Stephanie Boon hiking on the South West Coast Smiling at the camera.

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How To Plan A Backpacking Trip On A National Trail: Travel

Have you thought about how to plan a backpacking trip on a national trail only to discover that organising it is enough to make your head explode?

Sound familiar? I reckon we’ve all been there at one time or another so you’re not alone. What I’ve learnt though is that the key to making it happen is knowing exactly where to start, so stick around and I’ll show you how to get the ball rolling.

The first things to sort out are your dates and how you’re going to get to the trail… Trying to organise train travel, for example, can be a nightmare, but read on and I’ll share how I find the closest stations and get the cheapest train tickets I can.

A wooden signpost on the left of the photo points along a grassy track. There's a steep hill that looks like a mound ahead and there's a clear blue sky on this summer's day.

Hergest Ridge on Offa’s Dyke National Trail. You can get to the start of most trails like this by train and connecting buses and I’ll show you how to get the best prices below.

Planning A Backpacking Trip On A UK National Trail – The First Things You Need To Do

Including When To Go And How To Get There

I’ll Use The Ridgeway National Trail As An Example

The planning process for pretty much every hike I do starts in the same way, but the first backpacking trip I have in mind for 2022 is The Ridgeway, which is as good an example as any. So then, let me take you through the early stages of planning an 87 mile hike along ‘Britain’s oldest road’, which you can apply to any trail you want.

The early stages are about getting the bones of your trip in place, the main structure that you build all your other plans around

However, take it from me you don’t need the skills of a project manager or travel agent to get started – I’m the kind of person that likes to keep things flexible, which basically means I do as little planning as possible!

Having said that, there are some things that really do need to be set in stone when you plan a backpacking trip. And top of the list is booking your travel. This is the one thing that will make your hike happen – everything else will flow from there, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here.

Commit to your adventure and buy your train tickets!

Before you do that though, there are one or two things you need to organise first. Of course! Like where and when are you going to go? You’ve probably got a trail in mind already and a good idea of how long it’ll take you (don’t forget to account for time to see the sights or zero days), so

Let’s take a quick look at how to plan your dates, using my Ridgeway hike as an example

Plan A Backpacking Trip: Sort Your Travel Dates

What you’ll do:

  • Choose your trail
  • Decide when’s best to go
  • Have some flexible dates

Why I Chose The Ridgeway Trail (An Example)

A carfpet of blue flowers under the dappled light of bright green beach trees.

Bluebell woods (The South Downs Way, 2021)

I’ve got several hikes in mind for 2022 but I think I’d like to do the Ridgeway first. I’ve settled on this one for a couple of reasons: it’s on my bucket list; it’s a fairly short trail that I can do in a week, plus there’s quite a bit of woodland. I like the idea of the first hike of the season being short because it feels like a natural way to ease myself back into backpacking after winter. And, if I time it right, a spring hike means I could experience the woodland bluebells, like I did on the South Downs National Trail.

There are some incredible historical sights to see on The Ridgway all year round, but there’s only one time you can see the bluebell woods in the Chilterns section, and that’s in early May.

I’m lucky that my personal commitments mean I can be fairly flexible and a late April/early May hike should be easy to pencil in. Even so, there are other things I need to check out before I commit, and one of them is the Easter holiday.

Is There Anything Else That Could Affect Travel Dates?

I have a dim recollection that there’s a long school holiday around this time which often means the price of travel is more expensive, and the trail might be busier too. (And, frankly, I don’t want to bump into endless streams of family outings!)

Luckily there’s a great website called Public Holidays which lists all the public and school holidays across the UK. A quick bit of research revealed that the school Easter holiday ends on the 22nd April in the counties that the trail passes through. Result!

I did find out there’s the May Bank Holiday on the 2nd of May though that I’d completely forgotten about… I don’t think it’ll make much difference to this trip, but if you choose to travel on a bank holiday yourself remember that services are likely to be reduced (more like Sundays).

Ok then, an early May hike on The Ridgeway looks good!

Now it’s time to look at travel

First though, here’s a quick recap of how to plan your travel dates:

  • Choose your trail
  • Work out how long it’ll take you (a rough estimate is to divide the total trail miles by the average number of miles you plan to hike each day, then add in zero days, etc)
  • Decide when’s best to go:
    • consider your personal commitments
    • check out when the trail’s at its best
    • find out if there’s anything else that could affect when you go – eg public holidays

And now the real headache begins!

Plan A Backpacking Trip: How To Organise Your Travel

I planned a backpacking trip on the Offa's Dyke national trail and in this photo I'm sitting on a train beside a window looking at the camera. My hair is long and curly and I'm wearing a mask. Next to me is my large backpacking rucksack with the word 'Osprey' on the strap. I look happy to be on my way!

Me and the beast (aka my rucksack) off on an adventure by train!

What You’ll Do

  • Find railway stations and connecting bus routes
  • Find the cheapest rail tickets
  • Book your tickets

Public transport can be an absolute nightmare to organise in the UK, and it’s not helped by the fact that the beginning and end of most trails seem to be in the middle of nowhere.

It’s best to keep your travel dates as flexible as you can at this stage of the planning process, especially if you want to get the best price

How To Find The Nearest Railway Stations

When you plan a backpacking trip on a national one of the first things you need to do is find the closest railway stations. This is me heading towards Bath Spa railway station with a big rucksack on my back. . I'm smiling at the camera and Bath Abbey is in the background, with a red open topped bus passing by.

On my way to Bath railway station at the end of the Cotswold Way

The first thing you need to do when you plan a backpacking trip is find the closest railway stations to the start and finish of the trail. And this can vary depending on where in the country you’re travelling from. You need to look at the Network Rail Maps to find out where those stations are and any connecting services you need to get you there. (I discovered the closest stations to The Ridgeway are Swindon at the start of the trail and Tring at the end.)

