Get the most out of your walking

To ensure you get the most from your hike it's worth taking a few sensible precautions before you venture out. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your walking.

1. Plan ahead

Before you go you should always select a route that is within the capabilities of everyone in your family, or group, and refer to the relevant guidebooks and maps so you get a good idea of what to expect. All the routes in this book have been graded to help you choose select a suitable walk. With 100 walks, spread across the country, there are plenty of options, whether you want a short stroll or a more energetic hike. You can also adapt the walks to suit what you want to do, and get what you want out of it.

2. Be well equipped

The Scottish weather can be very unpredictable, so go well prepared, even on low-level routes. In summer a good fleece and lightweight waterproof outer jacket should be sufficient but for winter invest in thermal underwear, the best wind and water resistant jacket you can afford plus always take along a hat and gloves. In summer, a wide-brimmed hat is a good idea, as is suntan lotion, particularly for children.

Proper footwear is of paramount importance all year round and again a good pair of boots, correctly fitted and broken in, will keep feet dry, warm and comfortable and help you avoid blisters which can ruin any walk.

Remember to take an up-to-date Ordnance Survey or Harveys map (where available) covering your route, plus a compass, whistle, torch, spare food and a survival bag. The latter item is a large plastic sack, usually bright orange, which is big enough to accommodate a person. It can be a lifesaver in the event of an accident, providing a casualty with protection from the elements. Survival bags cost just a few pounds at outdoor shops and every walker should carry one in their rucksack.

3. Food and drink

Food and drink may seem obvious requirements but you would be surprised at how many people don't carry enough when venturing out into the wilds. Constant exercise burns off plenty of calories and you need to replenish these. The best advice is to eat small amounts, often. Pack sandwiches, pork pies or sausage rolls and things like fruit, chocolate, cereal bars, nuts, dried fruit and mint cake.

Fluid intake is vital. While streams are plentiful in the great outdoors, it may not always be safe to drink from them so carry your own. If you do take water from a stream, only do so on high ground and ensure the point where you take it is fast-flowing and away from potential sources of pollution. Avoid taking water from streams running through agricultural land and coniferous forestry.

4. Know how to use a map and compass

While the routes contained within this site are straightforward and easy to follow, it's always worth learning how to use a map and compass, particularly if you plan to do a lot of walking. These are skills that take very little time to master and being proficient allows you to become more adventurous in your own route planning and to appreciate your surroundings more while out.

5. Understanding maps

At first glance, a map can look pretty complicated. However, it is simply a picture of the ground, viewed from above. The first thing you'll probably notice are the brown contour lines. If the world was completely flat, there would be no need for them. But, as it isn't, cartographers devised contour lines to show all the ups and downs. Contour lines join places of equal height and enable you to interpret the shape of the ground. Where they are close together, the slope is steep and when they are further apart, it is more gentle. Equally spaced contour indicate a straight slope, while, on a concave slope, the lines are more closely spaced at the top. On a convex slope, the lines are closer together at the bottom.

All maps come with a key or legend that explains the lines, colours or symbols used to indicate features, such as roads, rivers, forestry, buildings and bridges and studying this first will unravel a lot of the mystery.

One important feature of maps is the grid lines, a network of vertical and horizontal lines. These are blue on Ordnance Survey Landrangers and black on Harveys maps. The grid lines each have grid numbers and these can be used to accurately pinpoint a specific location on a map, known as a grid reference (GR).

The vertical lines are called 'eastings' while the horizontal ones are called 'northings'. The corresponding grid numbers are printed along the top and bottom of the map for the eastings and up and down either side of the map for the northings. The OS also print them at intervals across the Landranger sheets.

Throughout this book grid references are given for the starting point of a route. To use these you will have to know how to read a six-figure grid number. The first two digits in the grid number relate to the easting. Go along the bottom of the map to find the corresponding two-digit number. The fourth and fifth digits are the northing. Look up the side of the map to find this two-digit number. Now, go up the vertical easting line and across the horizontal northing line to the point where the two lines meet.

To the right of the easting line and above the northing line you have a grid square measuring two centimetres on either side and representing 1km square on the ground. The location you want is within this square and to narrow it down precisely, you have to use the third and sixth digit in your six-figure grid reference.

A small ruler can assist at this point and most compasses also have a measuring device along one edge to assist. Divide the square with 10 vertical and 10 horizontal lines, each spaced 2mm apart. Take the third digit from your grid reference and from the vertical easting line on the left of the square, move to the right across the square to the corresponding vertical line. If the number is '6', for instance, you will move 12mm across the grid square. Next, take the sixth digit of the grid number and repeat the process, this time starting from the horizontal line across the bottom of the square and moving up. Where the two lines meet, you have your location.

