Hiking in the Wicklow Mountains is an enjoyable experience for many people. However, the mountains are not without their challenges, and if you are new to the hills, you should be aware of the possible dangers.
There are some way-marked routes in the Wicklow Mountains. (ie: the Wicklow Way and the Walking Trails of Glendalough.) However, most hiking in the Wicklow Mountains is off track on unmarked routes and requires navigation skills. The Wicklow Mountains can be quite difficult to navigate – much of the terrain can be quite featureless.
Before You Go
Let a friend or family member know your route and plans.
Before hiking cross-country, know how to navigate using a map and compass in any weather conditions (heavy fog, snow and rain).
Bring proper clothing and equipment, including the ten essentials (see below).
Know the weather forecast and if necessary adjust your plans.
Plan for emergencies. Do not rely on a rescue. A rescue may be difficult or impossible due to weather conditions or terrain. Carry first aid gear and other emergency equipment.
Cross-country routes are not officially marked. There are many small tracks many made by animals. Instead, navigate using a compass and topographic map. Study your maps and plan your routes according to terrain features.
Be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia.
These items are considered to be the minimum that should be carried on any trip into the mountains. Supplement this list based on the time of year and length of your trip.
- Rain Jacket – this should be water-proof
- Appropriate footwear – Hiking boots with ankle support and Vibram soles
- Extra warm-when-wet clothing
- Food for hiking and extra food
- Topographic map of the area – 1:50,000 or 1:30,000
- Compass (know how to use it!)
- First aid kit
- Torch with extra batteries
- Whistle and mobile phone for emergencies
Weather conditions can change dramatically in the Wicklow Mountains. One of the most important decisions you make in trip planning is packing the right clothing.
A waterproof jacket is essential – it can rain any day in the mountains, regardless of the weather forecast. This jacket will also protect you from the wind. Many people underestimate the chilling effect of the wind. 15°C in the valley may be 5°C on the mountain and will feel like -5°C with a moderate breeze!
Proper water-proof hiking boots will increase your enjoyment of the experience. Some areas of the mountains are wet underfoot 365 days a year, and most trails can be very rocky, slippery and uneven. 25% of accidents in the Wicklow Mountains are lower leg injuries that may have been prevented by better ankle protection.
Carry several layers so that as you get hotter or cooler you can wear more or less to suit. A warm fleece or duvet jacket is great if you stop for any period. Never wear cotton (including jeans) while hiking – cotton not only loses 90% of its insulating value when wet, but is slow to dry, sapping your body of heat.
Hypothermia is a real problem in the Wicklow Mountains. It can be described as a lowering of the body’s core temperature through exposure to the elements. Hikers have suffered from hypothermia even on a sunny summer’s day because they have dressed poorly and underestimated the effect of wind chill. Almost everyone going for a walk in the hills in winter will suffer from mild hypothermia. Symptoms to watch out for are: shivering, stumbling, lethargy and confusion.
Should someone in your group exhibit these symptoms it is vital for their well-being that the group stops and spends time re-warming them – ideally out of the elements (group shelter, etc.).
To avoid hypothermia:
- Have a waterproof jacket – when wet you will lose heat over 20 times as quickly
- Wear polypropylene or wool (NOT cotton) layers – when sweaty cotton has lost 90% of its insulating value
- Eat high energy foods and stayed hydrated
- Do not underestimate the effects – most cases occur between -2°C and 10°C. Many outdoor enthusiasts do not realise that such temperatures can be dangerous.
The mountains of Wicklow can be deceptive to those who dismiss their relatively small size and rounded appearance. The combination of boggy and sometimes featureless terrain can create challenges for those exploring the hills. Across the mountains there are rough tracks made by both walkers and animals but way-marked trails are not common. To explore most of the mountains one must be self-reliant in terms of navigation and safety. If you wish to follow a way-marked trail there are a series of nine trails way-marked around the valley of Glendalough, with both long and short distance options.
If venturing off into the hills please take note of the following:
- Proper planning will reduce the chance of anything going wrong.
- Choose a route to match the skill and ability levels of you and your group.
- Equip yourselves adequately. Good boots are essential; over 25% of injury attended to by Mountain Rescue personnel are related to lower leg injuries.
- Always have a map and compass, and, more importantly, know how to use them.
- Remember mountains create their own weather systems. Temperatures drop by 1°C for every 100m climbed. Winds are stronger in the hills – usually about 2 to 3 times stronger than in the valleys. Prepare for these conditions by carrying adequate clothing including hat and gloves.
- The mountains are often covered by a low cloud base. Do not expect good visibility to navigate by.
- Mobile phones do not always get reception in the mountains. Do not rely on them.
- Mountain rivers are often subject to periodic flooding after heavy rain. This could mean that the stream you crossed with ease at the start of your walk might be a raging torrent on your return. Do not take risks with flooded rivers. Always be aware of the weather and be flexible with your choice of route.
- If you do not feel confident to navigate and lead yourself, consider upgrading your skills by doing a Mountain Skills course. There are several course providers in the Wicklow Mountains.
In the event of something going wrong:
- If you are lost, do not panic! Try to work out where you are and figure out if you can help yourself out of the situation.
- In a genuine emergency call 112 or 999 and ask for Mountain Rescue.
- If you are leading a group, keep everyone safe and warm while waiting for help.
- If one of your party is injured, keep them as warm and comfortable as possible. Treat any injuries to the best of your ability.
If you are leading groups in the hills, especially children, you have extra responsibilities to ensure the safety of everyone in the group. Leadership training courses in the form of Walking Group Leader and Mountain Leader are available nationally. Contact Mountaineering Ireland for information on providers in your area.