Head for the hills: the expert guide to hiking for beginners

Everything you need to know about exploring the hills, mountains and wild places of the UK.

Hiking is a great way of exploring our beautiful countryside. It’s a step up from a stroll in the park and can be fabulous for your body and your mind.

We’ve got breathtaking hills and mountains across the UK and even if you live in a city, you can reach our wilder places for a day’s walk or a weekend away.

But even though you may already be getting out walking along paths and well-marked tracks, hiking takes it a step further. So, before you lace up your boots, read our essential guide to how to get started in hiking, what to take, and how to avoid common mistakes.

Man hiking in woods with friendsCredit: Shutterstock / PeopleImages.com
Hiking is great for your mind and your body.

Why start hiking?

Getting outside is great for you

There are dozens of benefits of walking. But hiking can produce even more positive results, both for your mental and physical health.

Research shows there are multiple health benefits of hiking – it can lower your risk of heart disease, improve blood pressure and help control your weight.

Hiking also benefits your mental health. Charity Mind recommends we all spend time in nature, as it helps calm anxiety, reduces stress and lowers the risk of depression.

And hiking can help tackle loneliness too. There are hundreds of walking groups across the UK and joining one doesn’t just help you gain confidence outside, it’s a good way of making new friends and spending time with people who have a shared interest in the great outdoors.

If that isn’t enough, hiking is a great way of discovering new places that are only accessible on foot – such as the clifftop sections of the Cornish coast, the jagged peaks of Eryri (Snowdonia), the Lake District fells, and the high empty moors of the Peak District. You’ll spot birds, wildlife and plants that can take your breath away.

When you get out hiking in the UK, you may feel a million miles away from our busy towns and cities, yet you can still be home in time for dinner.

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A wooden footpath signpostCredit: Shutterstock / Carol Tyers
The Pennine Way is one of the UK’s most famous long distance hiking trails

How to start hiking

Do your homework before you get your boots on

Our wild places are stunning, but you need to treat them with respect. It can be easy to get lost, injured or exhausted by planning too big an adventure on your first go.

So, follow our tips before you set out:

Plan your hike

If you are a beginner, it’s best to pick a popular route, as the more worn paths make it easier to follow. Look at maps and walking guides for inspiration and check out routes on walking apps.

Derek Bain, an instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, says: “Planning is part of the fun. It is your excuse to pore over maps – who doesn’t love a map – along with walking guidebooks, weather forecasts and general logistics planning.”

Think about your fitness

How fit are you? Don’t be too ambitious on a first walk as you don’t want to end up exhausted or trying to complete it in the dark. How long will it take and are you confident you can finish it? It’s worth building up your fitness beforehand by walking locally or going to the gym to build aerobic fitness.

Safety first

Read our essential guide to hiking safely in the UK for the best advice from mountain rescue teams and qualified mountain leaders.

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Watch out for wind and rain

Check the weather forecast. The weather on the hills and mountains can be colder and windier than in the valleys. If the forecast isn’t good, then consider postponing for another day.

Go equipped for a great day

Pack your rucksack the day before so you don’t forget anything – see below for what you need to take.

A group of hikers at night with head torches onCredit: Saga Exceptional
Learning navigation skills can be a life saver.

Expert advice for new hikers

Learn from the experts

If you are new to hiking, follow the advice from our experts to ensure you get the most out of your day.

Build up gradually

Mountain leader Kerry Crosfield says: “If all you are used to is a walk around the block on flat ground, then you aren’t going to manage a 20-mile hike over the peaks on your first attempt.

“Instead, build up gradually so your muscles get stronger. Start walking longer distances near you and introduce some hills if you can.

“Then when you do head out for the first time, start small. You might not reach the summit the first few times, but don’t worry, the mountains are always there to tackle another day.

Manage your energy levels

Crosfield says: “Be prepared to turn back if your energy levels are depleting – you do not want to use all your energy resources on the way up, as you will need to put in the same mileage going back down – and that can be just as difficult.

“If you prepare yourself, it means you’ll have a more enjoyable day out, rather than struggling. No matter how experienced, we all get out of breath on the way up, so remember to stop, catch your breath and use the opportunity to enjoy the views and take some photos.”

A walking instructor in front of a trig pointCredit: Crosfield Outdoors
Crosfield says to build up your walking distances gradually.

Build your confidence

If you are nervous about going into the mountains by yourself, you might like to join a walking group. Going out with a group is a great way to explore new places, gain confidence and meet new people who all share a love of the outdoors.

Mountain Leader Kevin Parnham says another great option is to go on a hill skills course or join a walk, led by a qualified instructor.

He says: “Outdoor leaders will take away the worry you may have in venturing out in more remote places and on more rugged terrain. They will have lots of useful tips on what to consider when you’re out on your own.

“You will also learn lots of new things from them, as they will have local knowledge about the area they are taking you to, including the flora and fauna, wildlife, geology, history and quirks and, if you are lucky, some amusing stories too.”

What to wear for hiking

Essential clothing for a day in the hills

One of the great things about the countryside is that it is completely free, but being equipped with the right gear can make all the difference. You don’t need to spend loads on trendy hiking gear, but there are a few essentials you need before you set out.

Waterproof jacket

Weather conditions in the hills and mountains can change from sunshine to rain in minutes, so always take a waterproof jacket. But ensure its breathable, otherwise you’ll end up soaking wet with sweat. You can buy budget jackets from retailers such as Mountain Warehouse or Regatta to get you started.

