This post is about five great walks in the Lakes, and how you can plan a safe, fun hike that takes in the National Park’s natural beauty.
A hike in the Lake District is the perfect day trip for expats based in the North West of England. At 900 square miles there are many different types of terrain to explore – from flat lowlands, to rocky fells (small mountains). You’ll walk rolling green hillsides, on your way to giant glacial bodies of water (tarns) and waterfalls. Whether you are an accomplished hiker, or you have major mobility issues there are walks suitable for everyone.
The National Park is a particularly ideal day trip for people based near Manchester, Leeds and Durham. My friend Nick Tipping is no stranger to the Lake District, having been on dozens of hikes there over the years. He kindly agreed to share his experience of planning walks in the Lakes – I think partly because he’s hoping to inspire me to do MY first hike in the Lake District. I must admit, after looking at the beautiful photos he brought back, I’ve already looked up the travel route 😉 🤫
I’ve written before about ‘inside’ activities you can do in Greater Manchester. In this post you’ll find the other end of the spectrum. What to do in the great English outdoors.
What to pack for a hike in the Lake District
Preparation is key to a successful hike. Pack too much, and you end up carrying unnecessary weight that will slow you down and could be dangerous. But, pack too little, and you could end up dehydrated, wet through and cold, with a growling stomach, a sprained ankle, and a GPS that just ran out of power!
OK, I may have let my imagination run away with me for a moment. But, you get the general idea. I asked Nick what he would recommend being packed. Boots? Walking poles? A map and compass? He had this to say:
“Boots are kind of optional – if it’s really dry it’s not 100% necessary. Some places are quite rocky, so will mess up your trainers. I would say take a bag with: 2 litres of water, snacks, sandwiches, raincoat. Maybe a spare base-layer, gloves and hat, if you tend to get cold. Also, suncream if you are a piece of gammon like me.”
“Cat [a mutual friend] is a pro with walking sticks. Also, I had a good chat with a maddie old guy who said you should start using them as early as possible because they save your knees going downhill. Apparently ones with cork handles are the best. Most one day hike bags (Mandy [his partner] just bought the Osprey Hikelite 26 litre) have loops so you can stow them on the way up.”
Take a compass and map if that makes you feel comfortable. Personally, I always felt more prepared on my own Dartmoor hikes, knowing that if I got lost, I’d have something to help me get back on course. Although, depending on your route through the Lakes, and the popularity of the area it may not be absolutely necessary.
Before drawing up a list of items to take on your hike in the Lake District, ask yourself some key questions: Have you checked the mountain weather forecast? What type of ground will you cover during your walk? Boggy? Rocky? Something else? Your answers will affect the final packing list. But, to aid you along, I’ve created the table below. It lists the items Nick takes on hikes, and has a column of items recommended on the Lake District National Park’s website.
|Items to pack||Nick’s List||LDNP’s List|
|Food / Sandwiches||Yes||Yes|
|Additional Base layer||Yes||Yes|
|Whistle and torch||–||Yes|
|First aid kit||–||Yes|
How to decide on the perfect route
You’ve already checked the weather forecast for the day of your hike, using the Mountain Weather Information Service or Weatherline. So, you have a good idea of whether any particular walks should be ruled out straightaway. For example, torrential rain in the afternoon is not the best time to attempt to conquer Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain.
Now, it’s time to be honest about your fitness level. Or, at least, the fitness level of your entire group. Are there some people who might struggle to walk beyond an hour? What about walking up elevated ground? Any members of the party who are scared of heights, walking past sheer drops, or having to scramble over loose rock? Be honest with yourself, and have honest, non-judgemental conversations with your walking friends – one-on-one if necessary. This will help ensure that you all have the best possible experience on the day, and don’t have to stop and turn back prematurely.
How are you going to visit the Lake District? Will you have use of a car? Although, there are handy bus routes to different parts of the national park, and there are train routes to Oxenholme, Windermere, and to Penrith – where you can connect to Keswick – this is one of the rare occasions when I’d recommend driving. You’ll see later on how Nick was able to start his hikes from good positions, due to the freedom of having driven to the Lake District.
