The National 3 Peaks Guide
What is the National Three Peaks Challenge?
Ah the National Three Peaks, a true icon in the world of endurance events and a popular one for fundraising events, corporate team bonding, groups of friends and all-round mountain nutters up for a challenge. So, what's the deal?
Completing the National Three Peaks challenge involves climbing the UK's three tallest mountains, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, usually in that order. It takes in around 23 miles of stunning National Park scenery and objectively the best views in the country.
Though it isn't a prerequisite, a common plight is to complete it under 24 hours, which often means a small amount of hiking through the dark, kipping in the car as you drive through Scotland, England and Wales, and a whole heap of wagon wheels.
Curious to know more? Have a scroll on down to find out what it means to complete this iconic challenge and where on Earth to go about starting.
The Mighty Three Peaks
Ben Nevis, Scotland
The UK's highest peak, Ben Nevis was formed millions of years ago when an ancient volcano collapsed in on itself. At a whopping 1345m, it is a staggering feat of nature with some of the best views in the country on a clear day. Ben Nevis however, is not to be undertaken lightly.
It's a common misconception that the UK is a safe, tame place for adventure, unlike say the Alps or other huge mountain ranges. But Ben Nevis can be a dangerous place without the right gear, know-how or even in the wrong weather.
It can attract many who have never even climbed a mountain before but want to tick this giant off their bucket list. We get it, and you should go for it. But follow the advice, signs and weather first!
Scafell Pike, England
Clocking in at 978m, Scafell Pike is generally the second undertaking of the National Three Peaks Challenge. England's highest mountain and national war memorial, Scafell Pike is a special place with views stretching across to Ireland on a clear day.
The classic route starts from Wasdale Head, by far the shortest in terms of distance but also the steepest. It's generally regarded as the easiest route in terms of navigation and terrain, though the incline isn't for the feint-hearted.
Scafell Pike promises a tricky walk to the top whichever way you approach, with lots of loose rock and huge sharp boulders, so make sure you know what you're doing, no-one wants to finish the challenge with a broken ankle!
The highest mountain in Wales and second highest in the UK, Snowdon, stands at a towering 1,085m and is one of the best for variety of routes. The winding Llanberis path is popular for first time mountain climbers, whereas hardier mountaineers might feel up to Crib Goch's formidable knife-edge ridge climb.
Plus, there's a cafe at the top of this one, so you can celebrate the end of your challenge with a cuppa on top of the world. After all, everything tastes better on a mountain, right?
How long does the Three Peaks Challenge take?
Part of the fun of the challenge for a lot of groups is to aim to complete it in 24 hours. Experts say you should leave:
- 5 hours for Ben Nevis
- 4 hours for Scafell Pike, from Wasdale Head
- 4 hours for Snowdon
- 11 hours for driving (yikes)
This might sound speedy but actually 4-5 hours is quite a long time when you're hiking. Most people, including first timers, complete Snowdon comfortably in around 4-5 hours (don't forget you're a lot faster on the way down!)
People are (with good reason) generally nervous about hiking in the dark, so the most common schedule looks something like this (with a few added suggestions from us):
5pm: Arrive in Fort William and Start Ben Nevis
10pm: Finish Ben Nevis and drive to Scafell Pike (6 hour drive - time to get your nap on)
4am: Arrive and start ascending Scafell Pike (flapjacks highly recommended here)
8am: Finish Scafell Pike and drive to Snowdon (5 hour drive)
1pm: Arrive and start climbing Snowdon (are you delirious yet?)
5pm: Finish Snowdon, and complete challenge. Do a celebratory dance.
5.15pm: Get. Those. Beers. In.
This is just one itinerary and there's plenty more ways of doing it out there. If you're worried about road or mountain traffic, it might be worth considering another option.
How do I get from one to another?
The one thing more important than great snacks and boots on the National Three Peaks Challenge is a designated driver. Find yourself a hero who's willing to drive through the night for you with none of the reward (except maybe the great snacks) and you're onto a winner.
For obvious reasons, it isn't a great idea to do all the driving yourself, so if you can't find anyone it might be worth looking into public transport or booking onto an organised trip. In theory, you should be able to use public transport and still meet your sub-24 hour goal, but as we know, trains and buses in this country aren't always the most reliable, and certainly not in rural areas.
If you're not as fussed about completing it in 24 hours, this might be a good option. Just don't fall asleep and miss your connection!
Should I complete it solo, with friends, or in a paid group?
Great question. It really depends what you want to get out of the challenge. Is it about pushing yourself to your limits and testing your fitness? Or is it about having a laugh on a weekend with some unforgettable memories? Maybe you're training for a bigger event, raising money for charity, or you've been cornered into it by your boss and colleagues.
