Planning a Walk. 17 Top Tips

November 22, 2023

To gain the most out of any walk put some time in to planning it. The more effort you put in before heading out, the more enjoyment the walk will be. Heading out in to an area you are not familiar with “on the hoof ” may sound great but largely is not. A guide book/download GPS route is not enough.

Clearly if you are familiar with an area you do not need so much planning as to when you are visiting a new part of the outdoors. However even on familiar walks there is a lot to be gained by digging deeper. Aside from anything else it is thoroughly enjoyable!

There are 17 considerations when planning a walk – they are described below.

Heading up Whernside,
Heading up Whernside,

1. Consult Guide Books or websites for rough ideas.

The people who write either guide books or produce walking websites in the main have an excellent knowledge of the area they are writing about. Guide books/GPS routes are certainly useful in outlining a basic walk. They are particularly good at pin pointing the ‘must see’ landmarks. However, at the ned of the day, they are only one person’s subjective opinion, and that is not you.

Pick out the must sees and move on to Tip 2.

2. Spread out your paper map

I always use paper maps to plan a walk. The physical size and scale offers a much better perspective of an area. Using a paper map is akin to an aerial photograph with all the alternatives clearly laid out. In addition a paper map should always be taken on the walk itself. I do not now often use them when out (preferring the convenience of the O/S app) but they can add to the day. In particular during a break, open it out and relate it to the views and areas nearby. They also double up as a good back up to the app. Mapping on phones is hopeless for planning the walk, laptops better but not as good as paper.

I use 1/25.000 Explorer maps from the Ordnance Survey but have more recently started to use the excellent Harvey maps which come in a scale of 1.25k or 1.40k. When making reference to map and symbols throughout the blog I am referring to O/S maps, Harvey symbols may be different.

So much detail on a paper map
So much detail on a paper map

3. Understanding an O/S map

Clearly there is little point in studying a map if you do not understand it! Many think they understand a map, most do not. One of the biggest frustrations for the Mountain Rescue teams around the country are those who have a map with them when rescued but have no idea how to use it.

If you know the answers to the following five straightforward questions you understand maps, if not find out and join a Navigation Course.

  • What is the difference between a Right of Way and a Path on the Ground?
  • What is a contour line and what is it actually showing?
  • Why is the background to maps part yellow/part white?
  • What do the blue grid lines on a map show?
  • What are and what use are the continuous black lines that criss cross any map?

4. Look for summits/trig points, places of scenic beauty and ‘Old English script’

i)  Many walkers want to climb to the highest point or a specific summit. I did and often still do. Look for either the trig point (blue triangle) on a map which is usually, but not always, the highest point or the bold orange spot height when the trig does not exist..

ii)  Places of scenic beauty are marked by a blue star. Always worth including in a walk.

iii)  The Ordnance Survey describe places of historical interest by using old English script. This may be settlements, forts or ancient cairns.

Once the basic principles for a the walk have been decided then it is a question of joining the dots.

5. Steep Ground

When the orange contour lines a map merge then that route/path should never be used. A merged contour fails what I call my ‘roll test’. ie: if you fell you would continue to fall and hurt yourself. Conversely if there are gaps between contours (often barely discernible) then that land is climbable. Clearly though, the closer together they are the harder work it is!

Not avoiding the steeper ground
Merged Contours?

6. Climb steep/descend less so

Descending steep ground is always harder than climbing it, particularly if you want to protect your knees and ankles. I will almost always look to climb the steepest ground early in a walk and then look for a more gradual descent. It does not matter if the descent is longer in distance, it may well be shorter in time.

7. Your Right to Roam

On a map the background colour signifies a change in walkers rights. On O/S 1.25k maps background yellow (as opposed to white) gives the walker a right to roam. There can be some local restrictions but in essence the walker can walk where they want therefore giving the opportunity to explore further, enjoy the wildlife more and look for even better views.

Look for places 'off path'
Look for places ‘off path’

8. Plan for the Best Views

You will find the best views on any walk when uphill land is not in the way. Looking downhill or over valleys is almost inevitably better than uphill. Examples to look for are contouring a slope where the better views are downhill or sticking as long as possible to either shoulders and ridges than dropping in to valleys where views are restricted.

9. Avoid marshland or river beds

Marshland is shown on maps by blue tufty markings on open land, usually on flatter areas near rivers. Avoid. Similarly avoid walking in river or stream beds for long periods (larger rivers tend to have muddy rather than rocky banks), they will be rocky, steep sided and after rain potentially dangerous. In addition the views are restricted.

The bog claims a victim
The bog claims a victim

10. Be Flexible and have some detours

When planning look for alternatives to your basic route. This may involve detours to good view points, scenic spots, alternative paths, an isolated tarn. You will not know whether to include this until you are out on the walk. Changing the basic walk can be done for a number of reasons; the pace and inclination of the group, the weather, any time constraints, getting lost, unexpected events on the route (eg: cows), all manner of things. Just ensure you are flexible.

