25 May 2018 by Steve Rawlins
Whether you go with friends, family or a walking group, heading off to the hills for a weekend away can create great memories. But the secret to success is all in the planning…
When it comes to finding amazing places to go walking, we really are spoilt for choice in the UK. Setting your sights a little further afield can offer fresh challenges, and organising a walking weekend away is one of the best ways to discover a new bit of Britain.
I’m the walks co-ordinator for my Ramblers group, Manchester and District (MAD) Walkers. As such, I’m used to planning and leading group walks as part of our regular programme. I also love to explore new places and enjoy a pint or two after a good day’s walking – mix those together and that’s a good enough reason for me to go away. In addition, the experience provides so many great memories and can also forge strong friendships. I’d urge everyone to consider organising a walking weekend as a regular feature of your group walks programme. And if you don’t walk regularly with a group, why not invite some friends instead?
Although it sounds like a lot of effort, organising a group trip can be as easy or as hard as you make it. You don’t need to go crazy, it could just be you and a small group of friends or it could be you and thirty others. Either way, these tips will help you plan the perfect walking weekend (although I can’t guarantee perfect weather…)
Location, location, location
Deciding where to go is possibly the most important element of the planning process, but with 15 national parks and 46 AONBs across the UK (not to mention many other great places to walk), it can also be the most difficult. You may wish to take your group somewhere you’re familiar with, show off the place where you grew up or spent some of your favourite holidays, or you might be looking to discover somewhere completely new.
How long you and your fellow walkers are prepared to travel has a big influence on location. As a young walkers group, most of our members are in full-time employment. So for a typical weekend trip leaving on Friday night and returning on Sunday evening, I need to consider the fact that the majority can only travel after work. Ideally, that means selecting a location no more than a couple of hours away by train, bus or car.
Of course, that doesn’t mean far-flung destinations are always off-limits. Our group’s most recent weekend away was to Glencoe in Scotland, which is some 300 miles from Manchester. We planned this over the Easter weekend, in order to give us a couple of extra days and nights for travelling and exploring.
A good night’s sleep
When it comes to finding places to stay, all you really need are clean, comfortable beds and hot showers. However, it’s important to make sure your chosen accommodation works with the rest of your trip. If you’re planning on cooking for your group, good kitchen and dining facilities are essential. If self-catering is more your style, being located close to a decent café, shop and pub are important considerations. I like to make sure a good pub is in easy walking distance.
My first port of call is usually independenthostels.co.uk. This is a nationwide network of independent hostels, often sited in great locations for walkers. They’re usually good value too, making them ideal for an exclusive group booking. As well as large dorms, many hostels have smaller rooms, including doubles or twins with en suite facilities. Local tourism websites also list good accommodation options in a specific area, although it’s often just as easy to search online. TripAdvisor.co.uk and AirBnb.co.uk are always good reference sites.
Adding it all up
Booking accommodation is usually relatively simple – send a quick email or call to check availability for exclusive hire and get a quote. There’s always room to negotiate if you feel comfortable doing so, especially if you’re booking the whole place out. Once you get some costs, add on other expenses to work out a price per person. Most of the walking weekends I organise are based on 2 nights’ accommodation, including a cooked evening meal, plus breakfasts and lunches for both days. On the Saturday evening I always aim to find a local pub or restaurant to dine at. A set cost of £16 per person to cover food (not including the pub meal) is a good guideline. Divide the total by your anticipated group size and you have your price per person. An average two-night weekend trip tends to cost £40-£60 per person, rising to £60-£80 for a three-night stay. Not bad for a weekend away!
I always like to scout the location out before booking. Although not always necessary, this gives me an opportunity to gather some local knowledge and recce some walks prior to the group trip.
Filling the spaces
Maximise the chances of a strong uptake by publicising upcoming trips well in advance via your group’s website, social media accounts and email newsletters. Sometimes you’ll have lots of early interest; sometimes you may have to work a little harder to get those places filled. Asking walk leaders to promote upcoming trips during their introductions at the start of regular walks can be quite productive, as is publicising trips in newsletters, online and at social events. I used our last Ramblers group AGM to advertise a weekend away in Snowdonia, and filled half of the available places immediately.
