Ten Top Tips for Epic Hill Days

© Dan Bailey

With all that daylight in the bank, summer is prime season to go large on the hills. Overnighting is one option, but with a light pack and a bit of grit you can also achieve great things on an epic day trip. When it comes to hillwalking less is rarely more, so why settle for a couple of summits when you could climb several? The most memorable days tend to be those that really stretch you, the ones that pack as much distance and ascent as possible between dawn and dusk. Or even the ones that end up finishing after dark. It might be a well-known challenge walk like the Ennerdale circuit or Yorkshire’s Three Peaks; perhaps you're aiming to do every Munro in a range (all 10 Mamores, the Welsh 3000-ers…); or maybe it’s a route of your own making, a novel link-up of two or three hill groups that are more conventionally done as separate shorter snippets – whatever the pretext, size is everything. The following advice should help you get the most out of yourself, and the hills.

Around Loch Monar in an 18-hour day  © Dan Bailey
Around Loch Monar in an 18-hour day
© Dan Bailey

1. Dare to dream big …but stay realistic

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but when it comes to the really big routes I suspect many walkers underestimate their own abilities. Walks like the Cairngorm 4000-ers or the Lakeland 3s needn't be seen as once in a lifetime challenges, freak events to be endured not enjoyed. You could be out doing them every other weekend. It's not just mad keen fell runners with the physique of whippets that can shoehorn a few more hills into a day - with a little ambition and just a hint of determination, any averagely fit hillwalker can too.

That said a bigger day, by definition, means you’ll be working hard for longer. Stamina is key, both physical and mental. Ten hours in, with a couple more to go, is not a good time to find yourself seriously flagging. Just how much are you capable of? There’s one sure way to find out of course, but perhaps it’s wise to push your envelope a little at a time, building tolerance as you go. So when does a standard sized hillwalk become a biggie? The boundary will be personal to you, but if you’ve never before really pushed yourself in the hills then a good place to start might be around 20km, 2000 metres of ascent and/or eight hours on the go. Working up from there, a suitably motivated walker might eventually come close to doubling those figures, without having to run a step.      

On the Bridge of Orchy five, an amenable biggie at 30km/2200m  © Dan Bailey
On the Bridge of Orchy five, an amenable biggie at 30km/2200m
© Dan Bailey

2. First pick a route

Whether it’s the Brecon Beacons or the Western Isles, wherever there’s a big wild chunk of upland there is potential for a testing mega-day. From the Ten Tors to the Lochaber Traverse, many hill areas have their own established classics. Are you attracted to these named challenge walks, or would you prefer to DIY it? Guidebooks tend to be of limited help when selecting an epic day, since most of them err towards the more manageable, shorter trips that send you homewards just when an ambitious walker might be getting into their second wind. But with some reading between the lines it's often possible to link a couple of book walks together. For ideas and information specifically covering bigger walks, useful books include: Three Peaks, Ten Tors by Ronald Turnbull and Great Mountain Days in Scotland by me.

3. Read and research

The primary source of information is, of course, the map. Firstly and fundamentally, calculate distance and ascent. This can be done either by painstakingly counting contours and fiddling with bits of string and rulers, or more conveniently on a mapping program such as UKHillwalking’s Map My Route. To turn distance and ascent into a time estimate, Naismith's Rule is often quoted: This allows 1hr for every 5km travelled on the flat, adding 1hr per 600m climbed. Of course Naismith's is an abstraction, making no allowances for terrain, rest breaks, or a slowing pace as fatigue sets in. Over the course of an actual hill day you might be closer to 1hr per 3km.    

So the terrain underfoot clearly has a big bearing on your rate of progress, and here a map can only tell you so much. What looks feasible on paper might turn out less so on the ground. Bogs, boulder fields, navigation black spots, dense undergrowth, rough pathless stretches – obstacles that might seem negligible on a short day can really add up over the course of a longer route. What about steep, tricky slopes, or graded scrambles? It’s worth considering the likely terrain at the planning stage. That way it can be factored into your timing estimates, and you can go armed with at least some idea of route finding at key stages. Supplement the map by reading around the route a little. Well trodden paths on popular hills are covered in minute detail in the guidebook literature, and this is a start, but on the ground in between these routes information can be harder to come by. Consult hillwalking friends, hunt around on the internet, or seek advice on web forums like Hilltalk.

South Glenshiel Ridge  © hwackerhage
South Glenshiel Ridge
© hwackerhage, Mar 2012

4. Keep it light

The endless talk about going fast and light is not solely marketing hype. It's basic common sense too. Carry less and you can go further and/or faster per ounce of effort. Bearing in mind sensible precautions against wet, cold, injury and nightfall, take just what you'll need and nothing more. Invest in lightweight kit. Cut spare strapping off your rucksack if you like - it may make little material difference, but if it makes you feel lighter...

5. Think footwear

What is it they say: Each extra gram carried on your feet is the workload equivalent of 5g in your rucksack? I've no idea who came up with this figure, nor how, but though I'm inclined to take it with a healthy pinch of salt it's still obvious that over a long day, and all else being equal, lighter footwear is going to feel less uncomfortable and less tiring than heavy, clumpy boots. However when it comes to feet all things are rarely equal. So what to wear? Decisions, decisions. 

