Hiking is one of those sports which people seem to think is a middle class pastime. My own family raised a few eyebrows when asking when I explained that I would be late to a family dinner because I was going hiking that morning and would be spending 8 hours in the fresh air. Imagine!
In fairness, I have only recently started to enjoy the fantastic scenery we are lucky to have in Northern Ireland. The Mourne Mountains are achingly beautiful and less than 1 hours drive from Belfast. I was brought up not far from the Mournes but have to confess that I rarely visited. When I did, I generally never left the car as I was passing through. But that all changed several months ago when I was invited to join an organised walking group. Now I can’t wait to pull on my boots and get up the hills to experience peace & quiet in a way that no other place can provide.
So is it expensive?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no point spending money for an activity that you might not enjoy, so I’d suggest going for a reasonably easy hill walk initially and then you can decide if you’d like to go back. For this taster walk, at a minimum I would suggest a pair of trainers, some type of rainwear (the lighter the better!) and a small bag to carry a sandwich and a bottle of water. Other than that you really shouldn’t need any more.
If you find that you enjoy the hills, then you may want to consider getting some more professional gear as parts of the hills are quite rough and stony. However, it isn’t Everest you’ll be climbing, so everything in moderation.
Boots – Should be stout and strong (and waterproof!) but these do not have to cost the earth. My own boots cost £30 and have proven to stand up better than some more expensive versions owned by friends on the walks. Remember to break them in first, as failure to do so can lead to blisters. These are not just painful, but can actually be dangerous if you were to leave them unattended. This is how infections are caused, and if that happens, then you endanger not just yourself, but the whole of the party you are with. A couple of pounds will get some decent blister plasters, and they take up next to no space.
Day bag – Essentially this is just a small rucksack. There are some versions specifically for walking or hiking, and these will have things like clips for drinking tubes attached already. Again, no need to spend a fortune (I paid £10 for mine) but make sure it will carry all of the other bits and pieces you decide to get.
Waterproofs – A must. You cannot predict the weather at the top of a mountain, even the Mournes can change quite quickly. There really is no point in getting wet if you don’t have to. It can be really uncomfortable at best, and extremely dangerous at worst. Exposure is a real danger in the hills. Getting caught out is not something you wish to happen and having waterproof clothing is the most basic survival tool you will have.
Food & water – This might sound obvious, but you really do need to have some form of sustinence with you if planning any type of walk. Long slogs through demanding terrain can really sap your strength, so replacing those lost calories will make the whole experience much more enjoyable. Remember there will be no convenience stores in the hills, so anything you think you will need must be brought with you.
Extras you may decide to take – Anything else will be a matter of choice, but some things I just wouldn’t be without. A whistle, a torch, a compass, paracord. All of these can be lifesavers. All are extremely cheap to buy, and are very small so shouldn’t add significantly to your weight.
Clothing is optional (depends on the local indecency laws though!) but should be chosen on the basis of the weather you are likely to encounter. You obviously won’t want fleece lined trousers on a summer day, but should consider taking sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen. Big thick layers are hard to cope with as well. These restrict movement, and don’t leave you with any options should you find them too much. It is much better to wear light layers, adding more the colder it is. This way, should the temperature increase unexpectedly then you can at least remove some clothes without ending up naked. If heading out in winter, then a warm hat, scarf and gloves would be advisable.
My standard clothing is a T-shirt with a light fleece over it, canvas trousers and a hat. I also have a light foldaway breathable rain jacket, and rain trousers. I will sometimes wear shorts in summer, but my article on Ticks and Lyme disease should be read if you are considering a bare legged option. In winter, I also carry a woollen hat, scarf and thick gloves.
Remember that you need to carry everything with you going hill walking. The more weight you are carrying, then the harder the walk will seem. For reference, a litre of liquid weighs about 1 kilogram. So every two litres will weigh the same as a bag of sugar. Add to that your food, any extra clothing you have brought, any survival tools (although these tend to be extremely light) and you can see that the weight you will be moving can increase quite rapidly. For that reason always try to plan your walks in advance, and make sure that you 1. Have enough space to carry everything, and 2. That you haven’t overburdened yourself.
You need to bear in mind that there is a high possibility that you will encounter animals like sheep and cattle on your walks. These are not wild and will belong to someone who has rights to graze them on the land. As such you should treat them with the same respect you would give to your pets. You should also bear in mind that large animals can be dangerous. Apart from their sheer size, you may come across them in mating season, and rutting males of any breed will defend their territory. If you do come across an animal that is acting aggressively, then you should alter your path to avoid it, and make sure that you do not approach it or provoke it. If you do decide to do so, then I would bet the animal wins.
There are a number of resources available for hikers and walkers around the internet. Most public administrations will have a website detailing local walking routes and information about amenities in the area. It is always worth checking these before setting off, as they may have information pertinent to the area you are visiting. They should also have printable maps which tend to be free for download. These are useful if you are planning solo walks or going to an area you have never visited, but you should be sure that your map reading and navigation skills are up to the challenge before you set off. Again, the internet has many resources to help you become proficient in map use.
Some last points. The beauty you will enjoy is because of the consideration of others using the hills. If other walkers and hikers can respect the surroundings, then so can you. The old adage of ‘leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories’ is still a good one.
Take ALL of your rubbish back down from the hills with you. They don’t have bin collections on the top of mountains, so no-one will pick it up for you.
Don’t remove any wild plants from the area. Most of these will be protected in law, and prosecutions do take place in N Ireland for infringements.
You may be lucky enough to see raptors like Red Kites or Peregrine Falcons while walking. If you happen across nests (for ANY birds) then you should give them a wide berth. It is a criminal offence to remove eggs from nests in Northern Ireland, or to harm these birds as they are protected species.
Remember that walking is free. The views you can experience from the tops of these hills are breathtaking (as longs as the weather hasn’t obscured it!) and really are a must see for residents and visitors alike. Even if you don’t make it up the hills, the views just walking to the foothills are still staggering. If you’ve been thinking about it, then just go and have a look, you won’t be disappointed!
More information on walking routes (including car parking information) can be found at www.walkni.com