How to Choose Your Hill

I’ve been thinking back over all our family walks to try and work out what it is that turns a good hill walk into a great hill walk. There are lots of factors that influence this but, beyond ensuring that you’ve got the right skills and equipment, perhaps one of the most important is your choice of hill.

How to Choose Your Hill

I don’t just mean ensuring that you choose something appropriate for the weather conditions and the amount of daylight available – although those things are really important. It’s more about a belief that small is beautiful when children are involved: it is much more rewarding to reach the top of a ‘small’ hill than it is to trog up a big one with no hope of reaching the summit. It really is no fun having to crack such a pace that you have to nag at everyone to hurry up and to keep going, and it’s no fun being constantly nagged or hurried along either. And there are lots of things you can do to make a ‘small’ hill seem like a big one.

So, how big should this ‘small’ hill be? ‘Small’ is, after all, a relative term. Well, you simply pick what you think is a modest objective set against the ability of your party. A good starting point might be to aim for a route that’s about 6-7 kilometres long and involves no more than 400 metres of ascent. This might not sound very ambitious, but Naismith’s Rule assumes that a fit adult walks at five kilometres an hour and takes an extra hour for every 600 metres of ascent. A family is probably not going to move anything like as quickly as that. If you assume that your family walks at three kilometres per hour and takes an extra hour for every 400 metres of ascent, then that 6-7 kilometres with 400 metres of ascent is going to take at least three hours – and probably four hours once you’ve allowed time for stops, breaks, and distractions.

So, what should you look for in this ‘small’ hill? A definite summit, with a fantastic view and perhaps a trig point, makes a great objective and ensures a real sense of achievement when you get there. It doesn’t matter if the hill itself has no name. Look carefully at almost any Ordnance Survey map and you’ll probably find there are viewpoints and trig points you hadn’t even noticed before – even in areas you think you know well.

Once you have your ‘small’ hill and your route, you can think about how you are going to maximise the chances that every member of the party will enjoy the walk. Staying broadly together is an important part of this, and by tailoring the weight carried by each person you can make it more likely that everyone will walk at a similar speed. Perhaps, from the map, you can spot ways to make the same walk more or less challenging for different abilities. You might be able to pick out places where you could entertain older children while you wait for the younger members of the family time to catch up. Features – such as caves, arches, or waterfalls – are good for this. You might do some easy scrambling, some stone-skimming, or play pooh-sticks. Perhaps the faster members of the group might have to walk back towards the slower members of the group and cover the same ground twice. Perhaps the younger ones will be encouraged if you announce a competition to reach the top, and then engineer it so that they win.

I had never heard of Gummer’s How until the day we climbed it. I got out the Ordnance Survey map that morning to look for a good objective for James and Little Brother, two Mummies, and two Daddies each of whom had a two-year-old in a child carrier. I spotted a conical hill at the southern end of Lake Windermere which – at 321 metres high – was definitely ‘small’. There was our objective. It could be approached through woods which should provide plenty of interest; the map and contours suggested there would be some easy scrambling; and its summit offered a 360-degree view and was capped by a trig point. There was our route. And with a few of the tricks described above, Gummer’s How provided a great hill walk for everyone in our party!

How do you choose your hill?

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About the Author

Helen & Ian

Helen & Ian

About Me & Mine

Hi there! Helen and Ian here from the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border! We have two boys who love everything in the Great Outdoors (especially sticks), and a border collie who also loves everything in the Great Outdoors (especially tennis balls). We also have a toddler daughter who is fiercely independent and proving to be just as intrepid as her brothers.

Favourite place in the world:

A difficult one... There are so many wonderful places to choose from... But it has to be Sandwood Bay in the far north-west of Scotland which can only be reached by a 4-mile walk. Last time we went it was a full-on winter mountaineering experience (with ice axe and crampons!) just to get there. Wild and windswept, it's totally unspoilt.

Favourite things to do outdoors:

Enjoy beaches, woods, and coastal paths; explore waterways in our open canoe; go for a big day out on a small hill; go rock climbing; collect sticks, conkers, and acorns; investigate puddles and rockpools; ride our tandem; fly a kite against a clear blue sky.

Comments (2)

  • Jennie Abell

    Jennie Abell

    11 May 2018 at 15:48 | #

    Love your article it made me chuckle I think you should propose a Naismith variant for children you might get it in the Summer ML syllabus. We have limited mountain choice up here; very few paths, tough difficult not child friendly terrain under foot, midges, wind and rain! Our hills are chosen only if they provide bacon sandwiches on top care of useful light weight stove equipment!


    • Helen and Ian

      Helen and Ian

      11 May 2018 at 17:43 | #

      Midges! Oh dear, they are such a scourge. They are such a menace when climbing as they love exposed ankles: we used to add at least one grade for the ‘Midge Factor’. The children haven’t yet experienced ‘proper’ midges yet, and so have no idea...


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