Walk on the wild side: How to hike safely in hills and mountains

If you want to stay safe when walking in our mountains, hills and wild places, read our essential guide.

Over four gruelling days and three freezing nights, a group of celebrities hiked across one of the UK’s highest mountain ranges, all for this week’s Comic Relief.

Presenters Emma Willis and Rylan together with Strictly star Oti Mabuse faced gale-force winds and sub-zero temperatures on their hike across the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands. They were euphoric when they reached the summit of Cairn Gorm and looked out over its intoxicating views.

If you’re inspired to follow in their footsteps and venture into the UK’s wildest places, read our guide on how to hike in the mountains and stay safe.

A mountain ridge in the sunshine with the sea in the backgroundCredit: Esther van de Spoel
We have some breathtaking scenery in the British Isles

From the Brecon Beacons to the Highlands of Scotland, there is something about the hills and mountains of the British Isles that moves us all – and for many it makes us want to don our walking boots and hike their paths, summits and valleys.

Mountain walking is my passion, and as an organiser of a women’s adventure group, I support other women to do this too. I’m lucky enough to have Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in the south of the UK, right on my doorstep in the Brecon Beacons. But if you’ve never walked up a mountain before, how do you get started?

We all know the dangers they can present – my partner David is a long-serving member of our local mountain rescue team, so I know the dangers only too well. But with a bit of preparation and forethought we can all enjoy the mountains and wild spaces.

A woman standing on a rock with Pen y Fan in the backgroundCredit: Phillipa Cherryson
Cherryson loves walking in the Brecon Beacons National Park

How to start hill and mountain walking

How to get started

If you haven’t done any recreational walking before, read our essential guide on how to start walking.

Then, before you head for the mountains, read our advice on preparation and the skills, clothing and equipment you’ll need.

Are you fit enough? Start slowly

Firstly, ask yourself whether you are fit enough to hike up a mountain.

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 that 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. 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 woman in front of a ridge of mountainsCredit: Kerry Crosfield
Crosfield says if you take it slowly you can build up to long days in the mountains

Get confident

If you’re nervous about going into the mountains by yourself, you might like to try a course on hill skills or else 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. Check out our guide to how to find a walking group.

Our tips on how to plan a mountain walk

Plan your adventure

There’s no doubt that the key to a successful trip is the planning. We pulled together the best advice with the help of mountain instructor Derek Bain, from Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre.


Check the weather

Before you go anywhere in mountains, it’s vital to check the weather forecast. The Mountain Weather Information Service provides detailed forecasts for all the mountain ranges in the UK. The Met Office also has a mountain weather section. The weather on summits can be very different to that in the valleys – normally colder and windier. Look at the forecast for the whole day and pay attention to the wind speed and the “feels like” temperature, which gives you a good indication of conditions on the mountain top. If the weather forecast isn’t good, with rain or high winds, always be prepared to change your route, even if this upsets a long-planned adventure.

Plan your route

If you’re new to mountain walking, it’s best to pick a popular route as it will be easier to follow and there will be other people around if you feel nervous. There are lots of printed and online walking guides for ideas and inspiration, but read them carefully. Look at how difficult the terrain is, whether there are clear paths and how long the route will take. If you’re going in a group, plan it for the slowest member of your party and keep checking the forecast.

“Planning is part of the fun,” says Bains. “It is your excuse to pour over maps – who doesn’t love a map! – along with walking guidebooks, weather forecasts and general logistics planning. Know your team and their skillset – weaknesses, strengths and shared experiences.

“Familiarise yourself with your preferred hike. How long should it take and what sort of terrain is it? Are you on established tracks or does it involve a bit of tramping off paths across heather? What height gain is involved, and have an idea of how many hours of ascent this will take? Does your chosen route match you and your team’s skillset and experience?”

A walker in the snow in SnowdoniaCredit: Lou Tully
Take the time to plan your adventures so you don’t get caught out

Take safety precautions

Ensure your phone is fully charged, enable “location services”, and register your number with the emergency services on EmergencySMS so that you can text 999 if need be. Most accidents happen towards the end of the day when both you and your phone are low on energy, and in remote places you may not have enough signal to call, but often a text can get through. If you are planning a full day’s walk, consider buying a power bank so you can charge your phone when you’re out.

Leave details of your planned route in a safe place or with a family member, friend or neighbour. Include start and finish points, estimated return time and a contact in case of emergency.


Navigation apps are great to get you started and help you follow a route, but the general advice from mountain rescue and outdoor groups is to try to avoid relying on them completely. If your battery goes flat, your phone breaks or you can’t get a signal, then you’re on your own.

