Dales Way: Information, Advice and Personal Reflections

Northwest from Ilkley

Start: Ilkley

Finish: Bowness on Windemere

Distance: 80 miles (128km)

Total ascent: 5,217ft (1,590m)

Traditional Sections:

  1. Ilkley – Burnsall (13 miles)
  2. Burnsall – Buckden (14 miles)
  3. Buckden – Cowgill (18 miles)
  4. Cowgill – Sedbergh (9 miles)
  5. Sedbergh – Burneside (16 miles)
  6. Burneside – Bowness on Windemere (10 miles)

I walked northwest from Ilkley in November 2021 over five days. To see the itinerary I followed, click here

What was the trail like?

This is a really lovely trail that is very accessible and completely recommended for those first timers not sure which long distance trail to try first. It pretty much advertises itself as England’s ‘easiest long distance trail’. Whilst it isn’t entirely flat, the ascent is absolutely manageable for even those that doubt their fitness, and it is so well waymarked and clear that it is secure enough for those whose greatest fear is getting lost.

For those looking for a greater challenge, the Dales High Way is an alternative high level route. Having done both, I would say that the High Way is far more fun, but the Dales Way is significantly prettier. The traditional route winds its way alongside several different rivers between the great sweeping hills, departing only to experience the classic Dales panoramas from the moorland hillsides before dipping again, back to the water, in and out of small villages in a county renowned for its welcoming enthusiasm towards muddy hikers.

Notable views and features are numerous; along the way all three of the Yorkshire Three Peaks are spied and the Ribblehead viaduct crosses the path itself. The ruins of Bolton Abbey are happened upon only shortly after leaving Ilkley and all manner of birdlife are drawn to the waters of the Wharfe, Rawthey, Lune and Mint.

North Yorkshire is well known to be extremely welcoming to walkers, and a visitor with a backpack of any size will not feel out of place. The trail is well supported in regards to local knowledge, shops and accommodation.

How challenging is this trail?

This is not classed as a challenging trail, in fact it is the opposite. That being said there are a few things that readers looking to walk it might be appreciative to know.

What people find as challenging is often individual, but the ascent to Oughtershaw Moss Moor can get marshy at all times of year and those that haven’t been able to gain their hill-fitness could well find some of the lengthier upwards portions a fair bit of a push. The waterways are prone to a degree of flooding after heavy rain (as they were when I walked it) so appropriate footwear is required; you may have to either be prepared to wade, ford or alter course as a result. This is a valley walk afterall, and all the water that falls on top of the hills ends up here; just expect a fair bit of mud.

An amount of planning logistics is required. Oddly for such a well traversed route, it doesn’t appear to have a prominently followed itinerary and the one suggested above I included as it is the main one offered by my guidebook (which also suggests several different ones). The official site doesn’t outline a defined daily journey, and even the guidebooks are non committal offering a number of options. This is because what route works for an individual changes greatly depending on what type of accommodation they are choosing. That being said, the six days does seem to be standard, though it will require some decision making on behalf of the hiker.

Personally, I’ve found myself becoming quite cow adverse this year, and the route passes through a large number of livestock fields throughout. This was one of the reasons I chose to do this trail; to face a slowly spiraling fear before it began to seriously limit me. As it turns out, cows are apparently kept inside a lot more in November! The cows (and the sheep) are apparently very used to people crossing the fields by the rights of way that the trail follows. That being said, treat them with calmness, space and quiet; they may not be known to be the most aggressive animals in the world, but their bulk, curiosity and group instincts can often cause an amount of alarm and, in vanishingly rare cases, injury. Many farmers have put up fences between the livestock and the path, but in the pastures that occur in the moorland sections there are very little, and on the section between Sedbergh and Burneside the whole way is basically just livestock fields. If you think this will be an issue, maybe plan an alternative route for that day.

The terrain is generally easy for a seasoned, or only sort of seasoned walker, and it is incredibly easy to follow; in areas where waymarks are sparser, the trail remains very clear on the ground and it is hard to go wrong (though completely still possible – please still bring some sort of map or navigation device). In areas where there might be a dilemma, landowners are clearly aware of where the dilemma lies and have often helpfully put out their own signs indicating where the trail is headed.

The trail is very well known in the area, and thus well supported by campsites. Pretty much all of them have the kindness to offer far cheaper rates to tenters arriving on foot, and in the off season farms are known for being generous in offering their facilities to walkers. Pubs are very used to muddy boots.

How long is the path?

Well, typically it is said to be 80 miles though this appears to be an area of conflict. The starting post at Ilkley claims it is 81, whilst various ‘walking holiday’ companies place it at 77 or 78 miles. Sometimes both on the same site. The LDWA places it at 78 miles, whilst the official site chickens out and claims it is ‘about 80 miles’.