Points of interest
Perhaps you’ve heard of particular walks you’d like to try? Or, maybe you’ve spotted beautiful photos of some not-so-hidden gems you’d like to visit, like Aira Force? Now you know what you’d like to take in, initially, I’d google to find out what proven walks people have done that take in the beauty spot you are hoping to visit. Take out an ordnance survey map and plan out a route that will either allow you to pass through that area, or do a circular route around a particular feature.
If you have no specific beauty spots in mind, why not try reading up on different walks and see what takes your fancy? Nick likes using WalkLakes. You can actually use the menu to filter walks by difficulty ratings, either: gentle, easy, moderate, serious or challenging. And, from the photo above, you can see he’s also a big fan of the Wainwright Walking Guides:
Eastern Fells; Far Eastern Fells; Central Fells and Southern Fells. The major benefit of such paperbacks being that you can take them along on your hike, as reference material.
However, if you prefer the convenience of online route planning, Walking Britain is another useful site for finding walks. Type in a location, and the interactive map will close in on walks nearby. For example, entering “Keswick, Cumbria” will find a good number of Lake District hikes – including some of those featured below, in the next section. Just zoom in on the interactive map to get a good look at each location, complete with contour lines marking out the steepest parts of each path.
Walking Englishman is another good site, if you’re determined to do a Wainwright walk. Routes come complete with the Ordnance Survey (OS) grid references found on maps for the British Isles. It also gives you the longitude and latitude co-ordinates, and details which Wainwright book to refer to for a particular walk. Very handy.
Once your choice is made
“Read the route beforehand so you know where you are going”, advises Nick. “The 3D terrain maps on WalkLakes are good for that”. But, he also has this warning for anyone still reacquainting themselves with physical activity since coronavirus lockdown i.e. the ‘Covid-unfit’:
“The times they give on most [walking] sites are based around a really fit person striding up like a nutter. So you need to nearly double them – e.g. it said St Sunday Crag would be 4 hours 10 minutes, and it took us 7.5 hours – with a break – although that one was a bit extreme”.
Now that you and your party have decided on a walking route be sure to tell people where you’re planning to go, and when you expect to be back. As an expat, your circle of friends may still be quite small. Indeed, all of your friends may be coming with you on the hike! If you don’t have anyone to tell, before you travel to the Lake District, then ask your hiking group to give your expected return details to people THEY know. It’s also worth stopping by one of the national park’s Visitor Information Centres before your walk to tell them where you are off to, and pick up any useful information. There are three different centres.
Finally, if you haven’t already, take a moment to read through the Countryside Code.
Five hikes in the Lake District (+ difficulty ratings)
Below are five potential walks for you to consider taking. All photos are courtesy of Nick, who went on each hike with his partner and/or friends from work.
Aira Force is a waterfall near Ullswater. You can read about it in Book One of Wainwright’s series, Eastern Fells. The water of the Aira Beck plummets dramatically around 20 meters into the plunge pool below. This is a very popular place to visit, given the relative ease of the walk and the tourist-friendly facilities to hand. Perhaps the easiest way to access the waterfall is by parking your vehicle in the Aira Force car park on the shores of Ullswater, then walking up. But, parking spaces fill up quickly, so you’ll need to get there early.
Whilst many visit just for Aira Force itself, you may also use it as the first major stop on your way to High Force waterfall, or 481m up to the summit of Gowbarrow Fell.
Total time: 40 minutes
Total distance: 1 mile (1.6km)
Terrain: Some steep paths
The Grasmere to Easedale Tarn walk will see you walking through meadows and past farmland dotted with grazing cattle. You’ll see waterfalls, as Sour Milk Gill – the outflow of Easedale Tarn – tumbles down rocks.
Whilst pushchairs are a bad idea, kids five years and up should be able to handle this walk. Although, it’s usually best to prepare for some piggy backs.
