No facetious subtitle or opening remarks today, as this looks like being a long post, so I want to get straight into it. In my hillwalking, planning is the single most important factor in having a successful day’s walk. It’s also one of the most enjoyable parts too, and helps fill the gaps between proper walking trips quite nicely indeed.
Because I actually find the planning fun, and have the time in-between walking trips to do a thorough job on it, I do indeed do a thorough job on it, sometimes to the extent of having to hold myself back from over-planning. In this part, I’m going to share with you the various methods that I use to plan my walks, and how from a blank sheet, I stir into the plan the route, the peaks to visit, the travel, the accommodation, and the “what ifs”.
Why I plan so carefully
I’m hoping that anyone reading this, doesn’t need me to give a long rambling discourse (like in Part 1) on “why” planning is useful, even essential. But I’m going to at least make a few remarks on it. Here are a few of the reasons that I plan as thoroughly as I do.
- I don’t want to waste any of my time. I don’t get to the hills as often as I’d like, so each trip is precious, and the last thing I want is to come away disappointed that I’ve not made good use of the time. Planning helps me fill the time with walks to meaningful places and (usually) of manageable proportions.
- I don’t want to fail. Worse than feeling I’ve not done enough, is planning to do too much and then falling short. Planning helps me be realistic about what I can achieve.
- Walking is expensive, or at least certainly the way I do it. I usually walk alone, and travel to the hills by train (typically £80-100), get around by bus (say £25), stay in hostels (typically £15-25 a night with breakfast) or B&Bs (£30-40 a night) and eat out a lot (£10-20 a night). A week’s walking can cost £400. Planning helps me trim this down as far as possible. And if I’m prepared to camp, even wild camp, a bit more the cost can tumble. But this still needs planning.
- It gives me confidence for when things go wrong. If I have a plan, then when something goes wrong, it’s easy to work out how far off plan I am, which helps me find a workable way to get back on plan. Or if I can’t get back on plan, the work invested in planning is usually not wasted and helps me work out a revised plan on the spot.
- I can walk to my physical capabilities. I can plan a series of walks that match my level of fitness, and also reflect how that fitness improves, or deteriorates, over the course of a walking trip.
- It helps motivate. If I’ve planned walks that are within my capabilities, when I’m out on the walk, I believe myself when I’m flagging and tell myself that I can make it.
- Efficient peak-bagging. I’m working my way through the Wainwrights (158 out of 214 done) and the English Nuttalls (146 out of 253), but also keeping a note of the others (Marilyns, Birketts, Deweys etc). With limited time, I like to make my walks as rich with new peaks as possible. This also helps ensure that I don’t simply tread the same paths again and again.
- It builds my knowledge. All that time spent poring over maps does certainly make me more familiar with the hills, which itself probably helps my navigation when out on the hill. The research into where to stay can also often yield places I’d never have thought of, and open up new possibilities for the routes themselves. My Eskdale trip in July 2010 is a prime example of this. In the Lake District, it’s rare for me to mis-identify a fell now.
- I enjoy it. I’m a logical sort of chap, and my job involves creating order out of chaos. So whilst I may find elements of an individual plan frustrating to nail down, I still enjoy the problem-solving process.
- It helps pass the time when away from the hills. I’ve been known to work out hypothetical plans for walks I have a low likelihood of doing. Actually that’s how the Cumbria Way trip came about – as an exercise, I’d challenged myself to see if I could find a doable high level version of the route, without really intending to do the walk – and then when I was looking for a warm-up walk for a longer LDP, this one came back to me.
I could probably go on for hours about why I do the planning, but will leave it at this top ten. I think you’ll get the gist.
How I Plan
As a project manager, I’m used to being dealt a hand where certain aspects of a project are already fixed – certainly the scope and quite often the timescale too. Whilst these reduce my flexibility in planning, what they do is provide certainty on which to build the rest of the plan. Having something fixed reduces the number of options to consider and focusses your efforts. So my walk planning approach is based on using the fixed aspects and then filling in the gaps. Where there’s nothing fixed, I then try to nail down the thing with fewest possibilities to get me a firm base to start with.