Sturdy footwear

In dry conditions you may be able to get away with trainers, but as soon as it gets wet underfoot, you will be glad of footwear with a good tread – walking shoes or boots are perfect but ensure they fit well and don’t rub.

Walking trousers

Wear trousers or leggings, rather than jeans, which take a long time to dry if they get wet.

Walking socks

These help wick away sweat in the summer and keep your feet warm in the winter. Most importantly, they can help prevent blisters.

A wicking base layer

Merino wool or synthetic materials are best, as they wick sweat away from your skin. Don’t wear cotton, as it takes too long to dry.

Other essentials

A warm layer – a fleece top works well. A warm hat in the winter and a sun hat in the summer.

A man and a woman hiking in the Lake DistrictCredit: Shutterstock / MonkeyBusiness Images
There’s nothing better than being outdoors in the sunshine – but always be prepared for a change in weather.

Useful equipment to take hiking

What to take for a day in the hills

Taking the right equipment can make all the difference when you are out hiking – not just to help keep you warm and comfortable but also to keep you safe.

Read our comprehensive guide on what to take on a mountain hike for everything you need for a day hike. As a minimum, you should consider take a rucksack containing:

  • food
  • a map
  • a compass
  • extra warm clothing
  • gloves
  • a hat
  • any other essentials.

If you are planning an overnight hike you’ll need other essentials, including:

  • a bigger rucksack
  • a tent or bivvy bag (a waterproof bag you can fit your sleeping mat and you in for under-the-stars sleeping)
  • a sleeping bag and sleeping mat
  • extra food and water.

I also always take a spare pair of socks so I’ve got a clean, dry pair to wear overnight.

Parnham says: “Food and water are really important to get right, so try and maintain your energy levels by eating at regular intervals. It’s much harder to bring energy levels back up if you allow them to dip.

“Keep some light snacks or sweets or nuts in your pockets so you can munch on these on the move.

Hiking for beginners FAQS

All the questions and more

Is hiking a good workout?

Saga Exceptional’s fitness writer and qualified personal trainer Rebecca Fuller says: “Hiking is a great workout, because it combines cardio and strength training in one. Our heart and lungs work due to the physical exertion required – over time this helps our cardiovascular system function much more efficiently. You’ll begin to notice you don’t get as out of breath, and climbing steep trails will be easier.

“Hiking also helps build and maintain muscle mass. We really have to use our legs to navigate some tricky terrain, which helps keep our legs strong. It also keeps the mind-muscle connection sharp, building stronger neural pathways. This benefits us long-term; our reactions are quicker, and a lot of falls can be prevented.”

A woman standing on a ridge overlooking the seaCredit: Shutterstock / EB Adventure Photography
As you gain experience, you’ll get more confident and learn how to tackle trickier terrain.

What’s the difference between hiking and walking?

According to the Collins Dictionary, hiking is ‘the sporting or leisure activity of going for long, often strenuous, walks in the country’. The word ‘hiking’ is most commonly used in the United States and Canada, but it is becoming more popular here in the UK, where traditionally walking has described everything from the few steps we take from our door to our car, to a walk up Ben Nevis.

You’ll also hear of hillwalking, fell walking, rambling and mountain walking in the UK.

There are other English-language terms across the world for hiking, including bushwalking in Australia, tramping in New Zealand and trekking, which describes multi-day hikes.

Beginner hiking mistakes

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common beginner hiking mistakes and how to avoid them.

  • Not checking the weather – being caught out by heavy rain or high winds isn’t just miserable, it can be dangerous on a mountain top. Always check before you set out.
  • Getting lost – It’s easy to get lost if the cloud comes down and you lose phone signal. If you are relying on a phone app, remember to download the route and take a back-up of a spare phone or map and compass. Navigation apps are safe, as long as you listen to the expert’s advice. If you take a map and compass, ensure you know how to use them before you set off.
  • Not packing enough food and water. Dehydration can be a killer in hot summer temperatures, so pack two to three litres (three to five pints) of water for a day walk – and don’t forget to drink it. Also, pack food and snacks to keep your energy levels up and stop you getting miserable and tired.
  • Wearing badly-fitting shoes or boots. Blisters really can stop you in your tracks. Make sure your footwear isn’t too tight and ideally have a pair fitted by a trained specialist at an outdoor store such as Cotswold Outdoor, GoOutdoors and Ellis Brigham. Don’t forget to take plasters just in case – I find Compeed blister plasters very good.
  • Being over-ambitious – if you haven’t hiked before, don’t plan a 20-mile route. It’s better to start with shorter distances and build up, rather than setting off on a huge hike and ending up exhausted, injured, trying to find your way home in the dark – or worse still, having to call out mountain rescue.
  • Getting sunburned – the UV light is stronger the higher you get. Don’t forget the sunblock, otherwise you could be very red and sore by the time you finish.
A woman standing on top of Pen y Fan mountainCredit: Saga Exceptional
Saga Exceptional’s Phillipa Cherryson loves hiking in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Is hiking safe?

Hiking is as safe as any other sports activity, and for many people, myself included, it becomes a passion. You’ll see beautiful places, you’ll challenge yourself, and learn how strong you can be. You’ll also have an amazing sense of achievement when you look back at the end of a walk and see how far you have come.

Instructor Parnham says: “With a little preparation, you can have a great experience outdoors. Taking some basic steps to make sure you are fully prepared ensures that you will have a great day out.

“The hills, mountains and remote places in the UK are meant to be enjoyed, so go out with that mindset and that sense of freedom to make the most of them.”

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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