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How to upgrade your hill skills this year


Walking in and around London is one thing, but if you’ve never been out hiking in the hills and uplands before, you may be a bit nervous about taking those first tentative steps into the wilder side of the British countryside.

So, if you’re feeling ready, you’ve bought the boots, a GoretexTM jacket and a rucksack, perhaps what you need next is a ‘Hill Skills’ course. Patrick Norris runs one of these new courses. Here he explains what’s involved; and I asked him a few probing questions about why hill skills are so important.

What is the Hills Skills course?

The Hill Skills course is a nationally accredited programme, introduced in 2014 by Mountain Training, which equips you with the knowledge, skills and expertise to get you out and about hill walking in the UK. On the course you will learn about the following:

  • Planning – how to successfully plan a hill walk in the UK or Ireland.
  • Walking skills – what things should you consider while out walking and what can make life easier (pace, nutrition, movement skills etc.). 
  • Clothing and equipment – being suitably dressed and equipped can make the difference between a great day out and a complete disaster. 
  • Weather – how it affects the hills and your day out. 
  • Navigation in the hills – everything from selecting a compass to navigation strategies and an introduction to GPS. 
  • Environmental knowledge – how to minimise your impact on the hill and information on good practice and useful organisations. 
  • Hazards and emergency procedures in the hills – how to respond to any hazards you encounter and what to do in an emergency. 

To sign up for a Hill Skills course you must first register with Mountain Training. The registration fee is (at time of writing) £20.00 per adult and if you are under 18, it’s £17.00. This gives you access to everything you need to know and it is the gateway to booking on to a course.

My business, Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland is one of many organisations delivering the Hill Skills course.

So, why bother doing a Hill Skills course?

A safe environment

On a Hills Skills course, you can practice hill walking in a safe environment, in the care of an experienced and professional trainer and learn with other like-minded people, who will all be at a similar level to you. The practical element of the course takes place outdoors, in the hills, with a minimal amount of time spent in the classroom.

Getting lost

Perhaps the biggest barrier that confronts the majority of people when considering taking up hill or mountain walking is the fear of getting lost. The majority of call-outs received by mountain rescue teams are to find and rescue walkers lost in the hills and mountains. One of the key reasons for introducing the Hill and Mountain Skills courses is to reduce this number of ‘lost people’, which has to be a good thing. A Hill Skills course doesn’t guarantee you won’t get lost, but it will help reduce the chance of doing so and equip you with the knowledge about the actions you must take, if you find yourself unsure of your precise whereabouts.

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Hill walking: it’s different!

It’s a different type of walking as the name implies; your Hill Skills course takes place in the hills, not the mountains. Everybody starts their walking adventures in the high hills and uplands of the UK. You will certainly want to develop your skills in the hill environment and your appetite will be whetted for bigger and higher adventures in the mountains, which come next if that’s what you choose to do.

Personal development

I began seriously to develop my hill skills about 25 years ago on Dartmoor, a reasonably forbidding wilderness. I soon understood that I needed to up my skills, if I was ever going to walk beyond the horizon and more importantly get back home again. That’s what I did, I attended an outdoor skills course and I haven’t stopped since. Those early adventures led eventually to working as a volunteer leader for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, a successful Basic Expedition Leader Award and eventually to the Walking Group Leader Award, which became the Hill and Moorland Award in April 2014. That outdoor skills course back in the early 1990s equates to the current Hill Skills course, so if you attend the course, who knows where it might lead you. To far horizons perhaps, I hope so!

Record of achievement

Another benefit of the course is that it gives you access to the Mountain Training online DLOG, where you can record all your walking days, a permanent record of your achievements. As I used to say to young people undertaking the Duke of Edinburgh Award, if you don’t record an activity, then it didn’t happen! The DLOG allows you to do just that; so keep a good record!

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How will it make you feel and what will you be able to do that you couldn’t before?

Like any new skill and with most forms of personal development, the Hill Skills course will boost your confidence and encourage you to do more hill walking, more often and in an increasing number of places. The sense of achievement when you can ‘take a compass bearing’ and apply it is considerable; it is a key skill that you must have when out and about in the hills. There isn’t the time on the Hill Skills course to make you an expert navigator with a map and compass, but you will be able to master the basics and get you on the right track.

What do you get from doing a live course that you don’t get from reading about it?

The Hill Skills course is designed to be a practical introduction to walking in the hills and uplands of the UK. You will get to have a go at map reading and navigation with a compass in a hill environment.

On the course we run, you will be walking in a working landscape and see a grouse moor up close (and lots of red grouse too) so you will understand how this component of the rural economy works. There will be an opportunity to learn from, discuss knowledge and experiences with other candidates on the course and finally, you’ll be walking in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland National Park, you don’t get that from a book!