I’m going with ‘about 80 miles’ as, whilst I did measure 80 on the dot, I also know I have a tendency to wander; either lengthy loops around overly curious livestock or bouncing off trail for a better viewpoint or to find a top notch pitch for the night.

The total ascent is around 5217ft (1590m) which is mainly felt after Buckden going up on Oughtershaw Moor and in the shorter, but more frequent undulations on the approach to Bowness. Most of this ascent is gentle – the rise up to Conistone Pie from Grassington is barely noticeable and none of it will put a moderately fit person out of sorts.

What is accommodation like?

Your accommodation choice will affect your itinerary. Whilst the effects of Covid have seen campsites and guesthouses close and hostels change into frustratingly expensive sole use places (at least temporarily…hopefully) there are still enough options to put together a route that encompasses a realistic daily mileage whatever your choice.

I have put together the table below for reference.

PlaceDistance from Start (miles)CampsiteGuesthouse/
B&B etc.
Ilkley0 Y 
Bolton Abbey6Y  
Burnsall13 Y 
Grassington16 yGroups only
Buckden26YYGroups only
Hubberholme29 YGroups only
Swarthghyll35YYGroups only
Sedbergh54 YGroups only
Grayrigg Foot64Y  
Stavelely73 Y 
Bowness80 YY

For details on official campsites, you can check UKcampsite or pitchup or just google the area. The Dales Way website has a very thorough list of accomodation that I can only assume is kept reasonably up to date.

At least two thirds of the available campsites are seasonal, so be aware that from the end of September they start to close. If you are hiking after then, and still wish to camp in civilised spaces, message local pubs in the areas you are hoping to stop at and they might well allow you to camp outside for a small fee. Failing this they might suggest the details of local farmers that have historically been happy to help. The Caravan and Camping Club sites tend to remain open, and the farm-based campsites are likely to still welcome you with their discretion if you ask in advance.

As always, I am not a great resource for hotels and the like, but its fair to say there are many as the accomodation list on the Dales Way website indicates.

I hiked the Dales Way in November 2021. I wildcamped on two nights, and spent others in a campsite in Dent, and the C&C Club site in Kendal.

Can I wildcamp?

Legally, no. In theory, yes. This is an area that is more used to the concept of wildcamping, but that doesn’t mean one can get laid back or act in any way that is disrespectful of the environment or the people. Avoid the farmland wherever possible, and instead choose areas of open access land (pale yellow/brown on the OS maps). This will normally be on open moorland or higher up. If you wish to wildcamp along the river (which, depending on your sections might be the best possible options, as they were for me) this is going to be closer to the trail than would be preferred so double down your efforts to be discreet and non intrusive and camp up as late as possible.

Be aware that the 17 miles between Sedbergh and Burneside are something of a wildcamping deadzone. It is a lot of open, featureless, active farmland and not an area that many would advise to wildcamp in. I highly doubt it would be a rewarding or memorable camp, and would suggest that you make note of the campsites in the proximity of the areas you think your day might end at. This was a day I ended up detouring the brief walk away from Burneside to stay at the Kendal campsite.

If you do choose to wildcamp, please adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Where possible, obtain the landowner’s permission
  • Preferably camp solo, or with a single tent.
  • Camp in the one space for only one night. Return for a second at the maximum.
  • Pitch up as it is getting dark, leave early
  • Choose a space that is out of the way of main paths, is unobtrusive and discreet. Be aware that where you choose to pitch is not an area of protected growth or where ecological restoration attempts are being carried out. An area of only grass is definitely preferred.
  • No fires. Definitely no fires sourced from trees in the area. Even if you are going to use an official campsite where you are allowed a fire and need wood, don’t go chopping into standing trees.
  • Leave no trace. Understand that this encompasses more than just picking up your litter, it means leaving no impact. Nothing that will cause damage to the ground or surroundings, or disturb the environment (no fires, no music, pitch somewhere clear and unprotected). If you need the toilet, bury your waste and pack everything else out, this includes loo roll and female sanitary items. If this all sounds like effort, no fun and kinda icky to you, please don’t wildcamp.

How easy is it to resupply?

I would recommend carrying at least two days supply of food whatever your itinerary. Whilst you are likely to be passing through or in close proximity to a village or a town at least once a day, the small village shops are often subject to earlier closing hours than those in larger towns. In theory it is easy to resupply, but in practice some days will require some planning and forethought.

If you are hoping to carry less and to enjoy eating indoors however, there are bounteous pubs, cafés and small restaurants all waiting for your custom.

I carried for three days and resupplied in Dent to last the remaining time. The shop in Dent was not that exciting, and only offered a couple of backpacking staples. I would suggest resupplying in the large Spar in Sedbergh three miles further on if you follow my itinerary.

Sunday trading laws apply.

How frequent are water sources?

