It is often said that there is no better feeling than getting out into nature; the fresh air filling your lungs, the stunning scenery you find yourself immersed in, and the satisfaction of getting somewhere so magical using your own two feet. Walking is good for the mind and the body and is a great way to enjoy nature at its best. In England, there are a wealth of fantastic walking environments. These range from the gently rolling hills and idyllic villages of the Cotswolds, straight out of a fairytale, to the dramatic Yorkshire Dales, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the Victorian Gothic novels they inspired.
Yet it is impossible to ignore the threats to these amazing places. Climate change is happening now. The tourism industry contributes 8% of all carbon emissions, and transportation 15%. On a personal level, we can all do our part to help reduce our carbon footprint. This includes taking a few simple steps to be a more responsible hiker.
Whether you’re out for your usual dog walk or visiting England on a life-changing walking holiday, read on for our top tips for responsible walking.
While it can be exciting to feel that you are going where no one has gone before, stick to established routes and paths where possible. Whether striding through the undergrowth to carve out your own path or just taking a shortcut home after a long day hiking, local ecosystems can be very delicate. Going off the trail can disturb the fauna who make their homes underfoot. Every step we take causes a little bit of erosion, even if this is not visible to the naked eye.
On the trail, be mindful to stay on the established route. In particularly popular areas, like the Lake District, there is evidence of heavy foot traffic causing the paths to widen. Conservation organisations, like the National Trust, do a lot of work on the footpaths to help combat this, as it can cause significant degradation to the environment over time. We can all do our part to help look after these lovely trails by sticking to the path where it exists.
Unlike its neighbour Scotland, known for its extensive and inclusive Outdoor Access Code, access is a little more complicated in England. Access land in England is land that you can enjoy across the country without using established public footpaths. It usually includes mountains, moors and downs that are privately owned, as well as common land registered with the local council. To find out more, search for open access routes here.
Always check that the landowner allows access to their land, including any seasonal restrictions which may be in place, and be respectful of their property. As above, stick to established tracks where available to reduce your negative impact on the area and be a more responsible hiker.
Nature produces amazing things but, as our parents often reminded us when we were children, it is better to look but not touch. Going off the established path and walking through delicate ecosystems of brush or wildflowers can degrade the environment, as can foraging.
There is a delicious bounty of treats available from nature’s larder but if you are going to forage, do so safely and sustainably:
When surrounded by romantic meadows of wildflowers or walking along a hedgerow heavy with the summery scent of violets and primrose, it can be tempting to pick a few flowers. However, this damages the plant and takes food away from local wildlife, like the bees, who play a crucial role in supporting the ecosystem.
Finally, extend this rule to rocks. We’re not one for carrying boulders back down the hill with us, but taking pebbles home as souvenirs, or building stacks of stones atop hills, causes more problems than it might seem at first. Removing rocks from the countryside or the beach can weaken the structural integrity of the landscape. So, no matter how pretty, these things are best left for others to enjoy too.
There is approximately one sheep for every four people resident in England. It is perhaps no surprise then that livestock is a regular sighting when walking in the English countryside.
From sheep to cows and, increasingly, alpacas, be mindful of the animals around you. Do not get too close to livestock (or any animals) and don’t come between a mother and her young. This is for your safety as well as that of the animals. Additionally, when you are out walking, always make sure you shut any gates your cross behind you and don’t feed any animals that you encounter as it may harm them.
A dog might be man’s best friend, but your canine companion can cause plenty of disruption on your walks. There are a few rules to be mindful of when you are walking across open-access land. In fact, they are good practice wherever you walk:
Wherever you are walking, ensure you understand any local or seasonal restrictions and be mindful of the surrounding area. Of course, one easy way to ensure you are a responsible hiker is to clean up after your dog.
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Are you planning a longer walk that requires an overnight stay or two? You can take a few simple steps to ensure you are camping responsibly.
Firstly, it is important to note that wild camping is generally prohibited in England and Wales. This is because most land in these countries is privately owned (see access land above). There are a few exceptions, for example where you have the landowner’s permission, or in some National Parks, like Dartmoor.
Don’t give up on those dreams of a secluded pitch for your tent just yet, though. Plenty of campsites in England offer a taste of wild camping. It is a good idea to plan and, where available, to book where you will camp in advance to avoid getting caught out.
Campsites often have their own bathroom facilities. However, make sure you are comfortable with how to appropriately dispose of your waste if this is required.
Take the time to also familiarise yourself with rules on fires where you are camping and whether they are allowed. There is something eminently romantic about watching the stars and cooking dinner over an open fire, but things can quickly become a lot less charming.
You have likely seen or heard of Leave No Trace, and rightly so. This planet offers no shortage of beautiful environments, and it is a privilege to experience such places. To do so sustainably, leave areas as you found them. We cover many key points in this blog, and head to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to find out more.
Go a step further, and pick up any litter you find as you go. There will always be a particularly enthusiastic gust of wind that rips a crisp wrapper out of someone’s hand and down a hill before they have any chance of catching it. Help out and do your part; take litter you find home with yours if you can.
In an age when it seems that everyone is online, practise responsible social media. Have you just found the perfect hidden gem or the best trail that is, quite literally, off the beaten path? While it can be very tempting to share your discovery on social media, take a moment to consider whether this is the best course of action. A photo can be just as stunning with an air of mystery, and without an exact location tag. This helps prevent overcrowding and lots of damaging feet in these secluded spaces.
Responsible hiking doesn’t just extend to the natural environment but also includes the communities in these areas. You might be walking through cute villages, beautiful Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and impressive National Parks on your holiday, but remember that these are also places where real people live. Their homes will be there even after you have gone home.
We’ve mentioned a few ideas that also impact the local community above, such as closing gates and respecting livestock, but there are plenty of other little things you can do that help these communities.
One very simple way is greeting people when you encounter them on your walk. It is considered polite, but it is also nice to see someone smile in return after a long day of hiking.
Finally, think about where you are spending your money. One of the best ways to support the community is to shop local and support the small businesses where you visit. By putting your money into the local community rather than supporting a large global chain, you are helping it grow and thrive. It’s also a great way to ensure you’re buying fresh, local produce and items made by hand with love and care.
Britain is (in)famous for its changeable weather, and this is no more apparent than when you are emersed in nature. The freedom to get out into some of England’s most remote places is a humbling experience. Yet things can quickly change from inspiration to isolation if you are not careful. Before you set out for a hike, always check the weather forecast. This will help you pack the suitable kit and can warn you of a gathering storm or high winds. Make sure the conditions are right for your planned adventure.
Layers are key when planning your outfit for an adventure out into nature. Aim for natural fibres like wool or bamboo. Not only are these very breathable, keeping you cool as you work up a sweat, but they are also better for the environment than thirsty cotton or polyester, which is not biodegradable. By wearing a few light layers – don’t forget your waterproofs – you also give yourself more options for temperature regulation. These layers will pack up to make them more portable when you are not wearing them.
Other ways to keep yourself safe include bringing sufficient food and water and planning your route in advance. Make sure someone knows your route plan, especially if you are hiking solo, and check in with them at agreed points.
Even the best-laid plans can go awry though, so make sure you bring a fully charged phone. If you need to phone Mountain Rescue, do so by dialling 999. Ask for ‘Police’ and then ‘Mountain Rescue’, and be prepared to give your location as accurately as you can. Some incidents are unavoidable, but taking a few small steps can help keep yourself and others safe. Make sure you remember your adventure for the right reasons.