If you want to start hill walking regularly, take a map such as an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer map and a compass and learn how to use both.

You can find free basic navigation and map reading tutorials online to get you started, or else go on a navigation course. You can also join a day or weekend navigation course. The National Navigation Award Scheme has courses across the UK.

Bains says: “Crucially you need to be able to navigate with and without GPS, so practice navigation in all its forms – map, phone and GPS, before heading out. Remember to keep your phone and compass separate – phones can affect the compass and may cause something called reverse polarity.

“Of course, waterproof cases for the phone will also avoid expensive issues.”

A man walking up the north ridge of Pen y Fan mountain, in South WalesCredit: Phillipa Cherryson
There are some amazing places to discover in our mountains

Staying safe in the hills and mountains

How to keep safe in the hills

Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you. If you are in a group, make sure everyone stays together and let the slowest in your party determine your pace. Eat and drink well during the day to keep your energy levels high and stay hydrated.

Also pay attention to where you are. It’s easy to get chatting and take the wrong path or simply lose track of how far you have walked.

If you go out alone, aim to stick to your planned route so that if something goes wrong people know where to start looking.

Bains says: “Don’t be afraid to turn around if you don’t like what you encounter or the weather appears different to forecasts. There’s always tomorrow. Likewise, don’t feel the pressure to stick to one specific route if conditions turn out to be less than favourable. Have a range of options in the location to meet the realities of the day.

“But most of all, enjoy yourself. The mountains are stunning and are there to be explored.”

How to call mountain rescue

Getting help in the mountains

Mountain rescue and search and rescue teams cover the whole of the British Isles. They are made up of highly trained volunteers who are on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Brecon Mountain Rescue Team is based in the Brecon Beacons National Park and operates throughout Mid Wales.

Jessica Moon Bowen, from Brecon MRT, says: “If something goes wrong, don’t panic! Don’t immediately get out your phone and dial 999 unless it’s a medical emergency. We’ve all got a bit lost from time to time and we are better people for it. See if you can work out where you are, use any visual or navigation aids available and if you see any other walkers, ask them for help. It’s not the end of the world if you walk down a route you hadn’t planned to.”

A close up of a female mountain rescue volunteerCredit: Brecon Mountain Rescue Team
Moon Bowen from Brecon Mountain Rescue Team

How to contact mountain rescue

“You will need to tell us where you are and the best way of doing that is giving us a six-figure grid reference,” says Moon Bowen. “You can work that out from your map or else use the free OS Locate App. If you don’t know where you are, look around to spot geographical features – streams, waterfalls, cliffs, anything that could help rescuers find you.

“Call 999 and ask for the police. Then ask for Mountain Rescue. You will need to tell the team the number of casualties, their names and ages, the nature of the injury, illness or your predicament and your location if you know it, with your six-figure grid reference. Don’t change your position until you have spoken to a member of mountain rescue.

“If you haven’t enough signal to make a phone call you may be able to use the emergency SMS service. Text 999 and send. Then type Police followed by the details of what has happened and your location.

mountain rescuers on the summit of Pen y Fan mountainCredit: Brecon Mountain Rescue Team
Mountain rescue teams are on call 24/7

“The whole process can take several hours. Please don’t expect mountain rescue to whisk you off the mountain in a helicopter. Most rescues are carried out on foot. While you are waiting, remember to ensure everyone stays as warm as possible and put on any extra layers – people can become hypothermic in summer too.

“Don’t be put off calling mountain rescue if you need help. You may be worried that in hindsight you shouldn’t have gone out that day or weren’t as well prepared as you might have been. Mountain rescue is there to help you and is not there to judge. We are there for anyone who needs us every hour of every day.”

A group of walkers in the snowCredit: Lou Tully
If you head out in the snow you’ll need extra equipment, including an ice axe and crampons

The mountains are there for everyone

Mountain Leader Andrea Illsley hadn’t climbed a mountain until she was 47.

She says: “I would say to anyone interested in mountain walking to start small and be aware of your own fitness and skills. You don’t have to climb a mountain to start enjoying them; valley and riverside walks in our mountainous areas can be just as breathtaking and are more accessible to more people.”Whether you walk on the peaks or in the valleys, we’ve got some beautiful wild areas to explore and they are there for all of us.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior 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.

Her passion is outdoor fitness. She’s a trainee mountain leader; an Ordnance Survey Champion; she organises walks and instructional events for South Wales members of online community the Adventure Queens and she’s vice chair of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Local Access Forum.

She hated sports at school and only started getting the fitness bug as she reached her 50s. Now she loves mountain walking, trail runs, e-biking, paddleboarding and climbing. She also loves cake.

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