How to Pack for Walking the South West Coast Path
Not sure what to put in your backpack for the trail? Then this guide to packing for your South West Coast Path hike is for you.
The South West Coast Path (SWCP) is a 630 mile trail that wends around the coastline of the South West of England. It’s an extremely stunning and much loved route, as well as being the UK’s longest hiking trail. With the sea on one side of you for most of your hike, there is beauty almost everywhere you look. You’ll be treading in the footsteps of history all the way through the four counties it calls home. The coast path was originally trodden in by the coastguards of old, who searched for smugglers and their craft. Hardy men, seeking those who snuck between the lighthouses on the cliffs.
This is part 1 of two blogs I’ve written about how I pack and kit myself out for the SWCP. This blog is about Day Hiking. If you’d like to read about packing for Section Hikes and Thru Hikes, please see the post here.
The Terrain and Conditions
Often the paths on the SWCP are steady, well trodden and easy to navigate, making the walk a joy. It’s not all so simple however, because the beautiful coves we love to hike into are bracketed by steep cliffs. You’ll tackle endless descents in to them and back up out the other side again.
Sometimes you’ll despair at why you have to go up and down so many times without any clear purpose, but the coast and the power of the sea dictate your journey, so buckle up and get those thighs burning. The cleverer you are with how you’ve packed your bag, the more managable the miles will be!
The weather in the South West is changeable and often wet. Be prepared for slippery, muddy conditions and rain or hail showers from nowhere on a sunny spring day. August is often wet, and the best weather comes on the shoulder months either side. But whenever you come you need to pack thoughtfully, and try to make sure you’re ready for all eventualities without carrying the kitchen sink.
Day Hiking Backpack
If you’re day hiking the South West Coast Path and returning to your car or your accommodation then you’ll need a significantly smaller pack than if you were doing multi-day with overnights at different locations. You’ll ideally have a pack that holds anywhere between 15 – 25L for a day on the trail, perhaps more if you’re hiking in the winter or in wet conditions which mean you’ll need more water, gear or clothing. Longer days also mean you’ll need more food, so bear these things in mind when looking at capacity.
Your pack needs to be comfortable on your body, the right size for your torso and have chest strap (and hip straps ideally) to make sure your load is well distributed. These are all especially true to consider for larger packs on thru hikes, but important across a day hike too.
Whatever size/brand you go for, it’s worth checking whether your pack has a built in rain cover for showers. I also have a pack liner that protects all my gear should my pack leak. This can be anything from a thick plastic bin bag to a large capacity drysack depending on preference and budget!
For more about packs and what to consider when buying one, check out my blog here for day packs and here for distance hiking/thru hiking packs. See also here for how to choose a backpack.
Hiking Shoes or Boots
Footwear for hiking is extremely personal. The only real way to know what suits you is to try some shoes or boots out yourself. But whatever you choose, make sure they are fit for purpose – you really need to look after your feet on trail!
I use Altra Lone Peak trail runners for my hiking. I used these for my training hikes in Cornwall before I did the Appalachian Trail and all the way through that Trail until I was injured and needed more structure around my foot (ultimately the foot was broken but I didn’t know this until I’d hiked 850 more miles on it!). They’re still the shoes I use now on my training for the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Continental Divide Trail. So suffice to say I’m happy with them.
They are light to wear, grip all manner of terrain well (the AT really put them through their paces) and have a wide toe box so that your toes can splay out when you push off with each step. This helps with foot pain and to stop blisters forming. For more advice and information about how to deal with blisters, hotspots and foot pain, check out my post here.
Many folks use trail runners these days for hiking, but others prefer the ankle support of a boot. You must see what suits your foot and your gait. Assess your ankle stability and choose which is the most comfortable and secure for you. The terrain on the path can be slippery, and just the shale of the cliffs can make things challenging but in the main the trails are well maintained and safely walkable. It can rain a lot here, so it’s also worth considering whether you want to use a waterproof boot. I prefer non-waterproof, because they dry out much more quickly. As everything gets wet inside in the end anyway, this works better for my soggy feet! Even on a short Coast Path hike it’s likely that you’ll see a variety of weather!
The sad and sorry state of my feet in the photo to the right wasn’t caused by bad socks, thank goodness. These are self-made Leukotape patches for hot spots to protect my feet as they began to harden up near the beginning of the hike. The cider between them helped to ease away the aches and pains after that particular day!