As an example, if the third and sixth digits are both '5', the location you are looking for is right in the centre of the grid square. If the third digit is '1' and the sixth digit '9', the spot is right up in the top left hand corner of the square.

Through regular use, the process of giving or locating a grid reference becomes very simple and most walkers work out the location they want by estimating where the tenths fall in the square.

If you get into difficulties in the countryside and need to summon assistance, being able to work out the grid reference of where a casualty is and then passing it on to rescuers saves a lot of time and uncertainty.

Grid lines can also be used when estimating distance. The lines are spaced to represent 1km on the ground so, for example, if you are following a track running due east, each time you 'pass through' a grid line, you have walked 1km. You can also chart your progress on a map by identifying features as you pass them.

6. Check weather forecasts

One important thing to do before you set out is to check the weather forecast. Both the BBC and Grampian and Scottish Television put out forecasts at the end of their news bulletins and other sources of weather news include local radio and newspapers and the Internet. Don't be afraid to cancel or curtail a trip if the weather is bad - there's no point going out in vertical rain and having a miserable time, especially when there's always another day. Once out, be prepared to retreat or alter your route if weather conditions deteriorate.

7. First aid

One area where advanced preparation can really pay off is in knowing simple first aid. You should always take a small first aid kit with you, just in case. Most of the time it will remain tucked away at the bottom of your rucksack, but it's better to be safe than sorry. You can either make one up with items from the medicine cabinet at home, or buy one for around £10 from a chemist or outdoor shop. It should contain some plasters (for cuts and scrapes), a crepe bandage (for twists or sprains), antiseptic cream or wipes (for cleaning wounds), painkillers (such as Paracetamol) and a small pair of scissors. You may want to include a selection of other dressings, anti-histamine cream and midge repellent. A blister repair kit is also a good idea.

8. Take a course

If you're new to hillwalking, it's worth getting advice from people in the know before you set out. If you've friends or relatives who go walking, have a chat with them, or accompany them on one of their trips.

Another idea is to sign up on a course or evening class. The outdoor education departments of local authorities often run these, as do some colleges. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) organise safety and training courses covering subjects like mountain first aid, navigation and winter safety.

Finally, if you enjoy walking but feel more comfortable in the company of a group, consider joining a walking club. The MCofS holds a list of these, with contact details.

9. Blisters

Blisters plague many hillwalkers. They can turn a pleasant trek into an agonising ordeal. Caused by friction, repeated pressure to skin areas, or extremes in temperature, either hot or cold, blisters are fluid filled sacks with a thin layer of almost transparent skin over them.

Fortunately, they can be treated with relative ease. The priority is to keep the area of the blister clean, to prevent infection. As a general rule blisters should not be broken, unless they are very painful, or in an area where there is continued boot pressure, which will break the blister with continued walking. As long as the blister is left intact, there is less chance of it becoming infected. At the end of the day, a blister is the body's own way of cooling friction burns to the skin.

However, if you are undertaking a lengthy walk it may become necessary to burst the blister. Before you do this, make sure the blister and skin around it is clean. Do this with a sterile wipe (which you should have in your first aid kit).

The next step is to sterilize a clean needle, or small scissors, by heating the tip with a flame, from a match or cigarette lighter. Carefully prick the blister to make a small hole in it. Do not insert the needle deeply - just enough to go through the top covering of the blister. Gently squeeze the fluid out. This should relieve the pressure and it should feel less painful. Don't cut away the skin covering the blister as leaving the top cover of the blister intact helps to prevent infection.

Apply antiseptic cream to the area of the blister and cover with gauze and tape. Avoid simply putting a plaster over as it will not absorb fluid. Pad the area of foot up as much as possible to prevent further friction. Ideally, you want to keep all pressure off of the blister while it is healing but this is not always possible while out walking.

Like so many things in life, prevention is better than cure. To avoid blisters your boots must fit properly and be comfortable. The wrong boot size is the most common cause of blisters. Make sure the inside lining and innersole are not worn. Wear good quality hillwalking socks that fit properly. Ideally, you should wear two pairs of socks (a thinner sock or liner sock under a pair of thick hillwalking socks) and remember holes in socks cause blisters. If you have bony protrusions, or sensitive skin areas, on your toes or feet, protect them with additional padding.

Recurring blister problems are usually due to abnormal foot structures or gait patterns. Flat feet, feet with very high arches, bunions, and pronation (a rolling out of the feet, so that when you walk you apply excessive force to the inner side of your feet), are all foot problems that can be successfully treated. A visit to the chiropodist will help.

Blisters can be dangerous for people with diabetics, poor circulation or decreased feeling in their feet, those with compromised immune systems, and those with other serious diseases. If you fall into any of these categories, you are advised to see you doctor at the first sign of blister formation.

