Hiking in England

Information and advice for overseas visitors

Introduction

These notes have been prepared for visitors from overseas living in London who want to explore the English countryside on foot. England has a wonderful network of 120,000 miles of public paths which allow the walker to criss-cross the country through meadow and wood, mountain and moorland without the need to seek permission from anyone. Hiking (walking or rambling are the more usual British terms) is easily the best way for those in reasonable health to enjoy the wonderfully diverse scenery of England.

The weather

British weather is unpredictable! It rarely snows in London and 80°F is considered uncomfortably hot. Rainfall is remarkably even throughout the year and in the capital averages a mere 35 inches per annum. London often seems wetter than it actually is because most of the rainfall is gentle. It is unusual for rain to last for more than a few hours.

Gear

The only essential items of gear for walking in the lowland areas of England are suitable footwear, waterproofs and a day pack. British equipment is more expensive than its North American equivalent so those of you who cross the Atlantic frequently may prefer to make your purchases there.

Footwear
Most walkers like to wear boots because they protect the wearer from wet grass, puddles, and mud. Even in dry weather the vegetation underfoot is likely to be wet with dew in the morning. You will come to no harm from wearing shoes but you are likely to end up with wet feet. Consider buying boots that are lined with Gore-Tex because your feet will remain dry, however wet the conditions, unless water actually washes over the top of the cuff.  SealSkinz socks which are, in effect, waterproof boot-liners worn over conventional walking socks, make an acceptable alternative. Be aware that some walkers find that waterproof membranes make their feet too hot. Walkers can choose between boots made from leather and fabric reinforced with leather.

Waterproofs
Most modern waterproofs are designed to allow the moisture given off by the wearer’s body to escape through the fabric. This prevents condensation forming inside the garment whilst still keeping out the rain. Such fabrics are known as ‘breathable’. The more expensive the garment the more breathable it is likely to be. You will need a jacket, overtrousers (the British term for rain pants), and gaiters. This last item will protect the legs from mud and wet vegetation and, when worn under overtrousers, will prevent rain dripping into your boots.

Breathability is affected by what is worn UNDER the waterproof. Wool and cotton absorb considerable quantities of moisture which will largely negate the breathable properties of even the most expensive waterproofs. It is much better to wear a material such as fleece, polypropylene, Coolmax, Capilene, Páramo (my own favourite) etc that ‘wicks’ moisture away from the wearer’s skin to the inner surface of the waterproof from where it will pass through to the outside. Denim is particularly unsuitable for walking because it can absorb a great deal of water and become miserably wet and uncomfortable. Legwear (shorts and pants) should also be made from materials that wick.

Despite what the advertisements tell you, if you walk all day in driving rain you are likely to end up damp under your waterproofs. However, providing you wear clothes, from underwear outwards, made from materials that wick moisture away from the body, you will FEEL dry and comfortable. The best-known breathable waterproofs are made from materials such as Gore-Tex, Sympatex, eVent, and Páramo. In wet weather, protect your wallet, purse, handkerchief, tissues and absorbent items that you store in your pockets from getting damp by keeping them in small freezer bags.

Day packs
A small day pack is required to carry waterproofs, a spare sweater or fleece, lunch, and drinks. It should fit snugly to the back, have a waist strap to improve stability, and wide, well-padded shoulder straps. A range of outside pockets is useful. A chest strap will help prevent the harness slipping off the shoulders. The carrying capacity of packs is measured in litres with most day packs in the 25-35-litre range. A backpack is rarely waterproof so it is wise to line it with a strong plastic bag large enough to fold over at the top. This will ensure that the contents of the pack remain dry even in the wettest conditions.

Outdoor shops in London

Unless you regularly venture into mountainous areas or enjoy backpacking trips there is no need to buy expensive clothing and accessories. Both Blacks (www.blacks.co.uk) and Millets (www.millets.co.uk) sell reasonably-priced gear that is perfectly adequate for most walkers. The location of their stores can be obtained from their websites.

High quality, and for many walkers, over-specified clothing and gear can be obtained from the following companies with stores in London:

Cotswold Outdoor www.cotswoldoutdoor.com
Ellis Brigham www.ellis-brigham.com
Field & Trek www.fieldandtrek.com
Snow & Rock www.snowandrock.com

Maps and guides

The Ordnance Survey, the equivalent of the US Geological Survey and the National Topgraphic System of Canada, is the official mapping agency for Great Britain and publishes maps that are as up-to-date and as good as any in the world. Explorer maps, which cover the whole of the country at a scale of 1:25,000 (approx 2.5 inches to the mile), are the best maps for walkers. They are so detailed that every public path, field and building is shown which enables the walker to navigate confidently through the countryside.

Another way of exploring the countryside is to follow a route in a footpath guide. Some, such as the Time Out and Ordnance Survey series, are excellent but others are of indifferent quality which increases the chances of getting lost. You may think it worth spending time learning navigation skills involving map reading,  the use of the baseplate compass, and handheld satnavs. The best source in London for purchasing maps and guides is Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP.