(The Gear Loop) - The longer days and (hopefully) balmy weather of a UK summer is one of the best times to complete the National Three Peaks challenge, which sees competitors aim to summit Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in a time window of just 24 hours.
It requires a good level of fitness and a sharp mind for logistics, but it can be one of the most rewarding things fans of walking and hiking can do. We asked James Forrest, one of the fastest men to complete all three peaks (walking to each destination in between), for his insight into the best way to success.
"It was the adventure of a lifetime - and the longest continuous walk I’d ever completed. In August 2021 I walked 17 marathons in 17 days to complete a 492-mile journey on foot, climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon - and hiking every mile in-between them... in just 16 days, 15 hours and 39 minutes. It was a new record for a self-supported, solo walk of the National Three Peaks, beating the previous best of 19 days, 18 hours and 35 minutes by Tina Page. But why on earth did I do it?"
Long, arduous journeys aren’t for everyone (you’ll certainly experience some atrocious weather, feel utterly exhausted and suffer from excruciating blisters!), but personally, I get a real endorphin rush from the exercise and a buzz from venturing outside my comfort zone. I absolutely love challenging myself, pushing my boundaries and seeing what I can achieve in the great outdoors. There’s a calming aspect, too. I find the simple process of walking incredibly therapeutic - it works wonders for my mental well-being and brings contentment to my life.
You don’t have to take on such a hardcore hike, however, to complete the National Three Peaks challenge. The usual approach is to drive between the peaks, aiming to summit all three mountains in under 24 hours. It is one of the UK’s most iconic and longest-standing mountain challenges. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
What is the National Three Peaks challenge?
The National Three Peaks Challenge does what it says on the tin. The goal is to climb the highest peaks of Scotland, England and Wales, often within 24 hours. The three peaks are:
- Ben Nevis (1,345m) – Scotland’s highest mountain
- Scafell Pike (978m) – England’s highest mountain
- Snowdon (1,085m) – Wales’ highest mountain
The total walking distance is about 23 miles (37km) with a total ascent of 3,064m (10,052ft). The total driving distance, meanwhile, is 462 miles
About 30,000 people attempt this peak-bagging challenge annually, with approximately 90 per cent successfully climbing the three mountains, but with only 40 per cent doing so within 24 hours.
Do you have to complete it within 24 hours?
Tradition dictates that you should aim to complete the National Three Peaks Challenge within 24 hours, including all driving time. This is usually split across about 14 hours of walking and 10 hours of driving. The common approach is to start your stopwatch at the base of your first mountain before ascending it, and to only stop the timer once you have descended the final peak.
But there are no strict rules and you are free to take on the challenge however you see fit. If you want to take a whole weekend or even a week to complete the challenge, that is completely up to you. Some people choose to walk each of the three peaks on separate occasions, adding up their individual times, for example. Or, if you’re feeling particularly creative and intrepid, you could follow in my footsteps and take on a self-propelled challenge, such as cycling or hiking between the peaks, like Sean Conway did.
Guided vs Self-organised: should I join a guided group or organise my own challenge?
Most challengers complete the National Three Peaks Challenge as either part of a guided group or a self-organised group. Joining a guided group can be relatively expensive, but it is the most hassle-free option. Mountain guides will ensure you are safe and don’t get lost during the hikes, and minibus drivers will arrange all of the transport logistics.
Alternatively, you can organise your own challenge with a group of friends. This option is fun, sociable and a wonderful experience, but the burden of admin and logistics will fall on you.
Can I take on the National Three Peaks Challenge solo?
This is not a common approach, but it can be done. Indeed my record-breaking hike was solo and self-supported. Such an approach can sometimes feel lonely, but there are loads of positives too. It is true escapism and freedom to be alone in the mountains - it gives you a greater sense of peace and solitude, and the challenge of being self-reliant can be life-affirming.
Who should do the driving? And how do I organise the transport logistics?
