Do you have what it takes to conquer the Three Peaks Challenge? This gruelling trek takes hikers up the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales. The total elevation gain is 3,000m, that’s over 10,000 feet of total ascent to summit the highest peaks. The walk has a goal time of 24 hours to complete. It’s a tough challenge but with the right planning and preparation, you can successfully summit Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon. The prize for completing the challenge? Pride and you’ll earn bragging rights among your friends! In this guide, we will provide tips on how to prepare for the challenge and what to expect along the way.
Ben Nevis is a mountain on the western side of Scotland that has been considered as being one of Britain’s most popular mountains for mountaineering. It stands at an elevation of 1,344m (4,406 ft) and provides beautiful views of Lochaber and Glen Nevis from its summit plateau. The rock type that makes up Ben Nevis varies as you climb but it is predominately granite.
Most people will take 7 hours to get up and down Ben Nevis. To finish in under 24 hours you’ll need to up and down in under 5 hours on Saturday morning, starting at the visitor center car park.
It rains on Ben Nevis more than it doesn’t but when the weather is good, the views are spectacular!
Scafell Pike is the second peak and is located in The Lake District National Park. The small village of Wasdale Head is the starting point to climb Scafell Pike, which at 978 meters (3,209 ft) is the highest mountain in England.
The climb up Scafell Pike usually takes about 2 hours from the car park but unless you are really lucky, you’ll be doing some, probably most, of Scafell Pike in the dark.
Snowdon, or Yr Wyddfa in Welsh, is the highest mountain in Wales, it rises to an elevation of 1,085 meters (3,560 ft) above sea level. Snowdon is the final peak and many don’t make it.
Luckily Three Peakers start their walk at Pen Y Pass, a mountain pass at 359m, saving the legs over 300m of climbing from sea level. You’ll also be doing a portion of this in the dark before you cross the finish line.
2. What is The National 3 Peaks Challenge?
You’ve got 24 hours to climb the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales. The distance is only 23 miles and you only have to climb 3,000m (10,000ft). Sounds easy right?
Well, for a few it is, but for most people, it’s a tough challenge with a high dropout rate. Mostly, people drop out through injury, fatigue (muscle and metal), or simply run out of mojo.
People fail to complete the exhausting trip is nearly always linked to their fitness and lack of preparation.
3. Preparations for the three challenge
Preparations for the 3 peaks challenge should begin well in advance. The most important preparation is training for the strenuous climb. Training should include cardio exercises and strength training to build endurance and muscle mass.
You cannot be too fit to climb these mountains. Do what you can to get excellent cardio fitness. Running, biking, rowing, and whatever you can that gets your cardiovascular system working hard.
On all three climbs, you will be putting in a lot of physical effort. Your heart will be beating fast and you will be breathing hard. The better adapted your body is at pumping blood (and oxygen) around the body the easier you will find the challenge. Personally running is what I enjoy and that has given me an excellent cardio base
You will also need to strengthen the leg muscles. The easiest way to do this is to spend a lot of time running (or walking) up and down smaller hills. Take it steady to start and gradually increase the pace and/or mileage. It’s time on your feet that counts here. The more time you can spend walking and being active on your feet the better.
Strength training may also help some people, if you are unsure it will be worth speaking to a PT to get a leg and core training plan that’s right for you.
Proper equipment, including sturdy shoes, warm clothes and a backpack, are essential for completing the 3 peaks event safely and successfully. You can read a list of equipment on the Three Peaks Challenge Kit List page
4. The hike and what to expect in terms of terrain & weather conditions.
Expect rugged train and all weathers.
Seriously, expect everything.
The trails are man-made to prevent footpath erosion. They are all generally well defined and easy to walk on. Scafell can be a bit tricky underfoot on the upper section. It’s full of loose scree, small rocks and quite steep at times. This makes the walking challenging and navigating in the rain and the dark challenging. Snowdon is also no pushover, the PYG track can be a slog, particularly with 2 mountains in your legs.
And as for the weather, you could be lucky and have calm clear weather throughout the challenge. However, we have to drive considerable distances and this can be moving across a weather system. I’ve been up Ben Nevis in a t-shirt in October and then England and Wales have given us biblical rain and severe winds.
Take full waterproof trousers and coat, take sun cream and a sun hat and a woolly hat and gloves. Take spares.
You’ll be lucky if you don’t need it all.
5. Food and nutrition
One thing that does need some consideration is food and drink. The last thing you want to do is run out of energy halfway up Ben Nevis.
This demanding walk is not something that should be underestimated and you need to ensure your body has the right fuel to help it get through the challenge. You should make sure that you drink plenty of water before you start and carry 2 litres of water with you on every mountain
Water is my preference as it’s easy to get, store and is better for your body. It also doesn’t matter too much if your water bottle leaks a bit, other drinks can cause problems.
Having said that, there are no toilet’s once we start walking and the travel time between Fort William and Wasdale Head is 6 hours, so it’s a matter of balancing hydration with the fact you have limited access to toilets.
You will also need a generous amount of food, but don’t go too mad on the sugar. I see people shovelling sugar and sweets into their bodies for 24 hours. I’m an advocate for keeping things simple and not changing your routine too much. For me, it’s sandwiches and crisps with savoury snacks.
I eat very little on the hill, I leave most of my food on the minibus and eat while we are travelling.
Fruit is a problem on the hills as banana skins, orange peels and apple cores take years to degrade and are not beneficial to the environment at all. In fact, Banana skins and other biodegradable waste are detrimental to the upland environment. It causes problems with the ecology and soil chemistry. The fact you don’t see more bananas on Ben Nevis is because volunteers pick them up and remove them
Leave the energy gels at home. They can mess your blood sugar up and are designed for runners who are not able to carry and eat food as they run.
