Hiking in England: Information and advice for overseas visitors
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.
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 many are poor with instructions so vague that it is
easy to get lost.
It is worth spending time learning the skills of map reading and the
use of the orienteering compass. The best book on the subject is
Navigation and Leadership: a Manual for Walkers 2nd edition, published
by the Ramblers' Association. The best source in London for purchasing
maps and guides is Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Keep
your map or guide dry by placing it inside a large freezer bag.
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.
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 have access to a PX or visit North America frequently may prefer
to make your purchases from these sources.
Leather boots are the preferred footwear 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 running shoes in lowland countryside
but you are likely to end up with uncomfortably wet feet. It is well
worth 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
Modern socks, such as those made by Thorlo and Bridgewater, are made
from synthetic materials that will not absorb as much water as wool and
will add significantly to your comfort.
All 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 in driving rain
all day 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, Páramo and Triple Point.
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.
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
Recommended outdoor shops
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 most 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