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Walking in the Lake District is fantastic with some of the best scenery that the UK has to offer. Majestic mountains like Helvellyn, swooping valleys, and waterfalls and rivers that cascade to gorgeous lakes.**
But, when you’re new to the Lake District or new to countryside walking, then it can feel quite daunting. It doesn’t have to be that way though. If you pick the right route, take the right gear, and prepare well then it will be an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.
I’ve written this guide based on my years of hiking through the stunning landscapes of the Lakes. I’m going to take you through a few of my favourite beginner walks in the region. Then I’ll discuss what you need to wear and take with you. Finally, we’ll look at how you should best prepare for your first Lakeland walking experience.
It’s going to be great!
Where to walk: Lake District walks for beginners
Firstly, let’s whet our appetites by seeing some of the best walks in the Lake District for beginners.
You’ll probably have heard the names of some of the biggest mountains in the region. Names like Scafell Pike (at 978m this is the highest peak in England) or Helvellyn (with its narrow ascent up Striding Edge). These are fantastic mountains to climb and the views from the top (on a clear day, of course) are amazing. However, if you don’t currently have the experience or confidence to tackle these peaks, then it’s best to work up to them with by getting a few, less severe but still great, walks under your belt.
So, what are some good options to start with when you’re beginning your Lake District ‘career’?
Well, despite being known for its fells and the stunning view from them, the Lake District has lots of easier lower level walks that are excellent for beginners looking to ‘dip a toe in the water’. These have the added benefit of giving you great views of the famous mountains and, much like a box of Quality Street, you can take your pick from the selection as to the one you’d like to work up to climbing.
My favourite beginner hike in the Lake District is actually probably my favourite hike in the Lakes full stop. It’s a hike up a hill called Cat Bells. Cat Bells is in the northern area of the Lakes and is just across Derwentwater from Keswick. I particularly like this hike because it feels like you’ve summited an actual mountain, which you have, even though it’s only 451m or 1481ft above sea level. The views all about of the surrounding hills and Derwentwater itself are incredible and yet it’s only a 3.5mile round trip from the water’s edge.
I’d recommend parking in Keswick itself (where parking is plentiful) then getting the ferry across to Hawes End pier for the start of the route. This avoids the parking at the foot of Cat Bells which is notoriously busy. I’ve got more details about this walk here.
Once you’ve seen a hilltop view, then it’s time to go and see one of the regions next best attractions – its waterfalls. And one of the best waterfalls (in my humble opinion) is Aira Force.
Feeding into Ullswater, Aira Force is a stunning waterfall with a 65ft drop. It’s best visited (as all waterfalls are) just after there’s been a good spell of rain, but at any time of year it’s great. The waterfall is only around a mile round trip from the carpark, but when I visit I like to do a larger circular walk that takes in nearby Gowbarrow fell. This takes the total distance up to 4.5miles or 7.2km via a well-marked path. As with any countryside hike make sure you have a suitable map with you. Ordnance Survey’s Explorer OL5 is perfect for this. You can find more details on this walk at the National Trust’s website here.
Hills, waterfalls, and finally history. Castlerigg Stone Circle is just outside Keswick and gives the opportunity to wander amongst the stones and look at the views of the surrounding hills, including Skiddaw and the distinctive profile of Blencathra. Possibly one of the oldest stone circles in the country, Castlerigg is a magical place. It’s also a popular one and it just off a quiet lane with limited parking. So it’s worth arriving early.
Whilst you can park your car and just nip across to take a look at the stones, I’d recommend making a day of it by extending your walk to a 4-mile loop that includes nearby Tewet tarn and up to the summit of Low Rigg. Not many people do this, so you’re likely to get it all to yourself and really be able to feel the peace and tranquillity of this area. You can find full details of the walk here and the best map to use is OL Explorer OL4.
What do you need to take with you?
Almost without exception the photos you’ll see of the Lake District will show it in full sunshine with clear blue skies. But don’t let this fool you. Whilst the Lakes gets plenty of sun, those lakes take a lot of rainwater to fill them up, so you need to be prepared for changeable weather conditions including rain and poor visibility.
Here is the kit that I take with me when I go for a walk in the Lakes. Bear in mind that I’ll take this kit at any time of year – even if it’s the height of summer I’ll have full waterproofs with me, for example. Whilst it might seem like a lot of kit, it’s best to be safe not sorry, and in any case you’ll be wearing most of it with only the remainder to go in a small day rucksack.
Walking boots – make sure these are comfortable. If you’ve bought new boots, then do a few local walks in them first to ‘break them in’ and ensure they fit well. I like leather boots, but you can also get fabric ones. If you have the budget then it’s worth investing in waterproof boots.
Waterproof jacket and over-trousers – there’s nothing more miserable than feeling the rain soaking through all your layers and running down your neck. Get a waterproof shell jacket that doesn’t have a fluffy inner lining – this will pack up smaller when not needed and allow you to ‘layer up’ with thin under layers so that you can regulate your temperature more easily. Over-trousers that zip most of the way up each leg make it easier to put them on and take them off whilst still wearing your hiking boots.