You can read more about nutrition on my blog post – Nutrition for the Three Peaks Challenge
6. What to take for hiking and what to take for the minibus
Things for the hills
Most companies that provide run Three Peaks Challenge trips will have a kit list they will provide you. You can read a list of equipment here – https://www.threepeakschallenge.uk/national-three-peaks-challenge/kit-list
Pay attention to mandatory kit items, these really are mandatory and without them, you may not be allowed to take part in the trip. It’s mandatory for your protection and for group safety.
Waterproofs always seem to be an issue, there seems to be a reluctance by some to buy waterproofs and a rather dangerous acceptance that getting wet is ok.
Your clothes are your primary shelter should you (or someone in your group) get into trouble. Your waterproofs are there to keep you and your clothes dry. Once you get wet you will soon get cold and the risk of hypothermia increases.
Make sure you take waterproof trousers and a jacket with taped seams, this will make the whole experience safer and more enjoyable in the rain.
Things for the minibus
You will only have a small amount of space in the minibus so there isn’t room to take loads of things with you. You’ll just have a single seat so whatever you take need to fit between your legs or under your seat. This includes food and snacks.
You’ll spend at least 10 hours on the bus, which sounds like a long time but my advice is to get as much sleep as you can.
- Inflatable travel/neck pillow – must be inflatable because of the limited space.
- Noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs – for better napping. You could even take eye masks for better zzz’s
- Travel sickness tablets – it can get a bit bumpy and twisty on the country lanes. I recommend taking sickness tablets even if you are normally a good traveller.
- Wet wipes – to freshen up after each hill.
- Spare set of clothes – Have one set to walk in, one set to travel in. Keeps you warmer and fresher
- A dry bag to store any wet clothes
- Snacks and food for the trip but don’t overdo the sugar. Sugary snacks can make you feel worse.
- Power bank & cables for your phone
- Small bag to fit all the above into
You could take a book or tablet to keep yourself busy, but in my experience it to dark to read for a good portion of the driving and you’re probably better off resting and sleeping, or admiring the views out the window.
7. The environmental impact of The Three Peaks challenge
There have been calls for the challenge to be banned for years. That’s true now more than ever due to the increased awareness of climate change. Personally, I think banning people from doing the event would be a wrong move to take. It won’t stop people from taking the challenge it will just mean more people will do it in a car which will increase the carbon footprint of the driving miles.
Rather than calling for a ban, I think the answer is to increase awareness of the challenges and issues around the Three peak challenge. There is also The Real Three Peaks Challenge which attempts to put right the damage caused.
- Footpath erosion – As mentioned above all the popular routes are man-made paths. If they were not man-made they would end up muddy trails and, as people walk on the fringes of the path to keep out the mud, they would become wider and wider until they are 30ft wide or more. The paths are maintained by volunteers and charities so any donation to help protect the hills will be greatly received by the charities involved. The solution, stay on the paths to avoid further damage and consider donating to one of the charities that maintain the paths
- Litter including food waste – It’s a problem wherever you find people. Some of the litter left is because it falls out or is blown out of a pocket. Other waste is purposefully left under rocks waiting for the rubbish fairy to collect it. Energy gel packets, dairylea dunkers packets, banana skins, apple cores etc. It’s all messy waste that no one wants to carry. The solution – take a dog poo bag or a small bin bag and take your own waste out, make sure it cannot fall out of your pocket or blow away. If you see some rubbish pick it up and encourage others to do the same. The charities above also have litter picking days which you can volunteer for.
- Human waste – One person having a wild wee isn’t too much of a problem, 100,000 people having a wild wee is a massive problem that affects all three peaks. Having a number 2 is an even bigger problem. There are toilets at the bottom of the hills so use the facilities and only wild wee if it’s absolutely necessary.
- Carbon – The three peaks challenge involves driving 900 miles (1450 km) as a round trip. This is for getting the minibuses to Fort William for the start and then driving around the 3 peaks. In reality, it could be more depending on where the minibuses are based. Most minibuses will emit 200g of carbon dioxide per km so the 900-mile trip will emit 290 kg of carbon dioxide (1450 km x 200g = 290,000g). Solution: travel via public transport and use companies that use modern fuel-efficient fleet. Consider carbon of setting or donating to https://carbonneutralbritain.org/
- Economic Impact – So you’d think that having hundreds of thousands of visitors would be good for the local economies around the three peaks. Fort William receives some economic benefit as the start point. By the time we get down to Scafell Pike in the Lake District it is too late to stop anywhere, not that we have time. Wales may benefit slightly if participants stay in the area after finishing but most will leave as soon as they finish the challenge. Solution: This is a difficult issue to deal with during the challenge. I recommend visiting the areas before or after you have completed the challenge and spending a bit of time and cash in the communities in the Lake District, Snowdonia and around Fort William.
- Noise and local residents – It can be problematic having people cheering and shouting as they walk past your house at 4 am. This causes a lot of friction in Snowdonia as people celebrate finishing and walking through Llanberis. Be kind and courteous, chat to people and be aware that these are living communities that support us in the challenge. If it’s the middle of the night and you’re in a village or passing houses try and keep the noise down as much as possible.
The Three Peaks Challenge is an arduous hike, but it’s one that you can be proud of. The National Three Peaks Challenge is a great way many people discover the joy of getting into the hills and enjoying the great outdoors. It’s kind of like a gateway challenge that opens up a whole new world. With a little research on preparation for this challenge and some helpful guidelines ahead of time, anyone can make it up these three mountains with relative ease. I’d recommend using a company and having a few mountain leaders to look after you on the trip, they can make it safer and more enjoyable for you.