Outdoor activities in the UK: what, where, and when

Outdoor activities in the UK: what, where, and when


Despite the lack of warm seas and high mountains like the Alps, various outdoor activities in the UK are extremely popular. The Brits themselves tell us that. A recent survey on sports and fitness conducted by Statista showed that the #1 organized outdoor sport in the country in 2021 was cycling. But in Britain, you can do almost every outdoor activity on land, in water, and in the air, and to combine them the way you like it, as well as to do some extreme sports. In this article, we've compiled the main UK outdoor activities with examples of specific regions, spots, and routes, and when it's best to do them.

Cycling in the UK

Cycling in the UK has traditionally been a popular sport. But its popularity has especially increased in the last decade after the first British cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, won the world’s most prestigious multi-day race, the Tour de France, in 2012, and the subsequent dominance of the British Sky team (now the INEOS Grenadiers) at this and other races. But it’s not just road cycling but all other types, including mountain biking, bike touring, and electric biking.

You can ride a bike almost anywhere in Britain — in the major cities you will find dedicated bike lanes and cycling paths in parks, and around the smaller towns developed networks of bike routes for many dozens of kilometers. But there are also some particularly beautiful areas and routes that locals and foreigners alike dream of riding. For example, the Lakeland Loop from Broughton-in-Furness of 65 km long and 1,393 m of elevation gain in the namesake Lake District in Cumbria, a county in the North West England region, bordering Scotland. It is also an annual cycling race of the same name.

What also makes biking popular in Britain is that it can be done all year round — snow falls only in the northernmost part of the country in Scotland. However, you should be prepared for frequent cold cycling temperatures and rains throughout the year.

Hiking in the UK

Perhaps the most popular outdoor activity in the world because of its relative ease and accessibility, hiking is also popular in the UK. In addition to proper hiking — easy one-day hikes without spending the night outside your home, and backpacking — hiking for two days or more with a tent, Brits like to practice coastal walking, which is explained by the unique and incredibly beautiful coast of the country with many picturesque and rocky headlands and bays with white sandy beaches.

You can walk the coastline all over the country (a couple of people have done it) but here is an example of a shorter coastal walking route in the UK — South West Coast Path from Minehead, Somerset, to Poole Harbour, Dorset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall of 1,014 km. But of course, you can only do part of the route.

Like biking, you can also do hiking in the south of the country all year round, but in Scotland, it is a short season from late June or early July to October, when the snow melts in the mountains of this region. Learn also how to enjoy hiking in the rain if you never did it before.

Climbing in the UK

Britain seems like a flat country only to those who have not been there. In fact, virtually the entire state is covered by mountains, from the low England Hills in the south to the high peaks of the Scottish Highlands in the north. The former includes the Cheviot Hills, the Shropshire Hills, and others; the latter includes the Scottish Highlands as the highest. Hence, climbing is also among the most popular outdoor activities in UK.

As for the best spots for climbing in the UK, they can be divided into two large groups: natural and large rocks, cliffs, and walls like, for exampe, Ben Nevis (1,345 m), the highest mountain in the Grampian Mountains, a subrange of the Scottish Highlands; and small individual stones and/or artificial ones, that is, walls for indoor climbing, which can be found all over the country. This subtype of climbing is called bouldering. In London, for example, there are at least a dozen such halls: Aldgate City Bouldering, The Castle Climbing Center, Mile End Climbing Wall, and others.

The British also do climbing outdoors most of the year in warm weather and indoors all year round, especially in autumn and winter when the weather is bad. To be prepared for it, check the collection of articles for this particular season.

Sophie Grieve Williams / Unsplash

Skiing in the UK

The situation with skiing and snowboarding in the UK is just the opposite — it is the least developed of those activities that can be done on the ground, including covered with snow. This is due to the lack of really high mountains in the country, as well as a relatively warm and flaky climate due to the Gulf Stream.

However, for ski lovers, there are five ski resorts, all of which are also located in Scotland. The largest of them is Glenshee Ski Resort with 40 km of slopes and 21 ski lifts. The other four — Cairngorm Mountain, Glencoe Mountain, Nevis Range, and The Lecht — have more than 18 km of slopes and 10 ski lifts each. The small number of resorts in the UK is also due to the fact that it’s quick and easy to fly to the Alps from Britain for 20–30 euros thanks to cheap local airlines like Ryanair. The locals take advantage of that.

The ski season in Glenshee usually starts in mid-December and lasts until the end of March. Other resorts are about the same. The exact dates depend on the snow weather conditions in any given year.

Surfing in the UK

Yes, surfing is also a popular outdoor sport in the UK. And no, it's not exactly the surfing you imagine. When we talk about surfing in Britain, we mean the so-called “cold water surfing”, which differs from the regular one in that it is practiced in the cold northern and even arctic seas, where in addition to the surfboard you will definitely need a thick wetsuit for zero water temperature.

