It doesn’t need to be a high-altitude summit, nor a particularly tricky hill top to reach, but I always prefer to head for the highest point in surrounding countryside, rather than sticking to the lower level trails.
I can understand that there is satisfaction to be found in following a trail through a valley or glen. There is a sense of achievement at hiking an A-to-B route, or a famous long-distance trail, such as Scotland's West Highland Way.
I have also experienced the emotional rewards of walking a trail and looking up at the high ground; the hill summits and mountain peaks so magnificent above me.
On occasions, it might be that a lower level trail walk is the safest option when the weather it too wet, cold, windy or snowy at higher levels. Plus, walking a trail is often quicker and easier – and it’s better to have some time outdoors than none at all.
But – and there is a big but here – in my experience the best feelings come when you make it to a summit.
The rewards of hiking to a summit
First there is the planning stage when aiming for a summit. I enjoy the process of deciding which hill or mountain summit I am going to aim for. Will it be a favourite local hill, or a new mountain I’ve never been to the top of, or a repeat of a mountain summit simply because I know it’s a good one?
My summit choice will be determined by a number of factors, including how much time I have to spare, the weather, who might want to join me and the distance and terrain. I will also organise the kit I need, including the right choice of hiking rucksack, waterproof jacket, baselayers and hiking footwear.
It’s also likely that I will be keen to tick off a new summit in my current “bagging” list. Having completed a round of Munros (the 282 Scottish mountains of at least 3000ft stature), I am now keenly bagging Corbett summits. There are 222 Corbetts, which are defined as Scottish mountains of between 2500ft and 3000ft height.
Another goal I enjoy is trig bagging. Trigs are the pillars discovered on many summits that formed the basis of the mapping of the UK and led to the OS Maps that many of us use today for hiking. If I spot the mark of a trig – a small blue triangle – on a map or see a trig in the distance, I often feel ompelled to reach that point.
I am going to confess that part of my love of summits is the enjoyment of ticking off a list. My list of Munros and now Corbetts has taken me to so many new locations across Scotland, where I have experienced a fabulous array of views, landscapes, experiences and wildlife.
Another reward of aiming for a summit has been my ambition to become fitter, stronger and better at navigating in the hills and mountains.
When I first started walking to summits, I found it challenging. Over the years, I have become much more capable and I can now complete long day of hiking to high summits, or multiple mountain summits in a longer outing and sometimes as part of a multi-day backpacking trip.
I maintain my fitness with regular hill running, as well as walking to easy-to-reach local mountains. I also aim to walk at least one or two new mountains every other week, often reaching multiple summits in one month.
I have several friends who are keen summit baggers and so the aim of a mountain top usually offers the chance for a sociable adventure with other people. Of course, I can walk lower level trails with friends, too, but many of my friends prefer a summit, just like me.
Summit joy for hikers
I am not going to tell you it’s easy reaching a summit and many, especially in Scotland where I am based, take many miles of hiking and effort.
Sometimes, it’s a long walk on a steadily ascending slope but also it’s likely there will be a gradient at some point that is so steep it feels arduous. I have also hiked many mountains that are relentlessly steep.
When the hiking gets hard or steep, I take the opportunity to stop for a rest and to look around at my surroundings. It is always a different vista – and in most cases, the higher I climb, the wider the panorama.
And this, for me, is the ultimate reason why I prefer a summit to a lower-level hiking trail. It’s the promise of a view from on high, which is almost without exception somewhere between amazing and breathtakingly spectacular.
There are times when cloud or rain obscures the best of the summit vista but if I’ve timed it right with the weather, the summit usually reveals an impressive 360-degree view and that’s because it’s the highest place in that part of the countryside.
Other rewards include the satisfaction of reaching a summit through your own physical endeavours. If the route has been navigationally challenging, it's a confidence boost to confirm my ability to read a map with a compass.
If possible, I prefer to walk a different route from the summit back to the start, usually as a hiking circuit, but, if not, there is a great deal to gain from seeing the views from the opposite direction as you walk back downhill in the opposite direction.
Then, when I get back home, I enjoy ticking off my new summit. I keep a log of my mountain summits online and on a wall map.
Now, excuse me, while I make plans to hike my next summit...
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.