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The Secret to Getting the Most Out of Hill Walking

October 28, 2014
The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

Guided Walks Essential for Beginners

Who’d have thought you’d need to stuff so many items into a rucksack for a stroll in the hills, but sometimes the rolling mountains aren’t all they seem…

It’s been many years since I was on a decent hill walk, but with the slow realisation that the Blackstairs Mountains aren’t just for gazing at and that for the past 12 years we’ve stared over at a ramblers paradise, this year I made a decision to lace up the boots and head out across the purple heather. This was followed by an opportunity to work with Carlow Tourism to help to promote the Carlow Walking Festival so even better, a guided walk to help me out of my hill walking hibernation.

As the day of the six-hour walk approached I was glad that I’d walked in various mountain ranges in the UK, but still, that was over twenty years ago. I was therefore feeling some trepidation about what I might pack and wear and how I might fare on the walk. During my younger years, I’d been lost in fog, wrecked my knees, had a panic attack, experienced blisters on heels that were the size of lemons but plodded on regardless for the sheer joy of being outside in the mountains. Or perhaps I’m looking through rose-tinted glasses and it was more likely that it was too far to turn back… With those memories tucked away, I was keen that this walk be as comfortable as I could make it as I desperately wanted to enjoy it and not let anyone else down in the small group I’d be walking with.

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

Ancient Dolman in the Blackstairs Mountains

History and Archaeology Hill Walk

There were 23 walking tours *planned for the weekend festival, each split into three levels of competency. I chose a ‘B’ walk for experienced walkers that was going to explore the history and archaeology of the Blackstairs mountains and wasn’t disappointed. It was led by Seamus Murphy, a PhD student of uplands archaeology and a hill walker since childhood thanks to his involvement with a local Scout group. Seamus enthralled us with his knowledge of times gone past as well as pointed out the various stone art, Dolman and hill forts. The group was also accompanied by at least three experienced guides who ensured nobody was left behind. Apart from ensuring we were safe, the friendly & entertaining guides shared some of their own local tales, as well as stories of how unprepared some hill walkers have arrived for their walks – no rain gear or warm clothing, no drinks or snacks and in ‘their best city shoes’ for instance.

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

Spare socks essential!

The Secret to a Good Hill Walk is therefore…

…not so much about your experience, it’s about your guides and clothing. If you’re new to hill walking and don’t have any map reading experience, guides are essential. Their quiet confidence and knowledge are an invaluable way of getting you started safely.

Mountains can be boggy and rocky, with sheer drops and pools of water. Living 1,000ft up in the hills, I know how quickly temperatures can drop and clouds roll in with fog that can suddenly give close to zero visibility. Mountains should be taken seriously. While it can be sunny in the valley at the start point, 3,000 ft up there can be snow. Good hill walking guides carry safety equipment and know what to do in emergencies. Most mountain ranges have hill walking clubs and if you contact them, may be able to suggest guides who can help you find your way around.

With that in mind, here’s a list of essentials that you should pack for a hill walk, baring in mind that you will have to carry it all. First of all though, some suggestions on clothing. After good guides, the second secret to a good ramble in the hills is getting your gear right.

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

In a Ring Fort in the Blackstairs Mountains

What to Wear on a Hill Walk

Layering is essential. The key to enjoyable rambling is comfort. Being wet and cold can make for a really miserable walk and potentially be very dangerous. If you’re new to hill walking and don’t want to splash out on all the various clothing options that are now available for ramblers, think layers and what you can get in and out of your rucksack easily. Avoid cotton as once it’s wet it stays wet and jeans are definitely a no go as are cold and heavy when wet, which could increase the risk of hypothermia during cooler walks.

The weather was dry on our walk but very wet underfoot in places. We got hot walking up steep inclines (fleeces off), then cool when we stopped to look at stone art (fleeces on). It was windy in exposed places (hats and coats on) and very sheltered coming down the mountain (hats and coats off).

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

Layering is the secret to being comfortable in the hills

I therefore wore a vest tee-shirt, a long-sleeved tee-shirt, a thin fleece, lightweight track suit bottoms, two pairs of socks (thick and thin), gaiters, well-worn, recently waterproofed walking boots and a warm, waterproof jacket (which spent a lot of its time tied around my waist, but I was very thankful of it). On this walk I’d got it right but as I mentioned, there have been others when I haven’t. Experience helps.

Walking Poles

For the first time ever, I used a telescopic walking stick for this hill walk and immediately took to it. Useful in the boggy areas to test the depth before the boots waded in, helpful to break a fall or ease the way walking down the hillside and acting as an ‘extra arm’ as I hauled myself up the steep bits on occasion, my walking pole was a godsend.

