foolish to go up any significant hill in Scotland without a rain coat, light fleece, decent boots and, ideally, gaiters or waterproof trousers.  Bear in mind that snow can last well into spring on the ground, and that the temperature and wind chill are significant on a lot of days. The flat tops of some of the larger mountains, for example Ben Nevis and some of the Cairngorms, are essentially arctic climates and have the same sort of wildlife as inside the arctic circle. 

Don’t wear jeans

Jeans are heavy when wet, and extremely absorbent.  Even if it isn’t raining, you might walk through cloud.  If you walk in jeans, at best you’re going to be chaffed and at worst you’ll be raw, frozen, and miserable.  You don’t necessarily need specialist hiking trousers – light cotton or polyester will do in summer, but you might want to consider water proofs to go over your trousers anyway.  And while we’re on the subject –

Don’t wear trainers/sneakers

Even on paths, there is erosion, standing water, stream beds, large boulders, scree and gravel, and likely to be snow into early summer on some hills.  Running shoes offer you no protection at all from mountain conditions.  Proper boots are best, because they protect your ankles and the soles of your feet.  Failing that, some of the more tourist-haunted mountains (Ben Nevis for example) are passable in hiking trainers, which have better waterproofing and stiffer soles than most sneakers. 

Leave a plan

Make sure someone knows what hill you are on, roughly which access point and path you are taking, and when they should expect you to make contact.  That way, someone can tell Mountain Rescue where you are likely to be if you get into trouble.  You can’t rely on having reception on your own phone in the mountains. 

Compass and Map

Yes, you do need a compass, and a map, and the ability to read them.  Even on the popular mountains, people get lost and need rescued, and there are a small number of fatalities from getting lost. 

Food and water

The traditional hill walking food stuff is Kendal Mint Cake, but as long as you have high energy snacks and plenty of water you’re fine.  My favoured hiking snacks are Scottish Tablet, cheese sandwiches, apples, and Irn Bru.  Oh, and drink full sugar soda.  You need the energy.  Make sure you have slightly more than you think you need.

Leave nothing but footprints…

It shouldn’t need saying, but anyone who leaves litter on a hillside is a jerk.  I get that sometimes sweet wrappers blow away, but there is no excuse for leaving litter on purpose.  Even banana skins take a couple of years to rot.  And as for the people who leave their water bottles – they are clearly scum. It’s way heavier full than empty and they’re too heavy to be left by accident. 

…take nothing but photos

The hillsides are full of endangered species of plants and flowers, let alone animals.  But the photos are fantastic. 

Stay on the path

There are two reasons for this.  The first one is the selfish one – if you are on the path, you are unlikely to accidentally stray too close to a cliff edge.  It sounds obvious, but again, talk to any regular hill walker about how often they’ve taken a step on one of the more trackless hills and found themselves looking over a cliff.  The other one is the altruistic one – popular hills are becoming increasingly eroded from walkers and it damages the whole ecosystem.  Oh, and close any gates behind you.  Many hills are farmed and you don’t want to be the one who lets a flock of sheep wander off into the distance. 

You might not need…


There is a whole industry selling hill walking kit.  You might not need survival bags, GPS systems, special hats, thirty quid specialist hiking t-shirts, flares, heated pads, waterproof portable seats, map cases or (in the case of a friend of mine) a small tent, as long as you are going up the tourist hills. And I would not recommend your average tourist attempted the harder pinnacles and things without a guide anyway.  Check your guide book and see if they recommend any specialist kit. 


Have fun!


Gosh, I made that all look very serious, didn’t I?  Put it this way.  Nine year olds regularly make it to the top of some of the highest mountains in Scotland.  This is fun.  Even in rubbish weather you have the high of achieving it, and you almost always see cool views.  There are usually some nice people to talk to and even in the rain you can share a joke with people.  It’s just more fun in decent boots, warm layers and a raincoat. 
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