Wilderness Wales


How to Plan the Perfect Hill Walk

The perfect hill walk is all about efficiency. The distance doesn’t matter, that all depends on your level of fitness and how much time you have available. The important thing is not to waste energy unnecessarily. Retraced steps, boggy ground, excessive loss of altitude and steep descents are to be avoided if possible. So how do you plan the perfect hill walk?

In my opinion, the perfect hill walk has the shape of a horseshoe. The general idea is to choose a key summit as your main objective. This will typically be the highest peak in an area. Then link that summit to adjacent summits, connected by ridges if possible. If you can find ridges that curve around or run adjacent to one another, you have the potential for a horseshoe walk.

Where to Start?

Ideally you’ll want to start at the lowest point, which will typically be at a river that runs between the two ridges. You’ll then climb up one ridge, follow it from summit to summit until you reach the main peak, then follow another ridge back, eventually descending to your starting point.

The reason for starting at the lowest point is to avoid any additional ascent at the very end of the walk. If you start halfway up a slope you’ll find yourself having to ascend back to your start point, which is no fun when you’re tired at the end of the day. Of course, you could do the reverse and start by walking downhill, but this is not a natural way to start a hill walk. Besides, there’s something that just feels “right” about starting beside a river. Ideally, there’ll be a bridge there too!


Planning a route that follows ridges prevents unnecessary loss of altitude, since between summits you only descend to the col, which is the “highest” low point between summits. In contrast, crossing intervening river valleys is extremely wasteful of energy and hence time. It also necessitates river crossings which can be a problem if the river levels are high. There’s also a much greater likelihood of encountering boggy ground.

The other advantage of following ridges is that they are generally the best way to avoid bogs, which are the bane of hill walkers. Since ridges act as watersheds, the water usually runs down each side. However, flat topped ridges can be boggy (Offa’s Dyke in the Black Mountains is a prime example), in which case it’s best to stick to the crest rather than the centre of the ridge. Some cols can be surprisingly flat and boggy too, so it’s not always possible to avoid bogs completely, but sticking to ridges gives you the best odds.

Dead-end Detours

If you’re peak bagging, you’re bound to find situations where there’s a nearby summit that can’t be included in the natural horseshoe shape. It may be connected by a ridge, but it’s a dead-end detour that requires you to retrace your steps. I’ve never liked dead-end detours, but sometimes they’re unavoidable.

If you really want to include a dead-end detour, that’s up to you. I’d recommend including it as part of a different walk on another day, but some of these summits can’t easily be included in any horseshoe walk, so you may have no choice. However, if it’s not connected by a ridge, then it would be extremely inefficient to include it. Provided it’s not too far from a road, I’d recommend bagging it in a separate short walk, one of those “quick bags from the car” on the way to somewhere else.


Now you need to consider the steepness of the ground. It’s been said that there are two types of hill walkers, those that suffer from knee problems and those that are going to! If you’re lucky enough to be in the latter group, remember that prevention is better than cure. Like those in the first group, you should try to avoid excessively steep descents. Your knees will thank you for it!

Walking poles will help of course, but it’s best to avoid steep descents, even if that means taking a longer detour for a more gradual descent. In contrast, steep ascents are usually not a problem for knees. Since there are two possible directions that you can do a horseshoe walk, try to pick the direction that has the steepest slopes on the ascents, and the gentlest slopes on the descents. Of course, climbing steep slopes is harder, but that’s far preferable to painful knees.

In particular, you should try to get the steepest slopes done early in the walk while you’re still fresh and have plenty of energy. By the same logic, try to end with long gentle descents at the end of the walk. Apparently most joint injuries happen at the end of walks when your leg muscles are tired and can’t support the joints so well.

Having said that, I don’t recommend starting with an immediate steep ascent. Ideally a walk should start with either a flat stretch of ground or a gentle incline. This will give your leg muscles time to warm up before you start the serious ascent, and thus will help to prevent injury. You should also take it easy at the beginning of a walk, pacing yourself so that you have plenty of energy left at the end.

Sun Direction

Finally, if you haven’t already decided on a direction, photographers may want to consider the lighting issue. Even if you aren’t a photographer, you probably don’t want to walk straight into the sun more often than you need to, especially if it’s low in the sky.

Since the sun is in the east in the morning, it’s best to start a walk in a westerly direction. By midday the sun is in the south (assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere) so it’s best to be walking north at that time. In the afternoon when the sun is in the west, it’s best to be walking east. So ideally you’d want to start heading west and walk in a clockwise direction.

Of course, this is only possible if the horseshoe is oriented the right way, which is something you don’t have much control over. The Snowdon Horseshoe is perfect for this, although most people tend to do it anti-clockwise. Doing it clockwise is not only better from a lighting point of view, but you also miss many of the crowds who are doing it the other way around (although you pass them all on the way). Unfortunately, there’s a couple of steep descents at the end, so it isn’t perfect.

Actually, if you’re walking at sunrise or sunset you may actually want to face the sun at those times. So there’s no perfect solution for this, but lighting is definitely something to bear in mind when planning a walk.


To sum up, the perfect hill walk is a horseshoe walk around summits with connecting ridges. It starts at the lowest point in the valley at a bridge, initially follows a flat or gentle slope before rising to a steep ascent, eventually finishing with a gentle descent. It starts facing west and follows a clockwise orientation.

Of course, in reality there’s no such thing as a perfect hill walk, there’s always something to spoil it, but it’s still worth bearing these points in mind when you plan a walk. The closer you can get to a perfect plan, the more energy efficient and enjoyable the walk will be, which in turn means you’ll be able to walk further.

Many mountain ranges lend themselves well to the horseshoe concept, but two that particularly stand out are the central Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. There’s huge potential for horseshoe walking there, with many different permutations possible.

Originally published 23rd May 2007


  1. {johnhee} | 24 May, 2007 at 6:36 pm

Paul, another excellent article. You’re setting a high standard for yourself. Nice to see.

  2. {Paul Saunders} | 24 May, 2007 at 6:58 pm

Thanks John. I wasn’t sure if anyone was actually reading them.

  3. {john hee} | 25 May, 2007 at 9:43 pm

Time for a freebie page viewer counter? (google analytics seems quite popular at the moment)

If you’re lucky any comments will be left by

  4. {john hee} | 25 May, 2007 at 9:43 pm

ooooo -comments cut off mid flow?

  5. {Paul Saunders} | 27 May, 2007 at 2:32 pm

Actually I’ve got GA installed, but they’ve recently upgraded to a new style. Some bits aren’t working properly and there’s a longer delay than usual in collecting the stats. I guess I’m just a bit impatient.

I’ve also signed up with Feedburner but there’s quite a long delay on that too.

  6. {johnhee} | 27 May, 2007 at 7:30 pm

……and its popping up on here as well?

  7. {Paul Saunders} | 27 May, 2007 at 7:45 pm

Er… yes. How did you find that? Is my comment page available for public view? I don’t fully understand how it works yet, and it doesn’t seem to be working correctly with some blogs (other comments have been added but not reported). Still, it seems a good way of keeping track of which posts I’ve commented on.
  8. {Paul Saunders} | 27 May, 2007 at 7:51 pm | {Permalink} | {Edit}

Another problem with GA is that since the blog pages are generated dynamically, there are multiple ways of getting to a particular page, so I’m not sure how accurate the page views and visitor numbers are.