Hiking Advice for the West of Ireland
My hiking advice for the West of Ireland comes from 25 years experience of hiking its lowland blanket bogs and boggy, often scree-covered mountains.
Essentials to know about this land is that it can be extremely windy, rain can be strong and horizontal (due to the wind) and our mountains can very quickly become shrouded in mist.
Please note that I do not lead groups on mountain hikes.
The first piece of hiking advice for the West of Ireland, for those of you planning solo walking in the beautiful outdoors of Mayo and Connemara, is to plan ahead. Let somebody know exactly where you are going, what your route is and roughly when you plan to be back. Be sure they understand this information and know how to communicate it effectively to Mayo or Galway Mountain Rescue, if required.
If you are going into the mountains, it is always better to go with somebody else, plus a fully charged mobile phone and spare power pack, along with your map and compass that you know how to use. Your phone and power pack should be on your person, not in your rucksack.
Here is useful hiking advice for the West of Ireland and your next day out hiking or hillwalking in Mayo and Connemara.
In Mayo and Connemara, you will mostly be walking in boggy, wet terrain. This can be tiring and visitors to our area from overseas often find it difficult to understand how a 25 km hike, that is relatively flat, can take up to 10 hours to complete ! Many of our hills and mountains are bog-covered right to their peaks. On the other hand, you could also find yourself on a hike that is boggy at lower altitudes but with rocky scree at the peaks, so you need to be ready for loose rock underfoot also.
Hiking Advice for the West of Ireland – what you need on your person or in your rucksack
1. Water – No matter what the weather, you’ll need water. Vary the amount, depending on conditions, but don’t travel with less than 1 litre, while at least 1.5 litres would be better for a hike of over 4 hours duration. You can always top up in the mountains, but be smart : the higher up the mountain stream you take water from, the cleaner it is going to be. Also, don’t take water from a still pool – it will have gathered peat dust and worse, while stagnant.
2. Food – Again, no matter how short a walk, do bring some food with you. You never know – you might have a problem (twisted ankle, etc.) up the side of a mountain. If you’re packing some chocolate, or energy bar, etc., please go without the wrapper. That way, you won’t lose it. Bring your food in a re-usable hard plastic container, with a sound, tight lid. Avoid cling film, wrappers or tin foil – they will blow away in the wind.
3. Whistle – I never go anywhere without a good, loud whistle, in case of emergency. Wear it around your neck, so you still have it if you become separated from your rucksack.
4. Torch plus spare batteries – Bring a head torch. That way, your hands remain free, if ever you need to use it. Nobody knows when the batteries in a torch are going to run out. Always pack spares and ensure they are dry, by wrapping them in a water-tight bag. Test both those in your torch and the spares every time you are heading out.
Use a website to check sunrise and sunset times, like this one.
5. Mobile phone and additional power pack – The suggestion, when out in the hills, is certainly to turn your mobile phone off, or to silent. Enjoy the outdoors in peace! But have it with you, in case of emergency. Put it in your pocket, not your bag, for the same reason as mentioned above re the whistle. But ensure it is far enough away from your compass not to interfere with the needle. Remember, it is often easier to get a signal up on the peaks than down in the valleys. In Ireland, call 999 or 112 for emergency services. Ask for Mountain Rescue, but know that you will first be put through to the Gardaí.
6. First aid supplies – While it would be nice to carry a load of first aid stuff around with you, in truth, it’s really not that practical. But do have these 5 essentials – Plasters, for cuts on rocks; Elastic crèpe bandage, for twisted ankles; Leukosilk tape, for keeping said bandage in place; Medicare cold pack, for treatment of swelling, bruising, etc. Avoid placing a cold pack directly on skin, rather try to wrap it in some bandage or fabric before application. Finally, a bivvi bag, for when you just can’t come down from the mountain yourself.
And please remember, bring back home what you brought out with you. Do not leave even the slightest remnants of your passage. You know the Leave No Trace maxim : Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. With two exceptions… First, do take out even a little rubbish that you did not leave there yourself. You’ll feel good about yourself and help the natural environment. Second, do try to watch out for rare flowers, where you’re stepping. Even footprints in the wrong place can damage.
Hiking Advice – what you need to wear
Here is some advice on what you should wear when hiking in the West of Ireland.
Note that the main weather characteristics of this corner of the world are that we have a lot of rain, quite a bit of wind, not very hot temperatures and not very extreme conditions either (rarely below 0 Celsius, unless you’re climbing mountains in winter, where you’ll suffer wind chill factor, but rarely any snow worth talking about). Mind you, both winter 2009 / 2010 and 2010 / 2011 did indeed produce extreme weather conditions in Ireland.
From the point of view of terrain, much of the far west of Ireland (especially west Mayo) is covered in blanket bog, with pools and puddles on the waterlogged ground, much of it hidden under sphagnum moss clumps. Apart from bog, we have (mostly) limestone, gneiss, schist and quartzite rocks jutting from the ground all around, perhaps most famously in our scree covered mountain slopes, from about 400 – 500 m altitude up.