  • Firstly it is vital that your footwear fits well, and never more so than on a longer day. You won't get far with weeping blisters. A nice light fell shoe will be worse than useless if it shreds your heels and crushes your toes; while if your big leather boot happens to fit like a glove then who cares if it weighs twice as much?
  • Feet tend to spread a bit after a few hours of walking, so bear that in mind.
  • Is the ground wet, and can you cope with soaking socks (thus softer skin, hence blister potential) for 12 hours solid? If not then pick footwear that's at least nominally waterproof, or invest in waterproof socks (yuck, but each to their own).
  • Feet will tend to tire over a long day, just like the rest of you. In this case more solid, supportive footwear might come into its own.
  • Does the route include long stretches on track or tarmac? If so clumpy boots can be a misery.   
Bidean and the Glen Creran hills from Beinn Mhic Chasgaig  © Dan Bailey -
Bidean and the Glen Creran hills from Beinn Mhic Chasgaig
© Dan Bailey -, Oct 2013
6. Work with the conditions, not against them

The longer you are out in it, the more the weather has a bearing. Eight hours of driving rain is a completely different proposition to a couple of hours. Walking into a strong headwind will sap your energy and hinder your progress, while gusts from the side can be downright scary on narrow ridges; either way you’re likely to move less quickly. Are there any weather dependent river crossings? What about the visibility? Feeling your way through thick mist for hours on end is both mentally draining and very slow going. Trail breaking through deep snow can wear you out before you’ve even got anywhere, while frozen snow might make steep ground feel very precarious (it might also smooth over the hollows and firm up the bogs, so it’s not all bad). And even if you’re lucky enough to hit a heatwave there will be strings attached - dehydration, dried up water sources and the unique torture of sweaty slogs up endless sunbaked hillsides. Whatever the weather forecast has in store your plans are best tailored around it, and timings should take it into account. Get an early start if it’s due to be hot; go in the direction that will keep the wind at your back; minimise time spent on featureless terrain if the clouds are down. You can always shorten the route, too, or decrease the number of summits in favour of lower level sections.

7. Skimping on food is a false economy

An army marches on its stomach, apparently. This must infuriate drill sergeants. More seriously, you might expect to get through something like twice your normal daily calorie requirement over a long hard day in the hills. Never mind saving weight: if you're going large then carry a lot more food than you would on a shorter hill walk. You might still be out at tea time. Max on carbs, and put calories in little and often. The same goes for water - you could get through several litres of it. It's better to take regular sips than flood yourself with a pint every now and then; a sucky bladder tubey thing is good for this, letting you drink on the go rather than having to stop. 

Members of the Hull Universty Mountaineering Club admiring the view on the last summit of the Yorkshire Three Peaks  © Miles Walmsley
Members of the Hull Universty Mountaineering Club admiring the view on the last summit of the Yorkshire Three Peaks
© Miles Walmsley, Nov 2011

8. Set a steady pace

This is an endurance event, not a sprint. Rush at things too quickly and you'll hit a wall; amble too casually and you'll never make the distance. The ideal pace is smooth and steady, an efficient stride that you can keep up for hours without straining. Walking poles can help you get into a rhythm, and used correctly they also add a little forward momentum, letting your upper body do some of the work. Minimise rest breaks and try not to be forever stopping to faff with zips, straps and laces - many little pauses soon add up. If you feel ever so slightly under-dressed when stationery then you're probably dressed about right for moving, and shouldn't need to stop to de-layer so often.

9. Be prepared to bail

Is your energy and enthusiasm on the wane? First have a little regroup somewhere sheltered, a breather, a drink and refuel. More often than not you'll soon be ready to continue. But don't just keep flogging on until, suddenly, you've burned out miles from anywhere. Try to make sure there's always enough left in the tank to get you home. In the face of serious doubt, calling it quits is no disgrace. If the weather craps out or it really looks like you've bitten off more than you can chew then an early descent to the valley might be the best course. Are there any convenient glens or ridges that could provide a quick escape route? Research the most likely short cuts in advance and keep them in mind throughout the day. 

10. Don’t be afraid of the dark
As dusk gathers on the hills walkers tend to head downwards in droves, as if the dark itself is something to avoid. But armed with a suitable headtorch (plus backup) there is no reason for hill routes to end at sunset, no need to stay off the moors or beware the moon. Unless you're out at summer solstice then a bit of night time walking is almost inevitable at the end of a really big trip. Consider it confirmation that you've squeezed every last drop out of the day. Remember though that progress is likely to slow after dark, when navigation naturally gets harder and your sense of scale and relief can be thrown out. If at all possible time the route so that you've safely negotiated any tricky ground while there's still light in the sky, leaving just the long easy walk-out in the dark.
Night's on the way and we've still got miles to go  © Dan Bailey
Night's on the way and we've still got miles to go
© Dan Bailey





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