The far north of Scotland is spectacular at any time of year. Tina Irving describes how the wild landscape transforms into a winter wonderland.
Free and available from outside your front door, walking is the ultimate outdoor activity all year round.
It's easy to see why some people enjoy hiking. A walk in the British countryside which enables them to get out, exercise, see the scenery and take in some much-needed lung fulls of fresh, country air.
It's also worth noting that all of this combines to release endorphins into the brain, which trigger feelings of pleasure - and even takes the latter half of its name ('orphins') from the notorious pain reliever, morphine.
With such feelings of happiness, enjoyment and satisfaction, many walkers soon start challenging themselves to much more involved adventures - substituting a simple afternoon stroll for a bracing hike.
A longer hike off the main trails is much more involved than a Sunday saunter on a well-marked path, though, so beginners should ensure they are adequately prepared and not about to ruin their whole experience even before it gets started.
One of the joys of countryside walking is that it's completely free. Few other sports or activities are so open and accessible for people of all ages and budgets.
Being equipped with all the right gear can make all the difference - not just for keeping warm and comfortable, but for remaining safe on treacherous trails.
The most important of these is footwear. Out-and-out hiking boots may not be cheap (or exactly at the height of fashion) but they will certainly offer the best all-round protection. If you are crossing rough terrain or tackling steeper hills ankle support, heel moulding, toe protection, good grip, ample waterproofing and laces like Fort Knox all combine to make them unarguably the best option. Be warned, though, they need time to be worn in so avoid going out on a big hike with box-fresh boots. The last thing a hiker needs is for their feet to be blistered whilst out in the wild.
If you are planning walks on gentler terrain, especially in summer, walking shoes or ordinary trainers are perfectly suitable. and their lower weight can make walking easier.
Elsewhere, warm and waterproof coats should also be worn, as well as thermal tops and wind-resistant trousers. Especially in mountain areas weather conditions can change rapidly, so multiple layers allow you to keep comfortable whatever the weather. Shorter walks in good weather, especially at lower altitudes, need less equipment, but it's a good idea to pack a lightweight waterproof even on good days.
Walking poles or sticks are an increasingly common sight on footpaths. Look for poles that are light but tough and fold small enough to be stowed away when not needed. Using one or two poles can help with balance, especially on slopes and can also be of great help to those with dodgy knees or ankles as they help spread the impact. You can also get special Nordic Walking poles that, when used properly, boost your speed and range.
If you are planning an overnight camp, waterproofing and weight are the key features to be considered when buying a tent in which to spend the nights. Whilst the supermarkets or discount stores may have the cheapest, outdoor specialists will have tents and airbeds that are much more suited to the hiker's rather unique set of needs.
Walking alone can be a liberating and exhilarating feeling. The idea of being miles away from any other form of civilisation is one that has an exciting frisson of danger and remoteness for many, especially in today's ever-connected world. Not only that, lone hikers don't have to take other members of their party into account when deciding routes and also feel a sense of accomplishment that is all their own.
For novices, though, hiking alone should be something to work towards. Not only is the old adage of two heads being better than one very much true, they can also help with map reading, encouragement and first aid - should it be required.
If possible, this hiking partner should be the more experienced of the two, as they can then pass on tips and knowledge, whilst also ensuring the walking party doesn't wander beyond its reach.
Walking is enjoyable, exciting and enriching. It's also difficult - at least where certain routes are concerned, so proper prior training is important. Thankfully, this training can be bundled in with everything else - taking place in the great outdoors.
Heading to the hills (or even the local park) for a short training walk is a great way to get started. Whilst only short to begin with, these distances can then be increased steadily, just like training for a marathon. It will also give hikers a chance to give their equipment a try out in safe and comfortable conditions, so that any issues can be ironed out before the serious walks when they end up being much more in need.
Before heading out on any hike - regardless of how short or long - it is imperative that everything is prepared before stepping out the door. This includes ensuring everything is packed (maybe even ticking items off a list to guarantee nothing is forgotten), testing batteries for power levels, checking the weather and getting up to speed with keys on a map.
It's better to double check that all your equipment is packed and in full working order, rather than only finding out something is missing when halfway up a windy and blustery mountain. However, it's as dangerous to over-pack as it is to under-pack, with the unnecessary weight sapping energy but enjoyment as well.
You should also always leave a note of where you are going and when you expect to be back with someone - a friend, family or your accommodation provider - so that in the event of a problem emergency services can be alerted.
Another item to pack with careful consideration are the food supplies. Walking is physically demanding at the best of times, even more if you are going overnight and laden with a heavy bag.
Again, this is a trade-off between weight, space and what is actually needed. For beginners, though, it's always best to slightly over-estimate the amount needed than to under-estimate, as exhaustion can set in surprisingly quickly. If weight is a consideration, some high-carbohydrate, high-energy bars can be bought from most outdoor retailers.
Your need for water or drinks will depend on your exertions and the weather, but around two litres per person is normal for a full day. Increase this in hot weather.
Mobiles can save walkers who are caught lost or injured, by helping them contact the emergency services and also be located with pinpoint accuracy. However, mobiles are often the reason a great many more people get lost in the first place, with an over-reliance on their smartphone maps leaving far too many people well and truly lost.
Most smartphone maps are not as detailed as their printed alternatives. Many map apps also rely on an active data connections, which may not be available in some of the more remote areas you will be visiting. There is also the issue of power, with some mobiles possessing a battery that would give mayflies a run for their money where lifespan is concerned, especially when the GPS function is active.
For these reasons, if you do use a mobile for mapping, ensure that it shows sufficient detail for the areas you will be hiking in, preferably showing not just roads, but also footpaths and contours. Check that the mapping app works reliably without a connection to the mobile phone network before you set off, and consider bringing an external battery charger for longer trips. For a mapping app that shows the complete details and will work with no data connection, have a look at our OS Maps application.
Whatever you use, it's wise to bring a paper map plus a compass as a backup in case of emergencies and to ensure your mobile will always have enough power to call for help in case of an emergency.
Having accounted for all of the above, it's time to finally get out and about! The last considerations are just those which need to be heeded when on the hike, such as getting out nice and early to maximise the daylight hours.
Countryside manners also call on hikers to "leave no trace", so their activities do not have a detrimental impact on the environment or other people's enjoyment of it.
This all seems like a lot of considerations to bear in mind (and there will, of course, be others that hikers will remember for themselves after a couple of trips) but it should soon become second nature. Then, the challenge of hiking can really kick off in earnest, as simple Sunday strolls make way for serious hiking.
Satmap and Garmin walking GPS devices are available to buy from the OS shop, includes the popular Garmin GPSMAP 64s and the Satmap Active 12.
All GPS purchases include a free 12 month subscription to OS Maps - exclusive to the shop. Shop the full range.