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What does an average day on the Hill Skills course involve?

I can tell you what happens on our course! Apart from the first morning, which is spent in the classroom, the remaining day and a half of our course takes place out and about in the Cheviot Hills. The day begins with a kit check to ensure that everyone has all the things they will need; it’s surprising how often the picnic gets left on the kitchen table. Each candidate will lead a ‘leg’ of the walk, taking it in turns to navigate from point to point, which will include working out a strategy to complete that section of the journey. Over the course of the day, opportunities to learn about hill walking and all it involves will be taken. For example, why are there beehives on the heather moor and what hazard might be associated with them? Candidates will be encouraged to identify features for those discussions and the tutor will also spend time instructing components of the course over the day.

At the end of the day, there will be time for reflection and discussion, ideally in the pub of course. It is expected that the discussion will pick up on themes for future learning, share photographs and stories and look forward to what comes next in your hill walking career.

Why are hills skills so important?

The hills and moorlands that you will walk in are working landscapes. They are likely to be worked as hill farms, grouse moor and forestry. Each has a distinctive flavour, there are key periods of activity such as lambing or a shooting season and each has to be considered in terms of the impact you have on the landscape and the impact that activity may have on your behaviour. Our Hill Skills course looks at land use and in Northumberland, all of the above take place within the Cheviot Hills of the National Park.


How to choose the right course for you?

If you are right at the beginning of your hill walking adventures, the Hill Skills course is the one for you. On the other hand, if you have completed lots of hill walks and you are looking to extend your skills and ability, then try the Mountain Skills course, either way you won’t be disappointed. A huge amount of development work has gone into setting up these courses, so what are you waiting for.

As to location, the courses are being delivered across the UK, so you have lots of choice about where you go: it’s really up to you. Once you have registered, have a look at the course list on the Mountain Training website and choose.

There are plenty of course providers, but I invite you to come to Northumberland; it’s an ideal place to do the course, and with your new Hill Skills Award, you are sure to be back for more.

What do YOU enjoy most about teaching these course and what is rewarding about it?

I developed a real love for training people in outdoor skills as a volunteer with the DofE Award. The opportunity to lead young people on a journey from absolutely no knowledge, to them undertaking an expedition to the top of mountains like Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons National Park, remains one of the highlights of my life. I was really pleased to be selected by Mountain Training as a tutor and as a course provider for the Hill Skills course and the chance that has given me to once again teach and share knowledge of the great outdoors. Onwards and upwards then, and I look forward to seeing some of you on a Hill Skills in Northumberland soon.


More about the Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland Hill Skills course
As the name suggests, we are in Northumberland in the very north east bit of the county, just three and a half hours away from King’s Cross if you are travelling as far as Berwick-upon-Tweed, less if you choose our other station, Alnmouth. Alternatively, you can fly to Newcastle or Edinburgh, about one hour or so from London airports.

The course will be based in The Cheviot Centre in the small market town of Wooler on the very edge of Northumberland National Park. On the morning of the first day, we will be based indoors in the Cheviot Centre. In the afternoon and for the whole of the second day we will be outdoors practicing your new skills in the Cheviot Hills, just a short walk away from the Centre. The course requires a minimum of four candidates and the maximum number is eight on a course.

Wooler has the full range of accommodation, from an excellent youth hostel, campsites and any number of bed and breakfast, hotel and self-catering establishments to choose from.

Our Hill Skills courses run on the following dates in 2015: 18th and 19th April, 6th and 7th June, 27th and 28th June, 11th and 12th July, 8th and 9th August

The cost per person is £90.00, which includes instruction, group equipment, leadership on the hill and tea/coffee and cakes. Maps and compasses are provided, you can bring your own of course, and the map you will need is the Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 16, The Cheviot Hills. Just to reiterate, you must first register with Mountain Training and then book a course via their website.

Northumberland National Park is the least populated of any of the UK’s wild places and arguably the most tranquil and it is an ideal place for the Hill Skills course. Remote valleys, rolling heather clad hills and remote enough to be challenging, it’s the perfect place to develop and learn the skills you will need for walking adventures across many other of the UK upland areas. It is similar in terrain to the North York Moors, the Peak District, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons for example, so you won’t feel too daunted if you choose to visit those National Parks as your hiking adventures evolve and develop. There is a Northumberland promotional video here – it really is that good.

More about Mountain Training
Mountain Training’s aim is to educate and train people in walking, climbing and mountaineering. To make this a reality, we have developed a range of nationally-recognised mountain leadership, instruction and coaching awards, as well as skills courses.

