Here are our 11 top tips to keep you safe and sound up the mountain, from the mouths of the experts themselves, the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team.
Hiking is a great way to get fit and to build up your fitness in wild and beautiful places. It’s a great hobby because you’re so busy admiring the views and stunning landscapes, you don’t even notice the hard work you’re doing. This article aims to take you from the couch to the mountains, with helpful tips on how to build up your physical fitness and endurance, to what to wear and bring with you.
Even if you’ve done a bit of hiking, read on for some handy advice from experts like the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team on how not to end up on one of their stretchers! The team has seen a huge rise in the number of call outs in recent years. Before 2008, they had an average of 35 rescues a year and that rose to more than 100 in 2013! So read our top 10 tips on how to become a good hiker or hillwalker and we’ll help you get moving.
1. How fit do I need to be for hiking?
You’ll need to build up a good base level of fitness before tackling hills and mountains, so how do you start? John Kavanagh is the spokesperson from the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team. He recommends that you start working on your fitness on the flat around your neighbourhood, in your local park or along a beach. “If you’re starting off from the couch, maybe try a local 30-minute or 3km walk that’s flat first, take a rest on day two, and then try another 3km flat walk on day three. “Don’t be afraid to take two days of rest if you’re still tired. The rest periods are just as important as the activity as your body adjusts to getting moving.”
An example of a weekly schedule could involve a 30-minute walk on Monday and Wednesday, with 45-60 minutes on Saturday in one week. Then you can progress up to two 45-minute walks and a 60-75 minute walk the following week. But don’t forget to take plenty of rest in between.
Once you’ve built up some fitness, John recommends graduating to hill walking by starting on forest roads, then using marked and well-maintained trails that have signage so you don’t get lost. It’s good to begin with fairly easy walks with a good trail surface underfoot. He says there are loads of options in the Dublin Mountains and elsewhere. You could try the Spinc walk around Glendalough in Wicklow, or parts of The Wicklow Way, The Kerry Way or the Beara Way. You can consult the website Irish Trails for ideas in every county in Ireland.
But again, with the hills, start off small, by walking short distances and working up to longer walks as your body gets used to it. The Dublin Mountains Partnership also has a list of recreational trails online that you can choose from, with good descriptions and advice on the distances and altitudes you’ll climb. If you’re interested in exploring walks and hikes along the Wild Atlantic Way, there’s a list of them online, with national parks, scenic spots and little nuggets of nature.
At the start, you should generally allow around one hour for every 4km, according to the Irish Trails Office. Don’t forget to give yourself extra time for rest breaks, lunch, taking photos and for going uphill. General advice for climbing is to add two minutes for every 10 minutes of ascent. As your fitness improves, these times will get shorter.
2. Footwear – hiking in trail shoes or boots?
There’s a saying that goes, ‘If your feet are happy, the rest of you is happy’. For hiking, your feet are very important as they’re in contact with the ground and are doing most of the work, so you need to get your choice of footwear right.
John says, “If you’re starting off in your local park, runners are fine and they might do on some of the easier trails and in Coillte forests. But as soon as you’re going up hills and mountains, footwear is very important. You need to go to an outdoor shop and get fitted with boots. Some people wear trail shoes and that’s down to personal choice. I do think that boots offer better ankle support, which might not prevent an injury, but they’ll definitely help.”
When you get new boots, be sure to break them in before using them on a long hike. A good tip can be to try them out for a while indoors so you can still change them if they’re the wrong size. It can be wise to get a half or full size bigger for hiking than for a regular shoe. Make sure you get measured and take advice on what’s best for you.
Also, try and get good socks that are warm and comfortable. A tip from John is to “Wear two pairs of socks”. Ideally, use one thin pair and one thick to help prevent blisters. Merino wool socks can also be lovely and toasty for chilly winter walks.
3. What do I wear hill walking & hiking?
Your choice of clothing is really important and it can be easy to make mistakes. Jeans, for example, are not suitable for hiking because when wet, they get heavy and hold on to the moisture, keeping you cold and damp. You’ll need some light, breathable, quick-drying fabrics, possibly with fine woollen base layers underneath if it’s very cold.
Remember that even when it’s mild at sea-level, it can still be cold up high. You can lose around one degree in temperature for every 100m you climb and the wind chill in the hills can make it feel even colder. That said, even when it’s cold in the hills, you’ll heat up as you walk so best to wear plenty of layers and you can adjust as you go. Lots of thin layers are better than one thick layer so you can add and remove them easily.
