Even the most avid hillwalkers will admit they don’t get out onto the hills as often as they’d like. Even those out in the Ochil hills, Nevis range, or Cairngorms every weekend always talk about another route or two to be had in between.
Friends and colleagues who do get out to the hills often, talk about them as a semi-mystical place. The hills, as enticing as they seem from a distance, can feel like they may as well be a thousand miles off if you’ve never been before. Social media, television, and drone footage often creates a view of the mountains as something stunningly beautiful though almost inaccessible without the right guides and gear.
It’s easy, especially for newcomers, to feel stuck in the city or trapped in the office; unable to get to the hills for fear of doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes, or being stuck in the wrong place. Even those with distant memories of hiking the trails years ago often feel unprepared and ill-equipped to travel out to the mountains today. The truth of the matter is that getting to the highest peaks and remotest mountains is easier and safer than you might imagine.
One of the largest barriers to enjoying the country’s greatest peaks is often physical fitness. Office life is often tragically sedate for many of us. One of the best bits of exercise we get is to get out into the hills and trails. Without having the experience to get out there however, it can be seem difficult to get the experience and fitness you need to get into the hills. The cycle appears absurd and can feel impossible to solve.
This irritating barrier of entry has without a doubt kept many from setting out for the hills in the first place. Without knowledge and experience of the outdoors it’s deceptively easy to overextend your route and exhaust yourself on early trips. Overly ambitious planning is one of the chief reasons new hikers often regret the trip and lose the taste for the outdoors it as quickly as they found it.
Despite turning many away, fitness for the hills is one of the easiest things to build week after week. Local trails, paths, and hills are the ideal proving ground to build the muscles, skills, and confidence to get out to more distant and bigger trails. We’re overwhelmingly lucky to be blessed with a never ending network of routes never more than a short bus ride away.
Across the central belt alone there’s the fantastic Pentland Hills to the South of Edinburgh, Fintry hills to the west of Stirling, and the southern banks of Loch Lomond directly north of Glasgow. Borders routes to the south such as Tinto hill in South Lanarkshire provide excellent starters for those looking to get a strong footing.
To the West of the central belt, Conic hill in the Loch Lomond national park and the Fintry hills north of Glasgow provide excellent starters with enough challenge and scenery to make an interesting outing. To the east, Scald Law and the Pentland hills provide an excellent series of walks which are more than enough to keep you returning to build fitness and skills.
Whether heading north or south, plenty of great beginner routes can be reached by public transport or car. A round trip to a low lying summit and back can be achieved in a good morning or late afternoon casual hike.
The Right Gear For The Job
The next largest barrier that keeps large numbers of otherwise fine outdoors enthusiasts away is often the idea of needing to buy a near spacesuit worth of equipment to step foot into the hills. Wander into a modern outdoor shop and you could be forgiven for thinking you need to invest the cost of a second-hand car to step into Scotch mist.
While there is a spectacular array of walking poles, waterproofs, snow boots, food bags, water bags, and bivvy bags out there, most of the gear can be left on the shelf for your first trip or two to the local trails.
In truth, I don’t think there’s a keen and experienced hillwalker out there today who doesn’t find out what they need mainly by experience. In the bright warm summer months the small hills and shorter trails afford you the chance to find out what is vital equipment and what is wasted money and weight.
Good footwear, comfortable clothes, a water bottle, and perhaps an optional snack or two should get you out the door.
A good jacket will keep you warm and dry, but the one currently warming your coat hook is likely far more than adequate. I have no doubt you’ll come to want advanced, moisture-wicking, air-breathing, strong and flexible magic gear over time, as is the case for walkers worldwide. The sensible time to buy each bit of kit is for the trip you need it.
Knowing what you need, and what you don’t, comes with practice and experience. A simple fair-weather stroll in the lowlands during the height of summer needs dramatically less than a multi-day trek over the Cairngorms in winter.
While you should always go out prepared to meet the conditions; you should also go out and make a few mistakes too. Everyone else has and regardless of the amount you spend on kit or the trips you make to the store; you are going to make some too.
There’s a very low limit on the number of times you’ll forget midge repellent by a loch, sunblock on a clear day, or waterproofs in a downpour. Most outdoors enthusiasts have done each of these, and a few more, precisely once.
Mistakes in the outdoors can draw a lot of scorn. Inexperienced users setting out in the dead of winter without the knowledge, experience, or equipment for the job is inherently dangerous and silly. However, not a single person with even a little experience has a flawless track record. Making the right mistakes early and making them on the right hills at the right time is a vital part of a never-ending education.
Getting Out there
When you’ve settled on your equipment, made your plans, and checked the weather; the only thing remaining is to get out and enjoy the trip. Even if you’ve planned more mileage or altitude than you find you can currently handle, something experienced (and honest) hikers will admit to doing on many occasions, pick a smaller or shorter route for the day and enjoy that instead. Turning back before the summit for fitness or adverse weather is often painful, disappointing, and a necessary evil.
As much as, at this stage, every trip is about building experience and fitness for bigger things; each should be enjoyed for its own sake too. Getting out of the house, away from the office, or escaping the city is an entirely worthy goal in itself. Even if you never leave for higher or further hills, getting to know your local trails is a fantastic escape and one you can appreciate many times over.
Just picking up some much needed free exercise in the outdoors can deliver far more than a trip to the gym for far more money. There’s an entire outdoors education which we often miss out on by cooping ourselves up between work and home, seeing very little in-between.
If you’re looking to build to scaling the highland’s higher peaks then every bit of outdoors time and experience counts towards creating more understanding and more enjoyment of the mountains and hills. With a little bit of time you can begin to stretch your limits from the lower local hills to the higher ones, from one hill to two, from two to a chain or the mountains of your choosing. The great peaks and glens throughout the country are yours for the taking.
Always Seeking More
With some experience both locally and further afield, those who take to wandering in the hills and glens universally find greater and greater enjoyment in the hills and trails. A new found ease of movement, being able to better and more accurately read the conditions, and being able to plan better can take away many of the stresses walkers find or fear early on. Without those, the main body of what’s left is fun, curiosity, and never-ending interest.
Even just a tiny stretch spent in the hills will inspire more ideas for new journeys and more adventures. There’s no peak more enticing than the one you can see out in the distance from the one you’re currently standing on now.
More time out will build more skills and more experience which continues the cycle by inspiring bigger, bolder, and longer trips. By just steadily building from small hills into larger ones, you have begun safely and responsibly navigating the mountains in a way which once felt like a guarded community impossible to enter.
With every trip to the hills you might return refreshed and renewed with interesting stories, perhaps photos or video too. With a little time you might bring others out to share hills, stories, and food. With just a walk out of the office and into your local hills there’s a great escape from the office and city easier than you might have thought possible