I have been meaning to write this blog post for quite a while now, and, after chatting with some of the ladies from my Wild Women hiking group at the weekend about my favourite bits of kit and things I never leave the house without when heading for the hills, thought it was finally time I put it all in one place for you to easily access! Here goes…
So, you’ve decided you’re going to go hiking in the hills and your mind immediately springs to what you will need to wear and what you will need to bring with you. In my experience there are two types of people when it comes to getting ready for a day’s mountain walking…those that pack everything but the kitchen sink (naming no names but you know who you are!) and those that show up with a bar of chocolate and a jacket! I jest of course, but it can be tricky to get it ‘just right’ and it does really take spending time hiking for real to figure out what you personally actually need and use and also cover all bases in case an emergency should arise.
I’ve been hiking in the Mournes on and off since my childhood and have many happy memories of exploring there and rolling down hills without all the technical gear we have access to nowadays! As a Mum of 3 now myself I have been adventuring in the Mournes with my own children for over ten years and we have pretty much figured out the essential kit that works for us. And, believe me when I say you DO NOT need to empty your bank account in order to stock up on some decent gear that will last you for years and throughout the seasons here in Northern Ireland, which as we know can all be experienced in a day! There are many, many options on the market these days – in fact there’s so much to choose from it can be a little overwhelming when you’re first embarking on hiking. But, a little research goes a long way and expensive does not always mean better. Honour your own budget, get the things you need for you and your family within your own personal price range and build it up gradually over time. For that reason in this post I am not recommending specific brands, because what works for one person is not necessarily the right fit for another.
MY GO-TO HIKING ESSENTIALS:
RUCKSACK – Naturally, you’re going to need something to carry all your gear in. Try and find a reasonable size rucksack that has additional side pouches for easy access to all your ‘odds and ends’ and that comes with a waterproof cover, or use a dry liner. Keep in mind that you will have this on your back for hours at a time over undulating terrain so don’t go ‘supersize’ and aim to get something that has padded shoulder straps and additional straps to go around your waist to increase support and comfort.
BOOTS – This is probably the one item of my kit that I consider to be a real investment and don’t mind spending a little extra on. I have tried out MANY pairs of hiking boots over the years and have finally found a brand that is a good fit for me. I cover a lot of miles each year so want a pair of boots that can hold up well, that are waterproof and of course comfortable. There are so many types of boots in the outdoors marketplace that it can be a bit of a minefield to navigate and the online hiking forums continually have discussions about the ‘best boots’ or ‘how much you should spend’, and while these conversations can be helpful, they don’t match trying footwear on in the shop and testing them for real on the trails. It can be a case of trial and error so I wouldn’t splash the cash too much until I had tried a few basic pairs out for shape and performance first. You’ll soon know what does and doesn’t work for you and when the boot fits perfectly it will be like a sparkling Cinderella-glass-slipper moment, you’ll just know – ah, the romance!
LAYERED CLOTHING – Layers, layers, layers…it’s the only way to dress for the hills! Base layer, t-shirt, fleece/hoodie, gilet, down jacket, waterproof jacket…and that’s only the top half covered! But seriously, it is way easier to cool down than it is to warm up in my experience. I have been caught out more than once by not having enough clothing on or with me and it is totally miserable. Standing atop a mountain in full-on blizzard conditions and shivering with the cold is not fun in the slightest and it’s also dangerous. At risk of sounding like your granny, wear more than you think you need and you can easily shed a layer if you become too warm.
SOCKS – Good quality hiking socks are a game-changer in my humble opinion! You want comfort that lasts all day long and fabric that is moisture-wicking. You can’t go too far wrong with a nice pair of merino wool socks and ALWAYS pack a spare pair or two just in case. The number of times I’ve ended up knee deep in boggy ground and not had a change of socks is ridiculous, funny for onlookers, but for me not so much. A change of socks when you’re feeling weary and grimed to the eyeballs can surprisingly lift your mood and help you find the strength to carry on when you’re feeling a bit ‘meh’!
FIRST AID KIT – It goes without saying that hiking and outdoorsy fun comes with risks so be prepared for trips and scrapes by making sure to always have at least a basic First Aid Kit with you. Know what’s in it. Know how to use the stuff in it. Replenish it when you take anything from it. Bumps and bruises are part and parcel of navigating any wild terrain so having some medical gear handy at all times gives you peace of mind that you can deal with a minor incident should it arise. Additionally: ensure your mobile phone is fully charged in case you need to make a call to the Emergency Services should a more serious accident occur.
HEADTORCH – Early morning hikes and winter hiking can involve walking in the dark sometimes so it’s useful to keep a torch or headtorch in your rucksack at all times. Bear in mind, there are no streetlights in the mountains so when darkness falls it is pitch dark and even the most experienced walkers can lose their bearings when visibility is diminished. Check your batteries before each trip too and bring spares in a dry bag so that you have peace of mind that your pathway will be well illuminated if you’re setting out early or returning in darkness.
MAP – A really good quality waterproof map is a worthwhile investment. I’ve had the same one for years and we use it all the time even when walking over familiar terrain. It’s good to know how to read a map and show others in your party where they are located. I also use my map at home to plot my routes well in advance.
WHISTLE – Whether hiking in a large group or solo a whistle is a cheap and handy gadget to have with you. If members of your party walk on ahead and you need to get their attention, a whistle carries way better in windy conditions than you hollering at the top of your lungs! It’s also useful as an emergency call should you get into a situation where you need help.