It's honestly up to you, all are possible and all would offer a different experience. We would only really recommend going it solo however if you're a confident and experienced mountain walker with good map and compass knowledge. Having a designated driver would help not only with the journey but with morale too, though going by public transport would make for seriously scenic mountain scenes!
If you book onto an organised group, like with us, you'll benefit from having professionally trained Mountain Leaders to do all the navigation work for you (they're pretty good morale boosters, too!), as well as getting accommodation, travel and food included.
A lot of people prefer this option as it frees them up to just enjoy the challenge and focus on the training and the day itself, without having to worry about getting lost, carrying maps or finding the right route. It's a great way to meet new people too and who knows, you might come away with buddies for life! Check out our page to find out how to book.
Which routes should you take?
Which routes you choose for each mountain will largely depend on how you decide to complete the challenge. If you're doing it solo, you'll obviously have free reign to choose the route based on your preferences and ability, but you will have to do the prep work beforehand.
If you're with a group, they will have mapped out the route so all you have to do is turn up. Which route you take will determine where you drive to as well, so you should definitely have this planned before you start. At Scafell Pike for example, the Wasdale route is an hour's drive apart from the Corridor Route, despite being just on the other side of the mountain. Lake District roads, ey!
If you're planning the challenge on your own or with friends, here's a guide to the difficulty of the routes up each mountain:
Easy: Mountain Track (start from Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, the most popular and accessible route)
Hard: CMD Arete from the North Face (a scramble for experienced hill walkers only)
Easy: Wasdale Head (steep and unrelenting but easy to navigate)
Medium: Corridor Route (longer, less steep and more scenic, but scrambly near the top and hard to navigate at times)
Easy: Llanberis Path (long, winding and easy to navigate)
Medium: Miner's and Pyg Tracks
Very Hard: Crib Goch (knife-edge ridge, not for the faint-hearted or under experienced and definitely not the quickest way up!)
For those aiming to complete the challenge in under 24 hours, Fort William is a popular place to stay the night before the challenge and the first ascent of Ben Nevis. On the shores of Loch Linhe, Fort William is a picturesque Scottish town full of restaurants and cafes for hungry mountain walkers. A lot of people flock there each year to check out the numerous mountains in Scotland, so if this is your bag, Fort William is a great base.
If you're not bothered about the 24 hour mark and would prefer to slowly hike the 3 peaks, soak up the local area and stay the night in each location, Wasdale Head in the Lake District (bottom of Scafell Pike) has a lovely lakeside Youth Hostel, along with a few campsites, B&B's and holiday cottages.
In Snowdonia, Betws-y-Coed, Beddgelert and Llanberis are popular places to stay and are packed with a variety of accommodation. Betws is a a little bigger, busy in the height of summer and packed with cafes and restaurants, whereas Llanberis and Beddgelert are smaller, more rural villages with great little youth hostels.
How fit should I be and how can I train?
A fair amount of fitness and stamina is required for the National Three Peaks Challenge, though if you have a fairly good base level of fitness, it won't actually take you too long to get there. Your training should focus on both your endurance and your capacity for hills, so racking up the incline on the treadmill is a great way to do this, as are long, flat walks to build up the miles in your legs.
A 10-12 mile walk should feel comfortable, not a struggle, before you embark on this beast. If you can get to the mountains or hills near you even better. Nothing will prepare you better for mountain walks than... other mountain walks! Getting out on some longer walks will also help with your mindset and make you feel the challenge is perfectly within your ability, and as we all know, nailing the belief in yourself is half the battle.
What should I eat?
Great question. Generally, you'll burn whatever you eat off very quickly, but there are a few tips that'll keep your energy levels cruising high. When you're moving, you'll want to graze on wholesome snacks high in energy, such as fibrous fruits, nuts, and small sandwiches (brown bread will release energy more gradually FYI).
Make sure you've got some real chocolatey and sweet treats packed for the summit, as these help with morale as much as anything. In the car before you sleep, fuel up on a menu of pasta or sandwiches, just not so much you can't move after, and not 15 minutes before you set off on your next hill, you will not thank yourself for that.
What should I wear?
No one wants to be that person with all the gear and no idea. You can have a very good idea, without the gear, which is a much better position to be in. There are a lot of technical clothing items out there boasting better performance, increased breathability and comfort, but the reality is as long as you've got a decent pair of walking boots, layers and a raincoat if you need, you'll be absolutely fine.
Walking boots are non-negotiable. A decent, worn-in pair of boots (not shoes!) will give you the stamina and ankle support you need for challenges such as the National 3 Peaks. Even if rain isn't forecast a raincoat is a good idea. Mountain weather is very changeable and even if it doesn't rain, they tend to be great windproof layers.
