It’s so great for me to see that my blog is so active! I’ve been writing here for over 5 years now and in recent weeks, since lockdown restrictions have begun to ease-off and we begin to emerge once again from our bubbles, I’ve noticed that my daily views are booming and that most searches that lead to my site include ‘family-friendly trails in the Mournes’. When I started sharing on Every Treasure about our own family adventures out and about in Northern Ireland and in particular the Mourne Mountains, it was always my hope that it would inspire other families to get outdoors into nature and enjoy some quality time together. So for me personally it’s great to see that people are eager to do just that after having spent 4 months cooped-up indoors and are using my blog for inspiration! While it’s super that people are getting loads of great trail recommendations from my blog, I also feel a degree of responsibility in making sure that my inspiration also comes with some tips for staying safe in the mountains. While I do want people to really enjoy the beauty and freedom of the beautiful wild spaces we have here in Northern Ireland; I don’t want to send people off recklessly into the hills with little preparation or experience – the Mournes may not be mega big in global terms but there are real dangers to be found there and therefore they should be treated with caution and respect.
With that in mind, my husband, 3 sons and I had a bit of a brain-storming session while walking along the beach in the rain today and wanted to share with you our TOP TIPS FOR STAYING SAFE IN THE MOUNTAINS.
PLANNING & PREPARATION:
We always plan-out in detail our intended route the night before any hike in the mountains. We unfold the map and decide on a trail together so everyone knows the plan – if you don’t have a map or map-reading skills there are some decent apps you can use to keep you on the right path too but gaining some navigation experience is well worthwhile. Alongside planning our route we check the detailed weather forecast for the Mournes the night before and again in the morning and adjust our plan if needed. We usually try and get away from home early too so that we can be back from our hike before it gets dark. While hiking throughout the seasons with kids is entirely possible, heavy rain and low-hanging cloud is not always the most fun! Bear in mind too, that the weather can change rapidly in the mountains, even during the summer months. Another worthwhile thing to do is to let a family member, or even a neighbour know of your planned route and roughly what time you expect to be home – that way there’s someone to check-in with you to make sure you’ve returned safely. My brother is an avid hiker so I normally leave my details with him and he will get in touch if he doesn’t hear from me and vice versa when he’s out in the hills with his children.
WHAT’S IN OUR RUCKSACK?
While it isn’t essential to spend a small fortune when first starting out trekking in the mountains, we would definitely recommend a decent pair of walking shoes/boots and a waterproof coat. The terrain can get very boggy and slippery so good grippy footwear is advisable. My own kids have always worn Decathlon’s walking boots – they’re inexpensive so it’s not too much of a spend to replace them when they outgrow them. We always layer-up too no matter what time of year it is – a sunny start-off point sadly does not guarantee a sunny summit – add a hat, gloves and a scarf to the rucksack and you’ll be glad of them if the weather suddenly turns. We’ve learned also over many years of hiking with our boys too that spare socks are always handy and we always leave a spare set of clothes, towels, water and a hot drink in the car for each member of the family – driving home shivering cold in wet clothes is miserable, not to mention stinky! Also, it is worth investing in a decent First Aid Kit to keep in your rucksack and that you know how to use – the reality is that little kids (and big kids too) slip and fall and cuts and bruises are going to happen – best to be prepared. A couple of torches are also useful because during the winter months, the daylight can turn to pitch dark very quickly and early – with no streetlights to guide you this can be a little scary so better to be prepared in my opinion…plus kids love to wear a headtorch – it makes them feel like a proper explorer!
And of course…FOOD & WATER…! We love hard-boiled eggs, mixed nuts, veggie sticks, fruit & of course sandwiches! Hiking uses a lot of energy so it’s really important to bring food that will give you the fuel you need as well as plenty of water to stay hydrated. Don’t forget a few treats too!
EYES ON THE GAME…
Hiking as a family is really exciting and fun, otherwise we wouldn’t do it, right? It’s a big adventure, time away from homework and screens and the washing machines and endless chores. It’s a total BUZZ. While parents often have their eyes on the prize – the summit and the promised views – kids often want to explore and are less bothered about getting to the top. I would say go with the flow…let them explore, let their curiosity be piqued, experience the freedom…that way they’ll want to return another day! As long as you’re making sure your kids are within your sight at all times and they aren’t playing hide n’ seek off the edge of a cliff or into a fast-flowing river then everyone can have a good time. Stick to the trails and let them study the insects and plants along the way and when little legs get tired, or if the weather suddenly changes, then it’s perfectly okay to turn around and go back the way you came – the mountain will still be there on your next visit and you’ll be feeling more confident each time you return and ready to trek a little further and higher. There’s no shame in taking your time and building up your experience – in fact, knowing your limits and when to head for home is wiser than ploughing on and getting lost or injured.
BRING THE FUN
While chatting with my own sons the things they remember most about their hikes as smaller children is taking along their binoculars, magnifying glasses, sketch pads and imaginations – we would spend hours making up games, doodling what they spotted and barely cover any distance at all…but it didn’t matter in the slightest. They were learning so much in those early days about appreciating the landscape, what lives and grows in the mountains, the names of the summits in the far-off distance, how to tread carefully in a wild space as well as building their own stamina and love for hiking. Now when we are out walking in the Mournes I often hear a sentence begin with ‘Do you remember that time…’ as they point towards a place that holds fond memories for them…that’s precious!
‘Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos, kill nothing but time’
While it is great to see so many people out and about exploring now that lockdown has eased off a little, there has been a noticeable increase in rubbish left in the mountains over the past few weeks which is really sad and unsightly, but, it is also potentially hazardous to livestock and wildlife and the unique biodiversity of the the mountains. It’s good to bear in mind the Leave No Trace principles as we all want to be able to access and enjoy the mountains for generations to come.
THE 7 PRINCIPLES OF LEAVE NO TRACE ARE:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Be considerate of others
- Respect farm animals and wildlife
- Travel and camp on durable ground
- Leave what you find
- Dispose of waste properly (this includes taking home fruit peelings)
- Minimise the effects of fire
You can visit Leave No Trace Ireland to learn more.
A note about dogs and car-parking…
Much of the lower levels of the Mournes is working farmland so it is really important for dogs to be kept on leads at all times in the hills. Even the sight of a dog can cause a sheep to miscarry and dogs running off-lead can cause real issues, no matter how obedient they may be usually. In recent weeks too there has been a serious increase in traffic blocking roads due to carparks overflowing – this can block farmers’ access as well as that of the Emergency Services – so if you can’t park safely where you had intended you might be wise to find another place to park or return on another day – yes this can be disappointing but the mountains will still be there next week!
THE THINGS I NEVER GO HIKING WITHOUT CHECKLIST:
- Loo roll and a rubbish bag – it’s inevitable that kids will need the toilet when you’re halfway up a hill – no problem to go alfresco – you just have the fun task of taking it all home with you, or burying the poop and taking the paper (spade needed)!
- Snacks and water – hiking in the hills is hungry and thirsty work after all!
- Spare socks – feet get soggy, simple, having a few spare pairs is always handy!
- A raincoat – it’s Northern Ireland so no need to say anymore on this one!
- First Aid Kit, map and torch – slips and scrapes will happen so make sure you’ve plenty of wipes, plasters and bandages, that you know where you’re going and can see the way!