Grasmere tarn in the Lake District UK

A first timers guide to walking in the Lake District in summer

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So you’ve chosen the Lake District as the destination for your next walking adventure.

Congratulations!

It’s a fantastic choice. When it comes to walking destinations in the UK, the seemingly infinite variety of routes, viewpoints and iconic peaks is almost unsurpassable.

Despite all this, and my love of walking, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that we’ve only just made it up here for the first time.

Was it worth it?

Of course it was.

But I was reminded that as with anywhere you’ve never been before, to get the most from your visit it’s worth doing a little research before departing. I used to be a reluctant researcher, but over the past few years I’ve come to realise we get much more from our trips when I know a little before I go. We don’t plan to within an inch our lives – I like a bit of spontaneity. But it’s good to be prepared with some basic knowledge that helps us to arrive ready to embark on adventures.

So ahead of disappearing off to the Lakes, I tapped up friends who have been frequent visitors over the years. They proved – as always – to be incredible sources of advice. And as I always do, I also checked out bucket loads of expert blogs about hiking in this area. Ben tackled his specialist subject of route-planning and dived into Ordnance Survey maps and walking guides to get a feel for what we could do. But, of course, there’s nothing quite like actually visiting a place to truly understand it.

We had a fantastic week.

But my goodness, there is a lot to know about England’s largest National Park.

And if you really want to make the most of a trip here, there are a lot of things to know that will make it easier and more enjoyable from the off. So I thought I’d put together a guide for you – everything you need to know before your first summer walking trip in the Lakes. This isn’t a beginners introduction to the Lakes as a whole. But it is a practical guide to your first time walking in the Lake District, that will help you plan, prepare and manage your expectations before exploring this outstanding National Park.

Are you ready to start adventuring? Then let’s begin.

Lake Windermere in summer

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Where should I stay in the Lake District?

Go big or go home as they say. So I’ll start with the biggest and most challenging question.

After one trip, it’s probably fair to say that I’m not well qualified to answer this question. But I will share what I have learned so far. Know that there isn’t one right answer, but there are some key points that will get you heading in the right direction.

First of all, it’s worth saying that there is a huge selection of places to stay in the Lakes, whether you prefer campsites, guest houses, luxury lodges, hostels or hotel beds. And to some extent, what you choose on this front will determine where you might want to stay.

But secondly, and no less importantly, it’s worth thinking about the type of walking you want to do on your trip. There’s a huge variety of landscapes in the Lakes and different locations provided easier (or more difficult) access to each of these.

For mountain adventures

If you’re keen to head high and explore big peaks on epic day walks, then consider heading to the middle or north of the Lake District. Ambleside, Ullswater and Keswick get the biggest thumbs up from everyone I asked – with notable mentions for Blencathra and Grasmere. Why? Because you can tackle multiple popular routes and peaks from your front door without the need to hop in the car. If time is of the essence on a shorter trip, or you’d rather spend more time on your feet than on four wheels, it’s worth taking this into consideration.

For lowland rambling

If rolling hills, lowland fells and lakeside strolls are more your cup of tea then consider the southern Lakes. We stayed on Lake Windermere and had easy access to lots of routes like this that could have kept us busy all week.

For coastal delights

Lastly, there’s also a third option that’s less well-known. You could stay on, or close to, the coast. Whilst we might think of wild mountaintops when we think of the Lakes, the National Park stretches as far as the stunning Cumbrian Coast. You can enjoy the best of both staying here, with seaside strolls on the cards as well as highland hiking.

View of Ambleside and Lake Windermere in the Lake District

How to get around the Lake District

Once you’ve arrived in the Lakes, the chances are you’ll want to move around a little unless you’re here for a very short stay.

There are two obvious options. The first is to travel by bus. The second is to drive.

Travelling by bus in the Lake District

This may not be the easiest way to navigate the Lakes, but it is possible. Stagecoach operates a comprehensive bus service around the National Park area including hop on-hop off routes, serving almost every town and village. The frequency of services varies massively across locations and days of the week so you’ll want to plan carefully if you want to travel by bus. And be prepared for some eye-watering ticket prices. Adult hop on-hop off tickets in August 2021 cost £11.50 so would have cost us £23 per day travelling as two adults.

