A Novice’s Guide To Hiking Britain’s Long Distance Paths

The Dales Way, England (www.worldwidewriter.co.uk)

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Since I wrote about hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path I’ve been asked about the practicalities of hiking Britain’s National Trails and other long distance paths. How fit do you have to be? And is it easy to find accommodation along the way? As an averagely fit person with a taste for creature comforts, I’ll try to give you some of the answers.

Why Tackle A Long Distance Path?

But first, why would you want to risk blisters and aching limbs by walking for days on end? Everyone has their own reasons, but for most people fresh air and exercise, a love of the countryside and a sense of achievement feature highly. Others may set a personal challenge, walk for charity or take part in a group event.

At the end of one of Britain's long distance paths - a walker standing by a marker stone on the Ridgeway
It may have been raining when we reached the end of the Ridgeway, but I felt a sense of achievement!

For me it is also about gaining a different perspective and discovering new places, many of which are only accessible by foot. I’ve walked several of these trails now and each had something different to offer. Hadrian’s Wall Path gave me a deeper insight into Roman Britain. The Dales Way passed historic sites, remote villages and some of England’s most beautiful countryside.

And the Ridgeway (Britain’s oldest road) was incredibly varied, taking in several neolithic and Iron Age sites, a stretch of the River Thames and the Prime Minister’s country residence of Chequers. More recently I’ve explored a mixture of city and countryside on the Thames Path, and I now have my eye on the rather different scenery of the Wales Coast Path.

Wayland's Smithy, an ancient mound surrounded by stones
The Ridgeway Path passes the neolithic Wayland’s Smithy

How Fit Do I Need To Be To Hike A Long Distance Trail?

Most of Britain’s long distance paths can be tackled by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness – generally the hills are not too tall, the terrain is not too rugged or the weather too hot. Nor is age a barrier – in fact many of the people I’ve met on these walks have been middle-aged, or older. However there are a few things to bear in mind.

Sheep grazing on the hills of one of England's long distance paths
Coming towards the end of the Dales Way you are rewarded with a view of the Lake District Hills in the distance

Be Realistic

Firstly, be realistic about what you can do. If you are not a regular walker or haven’t done one of these walks before, you may want to choose one of the easier paths (the National Trails website gives information about paths in England and Wales). And decide how far you want to walk each day.

I have come across people who were hiking up to 20 miles (or even more) every day. But even if you are fit enough for such distances, you may prefer a shorter daily trek that gives you time to look around and explore along the way. Your mileage will to some extent be determined by the availability of accommodation, but personally I prefer to aim for an average of 10 to 12 miles a day.

Be Prepared

Secondly, be sure to get plenty of practice before you set off. Walk on a variety of terrains, including hills (if there are no hills in your area, try walking up and down steps or set the treadmill at the gym to a steep incline). And finally, don’t walk in new boots (or use any new clothes or equipment): make sure that everything is thoroughly tested and comfortable before you start. (Tip – if you’re buying new gear check out these Blacks voucher codes.)

Having said that age is no barrier, I’ve rarely seen children on these paths, although there is no apparent reason why they should be unsuitable for older children or teenagers. And, unfortunately, frequent stiles and uneven surfaces may make some paths unsuitable for people with mobility problems. However, the Dales Way does have a small section that has been specially adapted for wheelchairs, and many stretches of the Thames Path (which is mostly flat) provide easy walking.

Stone stile leading into a field
There are often a lot of stiles to negotiate!

One class of walker that we have frequently encountered is dogs. On our recent walk we watched a dog bounding over every stile she came to. Her owner informed us she had recently been to agility classes!

What About Food And Accommodation?

The hardiest walkers carry tents and supplies with them, making use of camp sites along the way. But B&Bs, hotels and eating places are generally available, although you may have to deviate from the path to find them. We’ve always taken the easiest option, using a specialist company to find and pre-book accommodation. They also arrange baggage transfer between one night’s accommodation and the next. This means that you have to carry nothing but a day pack and can concentrate on enjoying the walk. (The websites for each trail will provide information about holiday companies and baggage carriers.)

Outside of a country pub
You may be lucky enough to find a traditional English pub right on the path

Whether you use a specialist operator or arrange your own accommodation, you might want to consider factoring in one or more rest days. I’ve always found rest days to be more than just a break from walking. They are also an opportunity to enjoy the countryside and explore the area in more depth.

And Finally…

You may be wondering why I’ve only written about the British National Trails. The short answer is that these are the only ones I’ve walked in their entirety. But of course there are similar paths all around the world. Some of these may be more challenging and, for myself, I find walking in extreme heat much more difficult. But I am tempted to try some trails in other countries. In particular, I really want to have a go at the Camino de Santiago.

And there are some fantastic paths elsewhere in Europe (the Lonely Planet book Epic Hikes of Europe has lots of suggestions), in the US (check out this article for more), and in New Zealand. There is a whole world out there to discover, and walking is an excellent way of doing it!

Have you ever hiked a long distance trail, in Britain or elsewhere? Which was your favourite path? And do you have any tips to share?


7 thoughts on “A Novice’s Guide To Hiking Britain’s Long Distance Paths”

  1. I’d love to do more of England’s long distance paths. I’ve done sections of the coastal path in Devon which is gorgeous, and many moons ago we used to live near the Ridgeway, so you’ve captured my imagination, and I’d love to set forth and walk the length of it.

  2. I think it would be very interesting to hike one of the National Trails. I’d likely pick one of the easier ones and not attempt too many miles a day. I like the option of having the baggage transferred so you don’t need to worry about carrying everything with you.

  3. It’s great to have an authority who knows the parks system and you definitely have that down. The countryside looks stunning Karen

  4. Great info Karen! I have wondered about accommodations while on long distance hiking trails – camping is not my favorite way to sleep. Good to know that there are services available to book the rooms & move the gear! Would love to do some long distance hiking in England.

  5. I would enjoy doing this as it does seem achievable with a reasonable level of fitness. I like that you are walking towards something like your accommodation and a coffee.

  6. What a gorgeous photo taken from the Dales Way! Good to know that even someone of average fitness like myself might be able to do such a trek. Later this year I’m heading to Madeira and the Azores–both great walking destinations. Would love to tackle England, too, one scenic path at a time.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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