Finally, on the subject of foot care, make sure you keep your toenails trimmed. Long or jagged nails can dig into neighbouring toes, causing considerable discomfort.

10. Know the Country Code

  • Guard against all risk of fire
  • Keep dogs under proper control
  • Leave all gates as you find them
  • Keep to paths across farmland
  • Avoid damaging fences, hedges and walls
  • Leave no litter
  • Safeguard water supplies
  • Protect wildlife, wild plants and trees
  • Go carefully on country roads
  • Respect the life of the countryside

11. Contact landowners during stalking and other critical periods

The Scottish countryside is not just a place for recreation. Many people, such as farmers and gamekeepers, make their living from the land. In Scotland, hillwalkers are free to roam the land with no criminal law of trespass. However, for this to remain the case, consideration has to be given to those who work in the countryside. In this book the walks are all along recognised routes, but you will find there are restrictions on some of the walks, such as requests for dogs to be on the lead if a path or track cuts through land used for sheep grazing, or if a route should be avoided during the stalking season (details are given in our fact files).

Most importantly, avoid disturbance to farming and other land management activities when you are out and pay heed to diversion signs that may be in place, for example, in a forest where trees are being felled.

12. Leave written word of your intended route

When you head into the countryside, it's a sensible precaution to leave word of where you are going with someone before you set off, just in case you do get into any difficulties. Filling in a Route Card is a good idea. This contains details of your route, the number of people in your group and other important information that could assist the police and rescuers if you fail to return. You can download one here. Once you've completed the various parts of the card, leave it with a responsible person - a friend, relative or neighbour, or your B&B landlady, hostel warden or hotel receptionist. Make sure you contact them immediately upon your return to let them know you are back safely.

13. In the event of accident or emergency

Thankfully accidents are rare. But if you should find yourself in the unfortunate position where a member of your family or group is seriously injured or falls ill in the outdoors, the first thing to do is assess the casualty and carry out what first aid you can. Make them as comfortable as possible and ensure they are protected from the elements.

Get to a Rescue Post or telephone, or use a mobile telephone. Dial 999 and ask for 'Police'. Give as much information as you can over the telephone so rescuers can find the location of a casualty as quickly as possible. If you are walking in a group send responsible people off the hill - two if possible - to the nearest telephone with the name of the casualty, the location of the casualty (a six figure grid reference), what has happened to them and what first aid treatment has been carried out. It's a good idea to write all this down on a piece of paper at the scene of the accident or emergency and give this to the people sent to raise the alarm. Mark the casualty site as prominently as you can so rescuers can see it, then sit tight.

14. Know the mountain distress signal

One vital piece of kit to carry is a whistle. If you do get into difficulties on high ground or in remote terrain and find you are unable to move or send for help, you'll need to know the Distress Signal. This consists of six blasts of a whistle, followed by a minute's silence, then another six blasts. This is repeated every minute. If someone (who knows the signal) hears you, he or she will respond with three whistle blasts, followed by a minute's silence, then another three blasts, to confirm. The signal can also be given using a torch. Continue giving the signal at regular intervals so rescuers can locate your position.

These days, it's not uncommon to read about stranded hillwalkers or climbers using a mobile telephone to call for help. By all means pack a cellular phone, but only use it if a real emergency arises and there is no other option. There have been cases of people using mobile phones to summon a mountain rescue team, just because they were tired and hungry.

Another issue to consider is reception. In many of the remoter parts of Scotland you will discover the signal is either not very good, or non-existent, so don't rely on being able to use your mobile, whatever network you are on.

15. Midges

A factor that could affect the enjoyment of your walk, especially in the Highlands and west coast areas of Scotland, is the dreaded midge. This tiny bloodsucking insect can cause havoc with some people, while leaving others virtually untouched. Smearing yourself with crushed bog myrtle is said to help but far better to buy a spray or roll-on repellent if you find yourself on the menu.

16. Dogs

Dogs love the countryside. But however docile, all have a natural instinct to chase other creatures, whether they are rabbits, sheep or ground nesting birds, like grouse. Man's best friend may be pottering along quite happily beside his owner, but a sudden movement in the bracken or the scent of a grazing animal may be all it takes to trigger this impulse. However obedient, when a dog is in the throes of a chase, the creature's single-minded pursuit means it's very difficult to call him off.

Each year thousands of sheep are killed or injured by dogs and the behaviour of unruly mutts can have an adverse affect on a farmer or landowner's welcome for walkers. Where a walk passes through sheep grazing land, it's always best to keep your dog on the lead. If you don't, bear in mind the law allows farmers and landowners to shoot dogs that are worrying livestock.

17. Enjoy your walk

Finally, have a great time exploring Scotland's beautiful countryside!