Planning a Walking Holiday in Ireland


 Knowledge & Skills

Ireland is often regarded as being among the best walking areas in the world. While there is no chance of being affected by altitude sickness on Ireland’s highest peaks, the scenery is hard to beat. Before setting off, you should consider the following:


Ireland is relatively low-lying for an island of its size, only reaching a maximum height of 1,039m above sea level. In comparison, the similar-sized islands of Cuba, Iceland, Mindanao, Hokkaidō, and Hispaniola reach elevations within the range of 1,970m to 3,100m above sea level – although these islands are all located in more geologically active regions of the planet. Evidence tells us that Ireland once had mountains comparable in height to the present-day Himalayas.

Today, Ireland’s tallest mountains are generally located in a ring of compact ranges throughout its coastal counties, while the inner landlocked counties typically contain shallow hills, lakes, and peat bogs. Due to its location close to the north Atlantic, Ireland’s higher-than-average rainfall keeps the landscape green. Much of this rain finds its way into the vast peat bogs which cover much of the central lowlands and uplands, and can make walking in these areas quite difficult. Ireland has been largely deforested in the past, and most of its indigenous woodland has disappeared. Much of the non-native woodland we see in Ireland today has been planted for the purposes of commercial timber farming.


Ireland’s summer falls during the months of June, July and August when maximum daytime temperatures can reach about 25°C. Despite sharing the same latitudes as parts of Canada and Russia, Ireland only occasionally experiences severe wintry conditions. This is due to the Gulf Stream – a warm water current originating near Florida – which travels in a general northwest direction across the Atlantic. An extension of the Gulf Stream – the North Atlantic Drift – passes Western Europe, thereby maintaining Ireland’s temperate climate. The Irish winter falls during the months of December, January and February. On average, there might only be two or three days of significant snowfall during the year in low-lying areas. On higher ground, however, snow may remain for a few weeks. Ireland is one of the first European landmasses to receive weather systems from the Atlantic. These generally bring intermittent spells of rain at any time of year, and the majority of rainfall occurs where weather systems meet the mountain ranges along the west coast. There is no defined wet or dry seasons in Ireland, although the summer and winter months generally receive slightly less rain than the spring and autumn months.

Daylight Hours

Located between the northern latitudes of 51° and 56°, Ireland experiences a wide range of daylight hours throughout the year. The amount of daylight available needs to be taken into account before planning a long walk, otherwise there is an increased risk of finishing in darkness during winter months

The winter solstice occurs every year on or near 21 December. In the northern hemisphere, this is referred to as ‘the shortest day’ because it is the day on which the sun spends the shortest time above the horizon. In Ireland, on the shortest day, the sun rises at about 8:40 a.m. and sets at about 4:10 p.m. providing approximately seven-and-a-half hours of daylight.

The summer solstice occurs every year on or near 21 June. In the northern hemisphere, this is referred to as ‘the longest day’ because it is the day on which the sun spends the longest time above the horizon. In Ireland, on the longest day, the sun rises at about 5:00 a.m. and sets at about 10:00 p.m. providing approximately seventeen hours of daylight.


Before setting off into the mountains and hills, it is best to have some understanding of basic navigation. These skills could make a life-or-death difference if visibility in the hills is lost due to mist, rain or snow. There are two types of navigational tools available:

1.      Map and Compass – the traditional navigational tools. Ireland is covered by a good selection of hardcopy mapping products. An all-Ireland series of ninety-three 1:50,000 scale map sheets is published by OSi and OSNI. The seventy-five of these sheets published by OSi comprise the Discovery series, and the eighteen published by OSNI comprise the Discoverer series. OSi and OSNI also publish a growing selection of 1:25,000 scale maps covering certain outdoor recreation hotspots. These include OSi’s MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, and OSNI’s Mourne Activity Map, Glens of Antrim Activity Map, and Sperrins Activity Map. Harvey Maps also publish a number of quality 1:30,000 Irish maps in its Superwalker series and include the following titles – MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, Connemara, and Wicklow Mountains. EastWest Mapping also publish a small series of 1:30,000 scale maps covering the Wicklow and Dublin Mountains. In poor visibility, a map needs to be used in conjunction with a compass. It is, therefore, a good idea to keep a compass in your rucksack at all times. However, having a map and compass will not save your life if you do not have the skills to use them.

  Recommended Published Maps

2.      GPS and Digital Mapping – the technology-based navigational tools. The rapid development of GPS technology has brought an overwhelming selection of gadgets to the market which can seriously compete with the traditional map and compass partnership. A handheld GPS device tracks its position using signals from a network of high-orbit satellites, allowing users to determine exactly where they are if they lose their way – even basic models can display a grid reference which can easily be pinpointed on a hardcopy map. More advanced models of GPS have digital mapping installed, displaying this on screen as a real-time background centred on the user’s actual position. While this sounds like the ultimate navigational solution, it is likely to further reinforce people’s dependency on technology while diminishing traditional skills. As with all portable devices, handheld GPSs require power from batteries, therefore it is necessary to carry a backup power supply at all times. It is still recommended that a map and compass be carried in case technology fails – as it so often does.

Never rely solely on guidebook maps as your primary navigational tool. Walking guidebook authors only intend that such maps be used as an indicative visual aid to compliment a route description. These are useful for planning purposes, and it is worth having a relevant guidebook in your rucksack in case on-site reference is required. Before setting off on walks described in guidebooks, you are strongly encouraged to purchase any recommended published maps and use these – with a compass – as your primary navigation tool. Alternatively, use an appropriate handheld GPS device with the relevant digital mapping installed – and plenty of backup power. Always carry a recommended hardcopy map and compass as a backup in case of a technology failure. 


Never take risks by attempting anything which you feel is beyond your ability. Hill walking can be a dangerous activity. Rapidly changing weather conditions combined with treacherous topography can produce nightmare conditions, even for experienced walkers. Always be aware that most injuries in the mountains occur on downhill sections. This is largely due to muscle fatigue resulting from the earlier ascent. Also, it is more difficult to recover from a trip or slide when moving downhill because gravity is acting as an accelerant rather than a braking force. In the event of an emergency where assistance is required in the mountains, call 999 or 112 and ask for mountain rescue.


The level of fitness required for walking in Ireland varies greatly, depending on the length of walk, the amount of ascent, and the type of terrain encountered. A walk could be anything from a half-hour stroll along a beach, to a challenging multi-day trek through rugged mountains. While most walkers will be capable of completing easy and moderate walks without any additional fitness training, it is probably best to undergo some extra preparation before attempting the more challenging expeditions. It may be advisable to check with your doctor before embarking on a new training programme.