That’s not to say you should dismiss this option as there are two great advantages; you won’t need to find or pay for parking, and it makes it easy to follow point-to-point walking routes.

Driving in the Lake District

It might have its drawbacks from an environmental perspective, but this is undeniably the easiest and most affordable way to reach the majority of this region. With an infinite variety of start and finishing points for walks, having a car is a flexible and convenient option that allows you to get out and about on your own terms. But it’s worth knowing a few tips and tricks to make car travel in the Lakes as painless as possible. Which brings me to…

The car is king

Like or loathe, chances are that you’ll do much of your travel around the Lakes by car. But being a decidedly rural area, you’ll want to be clued up on filling up, avoiding summer congestion and parking.

Filling up

Be reassured. The Lakes might be delightfully wild, but they’re not so remote that you need to worry about refuelling. Most small towns have a garage and you won’t struggle to find petrol, although you might find it a little harder to locate electric charging points. It is worth saying that you won’t find the cheapest fuel in this part of the world so I’d recommend filling up at a supermarket on your way if you can.

Congestion

If you’re travelling to the Lake District in the summer, be prepared to be patient. This is a region packed with narrow, rural roads. Allow more time than you need for your journeys – navigating through towns like Ambleside can take some time as the road network is pushed to its limits at this time of year. Give yourself plenty of time and try to avoid popular towns at midday and in the early evening.

Bus congestion in the Lake District
Erm, the narrow roads can get the better of even the local buses from time to time. We got stuck behind this struggle for quite some time!

Parking

This is where it pays to be prepared.

Parking is at a premium in more ways than one.

The Lakes are popular in summer and this means parking spots can get busy. Plan ahead and have one or two spots in mind before you travel each day. Best of all, head out early and get parked up before others do. We parked up between 8.30 and 9.30 am each day and found car parks largely empty but absolutely rammed on our return in the mid-afternoon.

And be prepared to pay. Whilst there are few places where you can park for free around here, in most places you’ll need to pay. Parking isn’t cheap (we paid £6-7 to park all day in most places) and payment methods vary from place to place. Some car parks only accept cash, so break a few tenners before you come and bring a stash of pound coins. Others allow you to pay by card or by parking app – RingGo and Pay by phone. It’s worth downloading the apps before you travel to the Lakes if to avoid WiFi worries.

Navigation in the Lake District

There are four Ordnance Survey maps that cover the Lakes.

On the plus side, that’s a heck of a lot of exciting routes to plan.

On the downside, that’s a heck of a lot of maps to look at and pack.

Here they are;

  • OL4 The English Lakes – North-Western Area – Keswick, Cockermouth and Wigton
  • OL5 The English Lakes – North-Eastern Area – Penrith, Patterdale and Caldbeck
  • OL6 The English Lakes – South-Western Area – Coniston, Ulverston and Barrow-in-Furness
  • OL7 The English Lakes – South-Eastern Area – Windermere, Kendal and Silverdale

So before you go, it’s worth coming up with a strategy that means you’ve got everything you need. You’re still going to need space for sandwiches in your rucksack.

Here’s a few ideas to make this a little simpler;

  • The easiest option – download the Ordnance Survey OS Maps app for seamless navigation without any of the pesky map folding. Although you’ll have to pay a small subscription fee, it’s more affordable than purchasing these maps in paper form and offers the added reassurance of GPS navigation.
  • Alternatively – if you like a printed map for route planning, head to your local library if you’re in the UK. You can borrow Ordnance Survey maps free of change and for several weeks at a time.
  • And if you do want to invest in your own maps, just pick the ones you’ll actually need. Unless you’re planning to stay for a few weeks, it’ll be difficult to cover all of the Lakes. Instead, choose which part of the Lakes you’d most like to explore – the southern Lakes, or northern Lakes or western Fells – and take the corresponding maps. You can find them all conveniently on Amazon here;

What is a Wainwright?

Spend any time in the Lakes and the chances are that you’ll hear mention of Wainwrights. But what on earth are folks on about?