SUNSCREEN AND LIPBALM – Yep, even in winter! It’s amazing how quickly your skin can be burnt in the hills even in cooler weather and it often goes unnoticed if it’s breezy. It’s only when you look in the mirror later that night that your red face tells the story and by then it’s too late! A quick layer of sunscreen protects you from harmful UV rays and helps keep your skin moisturised. I always keep a little pot of lipbalm in my pocket also to stop my lips drying out and cracking in the harsher conditions.
SUNGLASSES – Again, these feature all year round…even in Northern Ireland! The winter sun, lower in the sky, can be as absolutely blinding as summer sun and so severe on the eyes that I find it hard to walk without sunglasses on most of the time. Even bright white clouds make me squint with discomfort so sunglasses stay in my rucksack all the time as I more often than not need them while out hiking!
HAT, SNOOD, GLOVES – They’ll be on, they’ll be off, multiple times..! But, it’s better to have them with you and have the option at least than to not have them at all. I tell people repeatedly that the conditions at the bottom of a mountain are usually very, very different from summit conditions and in more cases than not I am usually very grateful to have a hat with me, even in the summer months. Snoods are great for keeping your neck warm and from stopping the wind blowing down your back and often double up as a headband/ear warmer. Trying to do anything with cold hands is nearly impossible – simple things like unclipping your rucksack, opening your flask for a hot drink, zipping up your coat quickly become challenging when your mitts are chilly, so keep them warm and you’ll be able to look after yourself and your friends.
WATERPROOFS – A waterproof jacket and a pair of waterproof trousers make all the difference if you get caught in a downpour I can tell you! Getting soaked to the skin is rotten at the best of times but half-way up a mountainside is 10 times worse! You will cool down really quickly if you are drenched and that can escalate into a serious situation pretty rapidly. Keeping a light set of waterproofs at the top of your rucksack means they will be handy to reach if the weather suddenly changes.
TISSUES/ WIPES/ PERIOD CARE PRODUCTS – Well, we’ve all got to pee/ poo and women have periods…it’s simply part of life and in my own experience there’s little more liberating than ‘a loo with a view’! Whistle a little tune while you tinkle, clean up and take your tissues/ wipes away with you for proper disposal. If you love the hills you will of course want to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles and it applies to your toileting waste too my friend!
RUBBISH BAG – For the aforementioned waste and any other rubbish you generate while hiking…this includes all food packaging PLUS fruit peel/ skins…Leave nothing but footprints take nothing but memories. Don’t be one of those crazy eejits that crams empty water bottles and banana skins into the Mourne Wall for someone else to clean-up after you – seriously, it’s not cool or funny and it is extremely harmful to wildlife not to mention a complete eyesore on our beautiful landscape. Rant over. But seriously, this matters a lot!
HAND SANITISER – There isn’t always the opportunity to wash your hands in a river so a little travel bottle of hand sanitiser is useful for post-pee, pre-eat cleaning! Enough said.
PROPER FOOD – It is really important to pack grub that’s going to give you the energy you need for your adventure. I usually have porridge for breakfast and tend to bring boiled eggs, hot soup, mixed nuts or trail mix, bananas, some dark chocolate and some mixed veg. I am more of a grazer and like to snack as I walk rather than have a big sit-down lunch stop, especially in winter when you cool down much quicker. Good, nutritious food can be all the difference between an enjoyable hike in the hills and a hangry expedition that makes you want to cry the whole time.
WATER – Make sure you bring enough water to see you through the duration of your hike but not so much that you can’t pick your rucksack up off the floor! Water is heavy! Some of my hiking friends opt for a camelbak to sip from as they walk but I prefer a couple of bottles on me and a spare one in the car to rehydrate on the drive home.
HOT DRINK – Ah, a nice cuppa tay goes a long way when out walking. It’s comforting, the perfect accompaniment for appreciating an idyllic vista and warms you up from the inside out on chillier days. Whether your tipple is tea, coffee or a cheeky hot chocolate it will never taste as good as it does on a mountainside I assure you!
SWEETS! – A handful of jellybeans has kept my kiddos going along many a trail when their little legs wanted to give up and I do think a couple of sweets in your pocket can be just the little energy boost any of us need when the going gets a bit tough!
TOWEL – A small microfibre towel doesn’t weigh a lot or take up much space in a rucksack but is really useful to have for impromptu paddles in a mountain stream or pool. This is such a refreshing thing to do towards the end of a lengthy hike and something my own 3 kids are quite partial to so I like to pack a little towel so that I can say ‘yes’ to these moments rather than ‘no’ and feeling like I’ve missed out!
A FEW EXTRAS FOR WINTER:
THERMAL LEGGINGS – I always wear a cosy pair of thermal leggings under my hiking trousers from around September onwards and am more often than not glad of them!
EXTRA LAYER OF CLOTHING – Clothes can get wet from the rain but also we can sweat a lot when hiking and that too can leave our clothes feeling damp and in turn cold. I do keep an extra top in my rucksack for such instances and while I do rarely have to use it, I like to know it’s there in case I do need it.
CHANGE OF CLOTHES – I don’t usually carry an entire change of clothes with me at all times, but in the cooler months I do leave a full set of snug clothes in my car to change into after my hike so that I am not travelling home in damp, dirty clothing. It feels so nice to change into something warm, clean and cosy, particularly after a long hike.
BEFORE I LEAVE THE HOUSE:
I check the weather forecast the night before and again on the morning of a planned hike and will always reassess that information in real-time once I get to my starting point. It’s easier to call off a hike and return another day if conditions aren’t suitable than it is to have to deal with an emergency situation.
I make sure someone knows of my planned route and expected return time and make sure I contact them as soon as I am safely off the mountain – peace of mind for you and your loved ones.
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