Once you reach Easedale Tarn, whip out your sandwiches and have a picnic in the pleasant tranquility. Nick points out that Tarn Crag (Easedale) is the fell in the background, behind the tarn, in the image above.
Total time: 4 hours
Total distance: 5.3 miles (8.5km)
Terrain: Some stepped and rocky paths
I actually had difficulty finding a good starting point for this walk during my research. It doesn’t seem to have been written about nearly as much as Easedale Tarn, or other bodies of water. So, I turned to Nick for more details.
“Red Tarn is more complicated. There’s a ton of routes up. We went from Glenridding, though”. You can see the exact route, towards Striding Edge, they took in the gallery above. It’s marked in pink on an OS map.
Nick continues: “Nothing about it is complicated but it took us 7.5 hours and it nearly broke Alexa’s boyfriend who was wearing Converse. We didn’t carry on to Helvellyn via Striding edge which we had planned to do. Alexa didn’t bring nearly enough water so it prob worked out okay”.
The summer heat on the day, forced them to take several breaks during their journey. So, Nick reckons it could comfortably be done an hour quicker, in cooler weather. “Plus like I say, we spent AGES at the tarn”.
“The walk down from Red Tarn via the valley is also much easier than the way we came down… I’m planning to go back next year and stay the night, so there’s time to do Helvellyn properly”.
Total time: 7.5 hours
Total distance: 6.5 miles (10.5 km),
Terrain: Clear paths, but some steep going
St Sunday Crag
This walk began from the car park in Patterdale. It’s a similar difficulty and terrain to the Red Tarn walk above. But, the mere heights you’ll need to walk up, can make it feel tougher. At 841 meters tall, you may want to take regular breaks, as Nick and his friends did.
If you are intending to drive, please note that the parking situation in Patterdale is very popular on the weekends, and on bank holidays. So, either plan to arrive early. Or, make your way to Penrith and take the bus directly to Patterdale. Needs must!
This is the walk Nick referred to as being listed completed at an insanely quick pace on walking websites (4h 10m). St Sunday Crag is an intermediate climb where you might come across cattle and sheep. So, best for dogs that are well trained and experienced at hikes with their human.
Total time: 7.5 hours
Total Distance: 6.5 miles (10.5 km)
Terrain: Rough, boggy in places. And, steep going
An easy walk, that beginners should enjoy. Given some of the slight ‘scrambly parts’ and a height of 451 metres, this may not suit people with mobility issues, though. The Catbells Lakeland Walk draws many hikers given the beautiful views of the Derwentwater, and beyond.
This is a relatively short, and pleasant amble from Hawes End. Although, given the popularity of this walk, the Hawes End car park (postcode CA12 5UE) is another one that fills up pretty quickly. There are a number of different options when hiking to the top of this Wainwright peak. Nick and his hiking group decided not to use the car park, just mentioned:
“There wasn’t really a town nearby – we parked on the street near the bottom. I think if you didn’t have a car you can get the boat from Keswick to Hawes End and start from there. I would say the most obvious named starting point is Hawes End. But, the road we parked on is a bit further up and closer to where it gets interesting“.
You’ll find this hill described in books about the North Western Fells.
Total time: 3 hours
Total distance: 4 miles (6.4km)
Terrain: Minimal scrambling, some steep parts
For those with visual impairments, mobility issues, or even parents with a pushchair, there are more accessible paths that offer beautiful views. The Lake District website has a section called ‘Miles without Stiles’, detailing 48 walks that are more accessible for people with mobility issues – or perhaps parents with pushchairs. You can view the walks on the National Park’s .gov website. Alternatively, a list of the 48 routes can currently be purchased for £5.00. Contact their head office for more information:
You can hire all-terrain mobility scooters, electric wheelchairs and trampers from a few specific places in the national park.