Once you’ve found the closest rail stations, the next thing to do is check out the local bus services that will get you to and from the trail.

How To Find Connecting Bus Services

The best website for this is BusTimes.org. Enter the town/village of the railway station and the nearest place to the start of the trail to see what comes up. Alternatively you could try some of the more general websites listed at the bottom of the article to see if there are any services in the area.

You might be lucky and find a service straight away, but you’re just as likely to draw a blank. If this is the case you can go back to the network rail maps to see if there’s another local railway station with a better connecting bus service. But once again you might come up with nothing.

It can be an incredibly frustrating and time consuming search!

What To Do If There Are No Bus Connections

If there is no service there are a couple of other options tor try – other than swear, scream or cry! Options include a taxi service (probably expensive if you’re a solo hiker, if it’s even possible – you could search local town websites, if there is one, or Google), a lift (hitch, family, etc) or walk. I usually walk!

When I planned a backpacking trip on the Cotswold Way I discovered the best way to the trail was to walk from the station in Moreton-in-Marsh. The walk goes through stunning fields like with one, lush and green with red poppies in the grass and tall wavering trees in the hedgerows.

Poppies brighten field edges on this stunning walk to the start of the Cotswold Way from the nearest train station

Needless to say it’s a bit of a faff for The Ridgeway. Luckily I found a regular bus service from Swindon railway station to Avebury (the no. 49) with a 3 mile walk from Avebury to the start of the trail. And for the return journey there’s an infrequent bus service to Tring railway station (the no. 61 every 1.5 – 2 hours), or I can walk back along the trail about 7 miles to Tring.

You’ll be glad to know that once you’ve got your bus and train services sorted you can finally go ahead and find the best price rail tickets!

How To Get The Best Price Rail Tickets

I always use one of the ‘split-ticketing’* websites to check out the best price rail tickets (*description of split-ticketing and website links below). All you do is enter your ‘to and from’ destinations to see what route and price is recommended. This is where some flexibility in your travel times can help – scroll backwards and forwards a bit through the dates to find the best price.

It’s worth knowing that railway companies release their cheapest tickets 12 weeks in advance and once they’re gone they’re gone, so check regularly in advance

(For this reason I won’t be buying my Ridgway rail tickets until after the 7th of February because I don’t plan on travelling until early May. Even so, it’s good to know your travel details well beforehand.)

Once I’ve found the best price for the route I make a note of it then head to my local station rather than buy them via the split ticketing website. Cheeky I know, but they’re really helpful and it’s good to speak to an actual human! They can tell you there and then if there are any issues with the route, plus they can double check to make sure it is the most cost effective (I’ve saved even more this way), and it also saves you a few pounds in commission (that the websites make on your transaction).

So are you ready? Yes you are: book those tickets – your adventure awaits!

Here’s a quick recap of this stage:

  • Find the closest railway stations to the trail
  • Find connecting bus routes from the stations
  • Search for the cheapest rail tickets within your travel dates
  • Buy your tickets

So What Exactly Is Split Ticketing?

GWR receipt and 5 train tickets

Split tickets for a single train journey from Truro to Chepstow to get to the start of Offa’s Dyke National Trail

Split-ticketing means that instead of buying a straight through ticket, your journey is broken down into various stages along the route and you get the best price for each stage (and you can still use your railcards). Surprisingly you can save a fortune doing this, even though both journeys are exactly the same (although they can sometimes vary). You just have a whole lot more tickets with ‘split-ticketing’, as you can see in the image above (instead of one ticket from Truro to Chepstow I’ve got 5. Also, you don’t have to keep hopping on and off the train, just show your tickets as usual if you’re asked.) Split-ticketing websites simply work out the individual stages for you (as well as the total cost), but you can do it yourself using the network rail map, although it can be laborious.

Useful Websites To Plan A Backpacking Trip On A National Trail

The First Steps

Other websites that might help with finding local bus and rail services (though not timetables) include:

  • Green Traveller for travel information in ‘protected areas’ of the UK
  • National Trail Websites
  • The National Trust (this is where I found out which bus services run from Ivinghoe Beacon at the end of The Ridgway, which is owned by the Trust. Then I went to BusTimes.org to double-check, find timetables and the name of the bus companies running the service – don’t forget to take a screenshot or print them off!)

So that’s it – your ball is rolling and your main structure is in place!

From here you should find it much easier to plan your daily miles and places to stay, whether you’re wild camping, staying at campsites, hostels or b&bs. If you’ve got any other tips or experience of particular trails leave them in the comments – the more the merrier!

Finally, if you’ve found this free guide helpful (and I hope you have) I’d be over the moon if you can help me write the next one. All you need to do is hop over to my Ko-fi page and buy me a £3 cup of coffee – I love a cappuccino! (I write most of my guides in cafes, but your support could also help me get to my next national trail so that I can share everything I learn with you.)  Thanks in advance my lovely.

I hope you have a great hike!

Stephie x

Where Next?

If you want to plan a backpacking trip and are wondering which national trail to hike my trail guides should give you some ideas. Alternatively, check out the Women Afoot series to find recommended places to hike from women around the UK. And there’s this: West Penwith: My Favourite Hike On The South West Coast Path In Cornwall! – it’s a 40-mile section of the trail between St Ives and Penzance and makes a perfect weekend hike (the article includes tips for getting the best-priced rail tickets too!).

Image link: Walking The Ridgeway: The Ultimage Guide To Hiking Britain's Oldest Road

87 miles through ancient history on chalk downs and through the Chilterns AONB

 

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