Warm mid layer – there are two main options here: a micro fleece and a down jacket. Top line, I used to be all about fleeces but I’m a recent convert to down jackets. I’ve written more about midlayers here.
Warm baselayer – this is the layer that goes next to your skin and traps a layer of warm air right next to you. We used to call them vests, but now we’ve gone all technical and call them baselayers. If you own a vest you can still use it! Otherwise pick up a top in either a synthetic fabric or fancier merino wool (I’m a big fan of merino wool as it needs less washing and doesn’t smell sweaty).
Comfortable walking trousers – comfort is key here and make sure that there’s plenty of room for movement.
Hat – whether or not we lose most heat out of the top of our heads like our mum’s told us, it pays to have a cosy hat to keep our ears (and head) warm. Anything goes here, although I’d steer clear of bobble hats as they don’t tend to sit well underneath walking jacket hoods.
Gloves – I find it’s best to have a pair that is waterproof and also touch-screen compatible. That way you won’t need to get your fingers warm on cold days when you have to take a selfie at the top of a mountain.
Walking socks – I’ve gone through a lot (like, an awful lot) of hiking socks in my time. I’ve tried a range of different brands, but I keep coming back to Darn Tough socks. Made in Vermont, these are part-Merino wool and (probably) part-magic. Comfy? Yes. Blisters? Never. Love ‘em.
Comfortable rucksack – the key here is not to go too big. 20-30L is perfect for a day hike. Any smaller than that and you’ll end up having to wrap waterproofs around your waist on warm days. Any larger than that and you’ll end up taking the kitchen sink with you ‘just in case…’ I usually use a rucksack that has both chest and waist straps as these help to pull in the shoulder straps and stop them cutting into you.
Food, water and a hot drink – don’t assume you’ll be able to pick supplies up where you’re going. Yes, there are plenty of excellent places to ‘re-fuel’ in the Lake District, but in some areas they can be more thin on the ground.
Emergency snacks – as my old Scout master used to tell me, emergency snacks are there for emergencies, not for wolfing down when you’ve eaten the rest of your food. Always keep an extra bar or something that is suitably calorie-dense. In the Lake District, I don’t think there’s anything more appropriate than Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake.
Local map and compass
Torch (with both fresh and spare batteries) – whilst walks can start in the daylight, it’s always worth having a torch handy in case you don’t get back to your start point before the sun sets. Useful for lighting your way and reading the map by.
Emergency whistle – for alerting people in case of emergency.
Basic First aid kit – to take care of anything from blisters to more serious injuries.
Survival bag – useful in case you or someone in your group is unable to walk and needs to wait until medical attention can arrive. Our bodies can get cold very quickly when not protected.
How to prepare for a walk in the Lake District
They say that Preparation And Planning Prevent, um, not very good, Performance. Having the right kit with you is an important part of that preparation. Let’s take a look at what else you need to do before starting off walking in the Lake District.
Check weather forecasts – as we know, the weather in this country can change quite frequently. Even more so when you’re in a region, like the Lakes, which is surrounded by tall mountains. The weather may look lovely when you’re tucking into your porridge at breakfast, but it can be lashing with rain and blowing a gale when you’re eating a (soggy) ham and cheese sandwich a few hours later. Before you set off, check the local weather forecast to see what the conditions are going to be like.
Learn how to read a map and compass – having a map and having a compass are a great starting point, but you also need to know how to use them. Don’t worry it’s not hard but it does take a little knowledge and practice. There’s a useful lesson on the Ordnance Survey website to show how this is done.
Know what to do in an emergency – if you have an emergency then the Mountain Rescue teams are able to assist. You can contact them by dialling 999 and asking for the police and then the Mountain Rescue service. If you are able to, you will need to give them the following information: your location, the details of your group (number, names, genders and ages), any injuries that your group has, your mobile phone number. In terms of location, it is best if you can give them a grid reference as this is the most accurate way of determining where you are
Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return – it’s always a good idea to tell someone your route details and approximate timings. That way, if you don’t come back by the time you say you will, they will be able to contact the emergency services. This can be a friend or family member, the owner of the B&B you’re staying in, or another appropriate person who can assist.
I can still remember the first time I went walking in the Lake District – it was when I was a scout and we were there on our annual scout camp and climbed up Helvellyn. Apart from the copious amounts of Kendal Mint Cake I ate that week, my main memory was the views from that hike. Truly stunning.
Walking in the Lakes can feel a wee bit scary when you’re just beginning. So much to take with you, so much preparation to do. But bear with it, because the experience of that first Lakeland walk will stay with you for a lifetime.
** although, of course, strictly speaking there is only one actual ‘lake’ in the Lake District. Bassenthwaite Lake, just near Keswick in the North, is the only lake in the region. The rest of them have alternative names for a body of water, such as ‘mere’ (as in Windermere) or ‘water’ (as in Derwentwater). This is a great fact that will make you look very clever the next time it comes up in a pub quiz you’re taking part in. [Head back to the top]