I’ve included some examples of Miles without Stiles walks below so you can get an idea of the types of routes available:
Walk 6: Windermere’s Western Shore:
Distance: 5.5 miles (8.9km)
Terrain: Lake-side meadows
Accessibility: For many abilities
Walk 11: Elterwater to Skelworth Bridge:
Distance: 2.4 miles (3.9km)
Terrain: Lakeside meadows
Accessibility: For all / For many
Walk 13: Tarn Hows
Distance: 1.8 miles (2.9km)
Terrain: Smooth compacted stone/dust circular path. Plenty of benches and sitting spots around the water
Accessibility: For all / For many
Guided hikes in the Lake District
Sometimes, the perfect hike is one that experienced professionals organise for you! If you agree with this sentiment, you might prefer to pay for a guided hike, complete with arranged travel – like ones you can take from Manchester. A full-day 10 Lakes tour from Manchester is currently £51, and takes about 9 hours.
What to do if you get into trouble on a hike
Sometimes, even with the best preparation, occasionally things can still go wrong. Flash floods, for example, and other quick weather changes can put you on the back foot. An injury could prevent you from walking. Or, you may just get lost – given the notorious lack of signage in the Lake District.
If you have access to a mobile phone, dial 999 (or 112) and ask for the Police, and then Mountain Rescue. Even with no signal bars, it’s sometimes still possible to make calls to UK emergency services. Give them your map grid reference and mention any landmarks that should make it easier for rescuers to locate you. Then stay put, if safe to do so, and wait for their arrival. If it’s getting dark and/or cold, and you have a survival bag, or group shelter, this is a good time to use it.
If you’re not able to speak, you can text the police instead. But, PLEASE NOTE, you MUST have registered for the free emergencySMS service BEFORE you can use it. So, I’d strongly recommend setting it up before you embark on your trip to the Lake District.
Once you have made contact with the Police and given your location details, it’s time to perform any basic first aid, if necessary, with whatever you have to hand.
If you are unable to contact the police and MRT, see if you can get the attention of other hikers, or fell runners nearby. They may be able to contact MRT for you. Alternatively, remember that you told friends about your walking plans and route. They will be expecting to hear from you at a set time to confirm you returned safely. Do they know to contact the authorities once the call time is passed and they are unable to get hold of you?
One of the very last things you can resort to, is deciding whether some of your walking party should go for help. The reason this is considered a last resort is because it splits up the group. It may take you away from your planned route, making it much more difficult for any rescuers attempting to find you. Depending on the season and time of day, it may also be getting dark, which makes safe navigation of the Lake District very difficult.
So, what do you think? Has this whetted your appetite to see the fells, tarns and waterfalls that Wordsworth wrote about in his poetry? It has for me. But, in my research, I’ve also discovered a myriad of useful things that everyone can do to prepare for their own hike in the Lake District:
Like, registering for the emergencySMS service right now. So that you can send a text message to the police in an emergency situation when you are unable to speak, for whatever reason.
Would you know what to do if you sprained an ankle whilst hiking or cut yourself after falling on a hill? Take some time now to watch a YouTube video on outdoors basic first aid.
And, just because the weather forecast for Catbells was sunny last week, you should probably anticipate some showers anyway. On the day you’re due to set off for the Lake District, you can also check the weather in real-time. There are live weather videos from the Mountain Weather service and more extensive web camera coverage on the Visit Cumbria site for just this occasion.
The Lake District is one of three mountainous areas in Cumbria. But, it can get busy during peak season (April – October). You have to decide whether you would rather brave a tougher, colder, less pricey, less populated hike with shorter days. Or, whether you’d prefer milder weather during a more populated peak season, which has more hiking daylight available. That will help determine when the best time to visit the Lake District will be for you.
Let’s leave the final words about the national park, to the man whose pictorial guides did so much to popularise Lake District hiking:
“It is so long… since I first came from a smoky mill-town (forgive me, Blackburn!) and beheld, from Orrest Head, a scene of great beauty, a fascinating paradise, Lakeland’s mountains and trees and water.
That was the first time I had looked upon beauty, or imagined it, even.”Alfred Wainwright