The UK's best DIY trail challenges: run, cycle, kayak and snorkel your way around the country
With most events on hold due to Covid-19, this is a great time to independently explore the UK’s awesome trail network, on foot, bike and water
In these uncertain Covid-19 times it’s hard to know when organised adventure challenges might once again be possible. But if you know where to look, there’s a wealth of incredible self-guided adventures just waiting to be discovered, from trail running in west Cornwall to snorkelling in the Outer Hebrides.
We’ve spent years out and about around the UK, researching escapades for everyone from young families and experienced individuals through to newbie explorers. Here’s a selection of some of the best DIY trail adventures in the UK.
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1. Run or walk the South West Coast Path (Somerset/Cornwall/Devon/Dorset)
The South West Coast Path runs for 630 miles (1,014km) around the south-west of England from Minehead in the north to Poole Harbour in the south. While you could walk or run it all in one go (earlier this year Kristian Morgan set a new Fastest Known Time of 10 days, 12 hours and 6 minutes) spending some time exploring each section is infinitely more enjoyable. From the steeply undulating Exmoor coast and the rocky reaches of west Cornwall to the atmospheric Lizard Peninsula and the fossil-rich Jurassic Coast on the Devon/Dorset border, each part is unique and special in its own way. The South West Coast Path Association (opens in new tab) have hundreds of detailed guides to sections of the path on their website.
2. Cycle the Exe Estuary Trail (Devon)
Tracing the river Exe from the seaside at Exmouth past pretty waterside villages to the bustling quay at Exeter, and then back to the sea at Dawlish, the Exe Estuary Trail (opens in new tab) offers a scenic challenge for cyclists of all abilities. Easily reachable by train, this 21-mile (34km) flat, traffic-free route was created by the charity Sustrans (opens in new tab) and is well-suited to those cycling with children. Stop at Dart’s Farm along the way to stock up on picnic supplies, or spot avocets and lapwings at the RSPB’s Bowling Green Marsh (opens in new tab).
3. Paddle the Chelmer and Blackwater Canoe Trail (Essex)
Taking in 11 locks along its 14-mile (22.5km) journey, kayaking, canoeing or SUPing the Chelmer and Blackwater canal (opens in new tab) isn’t going to a speedy affair. But it’s a wonderfully tranquil route, meandering through the lush countryside between Chelmsford and Maldon. Schedule a stop at Papermill Lock for a cream tea while you watch the boats go by – the out-and-back between here and Hoe Mill makes a shorter trip of about 5 miles (8km) with only one portage.
4. Hike or bike the Ridgeway (Oxfordshire/Wiltshire)
Known as ‘Britain’s oldest road’, the Ridgeway National Trail (opens in new tab) has been in use for 5,000 years. Now a popular walking, running and cycling trail, the ancient route runs for 87 miles (140km), traversing the high ground between Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns and Avebury in Wiltshire. The western half of the trail is particularly outstanding for runners and mountain bikers, who can flow along 43 miles (69km) of mostly traffic-free terrain across rolling chalk downland. It’s a ride through history, too, passing Stone Age and Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age hillforts and white horses carved into the hillsides along the way, and finishing at the World Heritage Site of Avebury (opens in new tab) with its awe-inspiring standing stones.
5. Run the Malvern Hills (Worcestershire/Herefordshire)
Made from some of the most ancient rocks in England – around 680 million years old – the Malvern Hills (opens in new tab) form an inviting, undulating ridge between Great Malvern and the pretty village of Colwall. Running the full length of the range from End Hill in the north to Chase Hill in the south covers around 9 miles (14.5km), ticking off all 15 summits along the way. Add about a mile each end for the start/finish legs.
6. Ride Sea-to-Sea on the C2C (Cumbria/Tyne and Wear)
Opened in 1994, the C2C (opens in new tab) is one of the UK’s most popular cycle challenge routes – and with good reason. Covering 140 miles (225km) between Whitehaven on the Irish Sea in the west and Tynemouth on the North Sea in the east, this well-signed route is suitable for both road and off-road bikes – or you could even run it (there’s an annual C2C ultra run (opens in new tab)). Along the way you’ll pass through the northern Lake District, cross the Pennines, and visit many historic parts of the north-east, including the Consett and Sunderland railway path.
7. Fastpack the Wales Coast Path (Wales)
Launched in 2012, the Wales Coast Path (opens in new tab) is 870 miles (1,400km) long and was the first dedicated footpath in the world to cover the entire length of a country's coastline. Taking in Wales’ incredibly diverse and varied landscapes, it’s a big undertaking to do the whole thing, but some sections lend themselves particularly well to a fastpacking adventure. For some short but beautiful circular trails you could take on a loop of the scenic Gower Peninsula; trace the rugged cliffs and sandy beaches of Pembrokeshire; explore the otherworldly Llyn Peninsula; or circumnavigate the Isle of Anglesey.
8. Backpack or bikepack the Taff Trail (South Wales)
Travelling along converted railway lines, former canals and forestry tracks, the 55-mile (89km) Taff Trail (opens in new tab) is a mainly traffic-free route traversing South Wales from Cardiff to Brecon. Along the way it passes through towns rich in industrial and mining heritage before escaping into breathtaking mountain landscapes, surrounded by craggy hillsides, deep valleys and tumbling waterfalls. From Brecon either reverse your outward route or continue onwards, following the peaceful Monmouthshire and Brecon canal to Abergavenny, where there’s a station and regular trains back to Cardiff.
9. Paddle the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail (Argyll)
There’s no better way to explore the intricate and spectacular Argyll coastline on the western edge of Scotland than by sea kayak. With its diverse flora and fauna, sheltered waters, scattered islands and inlets, and sandy beaches, it’s a perfect place to paddle. The Argyll Sea Kayak Trail (opens in new tab) runs for over 90 miles (145km) between Helensburgh in the south and Ganavan in the north, offering what is widely regarded as some of the best sea kayaking in Europe. Complete the full distance over a week or more, wild camping along the way, or, if you’d prefer to start with a shorter section there are nine official access points.
10. The Isle of Harris Sea Snorkel Trail (Isle of Harris)
Harris and Lewis are the largest islands in the Outer Hebrides, sparsely populated and with a rich heritage and beautiful wild landscapes. Much of the coastline is edged with white sandy beaches and clear, wildlife-rich seas – a haven for snorkelling. Established by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Isle of Harris Sea Snorkel Trail (opens in new tab) is one of several such trails around the north-west Highlands.
Accommodating all levels of experience, from shallow, easy areas to those that venture further out to sea, you could spot anything from sea squirts, sponges, and anemones right up to dolphins and basking sharks. Remember: never snorkel alone and take care to follow the Diver’s (and Snorkeller’s) Code (opens in new tab).
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Award-winning outdoor adventure writers and photographers, Jen and Sim are the authors of eight books, including The Adventurer’s Guide to Britain, Amazing Family Adventures and the forthcoming 100 Great Walks with Kids, which will be published in March 2021. In 2015 they spent a year living under canvas, exploring Britain’s wild places with their two young children. Find out more at Adventure Places.