Technical trousers are great, but not essential. Gym leggings, sports shorts or tracksuit bottoms will do the trick, just think about how quickly they'd dry from rain and definitely don't wear denim. Lastly, pack layers. Even if you're doing the challenge in the height of summer (good luck if you are!) the summit can be a good few degrees colder and windier and you'd be surprised how cold you get when you stand still or get tired.
National Three Peaks Guide FAQ
Which peak is the easiest to climb?
Tough question! Snowdon is generally found to be the easiest peak, but this might simply be because it's the last one, morale is high and you've usually slept overnight after Scafell Pike.
Scafell Pike is generally regarded as having the toughest terrain and can be tricky to navigate on certain routes, though with Ben Nevis being the tallest, it is often the longest to complete. Naturally they all have their own challenges, but if you're contemplating a day trip to just one of the National 3 Peaks, we'd recommend Snowdon via the Llanberis Path as a starting point.
Is it the best charity challenge in the UK?
There are some very mixed views on this. Some people think the National Three Peaks Challenge is the ultimate bucket list adventure packed with epic summits and finish on a total high. Bucket list tick-offs however aren't always necessarily the most scenic, relaxing or enjoyable.
A lot of people don't enjoy the driving and don't find the whole lack of sleep element the most enjoyable. They find they rush up the hills without properly getting to explore the surrounding area or local villages. A lot of people say they prefer climbing the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, or taking the time to do the National Three Peaks over three days.
What time of year should I do the challenge?
You can complete the National Three Peaks Challenge whenever you like, though most aim to complete it in the summer months between May and October. Not only are the days longer but the weather tends to be a little tamer and less changeable, which means better visibility (for nav, summit views and morale!), a greater ease of planning and a much easier walk.
Midge season in Scotland is around this time too, so going toward the beginning or the end will reduce your need for insect repellent and fly swatters on Ben Nevis!
It goes without saying that the height of July and August would be the hottest months to complete the challenge and maybe the busiest. Our pick would be May, September or October for slightly cooler temperatures.
Should I do the National Three Peaks Challenge or the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge?
You can do either, neither, or both! In case you don't know, the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the Yorkshire Dales' three highest peaks in under 12 hours. If it's a direct toss up between the two, here's some key differences.
The National Three Peaks Challenge is a 24 hour challenge with approximately 15 hours or 23 miles of walking (with car rests in between). The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge takes around 12-14 hours of solid hiking (24.5 miles) to complete, so a longer walking stint, but less sleep deprivation and hopefully no walking through the night.
Secondly, the Yorkshire peaks are much smaller, at 694, 736 and 723 metres, so whilst you're looking at a total of 1585m of ascent for the Y3P Challenge, the National 3 Peaks' takes in a whopping 3064m.
However, despite it seeming less of a challenge, many find the Yorkshire Three Peaks more enjoyable, less stressful in terms of logistics and a lot more accessible and easy to organise. Plus, you can arrange accommodation in the local area and really have time to soak up what the Yorkshire Dales has to offer, whereas the National 3 Peaks is something more of a whirlwind UK tour.
What equipment will I need for the National 3 Peaks Challenge?
You'd be surprised at how simple your packing list actually is, but there are a few pieces of essential equipment to collate before you set off.
A map for each peak ( if you're not going with a guide), a compass for emergencies (don't reply on the one on your phone!), poles if you get sore knees on the descent and a decent rucksack that supports your hips and back are all things to consider. A torch, a lightweight water bottle and a waterproof bag to put your stuff in in case it rains will all save your bacon.
What are the best tips for completing the challenge?
To be honest, a lot of it is common sense. Don't hike on the hottest day of the year, take enough food and water, don't fall asleep at the wheel, make sure you have a map and compass etc...
We advise you not to rush the planning of the challenge of the walk itself. Make sure you're physically and mentally ready and have all the logistics in place. If you're worried about being on your own, map reading or the travel, why not book onto a group so you can just focus on training and enjoying yourself?
Our biggest tip would be to make sure you have a decent pair of walking boots to complete the challenge in. Nothing will upset you more than painful feet and blisters. Trust us.
How do I book onto a professional guided adventure?
Take a look at our National 3 Peaks page and you'll find all the details of how to book there. We're currently offering private events for groups on dates of their choice, so whether it's support for you and some friends you're after, or a guided charity challenge, we've got you.
It's a great option if you're struggling with transport for your trip as it's all included in the adventure package, alongside a professional guide to support you and your team, accommodation for one night and a delightful menu of pasta, snacks and hot drinks all the way round.