This is usually the travel – taking a trip to the Lakes as an example, there are really only 3 options – Penrith, Windermere and one of the stations on the coastal loop. I usually have a rough idea of which side of the Lakes I want to be, and so I usually try to work out which of Penrith and Windermere it will be – sometimes it’s both. Accommodation is then usually the next variable to be defined and then finally the walks themselves.
From the initial idea to executing the walk, it typically follows this pattern:
- The initial idea. An idea pops into my head (usually in the shower or whilst walking to/from work), and soon after I do a rough feasibility study – I map a rough route on Anquet or think about whilst standing in front of my Lake District, Nuttalls or Long Distance Path wallcharts. Really, this is just about working out if it’s a silly idea or something that might fly.
- Timing. I work out how long I will need for the walk(s), including travel time. Then I see where I can fit it in on the calendar. This might result in me shifting some booked leave, or amending the trip to fit better.
- Logistics research. Once I have an idea of timing, especially the travel days, I look at travel options, and especially with a view to minimising the cost. Sometimes, the difference in train ticket costs is so big that I change the start and end days to fit the cheaper prices. If the trip is more than a couple of months away, I work on the assumption that the pricing pattern will be about the same each week/month and simply use the furthest out timings I can when doing the research.
- Make an assumption about what type of trip it will be – based all in one place or a trek ? Camping or fixed roof accommodation ? A mixture ?
- Accommodation research. Having now worked out the start and end timings and locations for the walk/trip, I can now think about breaking it down into a day at a time. Based on the rough idea for the walk route, I assess where the problem areas are for accommodation, and work out availability for those first – sometimes one night’s accommodation drives the planning of the whole trip (for example, usually a night at Black Sail YHA). Sometimes, this also leads to changing the plan when I can’t get accommodation at all where I want. I also make sure I have some alternatives just in case my number one choices are booked up.
- Now I consider my walk routes taking into account the accommodation constraints. I might change the route, or the order of days to better fit my preferred accommodation choices.
- I cycle around steps 2 to 6 as many times as necessary to refine the plan.
- At some point, I become sufficiently certain to book the accommodation, starting with the most critical nights. Nights in large towns are generally left to last. On a linear walk, it will tend to be booked chronologically.
- I book the travel and collect the tickets.
- From a master list that I have, I produce a gear list for the trip, making sure I include anything not provided by the accommodation. I also create a shopping list.
- Whilst all of this has been taking place, I’ve been keeping a note of costs. I now update it and record the deposits I’ve paid, make a note of how I need to pay for each night’s accommodation, and formulate a plan for drawing cash out – to make sure I always have enough to last until the next cash point, but don’t carry too much.
- I now plan each day’s walk in more precise detail, and wherever possible, come up with alternatives – for extending the walk, making it shorter, or for total escape if it goes tits up. I also look to have spare alternative walks in case conditions force a change on me. Where I’m going to be staying in one place for multiple nights, I essentially produce a menu of walks that I’ll choose from whilst on the trip.
- I print out an information pack with any bus or train timetables, accommodation confirmations, bagging lists, town street maps that I may need, my menu of walks, my itinerary, my gear list. I will take this with me and make notes for future reference on it as I go.
- I either print maps from Anquet, or use actual maps, depending on the circumstances – the aim being to save as much weight as possible. Typically, in the Lake District I don’t take the actual OS Explorers unless I’m staying on one map only. I generally print sheets from Anquet and take my Harvey’s Lake District Atlas with me.
- I monitor the weather conditions in the week before the trip, and adjust my gear list and walk plans if necessary.
- I pack and go.
- On the trip, I make notes on my information pack to help with future planning.
So that’s the general approach, which I’ve refined over the years – in project management terms, this is my project process or methodology. Now I’m going to talk about route-planning in more detail.
Notwithstanding the general planning process I described above, how I plan the actual walks varies depending on what I’m aiming to do, for instance:
- an official long distance path, or section of one,
- general peak bagging,
- a trek or long distance walk that I’ve come up with myself.
- Planning each stage is a lot easier than planning the whole thing in one go.
