Hadrian’s Wall was finished in 122 A.D.
Commissioned by the Roman emperor Hadrian, it marked the northernmost border of the Roman empire. Not long after, the empire began to collapse, and major sections of the wall were pilfered for use as building material. But long sections of the great wall still remain, and the walk along the wall heads through some of England’s wildest countryside.
The remaining wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walk along its length is a British National Trail (designated as such in 2003) and it stretches 84 miles nearly across the country between Wallsend in Newcastle to the small fishing village of Bowness-on-Solway. The trail is hiked most between April and September, with the biggest crowds during June, July, and August.
A friend and I hiked along the Hadrian’s Wall path last May, and here are my recommendations on what to pack.
Camping? Or B&B?
The first major issue will be whether you want to take advantage of the many bed and breakfasts (B&Bs), homestays, and hostels available along the trail like I did, or if you want to camp or do a combination of both.
If you’re camping, you will need a tent, sleeping bag that can protect you from temperatures down to freezing (you never know, even in summer, the nights can get chilly), sleeping mat (it will at some point rain all night), flashlight, and cooking equipment: stove, fuel, matches, utensils.
If not camping, you’ll find it helpful to have a mobile phone to make reservations, and some B&Bs also offer a pickup service, but you’ll need to be able to call them.
Service is decent along much of the trail, but the middle portion has spotty service, if any, so call ahead. And with a mobile phone, you’ll need the charger.
Baggage carriers are available if you’re staying at B&Bs – for a fee, they will pick up your bag in the morning and it will be waiting for you at your evening destination.
If that’s the case, then you’ll need a separate daypack for anything you’d need during the day (water, snacks, lunch, camera, extra layers, waterproofs, First Aid kit, guidebook). If you’re not using a baggage carrier, a larger backpack with a good hip belt is a must.
Food and Water
Again, there is a difference depending on where you’ll stay. Many of the guesthouses will offer a complimentary breakfast with your stay. Some offer evening meals for an additional cost and the option of a packed lunch (a bit pricey though). All the spots we stayed in had a kettle to boil water (pretty standard for accommodation in England), so dehydrated food or food that cooks with boiling water can be made easily.
Otherwise, you’ll need to bring along your preferred type of camping food – I completed the walk on trail mix and peanut butter smeared on tortillas for lunch and dehydrated meals for my evening meal.
Carry 2-3 liters of water with you. If you plan to get water from a stream, then bring along iodine tablets. Taps for water are available at all campsites.
Some may suggest that you get detailed topographic maps of each region. I don’t think you need to do that unless you are planning to do some side hiking along the way.
The trail is well sign-posted, and a good guidebook will have detailed enough maps for the trail, and it will include information on the history of the area.
After all, it is a major historical site, and it would be a mistake to not learn a bit about the path on which you’re walking. You also don’t want to miss the major forts and sights along the way.
And the guidebook lets you know where public bathrooms and snack huts are.
Waterproof light hiking boots are ideal. Heavier hiking boots, unless they’re well broken-in will be too heavy, and trainers/running shoes won’t provide enough traction or ankle support. While the trail at the beginning and end is over pavement, where admittedly lighter shoes are preferable, most of it is trail and in the middle of the trail the inclines can be treacherous if it’s been raining. And it will rain.
Wear socks that wick moisture; my favorite are Smart Wool, and one of my saddest moments along the trail was when a sock I’d washed and hung off a strap on my daypack to dry fell off, never to be seen again. Good socks will help prevent blisters. Layering a lightweight inner sock underneath a heavier sock can help with that as well.
Optional: Bring along a pair of lightweight shoes or sandals for the evening. You’ll want to be out of your boots, but may still need shoes to wear.
Layers are key. While it may be summer, it can be chilly and rainy. In late May, I was thankful to have my hat, gloves, and a fleece layer to put on. Two days later, I was in a tank top and got a sunburn.
Be prepared for the variation in weather with wicking layers from base thermals to a fleece.
I wore a tank top, topped with a long-sleeve shirt as my base-starting outfit with a fleece layer and a waterproof jacket to add on if needed or I could take off the long-sleeve shirt if it got warm.
For your legs, bring along 1 pair of quick-drying synthetic hiking trousers (it’s a trail in England so I’ll say trousers instead of pants) and a waterproof layer to go over the top.
I cannot emphasize enough that at some point, it will rain. Zip-off trousers could work, it can get warm, but they aren’t necessary.
Bring two pairs of layers for tops, three to four pairs of underwear maximum. You don’t need a lot; bring along CampSuds, or something similar, and wash out your clothes each night.
If it’s made of light synthetics, it should be dry by morning.
Cash points or ATMs are practically everywhere in Newcastle and in Carlisle, but in the middle of the walk, there are few (if any) options to take out money. And many of the pubs or B&Bs may not take cards. There are also occasional spots to buy food on the honor system, so having some coins at hand will prevent you from nicking an ice cream bar and feeling guilty about it.
Since all the areas around the wall haven’t been excavated, don’t dig any holes if you have to go. There are public bathrooms at all of the major sites along the way and a handful of port-a-pottys so there’s usually a place to stop.
But not all of those places have toilet paper, so carry toilet paper or tissues along with a baggie in case you do need to go in the woods and you’ll need to pack the toilet paper with you until you find somewhere to dispose of it.
Along with toilet paper, bring along the basics of soap, towel, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo in travel sizes.
Health and Safety
If you’re in the same shape that I was when I did the walk, you will absolutely need moleskin to help prevent blisters, bandages and antibiotic ointment to put on those blisters once they form, and painkillers to help you ignore the hot pain of said blisters.
I would highly recommend Compeed. It’s more expensive than bandages, and I have only ever found it in Europe, but it helps heal blisters quickly.
And sunscreen. It may not get too warm, but if the sun’s out, then you will get sunburned. And putting on a backpack with sunburned shoulders is no fun.
Since you can be fairly far away from “civilization,” if you twist an ankle on a slippery incline, it would be ideal to have a basic outdoor survival kit with Ace bandages to make splints or slings and to know what’s in it and how to use each item.
I never had to crack open my sling, but I felt better having it with me.
The scenery is achingly beautiful at many parts, and you’ll want to be able to capture the moments. A light point-and-shoot camera is better than lugging around a more complicated piece of kit. Bring along spare batteries.
A walking stick or walking poles would be nice for anyone on certain parts of the trail and necessary for anyone with knee injuries.
You could bring along insect repellent, there will be the occasional cloud of gnats.
Sunglasses are definitely something to consider as is a journal and pen/pencil for recording your thoughts. As a writer, I’d say that’s a necessity, but I suppose technically it could be considered optional.
If you’re a student, bringing along a student ID that will give you cheaper entrance to sites like Birdoswald and Vindolanda.
The Hadrian’s Wall Path Passport is an initiative during the summer. You get a bit of folded card that has a map with blanks for stamps to fill in at major stops along the way. It’s not a required activity, but it’s a nice and free souvenir.
Hadrian’s Wall is one of Matador’s 10 Key Destinations for the Historical Time Traveler. Check out Matador’s Focus on Packing page to find more essential packing lists for various travel scenarios.