A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Taking to the great outdoors: best options countrywide

Whether it is walking, biking or navigating greenways, we run the rule over the myriad choices

Getting the right gear and equipment is essential before engaging in any outdoor pursuit. “Your feet are really, really important,” says Gill Russell of outfitters Craghoppers.

Getting the right gear and equipment is essential before engaging in any outdoor pursuit. “Your feet are really, really important,” says Gill Russell of outfitters Craghoppers.

 

When gyms closed for long periods as a result of Covid-19 restrictions many people took to the open air or water to get some much-needed exercise and that love of the outdoors looks set to continue. We look at some of the best outdoor options around the country.

The Greenways

Ireland boasts a growing number of Greenways where people can walk, run or cycle without fear of being disturbed by noisy and dangerous traffic. Among the most popular is the Waterford Greenway, a spectacular 46km off-road cycling and walking trail along the old Waterford to Dungarvan railway line which offers wonderful views of the Comeragh Mountains and Dungarvan Bay. The greenway crosses 11 bridges, three impressive viaducts and passes through a 400m-long tunnel. Fitter people can decide to traverse the complete greenway while those just returning to exercise can take it easier and walk a section or two.

Hillwalking

Hillwalking is not just a great form of exercise it can be an amazing social activity as well. And Ireland has some great hillwalking routes in just about every county. The Wicklow Mountain Way was the first official hillwalking trail established in Ireland back in 1980. Beginning in Rathfarnham, south Dublin, and finishing 127km later in Clonegal, Co Carlow, the Wicklow way combines easy accessibility with an amazing variety of scenic experiences including mountains, upland lakes, glacial valleys, mountain streams, forests and farmland.

Most walkers take it in sections – but be warned, some of them are not for the faint hearted and it’s best to get advice first to make sure you are not taking on too much too soon.

Mountain biking

One of the more surprising, not to say shocking, experiences awaiting hillwalkers can be the sudden sight of a bike and rider in near vertical descent across your path. The increasing frequency of these close encounters and near misses has led to the development of dedicated mountain biking trails around the country.

Among the most highly rated by enthusiasts are the Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails. At present there are approximately 35km of trails beginning at Kinnitty, Co Offaly and Baunreagh, Co Laois. The trails are designed specifically for mountain-bike use and vary in difficulty from blue grade (moderate) to red (difficult/severe, with challenging climbs and tricky descent).

The trails have been developed by Coillte in association with the local authorities in the area and the ultimate aim is to eventually have 100km of tracks for mountain bikers to explore.

Rock climbing

For those that like their exercise served with a dose of adrenalin and a soupcon of risk, rock climbing is among the favourites. If finding finger and toeholds in what looks like a sheer wall of rock hundreds of feet above the ground appeals to your inner Spiderman, it’s definitely for you.

And Ireland is blessed with any number of very good rock climbing facilities of the natural and unnatural variety. Now that the gyms are reopening, novices can get tuition on climbing walls in facilities like the Wall Climbing Gym in Sandyford in Dublin or the Gravity Climbing Centre in Inchicore. Once you are ready for the real thing, there are quarries, hills and mountains throughout the country that will offer the challenge you’re looking for.

Often described as the jewel in the crown of Irish rock climbing, Fairhead in Co Antrim offers vast vertical walls, columns, soaring corners and crack systems, many up to 100m in height and commanding quite spectacular sea views. Most importantly, this trad climber’s paradise remains unspoilt and very often visitors will find they have the whole crag to themselves.

Working out

If working out is your thing, you don’t have to go indoors to a gym anymore, or even pay a gym membership. One of the more welcome additions to our public park infrastructure in recent years has been the installation of permanent outdoor gym apparatus. In smaller public parks and green spaces, it might be just one or two pieces of equipment but in larger spaces it can run to dozens of machines.

Every county in Ireland has at least one public and free to use outdoor gym facility with Oak Park Forest Park in Carlow Town; Schull Harbour in west Cork; Newbridge Liffey Park; Drumshanbo Outdoor Gym in Co Leitrim, and Loughtagalla Park in Thurles, Co Tipperary being just a few of them.

Wild swimming

With swimming pools firmly closed to the public during the lockdowns lots of people found an alternative in local rivers, lakes and the sea. This is known as wild swimming, where you take a dip in a natural body of water.

One highly recommended wild swimming spot is Annagh Bay in Achill Island, Co Mayo. With its white sand and turquoise waters, it offers a truly beautiful vista on your way in and out of the water. You can also turn it into a mini-biathlon as the bay is only accessible on foot, about a 1½-hour hill walk. But the fabulous views make it all worthwhile.

Gearing up for the great outdoors

Getting the right gear and equipment is essential before engaging in any outdoor pursuit, whether that’s a fairly gentle stroll up a hillside or a serious trail run. That starts with footwear. “Your feet are really, really important,” says Gill Russell of outdoor adventure outfitter Craghoppers. “You need good comfortable walking shows with soles that will help secure your footing. Our new range of Kiwi Trek shoes is very popular.”

Another tip from seasoned hillwalkers is not to go for waterproof footwear. If they don’t let water in they won’t let water out either and walking through high grass and getting splashed in puddles will inevitably let some water in down the sides and you want to give it a way out.

Then there’s the rest of the basic outdoor exercise kit. “Whatever the weather, a good pair of walking trousers is essential,” says Russell. “Our range is very lightweight and is designed not to chaff the skin while walking. They also have a DWR coating to make them water resistant during light showers. People should think about what they want from their trousers. Do you want a lot of major pockets? Do you want to be able to zip them off at the knees to turn them into shorts?”

Next comes the T-shirt and she suggests one made with moisture wicking fabric to keep you dry while exercising. She also suggests having a number of lightweight layers such as a fleece and a waterproof top to be able to put on and take off as needed depending on the weather conditions.

“A lightweight waterproof jacket is always a good idea given the weather in this part of the world,” she adds. “Walking poles are also very useful. Everyone tends to forget them but it’s great to have a lightweight pair in the rucksack. The rucksack is another essential piece of equipment for storing things like sandwiches, drinks, waterproof clothing and so on. That may sound like a lot of kit but people find our range to be very reasonably priced.”

For those who prefer two wheels to two feet, the first and most important piece of gear to acquire is a cycling helmet. You don’t have to spend a fortune on one and it is quite easy to find one that’s light, affordable, comfortable and conforms to the latest safety standards.

The next item on the list is a pair of padded cycling shorts which will help stop your backside hurting so much. The other piece of advice from seasoned cyclists is to fit a decent saddle and ride until you’ve broken it in – it will save you a lot of ache and blisters in the longer run.

For mountain bikers, a good pair of gloves and knee pads are absolutely essential. And for those into the black grade downhill trails, elbow pads and back protectors should be worn as standard.

Finally, when it comes to climbing and other riskier pursuits, the best advice is to ask the experts.