Surely you’ve heard the term ‘off the beaten path’ – usually said to mean deviating from the traditional tourist circuit and discovering a little-visited area. Of course, we strive to take all of our trips off the beaten path to explore a more ‘authentic’ Ireland.
Yet when hiking in Ireland, it’s even more than ‘off the beaten path’ – it’s usually off the path entirely! Unlike most countries, the vast majority of Irish paths are on private lands, and are maintained by the local farmers and landowners, which means that the state of the trails (or even their existence) can’t be guaranteed.
Often the paths are little more that tangled sheep trails or sometimes nothing at all – there is a trailhead and a summit, and it’s up to the hiker or hillwalker o find the best way to navigate through the bog or heathland. While going off-piste to hike off the trail is frowned upon in the USA and beyond, this is considered normal and even best practice in Ireland.
Before starting your hike, be sure to do plenty of research on the area where you plan to hike. Be sure that you have the right OS maps for the area as well as navigational and safety tools. In the case that the route is open to the public, but no trail is marked and you want to leave map0reading to the professionals, it’s best to hike with an expert wilderness guide.
Going off that, when hiking in Ireland, you never know what kind of terrain to expect. Much of Ireland is muddy and boggy. The terrain is usually very uneven. Depending on where you are, expect different kinds of terrain: for example, in Donegal, Connemara and Mayo, expect mud and bogland, in the Wicklow Mountains, expect heathland and heathery hills, and in the Burren expect a craggy, barren landscape.
Even roads are often quite uneven, and usually very narrow so watch out for cars when walking on pavement. On the west coast of Ireland, be sure to take into account the wind factor, especially while biking along the coast, or hiking in Ireland’s open, exposed landscapes or summiting hills.
You’ll need the right boots – waterproof, comfortable, well-worn in – and long, water-resistant trousers (rain over-trousers are a good idea too). Weigh the pros and cons of ankle support or low-cut models. Make sure that you’re used to walking on uneven terrain by adding in similar hikes to your training plan or daily activities back home. Don’t try to cram too many miles in one day while hiking in Ireland as our uneven terrain will make the going slower than normal – this way, you can aim for quality hiking over quantity. Waterproof clothes and layers will help you prepare for Ireland’s changeable climate. You may want to consider gaiters when hiking in boggy terrain.
Learn more about what to wear while hiking in Ireland here.
In Ireland, we have 6 national parks:
In comparison to the massive and wild North American national parks, some of which may not even be accessible by road or have thousands of acres of remote and near-inaccessible backcountry where backpacking is your only option, Irish national parks are quite different. Ireland’s national parks were established relatively recently and are much smaller and tamer. In fact, trails within Irish national parks are the most maintained trails in all of Ireland! Chosen for their beauty and uniqueness, they are often very accessible, with a visitor centre, car park, and facilities. For true wilderness, we often have to look beyond the national parks.
Besides Ireland’s 6 national parks that are maintained by the government, the National Waymarked Trails association maintain over 40 Irish trails around Ireland, including the Dingle Way, the Wicklow Way and the Kerry Way, as well as other shorter hikes. Ireland’s forestry service agency, Coillte, maintains another 12 forest parks as well as 180 recreational sites throughout Ireland.
If you’re visiting one of the national parks, expect crowds as these are Ireland’s most accessible wild spaces. It’s best to come early in the day – early morning sunlight or even better, plan your visit in the shoulder season like early spring or autumn, both of which are amazing seasons to visit Ireland (wildflowers in spring, golden-covered heather and bracken in the autumn). But the best way is to hike Ireland’s national parks with a guide, who will take you to the park or surrounding region’s lesser known corners, often meaning deviating from the well-worn trail.
Unlike in Scotland and across Scandinavia, there are no “Rights to Roam” or “Every Man’s Right” that would allow hikers access to roam on any land public or private.
Instead, the majority of the waymarked or signposted trails in Ireland cross private land or followed paved roads, and are only signposted for hikers with the agreement of the landowner(s).
Do your research! If you’re planning on hiking off the trail (as in, outside of a national park or nationally owned forest, it’s important to stay up-to-date with any changes in what trails are open to the public. If you’re not sure where you’re allowed to hike, it might be best chose a guided trip with a wilderness guide.
As most of the hiking you’ll do in Ireland is on private land – often used for farming or grazing – it’s important to follow and respect the unspoken rules.
Hike at your own discretion. Rules of thumb for hiking: don’t hike alone, make sure someone knows your plans, have plenty of supplies with you, bring a map as well as a Garmin or similar device. Best practice while hiking in Ireland is to hike with an experienced mountain guide. And of course, make sure that the farmer or landowner has opened their land for hikers! All hiking is done at your own discretion, as the state of trails or terrain cannot be guaranteed if you’re off public land.
Always close a gate, even if you find it open. Just because you see a closed gate, doesn’t mean you can’t go through it, especially if it’s on a country lane. But do make sure you close it behind you, even if you found it open. These gates are meant to keep livestock within a certain area and leaving the gates open will only mean future headache for the farmer and potential danger to his livestock.
Never walk your dog off lead if sheep, cows, or other livestock are present. Farmers technically have the right to forcibly remove any animals that are threatening their livestock. While you can take you dog with you while hiking in Ireland, be aware of your surroundings. If you’re on private farmland and you see or think livestock might be present, keep your dog on its leash.
Do not approach any livestock. Though these animals are domesticated, most livestock in Ireland live in relatively wild conditions, and approaching them could be dangerous.
Respect the land. It seems obvious, but avoid walking through people’s yards or pastures, avoid moving any tools or equipment you see, and respect the terrain below your feet! That way, the farmer will keep letting hikers traverse his or her lands.
Leave no trace. Another obvious one, but always remove any trash, even if it wasn’t you who brought it. Best practice is to bring a plastic bag for waste.
In your daypack, bring water, food, extra clothes for the journey home such as a dry t-shirt and fleece, dry socks, and a new pair of shoes to change into. Waterproofs are a must, such as a jacket with a hood, waterproof over-trousers and a backpack cover. Plastic bags to store wet clothes will make your life easier and your vehicle cleaner for your return trip. And most importantly, wear good, comfortable and waterproof hiking boots!
If you’re looking for more details about what to pack in Ireland, read our blog on what to wear when you’re planning a hiking trip to Ireland.