Alfred Wainwright was an accountant from Blackburn. In the early 1930’s, he took a holiday to the Lakes that inspired a lifelong desire to explore and document the peaks of this region. His Pictoral Guide to the Lakeland Fells was published in 1952, and grew to become a definitive seven volume guide to the Lake District. The 214 fells, all at least 290m above sea level, described in these volumes are affectionately known as ‘Wainwrights’. For those of us heading to the Lakes to walk, Wainwrights indicate climbs and viewpoints – helpful for route planning.

Some super keen explorers of the Lakes boast of ‘Wainwright bagging’ -the deliberate inclusion of Wainwrights in a walk either to climb as many as possible in one walk or to slowly cross off every Wainwright fell over time. It’s a little enthusiastic but I rather like the charming fanaticism some folks approach it with. And it’s a great way of encouraging you to seek out new routes and Peaks. I’m on 14, in case you were wondering. I need to head back and get started on that remaining 200…

Walking in the Lake District in Grisedale valley

Pack for every season

A Scottish friend introduced me to the magical word Sprumpter recently. It describes a day where it feels like each of the four seasons at different times. It’s a good word to describe the weather in the Lakes.

Here’s my advice. Assume you’ll experience every season on your trip here in summer. Not that this should put you off course, it’s part of the wild beauty of this place.

Pack for glorious summer days

Bring your warm weather clothing; shorts, short sleeves and sunscreen. It can be delightfully hot and sunny, especially at the lakesides.

And pack for all the other seasons

But also be prepared for cold, wet and blustery conditions, especially if you are heading up fells. The weather can turn on a sixpence here, and be distinctly different on top of peaks compared to the valley. It can also change fast throughout the day. It’s important to check the weather before you head out, dress accordingly and expect the unexpected.

At the very least, carry a decent waterproof jacket and trousers with you when walking in the Lake District. One or more additional warm layers – even in mid-summer – are a good call too. A generously sized daypack is a good plan to carry these alongside your usual essentials. I walked with my 25L Lowe Alpine which was perfect, all the better for a waterproof cover for unexpected downpours.

Lastly, don’t forget your feet

A good, comfortable pair of walking boots is best up here. I usually hike in Salomon trail shoes in summer but found myself leaning toward my boots as the week went on. Good grip from shoes or boots is essential, but a sturdy shoe that protects against hard rocky paths underfoot is also key. This is definitely boot country – although with luck you won’t need much in the way of waterproofing at this time of year unless you’re planning some off-piste hiking.

Rainbow in the foothills of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District

Lastly, a note on opening times

After a long day on your feet, there’s nothing more tempting than a hearty cream tea or a pint and pie in a pub garden. But be aware that if you want to enjoy this in the Lakes, it’s worth planning ahead.

Opening hours might not be quite what you are expecting.

Some cafes, pubs and restaurants close earlier than you might think. I thought we had rotten luck finding only one cafe open in Coniston at 3 pm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, with at least four others already closed for the day. But friends reported similar a few weeks previous having trundled to the pub at 6.30 pm only to find that they stopped serving food for the day. If you are keen to try somewhere special then plan ahead and check opening hours. Otherwise, head to a larger town like Ambleside or Keswick for somewhat extended hours.

And on a related note, book before you arrive if you can. The Lakes are very popular in summer and folks who know their stuff book well in advance to enjoy prime spots in this part of the world. When we checked out our local, we found we couldn’t get a table … for another two weeks! Ask friends and family for recommendations, or check online reviews, and if somewhere takes your fancy book ahead.

It may well be that the summer of 2021 was particularly challenging due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s worth being prepared.

Moody tarn in summer in the Lake District

So that’s a wrap. My beginner’s guide to walking in the Lake District in summer.

It’s stunning, vast and surprising in so many ways.

It’s also full of juxtapositions. As an immensely popular National Park it draws crowds at every time of year. But it’s also a wild landscape that deserves more than a little respect. Not to mention, we’re also talking about the British summer here – the most wonderfully unpredictable of seasons that can bring heatwaves and spectacular downpours in equal measure.

To make the very most of your adventures here, come prepared. I promise, it’ll make your visit even more magical.

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A first timers guide to walking in the Lake District in summer
A first timers guide to walking in the Lakes in summer
Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
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