For hikers in the UK, there’s one challenge that stands thousands of feet above the others: the National Three Peaks.
Those peaks are the highest points in England, Scotland and Wales. England’s is Scafell Pike in the Lake District, summiting at 3,208ft, Wales’s Mt Snowdon (3,560ft) and Scotland’s Ben Nevis, which is the highest point of the challenge at 4,413ft.
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It’s not to be taken lightly. Hikers should approach the challenge with a decent amount of preparation and training – you’ll be driving 462 miles, walking approximately 23 miles and climbing a total of more than 10,000ft – not a challenge you can decide to have a crack at a few days before an empty weekend.
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But if you do decide to give it a go it’s one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences you can have in the British Isles. You’ll see parts of the country you’ve never seen before, challenge your body and mind with technical ascents leading to some of the best views the UK has to offer while bonding with friends or colleagues. The only downside is you’ll be spending a lot of time in the car.
What is the Three Peaks Challenge?
Simply, the Three Peaks is summiting the three tallest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland, usually within 24 hours. You climb each mountain on foot, but are driven between the mountains either on an organized trip, or you organize it yourself with friends.
The general route of attack is via Ben Nevis first, beginning at 5pm, as then you won’t be tackling the highest peak in the dark. The route of choice is the Mountain Track (AKA the Tourist Track). Once you’ve conquered Ben Nevis, jump in your car and head south over the border to the Lake District where Scafell Pike awaits in the dark – there are at least six paths up Scafell, so for this one, head up the Wasdale Track.
After that, it’s a quick drive to north Wales, where the towering Snowdon greets you. A rapid ascent up the Pyg Track, and down the Miners Track, and hopefully your challenge is completed.
What are the rules?
There are no set rules as such, but generally, if you’re doing it self-guided, the countdown starts when you begin your first ascent and stops when you reach the end of the final descent. Twenty-four hours is the unofficial time to beat, although some hikers aim for 36 hours.
The earliest record of anyone completing the challenge in under 24 hours was in 1926, when driving between the mountains was the hardest part. Nowadays, thousands of people attempt it each year, and the paths can get crowded during the summer months.
The only other rule is you must stay within the speed limit on the roads. Although when fell-running legend Joss Taylor set the record for climbing the peaks in 1971, he did it with rally driver Frank Davies at the wheel of a souped-up 3.0l Ford Capri. With a time of 11 hours 56 minutes, we would speculate that the rules of the road were abandoned that day.
How should you prepare?
If your general level of fitness is good, and you’re used to hiking trails, you are in a good place to tackle the challenge. It’s worth going to recce one of the three climbs prior to the day of your attempt and spending a day heading up the footpaths. It will not only be a good workout for your legs, but also for your navigational skills, and it might save you a few minutes on the day of the challenge by knowing exactly where you are going.
But this isn’t a relaxing walk out in the country – to complete the challenge walking pace needs to be brisk, with no faffing at peaks for pictures. There’s not much time for absorbing your surroundings.
Ensure you practice walking in your boots before the day to avoid the chance of blisters or rubbing. A hike every weekend in the run-up to the event on trails of varying terrains is advised, and some gym sessions with squats, lunges and core work wouldn’t go amiss.
It’s not advised for one of the walkers to be the designated driver too, so at the climbs, request that your driver prepares your car for leaving, with your food prepared and ready to eat. That way, no time will be wasted preparing the meal.
Although it’s the smallest mountain, Scafell Pike is considered to be the toughest to climb. You arrive there after climbing Ben Nevis, usually early in the morning, so you might not have had much sleep. The climb is the steepest of all three – the word most often used to describe it is “relentless”. This is usually the part where unprepared walkers might be tempted to quit. If you can make it up Scafell Pike, you have conquered the hardest part of the challenge.
The best time to attempt the challenge is between May and October, when the weather is warmer and there’s more daylight hours, giving you more illuminated climbing time until you need to don your headtorch. Even in summer though, there may still be snow at the peak of the Ben, and the weather can change quickly at altitude, so always have extra layers.
If you’re doing it in a group, you’re only as fast as the slowest member, so the groups that see most success are the ones who support the walkers at the back and work together as a team.
What should you take?
Check out our Hiker’s checklist – essentials include hiking boots, a decent pair of hiking socks to keep blisters at bay, waterproof trousers, waterproof jacket, mid-layer and, if it’s cold, a baselayer.
Then, depending on the time of year, you’ll either require a warm hat and gloves or a cap, suncream and sunglasses. A headtorch is essential, as you will be climbing at least one peak in the dark, depending on what time you start.
You’ll also need to cover all your safety bases: survival blanket, whistle, first aid kit, and be prepared for all eventualities. Maps and compasses are a must too, even if you have your phone and back-up battery power.
Fuel (for you, not your car) is another important factor: you’ll need enough snacks and pre-prepared meals to get you through the challenge, plus at least 4 litres of water per person. You might also want a pillow to help you sleep in the car/minibus as you travel between peaks.
Are there alternatives?
If you fancy cycling it, the current record stands at 37 hours 33 minutes, set by Ross Malpass in 2017, where he cycled between the peaks then hiked up each one.
Alternatively, if hiking and driving, or cycling, is not enough, you could run the entire thing. The record for the 470-mile route is 54 hours 39 minutes, set by a relay team of five people in 1981.
Alternative peaks to climb in the UK include the Yorkshire Three Peaks, which takes in 5,300ft of ascent over Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough across 24 miles. This is usually completed in under 12 hours.
You can also run the 3 Peaks Race, known as ‘the marathon with mountains’. It’s one of the oldest fell races in the UK, run in April annually. It’s a brutally tough race, and you need to prove you have completed similar events before being accepted for entry. It’s also raced on bike, in the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross Challenge in autumn. Again, not for the faint-hearted, and only drop-handle cyclocross bikes are allowed.