John from the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team says, “We live in Ireland. You can never depend on the weather so always have waterproofs with you! That includes a waterproof jacket and trousers. Also, bring spare warm clothes, at least one extra layer in your bag, so you can put it on if you’re sitting for a while. A survival blanket is also very handy and light to carry.”
If you’re hiking during the colder months, bring a hat and gloves, even if it doesn’t feel that cold at home. There are some handy tips to avoid hypothermia, which is dangerous but avoidable. Put on an extra layer when you stop for a break and try to stay out of the wind. If you or one of your group is cold, the best remedy is to eat something sugary and get moving. Warm drinks are helpful, but to stay warm you must stay active.
During summer, be sure to bring extra sun cream and a hat to shield you from the sun.
4. What do I need to bring hiking?
It’s vital to carry food and water when you head out into the hills. John recommends energy-rich food like dried fruit, nuts and chocolate because you’ll burn a lot of calories and you don’t want to run out of fuel. You’ll also need plenty of water as you never know when you’ll end up spending longer out on the trail than you intended.
A small first aid kit is also a very good idea. (Learn how to use everything in it!) From autumn onwards, it’s also recommended to carry a head torch just in case you get caught out as it gets dark. In fact, we recommend always keeping a small emergency headtorch in your pack – just in case.
5. Do I need a map – won’t a smartphone do?
John says, “Don’t depend on your smartphone. It can have handy apps in addition to your map and compass, but if it runs out of battery or falls in the river, you’ll be down all of your navigation equipment.” A map is essential – and not a road map! You’ll need a compass and to know how to use it. You should always carry a paper map like those produced by Ordnance Survey Ireland that will show you routes like The Wicklow Way for example and topographical features like mountain peaks, rivers and lakes. Mountaineering Ireland has some handy advice around navigation on its website or you can take a course in mountain skills with private companies like Extreme Ireland or through Mountaineering Ireland.
The courses will take you through things like how to use a map, what the symbols mean and how to locate yourself using topographical features on it.
6. Do I need walking poles for hiking?
Walking poles can be nice to have – especially if you have dickey knees – but they are a personal preference. John says, “Some people swear by them and won’t go hiking without them, but others don’t use them at all. I use them sometimes, but I don’t find they’re a necessity. They do help in steep descents by offering some extra stability, but again that’s up to personal choice. I wouldn’t rush out to buy a brand new pair if you’re just starting out.”
7. Leave no trace
Sport Ireland urges all hikers and hill walkers to abide by the ‘Leave no trace’ ethic when out adventuring. That means if you carry it in, you carry it out. Dispose of your waste properly by taking home all litter, food and even fruit peels and other biodegradable foods. Bring home toilet paper and even tea bags.
When it comes to going to the toilet outdoors, learn the rules. For number ones, make sure you’re well away from streams. And if you’re caught out and must do a number two, you should dig a small hole at least 15-20cm deep at least 30m from water or the trail, and cover it when you’re finished.
In the same vein, leave what you find behind. Leave gates as you find them, whether open or closed and leave plants, rocks, flowers and even fallen trees as you found them.
8. Find out the weather forecast
Check the weather forecast so you know if it’s a good day to head up into the hills, as high winds and cold temperatures will be far more extreme the higher you are. Also, be sure to check dusk times so you know when it’s going to get dark. It’s advised to finish your hike well in advance of dusk.
9. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back
The Trails Office recommends not setting off for a walk alone in isolated areas for safety reasons. Bring a mobile phone and make sure it’s fully charged. And tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. It can be helpful to text that person when you return from your walk so they know you’re safely home.
John from Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue says the most common reason they get a call out is a for a lower leg injury, like a sprain or a break. He says, “It may sound obvious but always look where you’re going. If you don’t, a simple slip and fall can lead to a complex injury. Look ahead on the trail around five metres in front, so you know where’s safe to step and where’s not. Having adequate footwear comes into that as well, so that means wearing boots or shoes that will help you avoid slipping.”
10. Join a walking group or hiking club
Once you’ve done a few walks and you find you like it, look for a walking group to join. Hill walking is great as a social activity and is a lovely way to meet new people. The other advantage of joining a group is that you can get some guidance and benefit from the group’s experience and they’ll likely have loads of ideas of beautiful hikes in your area. The Get Ireland Walking website is a good source of walking groups throughout the country. We regularly list hiking festivals in our events section and Mountaineering Ireland also has a list of events on its website so you can see what’s on.
11. Emergency contacts
In the case of emergency and if you need assistance, call 999 or 112 and ask for mountain rescue. Emergency calls (999/112) use any network available to your phone, not just the one you’re on, so you should be able to make an emergency call if your phone has no coverage.
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