Planning a walking route.
So - You've done a bit of walking. You've built up your kit, the weather looks great for the weekend and and you're feeling inspired to get out and have a go at something a little different... Here is a little guide to help you plan some new routes for non winter hillwalking in UK.
The first things I would recommend to think about when looking for new routes are:
Your physical ability: Think about the distance you're used to walking and the type of terrain you're used to walking across. Don't ignore any recent injuries or illnesses that may become troublesome after a few hours of walking. These small considerations can have big impacts on your day.
Your navigational ability: How confident are you that you will be able to stick to your route? If you know you're not brilliant with navigation, how about looking at a route that has really obvious paths and big features that will be easy to follow in poor weather.
Your emotional ability: Put simply, confidence. Will going solo on Crib Goch be a good idea if you struggle with heights, or will a 24km route across the Carneddau be a good idea if you're not comfortable being out in the dark? Maybe not. Knowing your limits and respecting them is key, though it's also healthy to push those limits as you build up your confidence and skill set. Getting the balance right is a good sign you are developing your abilities.
The abilities of your group as a whole. Talk to people. You might be more experienced than them or vice versa. A lot of time, people will just get on with it regardless, even if they're having a rubbish day and not want to ruin it for other people. Having an honest chat will help ensure that everyone has a great day out. Introducing people to the mountains is one of the most rewarding aspects of hillwalking and is why I love working as a mountain leader but there can be a fine line between them loving it and 'getting the bug' or hating it and never doing it again. Good route choice can be the make or break decision. Likewise, be honest if you're the one without the experience and never do anything you're not happy with. If people don't respect it, they're the wrong people to be walking with. I think children are often overlooked as group members. I think it's easy to put too much pressure on them to achieve our aims with us, rather than adjusting our aims to enable them to succeed. Developing the ability and willingness to plan for different people's needs will ensure you have a steady supply of walking buddies for years to come.
The needs of your dog, if you have one: If it's high summer, choose a route that includes water stops for the dog such as a lake or stream/river. Think about the type of terrain they will be walking on. Rocky scrambles or even paths like the Pig track on Snowdon can be really tough on your dogs paws if they are not used to it. If you do take your dog, you should consider their needs just as much as anybody else's in the group. Think about your dog's size, age, health & ability. Will a 16 year old Alsatian be happy getting dragged up a honey pot mountain on an August bank holiday, or will a pug be impressed having to scramble the North Ridge of Tryfan? Probably not. They'll almost certainly follow you every step of the way but why put them through it, when you can take them up a nice, gentle and grassy mountain walk? Also think if you can manage your dogs behaviour in different situations and terrains to keep yourself and the people around you safe and not just your dog. A route that challenges you mentally might mike you less able to focus on the animal and increase the risk of it running away or worse still attacking livestock and getting shot. Sharing the mountains with your dog is hugely rewarding but come with huge responsibilities.
Simply choosing the right route for the situation could be beneficial to everyone involved.
The first thing I would recommend to get is a subscription to online mapping software. It is a brilliant tool and I use it regularly when planning walks in new places. For about £25 per year, you get access to digital maps covering the whole of Britain in both 1:25 and 1:50 scales, aerial photographic and 3D aerial views. With some, you can even print off sections on waterproof paper. I personally use Viewranger. OS Maps online is good and there are others such as Trailzilla, Grough, and Fatmap. Have a little look at them all and see what works for you. You can't print from Viewranger but I prefer the mobile app to the OS one and mostly use Harvey maps when walking anyway, so don't need to print. I also find it easier when working on walking routes. You can save your routes as a GPX file and sync them to your phone or GPS unit as a back up for when you are out on the hill. A GPX is a downloadable data file that can be used on GPS enabled devices.
Digital copies of your route should only be used as an aid to your map and compass. Do not rely on following your route solely with your phone or GPS! Neither are as reliable or rewarding as solid navigation skills. Never just download somebody else's GPX file to your device and blindly follow it. It's lazy at best and dangerous at worst.
Do your research. There are lots of great resources available for route ideas, both online and in print. Trail magazine has a really popular routes section every month and websites such as Mud & Routes and Walk Highlands offer a huge selection of routes. There are literally hundreds of guide books available for just about anywhere you can think of and you can also access routes direct from your mapping app. Wherever you do you get your ideas from, only use them as a reference point for planning routes yourself. There is nothing wrong with taking the ideas and adapting them to suit your needs. Time spent looking at a map is rarely wasted.
Pick a peak and start from the top.
When I've decided to visit a new mountain, I'll look at the summit first. I will spend some time looking around the immediate area and see if there are any marked paths leading from the top, what the terrain is like and whether there are any obvious danger spots; steep ground, cliffs, boulder fields, scree etc. Sometimes, some mountains will literally have no marked paths on a map. This is where a good understanding of contours will help you figure out the most probable routes. Flicking between the different map scales and the 3D imaging will give you a pretty good idea about what is actually going on at ground level and you'll often be able to see the scars on the mountain where people are walking. Doing this can also help you to understand contours on the map and how they relate to the physical landscape. One other good idea is to view your route on Google Earth, where you can get amazing 3D imaging and also in a lot of places, are able to actually switch to a walkers eye view from the summit. Technology has evolved so much in recent years that you can get a huge amount of knowledge before even setting foot on a mountain.
Parking. Figuring out parking can be crucial to having the best day out possible, so it's genuinely worth spending a bit of time thinking about this aspect of your route.
Once I have figured out which mountain I want to visit, and which route I want to take, I will trace it all the way back to the nearest sensible car park or lay-by, looking at the route on both 1:25 & 1:50 map scales because there can sometimes be details on one map that may be not on another. Harvey maps will also show paths and parking that are not shown on either scales on OS maps. This is particularly helpful in Scotland.