Our awards and skills courses are run by approved Providers who are scattered all around the UK and Ireland. When you book onto a course, they’re the ones who will train and assess you, teach you how to climb, navigate, lead etc. Our awards would be worthless if we didn’t have them, so we like them a lot.


This article is a guest post by Patrick Norris.

My wife and I established Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland in May 2011 to offer great guided walks in what is often described as the best walking country in England. As your tutor and guide, I hold the Hill and Moorland Leader Award and I have many years of experience training people of all ages for outdoor adventures, primarily in the UK and occasionally in more exotic locations.

Please get in touch if you want to know more about the Hill Skills course in Northumberland. We have the perfect landscape for the course and Northumberland is always worth a visit. So, make the most of your stay and leave with a qualification in your rucksack and the desire to come back for more of the same.

Photographs 1,2 & 6 are copyright of and used with permission of Patrick Norris and photographs 3, 4 & 5 are used courtesy of Mountain Training.

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Ideas for your hiking year ahead

Just because you live in London doesn’t mean you can’t have some incredible hiking experiences!

In fact, with some planning – and the right information – you can hike in some of Britain’s best hiking locations in the next few weeks and months.

This is a great time of year to dream and plan. We’re stuck indoors much of the time, it’s grey and rainy, and we feel lazy and cooped up.

So turn your thoughts to the hills, fellow Londoners, and use this time to come up with some hiking goals that will really motivate you and keep your spirits up until your next big trip!

Get this free hiking goals planner here

Below, I share 7 ideas which you could add to your hiking goals for the year ahead.

They might seem impossible from London but believe me they aren’t. You can do these in your WEEKENDS.

This is why I’ve not picked extremely remote places or mountains… you can save those for your big holiday.

But you don’t have to wait until then to get your boots on the hills.

Check out my ideas and see if any of them call to you this year!

(And if you want MORE information like this, CLICK HERE for my free Hiking in Britain email series!)

1. Let’s start with SNOWDON!

Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and a very popular and relatively straightforward climb to do (depending on your route). And it is possible to do this in a weekend from London!

Being one of the ‘three peaks’ of Britain (Ben Nevis – highest in Scotland – and Scafell Pike – highest in England are the other two) it’s a very busy mountain, especially for charity events.

Grab a train to Bangor, and then travel to Llanberis, which is the closest village.


  • There is a building at the top nearby the summit which includes a cafe, toilets and a shop. It’s a bit of a surreal experience to be at the summit with all this going on but you can’t deny it’s a nice change to have a hot pie after a climb up a mountain.
  • A train goes up to the top of the mountain! The Llanberis path is a walker’s route that pretty much follows the train tracks all the way up. Important to know: don’t depend on getting the train back down because the seats are reserved for the people who came up in the train… so it depends on whether there is space.
  • There’s a ‘knife edge’ ridge called Crib Goch which is a famous challenging scrambly route up the mountain. For the experienced only…


  • Take a different route up and a different route down if you can. Just walking up and down the Llanberis path will be a bit tedious. Combine two paths for a better and more interesting day out.
  • Stop in for a celebratory drink or pre-climb breakfast at Pete’s Eats in the high street at Llanberis. It’s a famous hikers’ cafe with huge mugs of hot drinks.
  • There’s a handy little cafe on the Llanberis path called Halfway House. Useful for a toilet break and/or some refreshments.


2. Find a checklist to motivate you into the hills this year and use it to help you get out onto some fantastic summits!

The one in the picture above is the Trail 100 (I talk about this more in my free hiking in Britain series)

The Trail 100 is Trail Magazine’s recommended ‘must do’ 100 mountains in the UK. This is for those of you who crave the high mountains and are happy to spend two or three hours going uphill for the pleasure of ticking off another classic mountain! These are further away, and most are in Scotland, but with a bit of planning and few long weekends, you could aim to complete a set number of these this year.

It’s great inspiration for goal setting at this time of year.



  • Visit the highest point in each of the 32 London boroughs (‘the borough tops’). Ok, this is one for the nerdiest of completionists! You won’t do it for the scenic views, but for the sheer bloodymindedness and satisfaction of ticking them off. You’ll also get to explore part of London that most people will NEVER see. Map here.
  • Hike to the highest point in London and each of the six surrounding counties. In other words: Greater London itself, then Essex, Hertfortshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey, and Kent. Throw in Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Bedforshire and West Sussex and East Sussex into the mix if you like to make a goal of eleven tops to ‘bag’. Map here.
  • Climb 20 Wainwright fells. Oh, Wainwright! Now there was a man obsessed! Have you thought about climbing the Wainwrights? There are 214 in total. Why not start this year? You could do, perhaps four weekends in the Lake District and aim to do, say, 20 or 30 overall in the year. Pick a number and then go for it. Perfect if you want to spend more time exploring the Lakes this year!


