The Trail Itself
According to my guidebook, the trail takes about 5 to 7 days in either direction and runs approximately 132km. I began in Marlay Park, Dublin, and hit Clonegal (official start/end town) by the middle of the sixth day, averaging about 25km a day give or take. The longest I walked in one day was 32km and the shortest was 20km. This makes the Wicklow Way a decent way to spend a week of vacation without being too concerned about time. It also forms part of the E8 Walking Trails throughout Europe, bleeding into the South Leinster Way which takes you further southwest into Ireland.
If you begin in Dublin proper, prepare yourself for you immediately begin hiking upwards on mostly forested trails and rocky paths. You begin at sea level and before you know it, you’re almost 600m in the air. It doesn’t sound like much, especially to my American readers, but this is in the course of a single day – the constant ascending and descending in the first few days are taxing. Especially if you’re a fatbody like me who hasn’t hiked proper in several years.
However, those first couple days (of which the ups and downs are ubiquitous) serve as excellent conditioning for the remainder of the trek as your body becomes acclimated to the wibbly wobbly path and ceases to whine in impotent protest early on.
By the middle of the Way, the +600m hills are well behind you and rarely rise above 300m going forward. They are still quite steep at times but typically follow a forest road or hiking trail. Most (and I’d wager 90%) of the trail occurs in woodlands (either walking through or adjacent to them); the Wicklow Way is an excellent long-distance hike to escape civilization for a few days and seek Nature’s embrace. The last 50km or so are marked by extensive farmland and hillside meadows, a stark contrast from the earlier forests, but beautiful all the same. Just don’t touch the livestock and be sure to leave every gate you walk through in the same manner as you found it (if it was closed, keep it closed).
I found that most days required you to hike up a steep hill, piddle around the crest for a kilometer or two, before tramping down the other side into a picturesque village for a pint, before following a river to the next ascending hill, and so on. You hike up, take some photos, and hike down. Walking poles, those dreadful things, are not necessary unless you’re OK with looking like a dipshit tourist. If you aren’t hiking along a forest path, you’re walking alongside a sleepy Irish road – just remember to walk on the right-hand side so oncoming traffic can see you. These people drive on the wrong side, after all.
It is near impossible to get lost because the Way is exceptionally marked with copious amounts of yellow arrows (ring a bell?) and other signage. The only time I had difficulty was when I entered a forested section in the process of timber harvesting so the Way had been diverted through a nearby road. At every forest intersection, the markers pointed you in the right direction. And even if you get lost, hey, you’re in Ireland! Things could be worse.
What to Bring
My guidebook recommended sneakers (or trainers as they call them here) but that’s ridiculous. You want a good pair of hiking boots, nothing too heavy or pricey, but something to get you through the week. This is only a week-long experience, after all. And when you get your boots, go and pick up some Compede from the local pharmacy because it trumps the ever living shit out of moleskin. Seriously, Compede is amazing stuff and after using it, you’ll never go back to shitty moleskin.
I will fight you if you say otherwise.
You will be fine to pack light with a good, warm coat (chilly in the mornings on the hilltops), some rain gear (just in case), and a cheerful attitude. That’s the most important thing you can bring – say “Hello,” to the other weirdos walking about!
Apart from that, I recommend you bring plenty of water because filling stations do not exist. Yes, you can pop into any pub or cafe to top off, but those places are several hours distant from one another. I brought a one-liter bottle with me and that was plenty to get me through the mornings, but I would have been happier with another half liter or so (Liter is French for “give me some fuckin’ cola).
I do not eat much whilst hiking – typically only a piece of fruit in the morning and gorge myself at dinner – but if you’re the hungry type, you will want to stock up on victuals. In the towns you stay in that do have a shop, most don’t open until 9AM (which is, quite frankly, a bit late to be starting an all-day hike), and plenty of other places don’t have much in the way of hiker fare. Sure, you can stock up on crisps and candy at any pub (these places sell everything, oddly enough) but that isn’t the kind of energy you want to give your body. My recommendation, and the locals would agree, is to have a few pints of Guinness throughout the day because it has everything your body needs to keep going. And it helps dull the leg pains too! Guinness is good for you, after all.
Accommodations and Expenses
This was the most stressful and least fun bit about the Way, unfortunately. On average, I spent perhaps 50 Euro a day out on the Way, and all of that went towards accommodation. Your only choices for sleeping close to the trail, apart from two youth hostels in your first two days, are B&B’s dotted throughout the countryside. Don’t get me wrong for I enjoyed my stay in every single one of these joints, but it becomes expensive quite quickly when you’re just looking for a place to sleep at night.
The B&B’s themselves are managed by the nicest folks you’ll meet on the Way, salt of the Earth types I tell ya, and you won’t be disappointed in their hospitality or cooking skills. The showers are always hot, the food is plenty, and the beds are soft. You can’t ask for much else after hiking all day. Some joints serve an evening meal – check with your respective proprietor foremost. When given breakfast options, most places charge a little extra for something cooked (such as a full Irish breakfast) but include all the bread, fruit, yogurt, cereal, and fluids you can ingest with the listed price.
I only made reservations once and that was through a friend of a friend – worth it. I would recommend having reservations in place, especially during the walking season, because most B&B’s are off the Way by several kilometers – not fun to walk to after a long day and being denied a bed. If you make reservations, most places will have some sort of taxi service to take you to their respective pads, saving you the trouble of walking a few extra clicks.
Because of the limited amount of B&B’s along the Way, most places charge around 40 Euro for the whole shebang; that’s an approximation, mind you. And if you’re ending your journey in Clonegal, you better have plans for that evening because there is nothing in that village aside from a couple of pubs and curious locals (don’t forget to pick up your victory certificate from Osbourne’s Pub). I had to get to Bunclody (5km south) and spend several hours walking the town before finding a place. Reservations; not a bad idea.
The Wicklow Way is a great trail and is easily worth a week of your time. You don’t need much gear or physical preparation, nor do you need to be an expert in Irish geography or customs. Well marked, well routed, and a pub here and there, make it an excellent holiday for the solitary hiker or the family of weird white people. The locals were always friendly to me and assisted me whenever asked (one chap walked me to the train station!) so don’t be afraid to engage them. From the forested hills to the farmland meadows, it’s a beautiful way to see the heart and people of eastern Ireland.
I hope this guide helped you out and you took something useful from it. Knowledge is power, after all. Now give it a go.
Here are some helpful resources you might want to look at:
The Wicklow Way official website – exactly what it says on the tin.
The Wicklow Way Map Guide – this is the one I used except I paid almost 20 quid for it from those assholes at the Dublin Tourist Bureau. Good maps, distances are a bit squirrelly, but lets you know everything you need to know about the Way.
The South Leinster Way – if you want to keep walking past Clonegal, ‘ere ye go, lad.