So, let’s go from the feet upwards.
1. Hiking boots – This is essential kit. Get ankle high, waterproof hiking boots. Buy a pair that is at least one half to one full size too big for you, compared to standard shoes, so you can wear two pairs of good thick socks and feel nice, comfortable and secure within. I wear and recommend Meindl. Read my dedicated post on hiking boots.
2. Hiking socks – Do not try to wear your regular socks, no matter how thick you might think they are. I have tried and continue to use a wide variety of hiking socks inside my boots. I have absolutely no preference between synthetic and wool, nor between twin- and single-layer. I use all the pairs I have interchangeably. The only criterion for me is that they are thick and comfortable. What I do is wear a relatively short inner pair and an outer pair that are as long as possible, so I can pull them up to my knees if feeling cold, or fold back down as required. Also, take note of the comments on Lyme Disease, below.
If you have a stronger opinion on socks, I’d love to hear it!
2 bis. Gaitors – I had a pair, but gave up wearing them. They just annoyed me and made me feel too hot. Mind you, others swear by them.
3. Waterproof pants – I use a pair with a membrane, from The North Face, called HyVent. The pants are 100% nylon on the outside and the inner mesh (membrane) is 100% polyester. They’re brilliant in rain and wind, but truly terrible in dry, warm weather when you’re hiking up a hill, because your thighs and knees get ‘stuck’ with each step. For that reason, I also have a pair of Berghaus Deluge overtrousers, 100% nylon with polyurethane (PU) coating, which have zips up the outerside of the legs for ventilation, as and when needed.
In good weather, I wear a pair of non-waterproof Columbia zip-off-to-shorts outdoors pants in 100% nylon. They’re great, with multiple pockets, including one with a zip. But I’d never go without the waterproofs in the rucksack.
4. T-shirts – Definitely do not choose cotton, or indeed polycotton. Why ? They take in your sweat and the rain and hold on to them jealously. Cotton takes much too long to dry out and leaves you cold and wet, especially when the wind strikes. Wear 100% nylon or 100% polyester tees. They dry out quickly. I wear light tees from Regatta and The North Face, or a heavier O’Neill’s GAA t-shirt, all in 100% polyester.
The trick is to bring more than one t-shirt, perhaps including one that has long sleeves, and to peel them off or put them back on, depending on conditions. Wear the long-sleeved one under the short-sleeved others, if you think you’re going to be cold. That way, you can peel off the short-sleeved one and keep your arms covered, without having to go bare chested as you do so.
5. Sleeveless Softshell – I wear a Regatta 100% polyester fleece-type soft shell. As opposed to the boots, earlier, this should be a snug fit, so that when zipped up, it really does give you warmth. It’s sleeveless, so it doesn’t restrict movement and you can always allow for this by bringing along a long-sleeved t-shirt or sports jersey. Personally, I don’t really feel the cold on my arms, so this one is perfect.
6. Waterproof Jacket – Very good to have. Getting wet on the chest and back is not pleasant. I have a Helly Hansen in 100% polyester / polyurethane, with excellent water resistance and good breathability. In addition, I have a good 100% nylon outer, 100% polyester inner mesh (membrane) from O’Neill’s, which is no Berghaus, The North Face or Regatta, but I still like it.
7. Hats and Gloves – Woolly hats are best for warmth, but they do get wet. I actually prefer a baseball cap, but that does not keep your head as warm and cannot be pulled down over your ears, like the woolly hat can. I always bring the woolly hat in my rucksack as a back-up, while wearing the baseball cap. Gloves should be able to keep water out, but they won’t manage that forever. While I rarely bother wearing my gloves unless it’s winter and I’m going above, say, 400 m, they are always in the rucksack. One thing to note about headgear and gloves is to be already wearing them before you get cold, rather than waiting to get cold before putting them on. Prevention is the best cure, as they say…Stay warm!
8. Rucksack – Mine is a Lowe Alpine AirZone, 35 litre (expandable to 45l) and its most important feature is the rain guard that I can pull over it and tighten if the weather gets wet and windy. My advice : start your walk with a half empty rucksack, so it has space to take the layers, as you peel them off. And put in it what I’ve advised you to, above.
9. Poles – Personally, I don’t use walking poles, but if you generally do, then you definitely want them in the West of Ireland. Check out my video, below, on how to fix a commonly encountered problem with walking sticks.
A word on Lyme Disease :
Parts of the West of Ireland are full of bracken, long grass, deer and ticks – Connemara National Park being one example. Protect yourself against tick bites by covering up, especially your legs. I wear long socks and trousers. Always check your body for ticks after a hike and be aware that they particularly like the soft, warm parts of the body, such as behind the ears, armpits and between the legs.
While the vast majority of ticks are not disease-carrying, nevertheless do read this informative website and be vigilant. And by the way, it has often been up to 36 hours after a hike that I suddenly discover a tick on my body, so keep repeating after your initial check.
I hope you’ve found this hiking advice useful. As always, do enjoy the outdoors!