Tips when Planning a Walk

June 7, 2020

Part of the Navigation Courses I hold is a section on how to Plan a Walk and therefore getting the most out of it. It always proves popular and useful. Most visitors to the outdoors never do. They just turn up with a guide book in hand.

Any walk is made much more enjoyable if some element of planning goes in to it. I like to spread my map out the night before and try and imagine the walk and some different alternatives that I may or may not take.

Here are my 15 top tips on planning a walk

Heading up Whernside,
Heading up Whernside,

1. Use Guide Books or knowledgeable websites to gain rough ideas.

The people who write either guide books or produce walking websites theoretically have an excellent knowledge of the area they are writing about. They are certainly useful in outlining a basic route and usually naming things of interest. However many writers have never walked the route, or barely done it,  so only use these as a basic guide, not a full route description.

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 the planned walk and the alternatives that exist. On the walk themselves they add immeasurably to the enjoyment simply by giving a good idea what is around you. Mapping on phones and GPS fail to do this, at best on a very limited scale.

I use 1.25000 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. Many of the tips below refer to O/S maps, Harvey symbols may be different.

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

3. 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. Looking for the trig point (blue triangle) which is usually, but not always, the highest point and/or the bold orange spot height.

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.

4. Steep Ground

When contours on a map merge together then that route should never be used. This 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 then that land is climbable, clearly though the closer together they are the harder work it is!

Not avoiding the steeper ground
Not avoiding the steeper ground

5. 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 it is longer in distance, it may well be shorter in time.

6. Your Right to Roam

On a map the background colour signifies a change in walkers rights. O 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’

7. 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 eiher shoulders and ridges than dropping in to valleys where views are restricted.

8. Avoid marshland or river beds

Marshland is shown on maps by blue tufty markings on open land, usually on flat land 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. As pointed out earlier there will also be poor views.

The bog claims a victim
The bog claims a victim

9. Be Flexible and have some detours

When planning a route look for possible alternatives to the route. They may be little 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 planned route 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.

10. 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.

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

11. One way walks

Some of my favourite walks are One Way Walks where you get the train/bus and then return 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. My main tip though, aside from trying some, is to take the bus/train at the start of the walk. It takes out any stress on meeting the timetable.

12. Check the weather

Do check the weather. The Mountain Weather Information Service is very good as is the met office. The BBC is less reliable. The weather may dictate a change of route. Particularly in bad weather, there is less point in going high (unless ticking a summit is essential) 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 kit you take but bear in mind no weather forecast is 100% reliable.

Merged contours at Malham Cove
Merged contours at Malham Cove

13.  Decision Points

There are always points on a walk that are places where it is obvious you can go wrong. You can spot most of these before you start the walk. 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 where to start. There will be other key points which you will only discover when you are on a walk but at least some you will already have a plan.

14. Timings,how long will the walk take.

The calculation I use is dead simple. People walk at either 3 or 4 kilometers an hour (roughly 2 1/2 to 3 miles an hour) when off the road. If it is 4 which I walk at then quickly work out the length of the walk eg: 12 km at 4 km an hour will take 3 hours. Then add 1 minute for every 10 metres climbed (not descended) or one contour line (which are every 10 metres) and that will give you the time. However, most importantly, this is a minimum time taken as it does not take in to account stops for whatever reason which should be included in all walks.

Work it out yourself, do not rely on guidebook timings.

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

15. Don’t worry about getting lost and playing 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 is also the way of the world. A walk ends up much more enjoyable after a mishap, being really tired and returning to the pub (that should be point 16, a pub at the end of the walk!) with a story to tell. Push yourself when planning a walk.

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

If you want however to learn more about planning a walk as part of our Map and Compass days join one of our Navigation Courses. They are perfect for a beginner or someone with some experience but wants to learn more.

Enjoy the walk
Enjoy the walk

Enjoy your walking


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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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