Learn from my walking failure (so you can avoid it)

Jonathan Elder By Jonathan Elder

I recently wrote the post on 'How to plan a walking route in five easy steps'. It outlined how to choose a route, and what to watch out for. Today, I’d like to share what can happen when you don’t do it properly…

The set-up

This spring, we had a free Sunday afternoon. My family and I decided to go for a walk out in the New Forest – it was one we had done a bit of before, but wanted to do a longer version to complete the loop.

Fail 1: Not planning properly

I found a route from the routes database from OS Maps, and downloaded the route and map to my mobile. And that was it.

What I didn’t do was check the weather report or any local information. This will become relevant soon.

Fail 2: Starting late

As we only had the afternoon, I chose a route that would take about 2.5 – 3 hours. However, we were starting after lunch with sunset was about 5pm. We had plenty of time if we started at about 1:30 – or so I thought.

Fail 3: Not having the right equipment

Having not checked the weather, I had a waterproof jacket only, while my wife and daughter only had normal jackets. Critically, I planned to rely on the mobile for navigation, and didn’t bring a paper copy of the map or a compass. I didn’t bother bringing my waterproof mobile cover.

I do have a proper GPS, but as this was just a ‘casual’ walk didn’t bother bringing it.

The result

I’m sure by now you can see where this is going…

It's not just the New Forest ponies that got wet

It's not just the New Forest ponies that got wet

While the weather was good to start with, about half-way around the loop it started to rain. We carried on as the rain got steadily heavier. At first, this was not really a problem. While we got pretty wet, the weather was unseasonably warm and my phone was safely in the pocket of my waterproofs. I actually like walking in the rain!

However, as the rain got steadily heavier, water started to seep in. Just taking the phone out to check position was getting tricky, and I was worried about it failing altogether. Mobile phone touchscreens are quite sensitive to rain, so it was scrolling randomly, making it increasingly difficult to check our position.

Here is where I should have switched to a paper map and compass. Which were at home.

As we came to a critical junction, we struggled to get the mobile to work. We did identify the correct route, but it was not passable as it was in a low-lying area and now looked very muddy. With only a small mobile screen, it was really difficult to plan an alternative route out. This was compounded by the now driving rain making me very reluctant to have my mobile out of my pocket for more than a few seconds.

We decided to take what looked like the most-used path in approximately the right direction, towards some farm buildings, in the assumption there would be a road.

"Britain has hugely changeable weather, and what starts as a fine day may change rapidly. In hill or mountain areas this could even be life-threatening."

Jonathan Elder

Saved by the kindness of strangers

By now our longer route and slowed pace meant it was starting to get dark. This was (supposed to be) a short, easy walk completed well before dark, so we didn’t have a torch with us.

As we passed one stables, we asked for directions. While the route back to the car park and the beckoning pub by road was obvious, it was also about six or seven kilometres. The footpath was much shorter – but back the way we came, and likely to be increasingly difficult to locate.

Fortunately, our saviour paused her equine duties, took pity on three soggy strangers and gave us a lift back. While she declined the offer, we were only too happy to squelch into the pub for hot chocolate and cake to fortify ourselves before heading home.


There was never any real danger – the New Forest is criss-crossed with roads and dotted with farms and villages, so you are never far from civilisation. The weather, while unpleasant was not life-threatening, aided by the New Forest being low-lying.

But taking a too-casual approach did make this a bit more of an ‘adventure’ than planned. In a more remote area my failures could have been far more serious.

  • Even for straightforward walks in the local area, unless you know the route well take a route map with enough information to plan an alternate route if the way is blocked.
  • Always check the weather report. Britain has hugely changeable weather, and what starts as a fine day may change rapidly. In hill or mountain areas this could even be life-threatening.
  • Wherever possible, allow for plenty of time, especially for a new walk. Missing bridges, closed paths, flooding or path conditions may make it take longer than you expect – it’s better to be late for lunch than navigating in the dark.
  • We’d not told anyone where we were going. Not an issue in the New Forest, but in more remote areas could leave you stranded overnight.
  • Mobile phones work fine for navigation, but will fail in the wet. Have a waterproof case or proper waterproof GPS, in addition to a map and compass
  • Always have basic emergency equipment. A small torch, a map and compass don’t weigh much and could come in really handy if other things go wrong. A thin packable emergency waterproof is also a really good idea. Of course if you are venturing further afield, on longer routes or in winter you will need more equipment.

I hope that others can learn from my failure so that they can make their walks more successful than mine!

Jonathan Elder By Jonathan Elder


Jonathan works for Ordnance Survey, looking after the online shop. He's only occasionally lost.