Good socks are important. I use wool socks, specifically Darn Tough mid height (the 1/4 height can bag and let in sand or dirt) which you can find here. They have never let me down! Darn Tough also replace them if they wear out – for free and forever. Other good brands are Bridgedale and Smartwool.
It’s important to try them out in your shoes and do a trial hike in them to make sure they don’t make your footwear feel too tight or ride down and bunch under your sole. When you find what you like, take a spare pair in your pack.
Steer clear of cotton socks for more than a casual stroll, as they are not only harder on your skin but also soak up any moisture. They’ll cling to your foot and keep the wetness in, causing blisters, sore spots and foot fungus over time!
Trekking poles can help you with stability and comfort when hiking. They take stress off your knees, especially when hiking the steep up and downhills of the South West Coast path. Poles engage your arms and help with balance on tricky and uneven pieces of the path, giving you the feeling of having four legs rather than two. Using them helps keep you stable when the wind picks up. They’re also helpful on descents where the step down is farther than you’d like to lean down with a pack.
All in all, I highly recommend getting some, or even one! Poles will improve your experience on a coast path hike! Trekking poles can help you with stability and comfort when hiking. They take stress off your knees, especially when hiking the steep up and downhills of the coast path.
Weather appropriate clothing is essential. Be sure you have a rough idea what the weather might be like for your hike. Checking the forecast the night before and the morning of the hike is important. However, even though the forecast might say one thing, in the South West and beside the coast things can change quickly. Pack for contingencies and remember to think about both ends of the spectrum – keeping warm, and protecting against strong UV. Lots of thin layers and spares in your pack are the way forward.
Base Layer: A base layer that wicks moisture away from the skin is an excellent start (wicking means to draw moisture off). Merino wool is an excellent fabric to look for. I used a merino tank top for the hot hiking days (and plenty of sun screen). I used merino long sleeved base layers when it got cooler, or on grey days when the wind was cutting.
Mid Layers: A fleece or similar. I would carry two. One lighter layer for when the tank top/base wasn’t warm enough and it’s a little chilly. One warmer layer to load on top of the first before I pulled on something heavier like my puffy.
Legs: Totally up to you, and dependent on your comfort levels and the weather. I did most of the SWCP in shorts when I did the whole route over July and August. I could equally have done it in leggings or a hiking skirt. When I started my first attempt in February storms and rain, I wore hiking trousers and leggings. Use whatever’s comfortable but make sure you’ve tried them out so you know the seams don’t rub or irritate you. As you’re day hiking, you can always trade out what doesn’t work on another day.
Food and Drink
Pack for the hours that you’ll be on your coast path hike, and then pack some extra. You never know if you’ll be stuck somewhere a little longer than you’d like and therefore having some extra fluid and calories is very important in order to keep you safe.
Food: There are plenty of lovely local cafes and coffee huts along the SWCP that would be grateful for your visit. One great example is the famous Ann’s Pasties which have shops in Porthleven and The Lizard. However, if you’re in a more remote section or would prefer to carry your own food, then nuts, trail mix, energy bars and jerky are all good snacks to pack and consume quickly or whilst moving. You might make a bigger lunch of sandwiches or similar for a longer stop. Some candy or jellybeans for energy is always a good treat tucked into a pocket – fruit and veg is tasty but heavy to carry and gets easily squashed and bruised.
If you’re on a coast path hike of significant distance then you could even pack your stove and some dried food to rehydrate! I’ll talk about that more on my section hiking blog here.
Water: It’s a reasonable rule of thumb to think you should be drinking half a litre per hour of moderate activity. This will fluctuate in hotter weather and if you’re working harder, but it’s a fair baseline. For a day hike on the SWCP, take 2 litres minimum to begin with and plot out places on your map where you might be able to refill so that you know it’s enough. There are often public toilets with taps inside and out where you can fill bottles, and usually many little villages and coves have coffee or ice cream kiosks who will refill for you.
Remember though that through the pandemic it’s been harder for these places to allow you to refill bottles. Many facilities have been closed, so call ahead to check if you know you’ll absolutely need to refill anywhere. In bigger towns you can of course buy bottled water but perhaps check if you really need to. Since we’re all trying to use less plastic it’d be better to refill where possible!
Other essentials to remember:
You might also consider:
Hopefully the above should help you pack a bag for a solid day-long coast path hike and be safe, comfortable and confident about facing most situations. Let me know where you’re going and when in the comments below! Throw in any questions you might have too. G x