What to Pack in a Rucksack for a long Hill Walk

These suggestions are for hill walkers planning to head out four hours or more with experienced guides, based on my experience at the Carlow Walking Festival. If you’re not on a guided walk, you’ll need to add other items such as compass, maps, waterproof map cover, whistle and a torch but I wouldn’t recommend hill walking alone unless you can self navigate.

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your HillwalkA small rucksack (lined with a plastic bag or liner to keep everything inside dry)
Warm Hat
Waterproof gloves
Waterproof trousers
Spare socks
*Two x shower cap
Plasters/blister pack/small first aid kit
Survival Bag
Hot drink
Chocolate bar (emergency)
Fruit or nuts

* A great tip I picked up recently. If your boots get wet through, take them off, change your socks into dry ones, then put your feet into the shower caps before putting them back into your boots again. This should keep them dry for the rest of your walk. There’s nothing worse than wet feet when you’ve still hours of walking ahead of you.

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More Information About Rambling & Hill Walking in Ireland

For more detailed information about hill walking in Ireland Mountaineering Ireland have a useful website. For guided tours in the more popular mountain ranges check out Hillwalk Tours Ireland and if you’d like to walk the Blackstairs Mountains, have a look at the Blackstairs Ramblers as a starting point who meet weekly throughout the year.

The Secret of Getting the Most Out of Your Hillwalk

Walking or rambling in groups is a great way of meeting people and making new friends as you’ll always find someone to chat with. You’ll generally finish your day with that great sense of achievement and satisfaction that sits alongside outdoor exercise and spending a day in the great outdoors. Carlow Walking Festival gave us the opportunity to experience that and finish up in front of a warm fire, tea and sandwiches in O’Shea’s pub in Borris. I met some lovely people on Walk 20 and am hoping to continue to walk on the Blackstairs as a result of this festival.

Carlow Hill Walking Festival 2014 River BarrowIf you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to read about Naomi Lavelle’s family experience of staying in Carlow and playing on and by the riverside during the hill walking festival, you can read her blog post here. Una Halpin of Wildways Adventures lead a ‘C’ rated walk along the River Barrow that I had the pleasure and enjoyment of joining the day before my ‘big walk’. Una also took her young son along the Blackstairs Eco Trail walk the following day. You can read Una’s account of the weekend here.

Are you a hill walker? Can you offer anymore tips or secrets to a successful hill walk?


Carlow Autumn Walking Festival

September 2, 2014

I’ve written a few posts about my home county recently and hope it’s peaked your curiosity to come and visit the hills and villages that surround us? We spent a lovely couple of weeks looking around gardens at the Garden Festival which was quickly followed by a staycation where Mr G and I explored the Carlow hills and rivers, opening our minds to its potential as an eco-destination. Then I helped to put a group of bloggers together for the recent Taste of Carlow festival where we met several local food producers and visited a commercial fruit farm. For now I’m continuing on with the outdoor lifestyle theme and sharing the news about the Carlow Autumn Walking Festival that will be taking place here soon.

Carlow Autumn Walking FestivalWe’ve always considered ourselves fairly fit yet like many our age, as lovers of good, wholesome food Mr G and I have an ongoing battle with the bulges (me more so than himself!). As the years have advanced, it seems to have become increasingly more difficult to lose the wobbly bits so I’ve tried different activities to keep the weight in check. From the local fitness classes and swimming pool to running and boot camps, I’ve tried several forms of exercise.

More recently I’ve doned the lycra and have been cycling around the hills with Mr G and my neighbouring friend Michele, whizzing down the hills, through the forestry then slowly panting our way back up again to our homes, red-faced and hot, and not in a ‘hot’ way that lycra sometimes suggests 😉 However, throughout it all, walking has remained the constant. It’s free, it can be done any time and in any place, and walking for pleasure is a wonderfully grounding way of keeping the mind sane in this slightly mad and busy world.

Carlow Autumn Walking Festival 3rd - 5th October 2014I’ve seen similar leaflets in previous years to the one above for the local Autumn Walking Festival but have never picked one up before now. If I had, I’d have seen that walking festivals include something for anyone like me with an interest in outdoor activities, and this year’s Carlow Autumn Walking Festival is no exception.

From beginners to the super fit, 23 walking activities have been planned over the weekend 3rd to 5th October 2014 as well as other complimentary activities. For anyone not living close by, accommodation deals have been negotiated by Carlow Tourism that include packed lunches for walkers. There will also be a traditional Irish music session in O’Sheas pub and hardware store in Borris.

