Essential Hill Skills: The Seven Ps of Planning

Mountain Training hill skills scheme logo , 30 kb

UKHillwalking has teamed up with Mountain Training to bring you a series of articles on the topics covered in their Hill & Mountain Skills scheme.

The scheme is ideal for people who want to get started in hill or mountain walking, and the courses are run throughout the year all over the UK. The articles are all written by Mountain Training course providers about a particular area of the Hill & Mountain Skills syllabus so that you can get a better idea of what the courses are all about.

There's more than one P in Planning, says International Mountain Leader Matt Hutson. Here's his advice on all the essential stuff to do and think about before heading out for a hill day.


As my first Lowland Leader Training Course of 2015 came to an end, it struck me again how much of what we do and how safe and successful we are working or playing in the hills of the UK is directly affected by our ability to plan effectively. As a youngster taking the train out of Glasgow of a weekend and jumping off at one remote station before hiking to another remote station to gain those all-important log book days, I did not invest an awful lot of time into the planning; a quick flick through a guidebook in a shop, an early morning dash to the supermarket and away I went with all the walking kit I owned.

 “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Properly Poor Performance” 

Nevertheless, even in those days some unconscious planning clearly took place, and since that time experience and training has allowed me to put those unconscious thought processes into a structure that makes sense to me. It is neatly encapsulated by the expression “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Properly Poor Performance” or probably a slightly more expletive laden variation of it. The sentiment is a good one, and inspired by this I've come up with my own ‘seven P’s of planning’, the seven areas to consider before heading out.

Leading a group in the Chilterns, 192 kb
Leading a group in the Chilterns
© Jon Garside

1) People

Number one consideration here has to be an appraisal of yourself: What state are you in physically and mentally, have you picked up any injuries or are you run down? How experienced are you in the activity, in that location or terrain and at that time of year? And how current are you? You may have been navigating across miles of open moorland in near zero visibility ten years ago, but how about in the last twelve months? Be honest about it; adventure and challenge can be good things, but usually only when you can talk about it in the pub afterwards. Consider the value of taking a similarly or more experienced peer with you, or attending a personal skills course before your next big outing, for example the Hill Skills or Mountain Skills courses. These can be ideal for both learning new skills and refreshing rusty ones.

Are you heading out alone or with a group? If the latter, then how many people are in the team? Do you know how experienced they are at this activity? How well do they know the area? What are their aspirations for the trip? What equipment do they have, and which additional items might you need to provide for them? Will you be solely responsible for the rest of the party, or do you have someone competent to assist?

"How experienced are your companions, and what are their aspirations for this trip?"

If you are going out with a group, be they peers or less experienced people that you are leading in a voluntary or paid capacity, then you may also want to think about the following. Consider the gender split. Are there any religious considerations with this group? Are there any specific additional needs - these may be physical, emotional, behavioural or psychological? How old are group members? If they are under 18 years then depending on your choice of activity, venue and employment status you may be subject to statutory legislation. The HSE regulates certain adventurous activities, including trekking, for under 18s. The organisation that oversees and inspects it is AALA.

Paper map - an essential, 171 kb
Paper map - an essential
© Jon Garside

2) Place

Perhaps you've already got a venue in mind, and know exactly what you want to get out of the day. If not then you need to do some research. The obvious place to start is with a map. In the UK maps come in a variety of scales, the most common being 1cm:25,000cm, 1cm:50,000cm or 1cm:40,000cm. Generally speaking you probably want to start with a 1:25,000 scale if operating in countryside areas with a lot of fiddly field boundaries, paths and the like. Up in higher, wilder places with less clutter on the ground you might opt for a less detailed map and rely more on the relief. 

So do you opt for paper or electronic mapping? The array of electronic mapping available is vast. Some of the more common brands are Memory Map, Anquet, Mapyx Quo and Garmin Viewfinder, but there are also plenty of apps available for tablets and smart phones. Electronic resources have their advantages, for example the ability to scroll in and out, and to accurately and quickly measure distances and heights. However they are less reliable out on the hill, where a drained battery or a dropped smartphone could leave you map-less. Always carry a paper map in reserve. 

Guidebooks can be an invaluable source of information, offering detailed descriptions of routes, estimated timings, features and places of interest and advice on access. Cicerone and Trailblazer are a couple of the more well known guidebook publishers, but both the British Mountaineering Council and Scottish Mountaineering Club also publish their own guides. Online sources are becoming increasingly popular too, for instance the UKHillwalking Route Cards (other websites are available).

Other aspects of ‘place’ worth considering include: looking at Tourist Information websites for details about facilities, parking, and events taking place. The Natural England, Natural Resources Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage websites are useful for finding out about access issues, land closures for maintenance or shooting, advice on the Countryside Code, details about the risk of fire in moorland areas, a link through to MOD firing ranges and a whole host of other information. Local authority or national park websites can tell you about footpath closures in your chosen area.

Finally you might want to consider checking the terrain on Google Earth or similar; checking a route planner, such as the AA or RAC, to see how long it will take to get to or around your chosen area; the NHS to identify the nearest A&E departments, minor injuries unit and walk in surgery; and maybe even a mobile network strength checking website, if you are considering relying on your phone for communication.

