All too often these days we want everything to go perfectly the very first time we try it. This is true even for something brand new we’re only attempting for the very first time. However, we must remind ourselves to let go of our fear of failure, for it’s from our errors and mistakes that we can make the most progress towards improving and reaching our goals. So, when it comes to hiking, don’t be afraid to make a few missteps here and there – just remember of course to be careful enough to ensure that those faulty steps aren’t literally “missteps” that may lead to a sprained ankle or becoming irreparably lost!
With the advent of YouTube tutorials these days, we now have at our disposal a rather handy tool to learn from the experts in their fields. I’m by no means claiming to be an expert hiker or master hillwalker. However, I do love the great outdoors and have spent a lot of time travelling through nature on my own two feet. So, if you’re interested in learning more about how to make your next hike in Ireland more of a success without any mishaps or missed opportunities, please feel free to learn from my mistakes. And you’re more than welcome to have a bit of a chuckle at my expense as you read along. Laughter is the best medicine and it certainly was for me when I ended up in some pretty embarrassing, painful or otherwise challenging predicaments.
This article is the first of a three part series. If you’re interested in more tips about how to become a better hillwalker, or if you just fancy another good laugh at my expense, don’t forget to check back soon.
Step straight into an Irish bog
On one of my very first hikes in Ireland after moving to the Emerald Isle, I eagerly set off to explore the beautiful Connemara region in the West of Ireland. Rambling mountain sheep darted about merrily around me, keeping one eye out for the freshest tufts of grass upon which to graze, while warily keeping the other eye fixed on this bumbling newcomer. It’s as if they were expecting – hoping even – for me to stumble straight into my own demise. And sure enough, that’s what I did only a few moments later as I trod straight into misfortune by literally stepping into an otherwise hidden bog hole. The problem was, as a professional photographer I couldn’t take my eyes off an incredibly scene and of course had to approach closer and closer to get the best shot. I’d spotted an unbelievably purple patch of flowering heather springing up all across a gently rising hillside.
What I didn’t realise is that heather and bogs often go hand in hand. The flowering shrub must thrive in the squishy, damp ground, because as I continued further through the thick carpet of shrubbery, I suddenly felt my right foot plunge deep into a bog hole. Miraculously I somehow managed to keep my footing. This meant that I didn’t twist as I fell over and therefore didn’t sprain or break my ankle at all. However I must have looked an hilarious sight, stuck with one knee pressed up to my chin. And I certainly looked even worse when I managed to fight against the bog’s suction as I lifted my right leg up and out of the sinkhole, sopping wet and covered in the slop of a rain-laden Irish bog. Needless to say one of my boots was rather uncomfortably squelchy for the rest of the day!
|West of Ireland/Connemara|
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Step straight through a puddle which is a lot deeper than expected
Likewise with the last point about stepping straight into a bog hole, on a different section of the track through Connemara, I made the unfortunate mistake of misjudging the depth of a particular puddle. And once again it was at the very commencement of a full day of hiking! We set off from our home early in the morning and checked the forecast before hopping into the car. Heavy rain was predicted, but living in the West of Ireland you cannot let the climate hamper your weekend activities, so we packed and dressed accordingly. With fully waterproofed boots tucked up inside tightly velcro-ed rain pants, we set off from the trail head at the Lough Inagh Valley section of the hillwalking track through Connemara. Almost immediately I trod straight through a seemingly shallow puddle, expecting to merely splash a bit of water over my boots. However, what appeared to be a tiny amount of water turned out to be a deep, muddy wheel rut left behind by a farmer’s tractor, with the sodden depths of the ravine sucking my boot back down as I struggled to break free. Yet again, another case of soaking your socks and boots right before walking for a good six hour day!
Forget to pack your rain pants
Now, if you’ve just read the last point above, actually having rain pants didn’t matter in my case, for the depth of the puddle negated any protection here whatsoever. Having said that, aside from such an accidental drenching, it is always a good idea on hikes in Ireland to pack a pair of rain pants and put them on if it looks like it’s about to start lashing down with rain and wind. As a small island nation, Ireland is at the whim of the wild Atlantic Ocean. There’s a reason why our famed coastal tourist route is named the Wild Atlantic Way, after all. So, even if it looks like it won’t rain, or the meteorologists aren’t predicting any bad weather, it’s always a good idea when hiking in Ireland to bring even a light pair of rain pants to help keep your legs warm and dry in case conditions suddenly and unexpectedly make a turn for the worst. Plus, wearing rain pants will also aid in protecting the very top of your boots from letting water run down inside and dampen the tops of your socks in strong showers.