Carlow Autumn Walking Festival


The walks have been categorised to help us choose the best ones for our abilities. They include:

Five category A Yellow walks (including an A++ one that’s for eight hours, 33km and a 734m climb) which are for very experienced walkers. There’s a limit of 15 people allowed on this walk.

Twelve category B Blue walks (including a B+ walk that’s for 5 hours, 15.5km with a 735m climb) for experienced hillwalkers and a maximum limit of 20 people.

Six walks for leisure/regular walkers where there are no limits on numbers.

The walks range from between €10 to €20 which covers the cost of experienced guides (up to four on each walk), maps of each route and sandwiches/refreshments at the end of each route as well as transport to start points in some cases.

I won’t list all the trails, some of which sound quite spectacular and something to strive towards and others that sound just plain exhausting lovely. There’s a link to the online brochure here and you can book online here once you’ve decided if or which walk appeals to you. There are however, a few themed walks that caught my eye that you might be interested in as well as other complementary outdoor activities:

Carlow. There's Gold In Those Hills & MountainsIntroduction to Hillwalking

First of all, Walk 16 has been included in the programme to introduce people to hill walking. This is a great opportunity to gain an insight into the skills required for hill walking and coping with difficult situations, something Scouting Ireland cover very well but for anyone not involved in scouting, a skill you may have missed out on and would like to learn more about.

The walk covers topics such as first aid, navigation, emergencies, gear requirements, the environment and Mountain Rescue and when to call it. It’s not a formal course and basic walking gear will be required. The cost is €16.00 and includes transport to the start of the walk.

Carlow Autumn Walking FestivalA Walk Through Time

If you’re interested in the historical aspects of Ireland and Carlow in particular, Walk 20, graded B for the more experienced walkers, is a four to five-hour mountain walk that will explore the history and archaeology of the Blackstairs Mountain area.

Artifcats that can be seen include standing stones, ancient rock art, dolmens, old settlements and aircraft crash site! Cost €15 and places limited.

Blackstairs Eco Trails

A Walk on the Wildside with Mary White, environmentalist and walking enthusiast, will include foraging for delicious edible greens and fungi, learning about the native trees and mammals around the area, identifying wild herbs and checking out the flora and fauna of Kilbrannish Woods. This is a two-hour C graded leisurely walk, costing €10.00 which includes a bus to the woods and back with a walking distance of 7.5km.

Carlow Autumn Walking FestivalWalking with Wildway Adventures

Green Walk 11, a two-hour leisurely walk with Una Halpin from Wildway Adventures. The 6km stroll will begin at Clashgranny Lock and take in the trees, plants and insect life along the Barrow Way and through the Borris House Estate, ancestral home of the ancient Kings of Leinster, the MacMurrough Kavanaghs. A bus will take walkers to the start point and the cost is €10.00.


Carlow Autumn Walking FestivalSafari Trail on the River Barrow

Three special canoeing events with local business Go With The Flow River Adventures are being planned for all three days of the festival. Trails have been designed with complete beginners in mind and will be led by qualified instructors who have years of adventure experience. Cost is €35 for adults, under 16’s €25, family of four €99. For more information contact Charlie Horan 0872529700 or email

Bike Rental and Bike Tours

Bike and Hire at Waterside Guest House in Graiguenamanagh offer bike rental and tours in the River Barrow Valley and cater for all ages and abilities including electric bikes, mountain bikes for men and women, tow along and children’s bikes. They can also provide helmets, hi viz jackets and other equipment too. Prices range from €10.00 to €25.00 per day.

If you’re interested in joining any of the walks or activities, it’s advised to book in advance. As mentioned, places are limited on the A and B categorised walks and the deals on the hotels will be snapped up too.

Not quite fit enough….

As much as I’d like to try one or two of the Blue walks, common sense is telling me to choose the Green, C listed walks this year aimed at the more leisurely walkers among us, but make an effort to get fitter and try a harder walk or two next year.

Walking festivals are a great way of meeting people and perhaps for Michele and me, who’ve been talking about taking up hill walking as we gaze over at the mountains every day, the Carlow Walking Festival an introduction to the local walking groups that regularly meet in the Blackstairs and surrounding hills.

Are you a hill walking fan? Are you tempted by any of the activities mentioned?


Please note that this post has been written for a Green and Vibrant project that connects bloggers with destinations. See disclosure policy above though would gladly have written it without being involved!