The main surf spots in the UK, including its subtypes such as kitesurfing and windsurfing, which usually share the same places, with some exceptions, are Portrush, County Antrim; Lewis, Outer Hebrides; Sennen Cove and Perranporth, Cornwall; Pease Bay, Berwickshire; Saltburn, North Yorkshire; Woolacombe, Devon; Llangennith, Gower; Newgale, Pembrokeshire; Porth Neigwl, Gwynedd; and many others. In addition to the actual swell and wind on these beaches, the locals are also attracted there because of the same beautiful cliffs that hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts enjoy.

Surfing in Britain is also a year-round sport, but the peak season is also in summer when the water is warmest. For example, on the Saltburn spot, the best season is December to March. Learn more about how to read the surf / swell forecast in a special presentation with examples and tips from professional surfers with many years of experience of riding the biggest and best waves on the planet.

Paddling in the UK

Paddling is a collective word for a variety of different paddle sports starting from the classic rowing known throughout the world thanks to the "Oxford vs Cambridge" race (the current 2023 score is 81:85) or just "The Boat Race" and ending with a coasteering — paddling along the sea coast. The latter again refers to the picturesque coast of the British Isles and is especially popular in the UK. In addition, like everywhere else in the world, you can also do the trendy stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

But to illustrate the best spots and routes for paddling in the UK let’s take the two most basic types of this outdoor activity — kayaking and canoeing. They are usually practiced on rivers with rapids and large lakes, among which in Britain are the Lea River, Tees River, Tay River, Sprey River, and Thames River, on which London stands. The best lakes for kayaking are the whole Lake District, as well as numerous bodies of water in the Scottish Highlands, including separately Loch Ness, known for its monster. However, it is not only natural places. Another popular kayaking spot in the country is Caledonian Canal, one of the Scottish canals, which crosses the region in various directions.

The best season for kayaking in the UK is undoubtedly summer when the weather allows you to enjoy your trip. But if you want to test yourself, you can go at any time.

Andy Watkins / Unsplash

Sailing in the UK

Britain is also famous for its sailing traditions more than any other country in the world. Here's just one fact: this is the home country of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), the main national organization responsible for sailing and one of the two main yacht schools issuing ICC licenses on boating after training on a par with the Canadian IYT. If you're a sailor, you already know that.

The main UK sailing routes again run along the whole of the British coastline. Among the individual yachting destinations are also some islands such as the Isle of Man, Isle of Arran, and others, as well as the most remote Orkney Archipelago to the north of Scotland. A classic route is also the crossing from England to France via the English Channel. But be careful with the tides: they are some of the largest in the world. More distant sailing destinations are Denmark and Norway, and the Faroe Islands.

Yachting is a year-round sport in the UK. When sailing in winter, take a closer look at local conditions — local wind, waves, terrain, and more in the weather forecast for yachting.

Paragliding in the UK

Like skiing, paragliding is not one of the most popular outdoor activities in the UK, but you can do it, too. To understand what is happening in this sport on the territory of the country, I advise you to go straight to the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. They will help you to find out the ground rules, and features, and get advice on the best paragliding spots.

The Black Mountains in the Powys and Monmouthshire counties in southeast Wales are regarded as the best. This mountain range is characterized by low gentle slopes, and therefore does not require special training and is suitable for beginners. To be exact, their highest mountain is Fan Brycheiniog at 802 m. The range is also covered by the Brecon Beacons National Park, which means that you can combine jumping with hiking along Offa’s Dyke Path crossing the above-mentioned peak with a total length of 285 km.

As for the best season for paragliding in the UK, it depends primarily on the wind — the main weather parameter for this sport. Weather forecasts do not take into account the local winds and winds aloft, so it is better to ask the locals.

Extreme sports in the UK

Finally, various extreme outdoor activities are also — extremely — popular in the UK. Yes, I’m not mistaken: the British, known for their centuries-long tradition of gardening and slow life in general, like thrills no less than people from other countries. Extreme activities include caving, cliff camping, and canyoning; ziplining and bungee jumping; open sea kayaking, skydiving... — still bored? How about bog snorkeling?

Again, this is no joke. The best place for this extreme sport is in the same as the last one — the southeast of Wales. What’s more, every August the Brits hold the World Bogsnorkelling Championships which involve a 60 m swim in one of the bogs on the outskirts of the town of Llanwrtyd Wells — this is more accurate spot.

The choice of time of year for extreme sports in the UK also depends on the types. Competitions like this one can serve you as a guide. I mean, well, if bogs are too extreme for you, google something like “skydiving championship in the UK”, check dates — here's your best season.

Katerina Kerdi / Unsplash


Text: Ivan Kuznetsov

Cover photo: Edoardo Busti / Unsplash

You will also find useful

The Windy.app Outdoor Encyclopedia (WOE)

Read mini user guides to various sports with the Windy.app

The collection of articles about the best spots


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