Originally hailing from Australia, I moved over to the West of Ireland a good few years ago now. One thing I was taught more than a decade and a half ago – but unfortunately forgot – is that there are a few specific differences between the northern and southern hemispheres when it comes to using a map and compass. The greatest difference for an experienced Australian navigator and hiker in Ireland is that you need to actively push away some of your innate reflexes when observing the world around you. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the sun is generally going to be moving across to your south after it rises. Conversely in Australia, the sun still rises in the east, but begins moving up and across your northern side. Compounding this is the fact that depending on the time of year and your location latitude-wise in either Ireland or Australia, there will be further major differences.
The best example here is that if you are used to hiking in the far north of Australia, you are so close to the equator that the sun seemingly moves directly overhead, not clearly following a north or south path. Meanwhile back in Ireland, in the very middle of summer (i.e. the longest day of the year on June 21st) the sun actually rises in the northeast and traces a huge circular, clockwise path throughout the day before setting in the northwest, quite close to where it originally rose!
Continuing on with differences based on the sun’s location each day, hikers in Ireland in America are taught that the northern side of a tree – i.e. the shaded side – is where moss will grow. However, an Australian hiking in Ireland will have been taught that down in Tasmania, the moss grows on the southern face of a tree trunk, for this is the side most often completely out of the sunlight. Finally, there are fairly substantial differences between the values on your map for true north, magnetic north and grid north based on whether you are in Ireland or Australia. Again, this is due to Ireland’s proximity to the north pole and to the Prime Meridian, while Australia is close to the Tropic of Capricorn and is fairly far away from both the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line.
Get overtaken by a sheep farmer on the trails
One time while hiking in Ireland, my wife and I thought we were still in great shape for hiking off the beaten path and up steep mountainsides, only to find just how mistaken we really were. After a busy period with work and family life – and due to another error of judgement in the form of packing too much heavy gear (read more below) – we set off on our trek for the day and soon realised that we were somewhat out of practice on the slopes. After shaking off the cobwebs and stretching our legs a bit, we felt a renewed sense of strength as we powered onwards and upwards, scrambling up the slopes of Ben Baun in Connemara. Moving across rough, uneven ground, it was tough going and our pace began to slow. Then, from out of nowhere, a sheep farmer working a remote Connemara valley blasted right past us, having found a better route up to search for his wayward ewes, and presumably in better shape than ourselves. So, to save yourselves potential embarrassment on the trails, make sure to both work on your fitness before departing, and to take the time to find the best route to take when making a scenic detour off the normal, waymarked walking tracks in Ireland.
Pack too much gear
As pointed out above, a mistake I always used to make (and probably still do) thanks to my time in the Australian Army is to bring way too much extra equipment and supplies when hiking. Yes, it is a good idea to bring more water and food than you think you’ll need in case you get lost or a member of your party is injured and requires assistance to get back to civilisation. However, I cannot seem to shake the survivalist nature of travelling through the wilderness of Australia. So, if you too suffer from the same problem, remember, in Ireland you’re never as remote as you are in the Great Southern Land, and you certainly don’t need to bring a complete emergency sleeping bag, tent, gas and cooker, eight litres of extra water, and two days of additional food!
When hiking in Ireland you have the best of both worlds. Although you feel remote and isolated, and the views around you reflect this, you’re never more than a short walk from civilisation, be it a farmer’s house where you can get help and water, or even a B&B or hotel where you can take shelter for the night and purchase a hot meal. There’s plenty more tips where those came from. As many of my family and friends have noted over the years, they get a bit nervous when I head off adventuring as I tend to be a bit accident prone!
Don’t forget to check back soon, as there are another 17 tips to go over. And a few more comedic stories as well.
Interested in taking a hiking tour on Ireland’s best trails? Check out hillwalktours.com