11. Look for variety on a walk

I like to include a variety of terrain, things to see and do on a walk. There is nothing worse than a walk that climbs steadily up a steep grassy slope and descends much the same way. Try and include some rocks, even a minor scramble (essential with children), some rivers or lakes/tarns, trees, mix any steep sections with flatter walking. My personal favourite walks include long grassy ridges after a steep rocky climb. Throw in a tarn and mountain summit and I am a happy man!

Always try and find the best views
Always try and find the best views

12. One way walks

Some of my favourite walks are One Way Walks. Here you take the train/bus and then walk back to the start. Despite public service cut backs there are still some tremendous options such as the Settle to Carlisle railway in the Dales and a regular bus service in the Lakes. If you are coastal walking it is usually essential to ‘take the bus’ one way. My other advice is to take the bus/train at the start of the walk. It takes out any stress on your return in meeting the timetable.

13. Check the weather

Do check the weather. The Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) is very good as is the Met office. The BBC less so. The weather may dictate a change of route. Particularly in bad weather, there is less point in going high (unless ticking a summit is the sole purpose of the walk) so keep low, look for spectacular waterfalls, racing rivers and, if it is very bad, remain in woodland and forestry. Weather can also dictate the clothes and other kit you take but bear in mind no weather forecast is 100% reliable.

Merged contours at Malham Cove
Merged contours at Malham Cove

14.  Decision Points

There are always key decision points on a walk where it is easy to go wrong. There may be 2 or 3 or many more. The important thing is to spot them whilst you are planning the day. On the walk itself make a mental note that these are the places to concentrate on. Usually they are where there is a choice of paths, off a featureless summit, through a farm/village or simply the direction at the start! There will be other key points which you will only discover when you are on a walk but at least, for the majority, you will be aware when to concentrate.

15. How long will my walk take?

There are 3 stages to the time taken on a walk.

  1. How long is the basic walk? Simply measure the walk length using either a paper map or mapping software on a laptop (not a phone). The chances are (unless you have a very old map) it will be in kilometres.
  2. What pace do you walk at (when on countryside paths). This will vary between 3 and 5 km per hour (2 to 3 miles per hour). Find your own pace by repeating a walk you are familiar with, measure it, and how long the walk takes.
  3. Time then needs to be added when going uphill (not downhill). This is traditionally calculated by adding 1 minute to every 10 metres uphill (or one contour line). You can do this using a paper map or mapping software.

Then simply divide fact 1 by fact 2 and add fact 3! Example: a 10 km walk at 4km an hour (your calculated pace) will take 2 1/2 hours. Then if the walk includes 100m of climbing add a further 10 minutes to your total.

However calculating this only accounts for the time when you are actually physically moving. It is therefore only the MINIMUM time the walk will take. Any time you stop (picnic, photography, map reading, enjoying the view etc) will be in addition to the basic time. It is also very personal impossible to quantify. Just be aware of it.

Do not rely on any timings you find either in a guide book or an on line walk estimate. They are either wrong (everyone walks at their own pace, an outsider cannot judge it) or so vague it is of no help. Always calculate the time a walk takes yourself.

Do not, however, get hung up on timings. So what if you spend an extra hour on the walk. The idea is to enjoy it, not be ruled by your watch.

A planned detour at Gordale Scar
A planned detour at Gordale Scar

16. Do not play it too safe

I mention this only because our natural tendency is to play safe and not push out on a walk. Often this is through a lack of confidence in reading a map and the fear of getting lost but it also driven increasingly by the world we live in. We are an increasingly risk adverse society. A walk often ends up much more memorable after a mishap, route error, drenching or simply being very tired and returning to the pub with a story to tell. Be flexible on your walking plans.

17. Plan to finish in a pub!

Surely essential and self explanatory.

More than anything try and make the walk enjoyable. Planning a walk will help do this.

A perfect way to gain confidence in Planning a Walk is to join one of our Navigation Training Days. We have a choice of Beginners Courses and more advanced Hill and Mountain Skills days. Choose the one suitable for you.

Enjoy the walk
Enjoy the walk

Enjoy your walking


1 Comment
  • Kathleen Curtiss says:

    Thank you for this check list. I attended an intermediate navigation course with you nearly 5 years ago, and how gratifying to discover that I was still doing things correctly ( I ‘d learned map reading some 50 years previously). If you recall I still worked in miles though, and had never done pacing. I admit that Miles are still my preference ! I guess it’s difficult to break that habit. However I know that each ‘block’ of grid lines on the Explorer map is a kilometre, so I set myself a time … the local country park they have measured out kilometres along a route ( for runners ?). So I walk the entire route , which is level, and time each one there and back , to give me an average time. So when out walking I add an approximate amount depending on the terrain and stops to take photos, catch my breath etc. Then if I’m looking for a specific feature on the map ( like a junction) I have a rough time that it will take to reach it. It just helps a little .
    I still use map and compass, but I’d like to be able to use up to date techniques too…used in conjunction…but I’ve no idea where to start !! In point of fact I’ve had to assist people whose technological aids have given up on them, so there’s still a place for map and compass !
    Still, as an older woman walking alone I’ve learned not to challenge myself too much now, and
    to accept that just sometimes I must adhere to a well used route…….
    Thank you for your e-mails and links . I enjoy reading them.

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