Doing the admin
Planning a weekend away involves a fair bit of admin, so it does help if, like me, you quite enjoy spreadsheets! You’ll need to send a confirmation email to those who have secured a place, but use this opportunity to obtain the essential information that you need from attendees. This includes emergency contact details, dietary requirements if providing food, and travel requirements.
If this sounds a bit daunting, you don’t have to do it all on your own. Enlist volunteers to help with the promise of a pub planning session, or perhaps over dinner and drinks. When it comes to handling finances, all monies should be handled by your group treasurer. This applies to outgoings, such as paying deposits, as well as incoming payments from attendees.
Think about insurance
With any trip away, it’s always worth thinking about insurance. As a Ramblers member, you are automatically covered by the Ramblers’ civil liability insurance on official Ramblers activities. This includes Ramblers weekends away, provided the trip meets the basic insurance requirements; i.e. it has a nominated leader, it is publicised in advance, and it is brought to the attention of the group’s programme coordinator, who is confident in the leader’s ability to lead the walk. Trips involving an overnight stay must also have an overall primary organiser, who should have confidence in the walk leader’s ability and who will adapt the programme of walks if circumstances demand. You can find out more about insurance requirements by visiting the volunteer zone of the Ramblers website. Civil liability insurance protects you in the event of a claim being made against you by a third party (such as a landowner or a member of the public). It does not cover medical emergencies, personal accident or travel issues – such cover must be arranged separately. So if you plan to offer something out of the ordinary on your weekend away, you should advise participants to get their own additional insurance.
In the first instance, find out whether it is practicable to use public transport. If booked in advance, this can be good value. Most train companies offer GroupSave tickets for three to nine adults travelling together, which saves a third on the price of off-peak tickets, although the group must travel together at all times. Further discounts may be available for groups of ten or more – contact the appropriate train operator's group travel office or customer relations office for full details. Other options to investigate include bus or coach services, like Mega Bus (megabus.com) or National Express (national express.com).
Depending on the size of the group, you could also think about hiring a minibus, either with or without a driver. You might be able to drive a minibus yourself (carrying up to 16 passengers) if you hold a full car driving licence and meet certain conditions – otherwise you’ll need to apply for a minibus licence. Visit gov.uk/driving-a-minibus for more details.
Failing that, you could opt to car-share. Hopefully there’ll be plenty of generous drivers willing to give lifts to others. Typically, I compile a list of drivers who are able to provide a lift, where they plan to depart from and what time, and leave everyone to sort lifts out themselves. We often set up an event on Facebook, which allows easy interaction between members of the group.
The fun stuff
Right – it’s all booked, numbers are confirmed, everyone is paid up and most of the admin is done. Now it’s time to plan some walks. Get hold of the relevant maps for your location and spend some time studying the area. Don’t forget that Ramblers members can borrow Ordnance Survey maps from the Ramblers map library (you can request maps via ramblers.org.uk/my-account/map-library). If you can spare the time, a recce trip is often worthwhile. I also try and utilise the experience of those coming on the weekend – they may have already have visited the area and have some useful advice or favourite walks. Bear in mind that groups tend to be of mixed abilities, so it’s good to have a couple of different walk options available if possible. If I have planned a challenging walk with lots of ascent then I also tend to offer a shorter, lower level option.
As the organiser, it’s good to get there first to make sure everything is as expected. We usually do all our food shopping online prior to the weekend and get it delivered to the accommodation. Make sure there’s tea and cake for people when they arrive, and start dinner prep nice and early. Cooking a curry for 30 people is made much easier if people are willing to lend a hand in the kitchen.
Sleeping arrangements are normally best planned in advance, carefully grouping the known snorers! A few drinks and some board games are a good way to help everyone settle in on the first night. Then, once everyone has arrived, dropped their kit in their allocated rooms and had some food, you can finally relax, satisfied that all your hard work has paid off.
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