3) Purpose

What is your objective for the day(s) out? Are you after bagging a peak or two, practicing a skill, exploring the local environment, spending some quality time with friends or family, supervising a youth walking trip or simply looking to visit a pub on foot? Be clear from the outset what your purpose is; that way you will know whether it is realistic and achievable. You will also know when you have been successful. This may sound rather unnecessary if you are out for a walk on your own or with peers, but having a purpose from the outset can sometimes prevent you from making silly or unnecessary errors later on.

What's going in your bag?, 152 kb
What's going in your bag?
© Dan Bailey

4) Paraphernalia

The kit question. What should I carry for myself, and if I'm out with a group then what should I bring for them? In the UK you can encounter a wide variety of weather in one day, so at the very least you need to take food, water, waterproofs (top and bottom), map and compass, warm layer, hat, gloves and a headtorch. You will also want a small first aid kit, and perhaps your own personal medication. In terms of the bag, well I tend not to leave home with anything less than a 35 litre bag, especially when out with groups for the day.

The next question: to smartphone or not? With improvements in coverage (supposedly) and the robustness of some phones in terms of battery life and general shock and water resistance, a phone can be an essential part of your kit. They definitely have their place in a rucksack, with the ability to make an emergency call (999 / 112) even with no credit, and potentially with no signal on your own network, as well as the ability to register phones to let you contact the emergency services by text (see here). On top of all that they can also be loaded with GPS apps, or factfiles on plants, animals and birds. They're good for that all important geo-caching hobby you’ve developed, and even just to call home and let your loved ones know you’re OK. Crucially though the phone is a tool to assist you in making your day out safer and more enjoyable: it does not replace experience, judgement or common sense. They also tend to run out of battery just when you need them.

5) Plan B

You’ve arrived and the weather is awful, or, as has happened to me in the past, you reach a footpath you want to follow and it is closed for repairs. Detouring can add lots of time onto the day, and if the only alternative is walking down a busy road for miles that's no fun. It’s worth spending some time looking at the map and guide books in advance with a view to a plan B / wet weather route / get out of jail option, even if it is just retreating back to the nearest tea shop or pub. Remember this is not admitting defeat, it is doing your bit to support the local economy.

Does anyone know where you're planning to go?, 140 kb
Does anyone know where you're planning to go?
© Dan Bailey

6) Problems (don't panic)

Have you taken all necessary steps to prevent something going wrong? For example, it’s easy to avoid hypothermia by making sure you take enough warm clothing, food and water with you. Similarly if you’re prone to blisters, make sure you take some blister plasters or spare socks with you and deal with a hot spot as soon as you notice it.

But what are you going to do if something serious does go awry? It’s a good idea to have an understanding of what emergency procedures to follow. Who are you going to contact? Do you have the contact details of your accommodation? Do you have cash on you, or a bank card? Does your phone have charge and credit? Finally, do you have someone at home or back at base who knows where you are going and can help if needed? At the very least you should have a means of attracting attention (typically a phone or a whistle, or both) and the knowledge of how to use them. In addition to this, getting caught out in the dark is something never to be underestimated, so everyone should carry a torch. This feeds neatly into my final P:

7) Paperwork

Make sure someone knows your rough plan for the day. Route cards come in all sorts of formats, and there are plenty that can be downloaded from the internet and adjusted to suit. Include vital info such as where you intend to park, what route you plan to follow (with an understanding that your plans may change when you’re on the hill) and when you expect to be back. What time should you be considered 'overdue'? Include your contact details and the names of everyone in the group. This info needs to be left either with a home contact, at the accommodation you are staying in, or even with local authorities such as the police, depending on where you are planning on going. If you're leaving a card with a third party - the B&B owner for instance - be sure to add the details of a friend or family member to contact in the event of an emergency. And when you’re down off the hill make double sure to check in with the aforementioned person to avoid raising any false alarms or incurring the wrath of worried relatives.


Matt Hutson head shot, 15 kb

About Matt Hutson

Matt Hutson is an International Mountain Leader who has worked in the outdoor sector for over 10 years. Gaining his experience on the hills working with youth and adult groups, as well as time spent in his local Mountain Rescue Team, he is now based in the Peak District. Through his company, Wayahead Training, he delivers a wide variety of programmes, including the Lowland Leader Award and Expedition Skills Module for Mountain Training, as well as First Aid, Water Safety Management training, safeguarding and Off-Site safety training. Wayahead Training are also heavily involved with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, Matt having completed 17 years’ service with the charity and supported over 300 groups on their expeditions.

For more info see his website or contact him by email 

Mountain Training logo, 86 kb

About Mountain Training

Mountain Training’s aim is to educate and train people in walking, climbing and mountaineering. The Hill & Mountain Skills scheme has been designed for beginner and novice hill walkers so that they can be confident about planning and safely enjoying their own walks. There are providers the length and breadth of the country who deliver these courses on behalf of Mountain Training and they run throughout the year. Find a course near you. Mountain Training also administers a range of nationally-recognised mountain leadership, instruction and coaching awards, such as the Lowland Leader, Mountain Leader and Climbing Wall Award.

For more info visit their website


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