The Best Long-Distance Walks In The UK | 8 Backpacking Trails
Make 2021 the year you go on a proper backpacking adventure
You might not have known it yet (apologies if you did) but this is going to be the year that you take on a long-distance walk. You’re going to look through this list, read about just how much adventure opportunity is out there and think, oh yeah, that does look a lot of fun – in fact that looks fun and it could be much cheaper than a normal holiday as well actually.
Whether it’s England, Scotland or Wales, there are long distance trails galore here in Great Britain, not just the well-known national trails, but loads of other lesser and little-know ones as well. All kinds of distances too, from mammoth ones that will keep you occupied for months right down to short and sweet ones that’ll require as little as two days of annual leave from work.
One of my favourite long-distance trails in the UK is the Pennine Way National Trail, which I hiked in June 2019, starting in Edale in the Peak District and finishing approx 268 miles later in Kirk Yetholm. It’s not the longest one the UK has but it’s known as one of the toughest due to how remote some of the stretches are, and this is one of the reasons I loved it.
I was totally blown away by how beautiful the trail was, with stunning and surprising scenery along the way, including waterfalls, hills and lovely little villages where you can resupply. I’d recommend it to anyone who fancies a long-distance challenge, you’ll get to walk through three national parks and one AONB so there’s plenty to love about the walk.
The 73-mile Cumbria Way – which traverses the country from Ulverston in the south to Carlisle in the north, via Coniston, Langdale, Keswick and Caldbeck – is a stunning low-level trail. The middle section through the heart of the Lake District is superlative. The jagged skyline of the Langdale Pikes, the achingly pretty Tarn Hows and the charming western shores of Derwentwater are but a few of the many highlights. It’s a walk that proves you don’t have to bag mountains to relish the beauty of the Lakes.
The West Highland Way
Chosen by Rory Southworth, Ordnance Survey Champion
Distance: 96 miles / 154km
A popular hiking trail, the West Highland Way must be one of the most social routes to hike in the UK, with many common spots to stop along the way and meet fellow hikers. It’s an incredibly varied route; starting in the suburbs of Glasgow it then follows right along the length of Loch Lomond before passing through the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’ and finishing with the jaw dropping scenery that leads to Fort William and Ben Nevis. I love the rugged terrain you encounter on this journey and the fact that the trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
Offering panoramic views, bucolic countryside and some of the most charming little villages in England, Shropshire is a great place to stretch the legs. Walking the Shropshire Way will take you from the iconic Stiperstones in the Shropshire Hills to Wenlock Edge, Ironbridge Gorge and the Wrekin – and that’s just the southern loop. This long, figure-of-eight trail also traverses the great Shropshire plain, a landscape of meres and mosses that are amazing havens for wildlife. I spotted dozens of buzzards overhead in the course of just a few days. There’s plenty of history and heritage on offer too, from the castles of the Welsh marches to the iron heritage of Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. At nearly 200 miles in total, doing the whole thing is no small undertaking, but it can be split into sections and is easy to follow too – in fact, there’s a great website (shropshireway.org.uk) with downloadable route guides.
They call this the “mountain connoisseur’s walk” and for good reason. It’s a 298-mile route that starts on the south Wales coast and finishes on the north Wales coast, taking in just about all of Wales’s mountains in-between – mountains like Snowdon, Cadair Idris, Pen y Fan, Rhinog Fawr and Pumlumon. When I walked it a few years ago over the course of 18 days, I loved how the route seemed to locate the wildest parts of Wales. At times, I really felt like I was on an expedition.
Bear in mind that at the moment, the way-marking along it is basic, so you’ll need to brush up on your nav skills before taking this on.
The London Loop is the walkers’ M25; a trail that circumnavigates the capital in a 150 mile ring divided into 24 sections. One of my favourite things about it is that each section is planned for you to get there and back using public transport – figuring out the TfL routes is almost as fun as navigating the Loop itself. It takes you through a mixture of ancient woodland, bucolic countryside and industrial edgelands. Highlights include London’s longest pier at Erith (the official starting point of the Loop), the ‘Wilberforce Oak’ where William Wilberforce resolved to abolish the slave trade in Britain, several groves of giant sequoia trees, the aptly named ‘Happy Valley’, and the ending point at Rainham Marshes where you’re reunited with the Thames. After doing the Loop I’ll never see London in the same way again.
Snowdonia Slate Trail
Chosen by Will Renwick, Outdoors Magic editor
Distance: 83 miles / 134km
With its wild mountains, deep green valleys and unshakeable mysticism, Snowdonia National Park has to be one of the finest parts of the UK, and this walk – the 83-mile Snowdonia Slate Trail – is the best way to see it. It’s a young path, officially opened as recently as 2017 and it would be fair to say it’s still a little bit under the radar, not yet having managed to build up its own notoriety just yet. I can definitely see it getting very popular though. I walked it over four or five sunny days a couple of years ago and remember swimming in rivers each day and having an idyllic camping spot each night. Don’t be put off by the fact the route is designed to take in the area’s industrial heritage. Think crumbling chapels made from purple stone and rusted antiquarian machinery smothered in green ferns, instead of concrete chimneys or burnt out nuclear reactors behind barbed wire fences.
The Coast to Coast is hands down one of my favourite long distance walks in the UK. I’ve hiked it twice now and every time relished in the feeling of freedom and satisfaction gained from walking from one side of the country to the other. Starting in St. Bees on the west coast, the route heads into the Lake District National Park then works its way through the Dales and on to the North York Moors, finishing on the east coast at Robin Hood’s Bay. It is a walk of mountains and moors, forest and rivers, coasts and farmland. It is certainly one not to miss for anyone looking to enjoy some of the wilder spaces of our country.
Finding Other Long Distance Trails
The reality is that those trails mentioned above make up just a snapshot of what’s out there. There are plenty more popular paths that deserve to be mentioned, like the Cape Wrath Trail and Skye Trail in Scotland, for instance, or the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales and South West Coast Path in England. There are Northern Ireland’s options as well, most notably the 625 mile Ulster Way (time for that sabbatical?).
Don’t forget those tucked away ones either, there are little-known trails all over the UK – hundreds of them. A brilliant resource for finding these is the Long Distance Walkers Associations website. They’ve actually got an interactive map of the UK that lets you see every trail that’s out there. Komoot is also very handy for finding trails in your local area, throughout the UK or even globally and you can use their app to navigate each one when you’re out on it as well.
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