Thinking of starting hillwalking in Scotland?
I know how intimidating it can be – but two years ago I was a stuck in a rut 30 something and I had never climbed a hill – I’ve now climbed Ben Nevis! But if, like me, you’ve been putting off climbing your first hill, here are 10 steps to go from a total hiking beginner to looking like you know what you are doing…
Top tips for starting hillwalking in Scotland
1. Stop making excuses (& get off your arse!)
The only way to start hill walking is to actually go and climb a hill. Obvious huh? However, I’m going to be honest and say that I know that first hill will seem like a huge mountain.
I am not gonna lie – it will be hard work – but remember, if you don’t get to the top just try again another day.
What I will promise is that when you do get to the top of your first hill it will feel amazing and you will want to do it all over again.
Unless it chucks it down, you absolutely hate it and decide to never ever go up another hill. We don’t all catch the hill walking bug. That’s OK, just don’t be the person who never even tried.
Read more – beginners hills in Scotland to get you started
2. Don’t do it because you think hillwalking in Scotland is cool
I get it, outdoor brands make ‘adventure’ look cool – epic mountain days, men with ice axes and incredible views. 99% of the time the mountains are not like that. Especially the ones in Scotland.
Instead, you are likely to encounter peat bogs, sideways hail and clagg which means you are more likely to look like a windswept, drowned rat than a gnarly mountain climber.
So whilst we all want to look like we could climb Everest – you don’t need top-of-the-range, designer, shiny, gear for your first hill, nor should you be heading out in your best white trainers and a grey tracksuit.
Instead, think geek, not cool. Start hill walking to #getoutside, for the challenge and the sheer joy of being out in the Scottish* mountains (*insert your mountains here) and stop caring what you look like. The mountains don’t care either.
3. Do not wear jeans or you will regret it
One word – chaff. As soon as jeans get wet they become dead weight. I cannot repeat this enough – the worst possible thing that you can wear on the hills is jeans.
So, get over the fact that walking trousers are rather unfashionable (zip off trousers and knobbly hill walkers knees anyone?) and get yourself a light pair of windproof trousers, and a pair of waterproof over trousers which you can whip out when the rain inevitably starts.
Other essential hiking gear for beginners includes good walking boots with ankle support, a decent waterproof jacket (look out for Gortex or Nikwax), gloves, a hat and spares in a waterproof rucksack, and if you have older knees like me you will soon realise the benefit of a pair of walking sticks.
You won’t be embarrassed when you make it safely down 3000ft without falling on your bum in a bog once.
4. Understand that Google Maps is useless for hillwalking in Scotland
You cannot hill walk with a route plotted onto a Google map – I’ve actually seen it suggested! Instead, you will need an Ordnance Survey paper map of your route. However, carrying a map is also useless if a) you don’t know how to read it, and, b) you have no idea where you are.
You’ll be surprised how many people won’t admit to either a) or b) or both, so take responsibility for yourself and teach yourself some skills. Start by practising with a map in your local park – Ordnance Survey have a Map Reading Made Easy Guide.
If you fancy getting serious about hill walking, I’d also recommend doing a navigation course to learn basic map reading, compass using, and route planning skills.
5. Embrace technology, but don’t be an app zombie
Whilst I always carry a paper map of my route, for extra protection against getting lost, I also use GPS (Global Positioning System) to keep track of where I am.
There are lots of GPS apps on the market, such as the Ordnance Survey (OS) App which use GPS to track you on a map. You can also plot your route in advance and then follow along when you are outdoors.
However, remember that mobile batteries are pretty useless, so if you are using an app on your phone put it on aeroplane mode and always carry an extra mobile phone battery pack.
I learnt my lesson stuck in deep fog 2000ft up with no idea where I was and a dead mobile phone. Lesson learnt. Oh and please don’t blindly follow your app – it ruins the point of getting out into the outdoors if you are still staring at a little screen like a zombie the whole day.
6. Understand that mountain conditions hillwalking in Scotland change rapidly
The weather at the bottom of the hill is rarely the same as at the top – and you might experience fog, hail, clagg, rain, snow, sun and cloud inversions – all within 10 minutes.
Hillwalking is all about the preparation – so before you even plan your walk, I recommend you check out all of the following sites – I use all three to get a good idea about what the weather possibly ‘might do’, and then I still plan for the worst.
- MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service) who produce weather reports for the next 3 days.
- The Met Office Mountain Weather.
- Mountain Forecast has a weekly forecast for most mountain ranges – make sure you check the forecast for the top of the hill not the bottom!
Don’t forget to check out the wind speed – anything above 30mph will be arduous for a beginner.
It is also worth having a look at the wind chill and freezing level. I don’t recommend hill walking to beginners in winter conditions (i.e snow) until you have a few Munros under your belt, have crampons, an ice axe and some idea (and experience) of what you actually use them for.
In winter, short days, heavy going in the snow and ice all add up to difficult conditions which just aren’t worth taking the risk with until you have learnt the skills to head out safely.
7. Remember that hillwalking in Scotland is much more than a view
Even with the perfect forecast (hill walkers pray for the day when MWIS’s forecast is 100% chance of cloud-free Munros) you can never guarantee a view.
If walking was all about the view then we hillwalkers would have given up a long time ago – sometimes its just a case of reaching the trig point or cairn and just turning around with a sigh.
I recommend adopting the Scot’s philosophy of if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes; when the clouds do eventually clear the view is spectacular.
8. Go at your own pace
As a beginner you will have to get over the fact that you will be passed by other walkers multiple times… by a lumbering old Westie, by a 5-year-old, by an elderly man with his elderly sheepdog, and by someone who looks like they saw the hill from the bottom and just decided to run up it – with a fag in their mouth and a tin in their hand.
Yes, all of the above happened to us on the SAME hill. Hillwalking is traditionally the pastime of the over 50s and right now they are all much fitter than you.
As a beginner, I suggest walking with someone who knows what they are doing but don’t let them push you beyond your comfort zone. Hillwalking is about teamwork – never turn back alone. Remember that most accidents on the hills happen when you are on your way down, so take your time and go at your own pace, the tortoise always wins the race.
9. Don’t be an idiot
Don’t head off without telling anyone where you are going – and without a rough time of when you will be back. Don’t forget enough food and drink for the day – enough water, carbs and sweets to last you the whole time out on the hills and in case anything does go wrong. You need calories, mountains are not for dieting.
If you are lost, or have an injury, dial 999 and ask for the POLICE who decide if you need assistance from the Mountain Rescue Service.
Have a look at their advice on when to call and carry a first aid kit and bivvy shelter or blanket. Don’t leave your rubbish on the hillside. Don’t smoke a cigar on the way up (I’ve seen it on Ben Vrackie) A few tins on top? Save it for when you are safely down.
A wee whisky in the pack? that’s ok with me. Mine’s a Bunnahabhain 18.
10. Don’t worry if you do get addicted to hillwalking in Scotland
It happens to the best of us. But remember there is more to life than peak bagging, and if not, find someone you annoy enough that they don’t mind getting rid of you for hours on end every weekend, or, someone (or a group of people) who love it as much as you do. See you on the mountain sometime!
Love, from Scotland x
Ready to start hill walking? In Scotland – start with my best hills for beginners and then work your way up.
I’m Kate – a travel writer and photographer living in Scotland. Love, From Scotland is the Scotland travel guide that shows you where to stay and how to get outside in Scotland.