Visitors to Ireland are often surprised as they travel through the country how the landscape seems to change radically from one region to the next. For such a small land mass, Ireland has an amazing variety of landscape types forged by the differing geology that characterises the country. Only 55 kilometres northwest of the grey limestone pavements of the Burren of County Clare you will find the dramatic and severe quartzite mountains of the Twelve Bens: only 15 kilometres north of the Twelve Bens the scenery changes again, with the great gritstone dome of Mweelrea, the highest mountain in Connaught. In between these high points lie rich green fields, the estuary of the river Shannon, extensive blanket bogland and the deep fjord of Killary. It is these scenic contrasts that make walking in Ireland a particularly rich experience, and give Ireland's waymarked trails their variety.
Ireland's first waymarked trail, the Wicklow Way, was opened in 1982, and since then more than 4,000 kilometres of routes have been established in the Republic. The trails have been designed to cater for walkers of all ages, and of reasonable health and fitness, and are planned so that, in the right conditions, anyone should be able to walk any of them, at their own pace.
The routes usually follow woodland paths, grassy boreens and quiet country roads in the lowlands, and forestry tracks and mountain paths in the uplands, although in these areas there are sometimes short, rugged stretches over mountain passes. While none of the routes involve severe climbs or dangerous cliff edges (the highest altitude attained by an Irish waymarked trail is 640 metres on the Dingle Way), walking the upland routes particularly can give one a tangible sense of wilderness, a feeling of being truly up there, among the high summits.
While many visitors will enjoy the challenge of completing an entire trail, sections of all the National Waymarked Trails can be enjoyed for shorter half-day and day-walks with family and friends.
Unlike many other countries with more extreme summer and winter climates, Ireland has a temperate climate and hillwalking and country walking can be enjoyed all year round: in our oceanic climate even rainy periods rarely last very long. While wet and boggy sections should be expected along some routes, even the worst conditions can be confidently tackled by wearing suitable footwear.
While experienced walkers may wish to walk the trails from beginning to end, there is no reason why people with less experience cannot choose to walk sections of each route that suit their ability and stamina. Similarly, there is no reason why those who do not wish to walk on tarmac cannot plan their routes to omit any road sections that might be included in the route. Overnight accommodation is available along many of the routes, but where this is not the case, providers of accommodation off-route are often happy to arrange pick-up and drop-off facilities.
Visitors from abroad walking on Ireland's waymarked trails are often amazed at the lack of the crowds one usually experiences on similar trails in Britain and on the European continent: apart from the most popular routes such as the Wicklow Way and the Kerry Way, you will often not meet another walker in a day long hike.
Comprehensive waymarking, consisting of frequent signposts with a motif of a walking figure and an arrow in bright yellow indicating the way, means that there are no navigation challenges on Ireland's waymarked trails. However, walkers should be aware that in some places a waymark sign may be missing or hidden by summer foliage, so on occasions some map-reading may be required to ensure arrival at the intended destination. For this reason it is recommended that the appropriate Ordnance Survey Map or a Route Guide is carried: these will provide added value by indicating interesting features along the way. It is wise to use a map to study the route before you set out, and have a good idea of where you are going and what to expect: while on the route be constantly vigilant for indications that you are on the right track, or otherwise. Walking waymarked trails is not simply about commuting from place to place: part of the enjoyment of a cross-country route is 'finding your way' across unfamiliar territory, the element of exploration and the feeling of pioneering achievement when you succeed. While all routes are inspected annually and any necessary repair or improvement work is carried out, problems can arise due to weather conditions, etc. and normal care should be exercised at all times.
For comfort and safety, and to enable you to enjoy your walk on a waymarked trail fully, the following recommendations should be adopted:
- Wear sturdy and comfortable shoes that give your ankles support and that also keep your feet dry, for at least most of the day.
- Carry a rucksack with waterproof gear in case of rain, and additional warm clothing in case of cold. It is also important to carry adequate water and an energy giving snack or picnic.
- Study a map and/or a guide when you are planning to walk the route, and bring them with you.
- Never walk alone in isolated areas, and always let someone know where you are going and when you should be expected back.
- Always show respect for the countryside and for the people who live and work in it, and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.