A guide to getting started with hill walking banner image

A guide to getting started with hill walking

Want to start climbing mountains but don’t know how to get started? Head for small hills first and you can literally make mountains out of molehills says author, adventurer and OS GetOutside Champion Phoebe Smith…


I’ve always loved the mountains. Standing on the top of a summit, being the highest thing around, is a feeling that if I could bottle and sell I am sure I would be a very rich woman. But here’s a secret that few know, and many forget – you can get all the same thrills on small hills as you can on big mountains.

Don’t believe me? Think about it – you still get the satisfaction of putting in some effort to reach a goal (but not so much effort that you are completely sweaty and uncomfortable by the time you do); you get much better weather as the clouds and associated rain all linger around the taller peaks; you can make them as fast or as slow as you like – add in a trail run on one, squeeze one into your lunchbreak, or meander on another if you want to take the kids or an unwilling other half on a weekend. They are perfect for a night out star gazing, or a morning raid spent watching wildlife.

So, to get started in hill-walking, forget height and go for maximum views with minimum effort…

hill walking

Get the right gear

It’s often said that there’s no such thing as bad weather – just inappropriate clothing, and, when talking about hill-walking this certainly is a truism. But the beauty with small hills is that you don’t need as much of the proper paraphernalia as you would with more committing masses.

Trail runners (a more grippy sole than regular trainers) will usually do the trick for pint-sized peaks, but lightweight walking boots are also good if you need more ankle support.

For your clothes go for the layering system – non-cotton, wicking (moves sweat away from the skin) top first, followed by a warming fleece, then a waterproof outershell – that way you can add or remove one as you heat up or cool down. Be sure to take a hat (cap in summer, wool in winter) and gloves to ensure you stay toasty warm.

Read our ultimate guide to layering hill views

A 15-20L backpack should be large enough for your hill walk. Look for a comfortable back system (men and women specific fits available so try a few on first), pockets (useful for putting regularly used items in such as map or a snack) and wand (side) pockets for placing your water bottle.

Absolutely vital is water as well as plenty of food and snacks – no one likes to go hungry – plus you want to reward yourself after a walk to the top. Why not fill up a thermal mug at home and enjoy a warm cup of tea at the top?

Go local

For your first hill-walk it's a good idea to go somewhere close to home – you’d be surprised how many little lumps perfect for a hike linger nearby. Using OS Maps, look for clusters of contours that denote rising ground. A summit will be marked by a triangle or a black dot with a number showing its height. Next look for a path that will be marked on there by broken lines designating it as a bridleway or footpath. Look for where this starts – usually from a car park or a street and aim for that to access the summit. Search from thousands of tried and tested hill routes on OS Maps or plot your own.

Explore with OS Maps

You’ll likely to also see points of interest you might want to discover – such as tumuli, ruins, lakes, waterfalls – all of which are marked on the map. Learning how to read one can really open the countryside for you so, as you go, orientate it (turn it) to make it ‘fit’ the landscape and start noticing how what you see on the printed page matches with what the reality is on the ground. The more you do it the better you’ll become at predicting the landscape and terrain you’ll be faced with before you even leave the house.

Learn to map read with our guides

Also useful is the OS Maps app, which allows you to access maps from all over the UK both online and offline. Follow your route on the app as you walk, it even tells you how far you’ve travelled (or will travel) and how high you are.

hill walking

Make it fun

If you’re planning to take your kids, friends or family members remember that it shouldn’t be a test of endurance, it should be good fun. So be sure to include stops to admire points of interest and take rewards for key parts of the walk – such as a chocolate bar or a favourite sweet.

Also when planning your route be sure to include elements that will (pardon the pun) pique their interests. If they like history, take them on a stroll that takes in ruins or Bronze Age barrows. If they love wildlife, find out which creatures call the area home and make a tick list of critters to keep an eye out for. If geology is their thing, find somewhere that has a limestone pavement, dramatic cove or fascinating rock formation. And if they are into big views (and let’s face it who isn’t) then consider timing your walk to be there for sunrise or sunset (just be sure to take a headtorch so you don’t lose your way!).

Finally...

There’s always a million reasons why you shouldn’t climb a hill – there’s housework to do, emails to check, TV to watch, but stop making excuses! You don’t need big hills to feel like you’re on top of the world so gather your kit, pack your sense of adventure and get outside…

Find hills with OS Maps Top 10 Hill Walks Shop outdoor gear




Phoebe Smith is an OS GetOutside Champion and author of eight books on the outdoors.

Her book Britain’s Best Small Hills (Bradt) will help you get the most out of hill walking in the UK.

Britain's best small hills

Edited: 15.04.2021