General info > Getting started

Getting started

If you are just starting out on this fabulous pastime your first adventure into the countryside can be quite daunting, even if you are armed with an easy-to-follow Walkingworld guide. As you watch others strapping on their well-worn boots, donning expensive-looking wet weather gear and peering knowledgeably at their maps and GPS units, you may wonder whether you will ever exude the same confidence. But do not worry – as with most ‘black arts’, there isn’t really that much to it. It just takes a bit of practice.

What to wear?
Let’s start with that expensive looking kit. Yes, it’s true, you can spend a fortune on specialist outdoor clothing and equipment. But you don’t need to. There are now plenty of outdoor outlets that sell perfectly good kit, often at a fraction of the price of the leading outdoor brands. If you buy stuff with Berghaus, Lowe Alpine and North Face labels, you will certainly get high performance kit that has been researched and tested in the most extreme of conditions (the brand names themselves should give you a clue). But do you really need it for your first forays into the British countryside? Unless you are – very unwisely - starting out with an adventure into the Scottish or Welsh mountains in winter, probably not.

You should, however, be aware that conditions in Britain can change quickly. A sunny stroll on the Lakeland fells can turn into something altogether more serious if it starts to rain and the wind begins to blow. When this happens you need to allow for the ‘wind-chill’ factor – if your inner clothes get wet you will feel colder still. So, unless you are going on the shortest of outings in the height of summer, you should carry a small rucksack with a spare top, hat and waterproofs. The key is being able to put on and take off layers of clothing at will and so keep an even, comfortable temperature throughout the day. A hat is an extremely effective temperature regulator – you lose a lot of heat through your head (must be that brain working away!), so covering your head makes a disproportionate difference in cold weather.

On your feet
What you wear on your feet is very important, not just for comfort but also to support your feet and ankles on uneven ground. In most cases boots are best as they provide you with ankle support and protection. A lightweight pair should be fine if you have no intention of venturing up big hills or over rugged terrain. Make sure you have boots that fit well and are comfortable. If you are not sure what to get, go to an outdoor shop and ask for advice.

Having said that, the good old welly is not a bad option. These fantastic pieces of footwear are much derided, but any fool can have wet feet. A pair of wellies won’t be suitable on a rocky hillside, but they are superb for sloshing through muddy country lanes and fields. From many outdoor shops you can get a good close-fitting style, as favoured by hundreds of sheep farmers and gamekeepers.

If you are wearing boots for the first time you may find they rub and you start to get blisters. You don’t need to suffer. ‘Moleskin’ is sticky-backed plaster that sticks directly onto your foot, effectively forming a second skin. The trick is to put some on the moment you feel the boot rubbing – don’t leave it until the skin is sore or blistered. You can buy ‘Moleskin’ from chemists or outdoor shops; sometimes it comes under a different name, depending on the manufacturer. On any walk it's a good idea to have some in your rucksack, along with a penknife or some scissors to cut it into suitably sized pieces.

What else to take?
On all but the shortest of walks it’s a good idea to carry some food and drink. Walking is exercise and you need to maintain the fluid you lose through perspiration. Take a bottle of soft drink or water and sip it regularly rather than downing it in one. If you want to splash out, buy one of those high-tech bladders you put in your rucksack and from which you can sip through a tube. 

You don't really need to carry much food on most walks (what is the pub for, after all?), but the occasional chocolate bar or biscuit can work wonders when energy levels are flagging. It's a good idea to eat well before setting out. And if it's a long walk with no stopping point at all then by all means take some sandwiches.

You may want to consider buying a pair of walking poles – the modern version of the walking stick. They help you to balance and allow your arms to take some of the strain when going uphill, and they lessen the impact on your knees going down. As with the wellies, don’t be concerned about the image you project. Besides, walking poles are now standard issue for mountaineers and trekkers across the globe.
For emergencies you should carry a torch (preferably a head-torch that you can use without your hands) and a whistle. The international distress signal is six blasts on the whistle spread evenly over a minute. If you hear a response (three longer blasts) don't stop blowing; your rescuers may be using your whistle blasts to help locate you.

By all means take your mobile phone but don't expect there to be a signal. If you can use your phone call 999 (112 abroad) for help. Be prepared to give as much information as you can about your location, the type of emergency, number of people in your party and how you are all clothed and equipped. If you can't make a voice call it's worth trying to text someone and ask them to pass on the message. Texts need less signal strength to go through. 

Finding your way
It really is unwise to think that you can follow a walk from a set of descriptive instructions, even if they are accompanied by helpful pictures, as on Walkingworld. The map is an essential component to navigation, giving vital clues to your location and the route you should be following. The map describes, in a very precise and formal way, the landscape through which you are walking. It will, for instance, tell you whether a path heads north-west, a fact you can check with the real path on the ground (providing you have a compass, of course). Apart from anything else, descriptive instructions are only good if you remain ‘on track’. The moment you err from them you are lost without a map.

Most walkers in Britain use Ordnance Survey maps, rightly considered to be among the most accurate, up-to-date and ‘walker-friendly’ in the world. The 1:50,000 scale Landranger series has long been a favourite of outdoor enthusiasts and is the type of mapping given for Walkingworld routes. The more detailed 1:25,000 scale Outdoor Leisure and Explorer series show details such as field boundaries, farm buildings and small streams. They are certainly worth having if you are venturing into remoter areas and may have to pick out your own route through the landscape. If you are going to use a particular map often, consider getting one that has been waterproofed (you can get good ones with 10% off on the Aqua3 website). This stops the map getting soggy and tearing, although it adds a little to the bulk, weight and expense.

Having a map and compass - and knowing how to use them - are vital to being safe in the countryside. If you have never learnt how to navigate with a map and compass, there's an excellent book by Julian Tippett called Navigation for Walkers which you can find in the Walkingworld shop at Amazon. Better still, find someone who already has some expertise and insist that they give you a blow by blow explanation, preferably on a real walk. Thereafter your compass and map skills will simply improve with practice. If you don't know anyone to show you these vital skills then it's well worth going on a course. GPS Training is one company that we recommend.

If you have been reading any outdoor publication (including this one) you will be aware of the existence of GPS systems. A GPS unit accepts signals from a group of satellites and, by combining the data received from them, gives an accurate position on the ground. Is this a useful aid to navigation? Yes, it will confirm your position and help you to get back on track if you are lost. Is it a substitute for map and compass reading skills? Definitely not – you will find a GPS almost impossible to use safely unless you have a good understanding of traditional navigation methods. Are they worth buying? That depends entirely on your budget and how much you value the added safety they bring. Now that prices are dropping well below £150 for a robust unit, you could argue that it is worthwhile purely for peace of mind. And they are quite good fun to play with too. You might want to read the 'Which GPS?' article on this site.

Above all, do not to worry too much about getting lost. We have all done it – in fact it is all part of building up your experience. You are unlikely to come to much harm unless you are on a featureless hilltop or out in very poor weather. If you want to build up your confidence, start with shorter routes through farmland or along the coastline (the sea being an unmistakable feature into which it is difficult to stray without noticing). Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time, so even if you do get lost you can still return before nightfall.

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