I will take a minute to have a good look at the parking location in aerial & 3D mode, making a note of the grid reference in my little notepad and dropping a pin at the location using Google Maps on my phone. I now know exactly where I'm going and what to expect when I get there. I can check out how long it will take me to travel and add an E.T.A to the plan. If your parking is not in the immediate area of the route, then it could be a good idea to note down some additional directions, particularly if it starts in a village. I've occasionally found it harder to locate the start of a route than to walk the route itself!
It a good idea to research if and when parking locations get busy. Can you avoid these days completely or beat the rush by leaving home an hour or two earlier? It is also worth looking at a fall back option for parking and checking for any park and ride services from local towns or villages or accommodation. Could you simply avoid the busiest routes altogether? (you are reading this because you want to explore interesting places, after all!)
Remember to think about locals. Be respectful about where you leave your car, even in remote locations. It's easy to mistake a passing point on a narrow lane for a parking spot, or not realise that the quiet side street in a village might be the only place somebody can park after a long day or night at work.
Next step is to plot your route.
Start at the car park or intended start point, and plot your route back up to the summit. Zoom in, take your time, make sure it doesn't go over any cliffs or round in circles! This is the critical point to identify and note any potential hazards. You should be looking for things such as steep ground that forms part of or is close to your route, or rivers that you might have to cross, and asking how these might be affected by factors such as heavy rain or an injury - what could be an alternative descent route in an emergency? You could be smart when reading a forecast for heavy rain and avoid a route that crosses a river altogether. Again, using satellite and 3D imaging can be invaluable during this stage of the planning.
In your note pad, write down any hazards and notable landmarks you have identified. This doesn't have to be hugely detailed, but must be understandable later on. You can also use your chinagraph pencil to write directly onto your map. Chinagraphs are waterproof, can write in any weather and can be rubbed off when you need to. Take care not to cover any important details on the map.
Give yourself roughly 2km per hour average journey time. If you're new to hill walking and not hugely fit, be realistic with how much ground you might cover. I have tested this out walking several times and find an average journey time of between 2-3km per hour total for a day including breaks, ascent/descent, checking maps etc. is about right for most people. A 12km route at 2km per hour would be roughly 6 hours long. To work it out, we simply divide distance by kph (12/2=6) Maybe even add an extra half hour or more for good measure. Think about all the photographs you'll be taking, food breaks, stopping to admire the view or chatting to other walkers. Too many people seem to feel they have to race around the mountains. There's no rush. Enjoy your day. The old way of doing this used to be to work out your distance at 5km per hour, then add 1 minute per 10m of ascent and steep descent and to be honest, it all gets a bit much and takes a long time to master. Just give yourself a combined average of 2km per hour if you're chilled out and 3km if you're a bit more mobile. Try it and see how accurate it is. As you get out more, you will start to gauge your timings better. Knowing how fast you can travel can be especially useful when planning around expected changes in weather, catching buses or just getting home in good time for a date.
Think about alternate descents: Ask yourself - 'If something goes wrong, what are my options for getting off the mountain as quickly as possible?' Look across your route for other tracks that might get you close to the car or if need be, just off the mountain. Again, it's always worth looking over your route in the aerial and 3D views as there may be tracks that are not marked on your map. Do not walk anywhere you don't feel safe! Don't go down anything you can't get back up if it's wrong. There is no point using an emergency or short-cut descent that puts you in more risk of harm or just gets you lost. Trust your gut instinct. As you build up your navigational skills, you will become much more adept at 'going off track' and walking the hills more freely. This comes with time and practice and having a really good understanding of the contours on your map - you will learn what should be walk-able and what won't.
After estimating route time, factor in travel. What time will it be getting dark? If your route is 6.5 hours long, and sunset is 6:30pm, then you'll want to be walking no later than about 11am to be safe. Include the drive timings from Google maps. 2.5hr drive? You'll want to be out the house by 8am. Remember to account for toilet breaks and bag faff when you get out of the car. All the little pieces connect to help paint the bigger picture.
Plan for the weather. If you're going somewhere new, plot a few different routes either up the same mountain or one nearby to account for weather forecasts. Do you want to be walking across high ridges in strong wind or doing polished scrambles in heavy rain? Having a few options available can reduce the desire to commit to the wrong situation - "I've come all the way here and I'm not wasting it!" can be the first mistake in a chain of bad decisions that leads to an accident. Flexibility when planning goes a long way toward a great day out.
Give yourself a safety net and tell a friend/family member where you are going. If you noted down the key route info in a notepad when in the planning stages, then why not just add some extra detail, take a photo and send it to a reliable friend or relative, with instructions to call for help if you are not heard from past a certain hour? You could even download an actual route card from the internet. Remember to give a decent time buffer to account for any delays on the route that might slow you down. If you have to alter your route on the go - drop a text to update eta and most importantly:
Make sure to let people know you have finished your day safely, so they don't worry or call out a rescue party!
Key route card info
Parking: Grid ref and or post code with name of carpark if possible. Car description and reg.
Route info: What mountain, which route/path, key landmarks and hazards with grid refs.
Alternate descents: Brief description of possible 'escape' routes you might use.
Names of group: Include phone numbers if possible, with any known medical issues (false hearts, wooden legs etc.)
Expected timings: Remember to update this if you arrive late to start route.
Only ask somebody you trust. Repay that trust by letting them know you are down safe. Leave them very clear instructions about what to do if they don't hear from you by your cut off time. (Call police, ask for mountain rescue. Inform the call handler of the situation and pass on all information on your card)
Why not practice by creating a few different routes that you can keep handy, to be used according to the forecast, and to give you some new ideas to get out and explore?