If you are part of a guided group, you have nothing to worry about. Minibus drivers will transport you between the mountains and you are free to relax (or sleep) during the long drives.
If you are organising your own challenge, it is best practice to recruit a minimum of two nominated drivers (who are not taking part in the walk). This ensures the drivers are sufficiently rested to be safe on the road. Not all groups are able to do this, but it is worth thinking carefully about driving safety while planning your adventure.
In terms of vehicles, many challengers use their own cars or hire a minibus, while those on guided excursions travel to the start and finish by public transport (Ben Nevis is close to Fort William train station and Snowdon has links to Bangor and Llandudno Junction stations).
What order should I do the mountains in?
Depending on where you live, you may choose to start with Snowdon and travel north, or alternatively start with Ben Nevis and travel south. Scafell Pike is nearly always climbed as the second peak.
Ben Nevis is the most popular start point, with hikers moving on to Scafell Pike and finishing the 'trilogy' with Snowdon.
What mountain routes should I walk?
Again, this is completely up to you, but the common approach is to follow these three routes:
- Ben Nevis – climb the 'Pony Track' route starting at Glen Nevis YHA or Glen Nevis Visitor Centre. it is 17km, 1352m ascent, six hours.
- Scafell Pike – climb the 'Hollow Stones' route starting in Wasdale Head. It is 10km, 989m ascent, four hours.
- Snowdon – climb the 'Pyg Track' from Pen-y-Pass car park. It is 11km, 723m, four hours.
You should also think strategically about what time of year and day to commence your challenge. Summer is your best bet for longer daylight hours and a better chance of good weather. In terms of time of day, the optimum choice is to start during the late afternoon (e.g. 5pm) on Day One on Ben Nevis, drive through the night, climb Scafell Pike at dawn (e.g. 4am) on the following day, and then make it up and down Snowdon by 5pm – thus completing in less than 24 hours. This approach minimises the amount of hiking in the dark. Other start times might mean you’re hiking in the dead of night.
How fit do I need to be? And what training should I do?
This is no easy challenge. Good levels of fitness are required to cope with the distance and ascent involved, and mental toughness is needed to overcome poor weather and fatigue. But, having said that, the National Three Peaks Challenge is well within the grasp of anyone who is determined and dedicated, even if you don’t have much mountain experience.
In terms of training, it might sound ridiculously obvious, but the best way to train is to simply spend as much time in the hills as possible. You will build strength in the relevant muscles, and increase your stamina and endurance. Try and up the mileage, ascent and technicality of terrain each month.
If you live far from the hills, find an alternative - perhaps fast-walk a set of repetitions up a steep road or even some stairs. Wear your hiking shoes and a fully-laden backpack to add intensity. Or, if the hill reps sound too boring, plan a long hike around your local area, even if it’s pretty flat. If all that fails, simply go for jogs or runs or hit the gym to maintain a good base fitness.
Essential Three Peaks kit
If you’re the kind of adventurer who sets out into challenging conditions in inhospitable places, you can’t go far wrong with the Nitecore HC65. It boasts a solid trio of selling points: it is wonderfully bright when cranked up to its maximum setting; it is extremely robust, built to last you many seasons; and it is waterproof, so won’t let you down in a deluge.
AKU Trekker Lite III GTX
Perfect for day hikes on rough, mountainous ground, Italian brand AKU’s Trekker Lite III GTX boots are a great choice for taking on the UK’s biggest mountains. Their Gore-Tex membrane keeps the rain at bay, while their protective rand and Vibram sole offers the sort of durability you’ll need for taking on rocky summits.
Founded in Scandinavia in 1975, Klattermusen makes high quality outdoor gear, and our new favourite waterproof jacket. The Draupner is a serious piece of winter weather kit with a price tag to match, but one so robust and well specified you'll find it difficult to replace with anything else.