3. GLEN COE! So good it starred in Skyfall!

Seriously – if you are craving wild scenery and iconic mountains to make your jaw drop, THIS is the place to go.

The mountain in the picture is Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the most famous munros (Scottish mountains over 3000 ft). It stands at the head of the Glen like a sentinel, a black pyramid of rock and an absolutely stunning sight for walkers on the West Highland Way.

At the end of the Glen is Rannoch Moor, a true Scottish wilderness wetland where wild deer roam for miles and miles.

As you travel down the Glen, every twist and turn provides you with more spectacular views. And there’s even a hidden valley you can climb to, where the clans used to hide their rustled castle.

It’s a stupendous place full of atmosphere, stories and wonderful walking. And don’t even get me started on the pubs!

But it’s one of the few Scottish Glens that is accessible from London!

YES! Because you can get the Caledonian sleeper train which crosses Rannoch Moor and heads to Fort William. And with a bit of planning, you can walk to the Glen and head over to do Ben Nevis afterwards.

The sleeper train is a whole other topic in itself which I enthuse about in my 5 Day Crash Course to Britain’s best Hiking.


  • Getting the sleeper train? Dump your bags in your cabin and head to the lounge car as fast as you can. It’s super fun, and totally unmissable especially on the return journey from Fort William over Rannoch Moor which is one of the best train journeys in the UK (if not the world).
  • A visit to the Clachaig Inn is a must. It’s a famous hikers’ pub with great beers, great food and great hospitality.
  • If you’re around at the Kingshouse Hotel early of a morning, be sure to look out for the deer which congregate there, hoping to get food from the West Highland Way walkers.


4. Hike in the LAKE DISTRICT

Is this one too obvious? Maybe, but there’s no denying if you’re new to hiking in Britain the LAKE DISTRICT must be in your top ‘must dos’ – it’s one of our most beautiful and popular hiking areas.

You can get a train to Windermere from London, and use buses to take you to some of the best and most iconic hiking locations. Stop putting it off – just take a weekend and go!

You’ll soon know your Wainwright from your Wordsworth and perhaps you’ll fall in love with the place like so many of us have for centuries.

Be sure to climb a Wainwright fell or two. (A few classic walks will enable you to tick off as many as eight!)

Admire the gorgeous herdwick sheep… and the dry stone walls… and the local dialect… and the pubs.


  • Stay in Ambleside for your first trip. It’s central, with good facilities and rainy day options, but not quite as touristy as Windermere. You can walk down the high street and see hills all around, and it’s great for buses which can whisk you to various key hiking locations. There are several walks to do which start from the town itself, and it’s convenient if you’ve come by train from London.
  • Expect it to rain! Anyone who’s been there knows how changeable the weather can be – even from one valley to the next. You’d consider yourself lucky if you have a holiday without a rainy day. But don’t let that put you off – it’s incredibly stunning in all weathers. Just be prepared for anything.
  • There are no waymarks on the fells (you do get footpath signs on low ground). Walkers who are used to well waymarked paths in mountains in Europe may be confused! You WILL need to have maps and understand them to walk on the fells. It’s because the National Park have a policy of keeping waymarks to a minimum.



Let’s just cut to the chase. Yorkshire is BEAUTIFUL (and I say this as a Lancashire lass – there’s a centuries old rivalry between these two in case you didn’t know!).

Locals call it ‘God’s own county’ and it’s hard to disagree.

And yet, it seems to be relatively off the radar for tourists and visitors compared to some places (there’s one exception I can think of and that’s the Japanese tourists who flock to visit the ruins that supposedly inspired Wuthering Heights – even the footpath signs there are in Japanese!).

But if you want to experience the best of British walking this year, Yorkshire is a fantastic destination.

But Yorkshire is so big, where do you start?

I have just the thing for you! Why not walk the YORKSHIRE THREE PEAKS (not to be confused with the 3 peak challenge which is Ben Nevis + Snowdon + Scafell Pike). These are the three biggest hills in Yorkshire and they’re so close together that it’s a well known challenge to walk them all in a single day.

Put it this way:

  1. You get to experience walking in one of Britain’s most beautiful counties
  2. You get to tick off three hills
  3. You get a sense of achievement
  4. You’ll experience a classic walk

But you don’t have to do it all in one day. You could spend a weekend walking in the area, but including a climb of all three. This was actually one of my favourite hiking weekends ever.