- Stage end points, especially if towns, are recovery points – if a stage goes pear-shaped, I can generally recover the rest of the walk from those points.
- When out on the walk, I try to only focus on the immediate stage and this helps with the motivation and progress.
- If when planning the trip I find I can’t fit it all in, I might decide instead to do one or more stages rather than the whole thing. Indeed, this is how I have planned the North Downs Way.
- If I plan as stages, I’m more likely to put effort into making each stage special in its own right, so am less likely to get a boring patch. Indeed, for a really long walk, this could be critical to the desire to continue.
Method 1: The route is already defined
Surely nothing to plan then ? Wrong. The route may be defined, but I still have to work out how much I can do each day, where I break for overnight stops, do I need to find accommodation off-path, and how does the travel to/from the walk affect the timings.
But as I said before, planning is usually helped by having something fixed to work with, and so this is the easiest type of walk to plan.
Because it can be trying to have to plan 5 or 6 days of linear walk together, with a problem with the route for one day, rippling through all the others, it’s important to break the problem down to a more manageable size. Typically, the big issue with this sort of walk is accommodation – availability in the places I expect to break overnight. If there’s a big town or somewhere I can be guaranteed accommodation then I work on the assumption that won’t be a problem and treat that as a stage end. Then I can focus on the two smaller chunks of walk and plan those independently of each other.
This method is how I plan the annual SWCP section. The route is defined (duh, the coast!), but in places the accommodation can be sparse. In the first year, I needed to find somewhere around Kimmeridge to stay on night 2 and it’s pretty deserted there relative to the rest of the path. Complicated by the need for the following day’s walk to be on a saturday or sunday because of the Lulworth firing range closure times. A farmhouse a mile inland turned out to be the only option, and as a result the rest of the walk was planned around this. This farmhouse was a stage end, and once I’d locked this down, I could plan the rest of the walk chronologically.
Also, now that I’m on the further away part of the North Downs Way, it only makes sense to do 2 day walks, so I have planned stages built around those points on the walk close to stations.
Method 2: Dot to Dot
Sometimes, I simply want to create a route that joins up certain places, so the objective of the route plan is to find a route that sequences these points logically and fits with accommodation locations. This is the typical peak bagging trip, where the dots are the summits, and I’m aiming to join them up in the most efficient way, using ridge lines and start/end points generally on a bus route or at a remote hostel. Here stages are defined largely by the start and end points. Sometimes I stay in each place two nights in which case each two night trek – the walk in from the previous place, then the circular day walk – form the stage. I did this on my Lake District trip back in July and it worked well.
This is the method I’m using to plan my personalised coast to coast walk for, hopefully, 2012. I’ll create stages – probably something like: The Lakes, the Pennines, Hadrian’s Wall, The Cheviots. Then I can plan each part individually. Within each stage I’ve identified things I want to include – some unbagged Wainwrights and Outlying Fells in the Lakes, High Cup Nick and Cross Fell in the Pennines, Hadrian’s Wall, Windy Gyle and The Cheviot, Holy Island. The actual route will be created by joining these up with the overnight locations.
Method 3: Hybrid method
This one is a blend of the first two. This comes in when I’m planning a walk based loosely around an official route, but want to make some changes – for example to detour to bag some peaks close to the route. So I start with the official route , identify the extra points I want to visit and then divert the official route to join these points up. This is exactly how I planned the Cumbria Way trip for March/April 2011. I tweaked the official route to take in the Beacon Fell group of outlying Fells, Holme Fell (and Black Fell which I didn’t bother with on the day), Latrigg, Bakestall, and to add in an extra couple of days exploring Back o’ Skidda. It worked brilliantly, and for me is much better than just blindly sticking to the official route.
But that’s not it…
By now having read through this, you’re probably as tired as I am having written this. So I’ll draw it to a close and just highlight that in my planning discussion above, I’ve made some references to things changing or going wrong on the walk. So the next part will look at these more closely – how I try to avoid things going wrong, how I react when they go wrong nonetheless, and what happens when I decide to alter the plan in the field – or in project management speak: risks, issues and changes.