Harvey Lake District British Mountain Map
Unlike general purpose OS maps, Harvey maps are designed specifically with hiking, climbing and mountaineering in mind. Among other benefits, they’re fully waterproof, lightweight and contain loads of useful information on their back sheet, including what to do in an emergency.
The Lake District British Mountain Map covers all of the national park’s main mountain groups on a 1:40,000 scale, as well as including a detailed 1:15,000 close up of the Scafell range on the back. Obviosuly, you'll need to buy two more to complete the set.
Tackling the Three Peaks Challenge without music certainly focusses the mind, but the climbs can be made easier with a podcast or a soundtrack to lift spirits. These Aftershokz numbers feature bone conduction technology, so not a note is directly pumped into the ear canals.
This frees up your lugs for taking in noises from the surroundings, which is much safer when out on the mountainside, as it increases awareness. What's more, they are very comfortable, boast a solid battery life and can fend off the worst of the weather.
Silva Expedition Type 4 Compass
This is a stalwart of the navigation world, a high-class baseplate compass with all the features you’ll need to find your way in the mountains. It's also great value and an invaluable tool when on the mountain.
Berghaus Deluge 2.0 Waterproof Trousers
Don’t let a torrential downpour stop you summiting. The Deluge trousers feature three-quarter length zippers so that you can easily slot them over your normal hiking trousers, while Berghaus’ own Hydroshell fabric keeps the rain out.
Rab Infinity Microlight Down Jacket
One of the best-selling all-round down jackets, this lightweight, breathable and multi-faceted 700FP down number from Rab is fantastic for stomping around damp forests or acting as a warm but breathable layer when out on the mountains.
SealSkinz Waterproof All Weather Lightweight Glove
These SealSkinz gloves aren’t specifically built for hiking but the lightweight design and thick insulation makes them perfect for chillier challenges.
The clever Fusion Control technology means that the outer fends-off the rain and cold without affecting breathability, so they keep hands warm without making them sweaty. The lean material also gives them a snug fit that allows plenty of dexterity, meaning they don’t have to be removed constantly to skip tracks on a phone or check a heading on a GPS smartwatch.
Boasting lightning-fast boil times and push button ignition, the Jetboil has quickly become a legend of the stove world. Its FluxRing heat exchanger was a real game-changer when it first emerged, roaring like a mini jet engine. It’s ideal for boil-in-the-bag or dehydrated meals, as well as for that rapido morning brew.
What environmental considerations should I consider?
The normal approach - driving between the three summits in a mad 24-hour rush - has a bit of a bad reputation. You’re tearing up the roads, burning loads of petrol, and ghosting in and out of each region without much consideration for your social and environmental impact (late-night noise in Wasdale Head, at the base of Scafell Pike, is a particular problem).
To minimise your impact, please leave no trace, pick up all litter, keep noise to a minimum, stick to paths (to reduce erosion and trampling of plants), and consider donating to the upkeep of the mountains via the Three Peaks Partnership.
Five top tips from the author: a Three Peaks record-holder
- Break in your boots: whatever you do, don’t wear your new boots for the first time on the National Three Peaks Challenge - doing so will guarantee excruciating blisters!
- Download your route to your phone: using a navigation app such as Komoot or OS Maps enables you to download routes to your phone, meaning you can pinpoint your exact location using GPS (even if you don’t have phone signal).
- Consider trail shoes not boots: traditional wisdom says sturdy, heavy, leather boots are needed on big mountains, but such boots can be stiff, rigid and blister-inducing. A more modern approach is to wear trail shoes that are more flexible and forgiving, but still with enough traction to keep you safe over gnarly terrain.
- Carry a power bank: you don’t want your phone to run out of juice (for those summit selfies as well as for safety), so carrying a 20,000mAh power bank will enable you to charge it up whenever you need to.
- Expect the unexpected: the weather in the mountains can change in an instant (one minute it’s sunny, the next it’s an apocalyptic storm), so be prepared - carry safety gear, a first aid kit, warm layers, waterproofs and plenty of food and water.