You will be passing through enough villages and towns that it is likely you will be able to top up your water from taps the whole way. If you are caught out, I would really recommend looking at your map for the presence of small streams running into the rivers rather than the rivers themselves. There are plenty of these to be found. However, as the water passes through a great deal of farmland and human settlement, I strongly recommend filtering and purifying any water you gather. I came across a dead sheep up on the Oughtershaw moors lying across a stream and I wouldn’t want to be a person drinking raw from the water further down from a corpse, not to mention the effects of farming run off or livestock waste.

What guidebook and map do I bring?

The three big boys of the guidebook world all have a Dales Way guidebook. For me, personally, when it comes to a choice between Cicerone, Trailblazer and Rucksack Readers, I will always choose Trailblazer. Cicerone is well established and completely trustworthy and competent, but Trailblazer books are thorough and a total joy to peruse. Both Cicerone and Trailblazer go to lengths to make their books portable and easily referenced and really you can’t go wrong with either.

My total lack of enthusiasm for Rucksack Reader guidebooks is well documented. I feel they infantalise the reader and their maps are a joke. The books boast about being spiral bound, but that counts for little when they are big and flappy and can’t just be placed in a pocket until needed. Considering they retail at a similar cost to the other two, it’s an absolute cheek that they get away with including a fraction of the information that Cicerone and Trailblazer take great pains to curate. There. That is my Rucksack Readers rant done for at least another few months. I’m not sorry.

Regarding maps, I carried the Harvey Map for the trail. The strip section format all on one map gives all the information a thru-hiker wants from a map and it is with good reason that they have carved a respectably niche for themselves as the cartographers of long distance trails. If you would prefer to use Ordnance Survey maps, you unfortunately need five different maps if you’re preferring the 1:25000 Explorer maps, and three if you’re wanting 1:50,000 Landranger. The custom maps service on the site might get that down to three and two respectively.

Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer maps:

  • 297 Lower Wharfedale & Upper Washburn Valley.
  • OL2 Yorkshire Dales – Southern & Western.
  • OL30 Yorkshire Dales – Central
  • OL19 Howgill Fells & Upper Eden Valley
  • OL7 English Lakes – South Eastern

Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger maps:

  • 104 Leeds & Bradford
  • 98 Wensleydale & Wharfedale
  • 97 Kendal & Morecambe

In regards to downloaded maps – if you purchase the above OS maps you can scan in the code to get the online map free. I downloaded the map for my phone and GPS from the Hiiker app.

How do I get there?

Ilkley is easily reached from major train stations at Leeds and Bradford as well as the less prominent station in Harrogate. The return journey from Bowness starts two miles from the end point at Windemere station which connects to mainline services and also connects to more frequent trains at Oxenholme Lake District. These trains can then whisk you away up to Glasgow or down to Manchester or right down to London.

All these trains runs multiple times a day, at least once an hour.

Can I cycle the route?

This is a question I seem to get more and more. Unfortunately, I am not the right person to ask as I cannot even ride a bike. I would think that bikepackers would get more out of the Dales High Way which I’m fairly sure is all bike friendly, especially as a great deal of the traditional route runs through farm fields which forbid cycling.

What other reports and resources would I recommend?

There’s an awful lot out there, but not a lot of it is useful. The official Dales Way website is a good starting point and they link to a few of their recommended blogs. Among these are a few respected hiking bloggers – The Walking Englishman has one of the most comprehensive collections of detailed UK hiking trails out there and his site is the most visited free content website for walking in Great Britain. He walked the Way in five days staying at B&Bs during the summer months. His route deviates from the traditional route, but the map and GPS links he includes are for the normal path.

Rambling Man, manages a pretty thorough and utterly entertaining record that strikes the balance between good technical information and his own journal of experience. He walked the Dales Way in August 2010 over six days, staying in B&Bs.

Rucksack Rosie, another well known name, manages a concise report of her hike that she did for the British Lung Foundation, including the technical aspects and her data sheets. Rose walked the Dales Way over six days in August 2012, staying at B&Bs and one night in a youth hostel.

Whilst there are other blogs that detail camping and wildcamping, I’m afraid I wouldn’t say many of the ones I looked at I would deem as useful as the ones mentioned above. I’m sure there are ones out there that exist that are both technically informative and a decent read, but they are clearly not prominent on my internet search. I do not think it is an issue that the three linked accounts are from a few years back, as sadly pretty much anything from over two years ago is now prone to being outdated in terms of hospitality related information due to the impact of the pandemic.

I did try to find decent vlogs to aid with my research, but the amount of searching I had to do to find any of a suitable quality in all their format, editing and information offering (that didn’t have a soundtrack that made me want to smash my head against a wall) seemed in vain. I think I was spoiled with the quality of vlogs that were on offer for the Skye Trail and now few will come close again.

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