  • A visit to the Pen y Ghent cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale is a must to stock up on provisions and to sock in the atmosphere. Hikers have been visiting this place for decades, and they have a signing in book for Pennine Way walkers dating back to the opening of the trail.
  • If you are planning the Yorkshire 3 peaks challenge, don’t have a booze-up the night before. It’s tempting… but trust me on this one. (Better still, have a long weekend and take your time over it).
  • Be sure to visit the Ribblehead or Batty Moss Viaduct, a spectacular landmark on the Settle to Carlisle railway line – one of the most picturesque in the country. And if you see a lot of train spotters with their cameras out huddled on the hillside, keep your eyes peeled because a steam train might be due.


6. Hike around EDALE

Edale in the Peak District is a classic hiking location easily accessible by train between Manchester and Sheffield. A tiny village, it’s on the edge of the Dark Peak, known for it’s black peat groughs and atmospheric moorland – not to mention the flat plateau of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District with an otherworldly feel to it.

Get the train to Edale and then spend a couple of days walking around the area; a walk along Kinder edges are a must, and the Mam Tor – Lose Hill ridge on the other side of the valley is a glorious walk in any weather. You’ll have incredible views all around, and south to the White Peak, with its green grass contrasting with the dry stone walls made of white limestone.


  • The Dark Peak is gloriously wild and atmospheric, but is known for its bogs and soggy peat groughs! Some of the paths are paved now, but if you venture off, take care and perhaps pack gaiters. Watch out for the little white tufts of cotton grass which are a sure sign of squelchy ground. Last time I went, I put my foot in one on Featherbed Moss. Squelch!
  • There’s very limited mobile reception in Edale village but I managed to get mine on the platform at the station.
  • Read up about the ‘mass trespass’ before you go. This area played a key role in protests which resulted in better rights for the public – ultimately enabling us to enjoy the beauty of the Peak District National Park and the British countryside!



If you know me you may know by now my opinions on this wonderful National Trail.

It’s PERFECT for Londoners, because the train stations are so conveniently located that you can complete it in just four weekends.

The train journey times are relatively short, so you only need to spend one night away from home.

And the walking is easy but rewarding, with fantastic panoramic views and gorgeous downland stretching in front and behind of you.

It’s a brilliant trail for beginners, if you’re walking on your own, and if you’re not confident on your navigation because you are simply following the downs.

And it ends on a massive high at the Seven Sisters, spectacular rolling white cliffs near Eastbourne. There’s something wonderful about ending a trail at the sea!

In fact I included the South Downs in two weekend itineraries in Walk Your Weekends because it’s such a great walking location.


  • Be prepared to be exposed to the elements. There is little shelter on the Downs (i.e. few trees), and you’ll see tiny twisted bushes bent over double by the wind. On the other hand, if it’s sunny, you’ll get the full force of it up here. Be prepared!
  • Do you have an Oystercard season ticket? You can reduce the cost of the train travel! You can save 1/3rd on journeys in the south east, this includes the train stations you’ll be traveling to for the South Downs. Your season ticket is effectively a railcard – it’s called a Gold Card and it saves you 1/3rd when you travel off peak.
  • At least one guidebook (Aurum Press) describes the route starting in Eastbourne and ending in Winchester. But pretty much everyone I know who’s done it prefers it the other way – ending at the sea. It’s definitely a much more dramatic, rewarding and suitable ending for a great walking achievement.


If you want more information like this, CLICK HERE to get my FREE, MASSIVE email series on hiking in Britain – you get videos, PDF downloads, jam packed emails and ‘I Googled it for you’ resources from me.

Wishing you the best hiking year ever!


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Plan Your Hiking Year!

There’s nothing like planning your hiking year ahead to make a cloudy, grey January less boring.

Here’s some information that I hope will help you do just that!

Over at Walk Your Weekends I’m sharing ALL my best tips, resources and inspiration to propel you out of the city and on to the hills in 2015.


This is PERFECT for you if you want to hike more of Britain but:

  • …You’re stuck in London: about as far away from hills as it’s possible to get, right?
  • …You’re new to hiking in Britain and you have no idea where to start (ex-pats especially welcome!)
  • …You have no TIME to research it – other things always get in the way
  • …You have NO CAR!
  • …You can’t spend days away from the kids or the day job.
  • …You want to hike the best of Britain but don’t want to join a club

Come on over to Walk Your Weekends, pop in your name in the box and I’ll send you a FREE jam-packed free email series about walking the best of Britain EVEN IF you live in London – like me.

Because sometimes I miss the hills so much it hurts. And I don’t think I’m the only one?

—> Join me here. <---

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