Watch the weather
Northern Ireland’s climate is temperate and maritime with warm summers and mild winters; most of its weather comes from the southwest in a series of low-pressure systems bringing rain, clouds and high winds. Particularly, severe westerly gales are common in the north and east coast. These mild and humid climatic conditions make Northern Ireland a green country in all seasons.
Rainfall is frequent (on average, more than 180 days of rainfall (>1 mm) annually), although not especially abundant. Annual rainfall decreases from west to east, but generally, in Northern Ireland, it is sensible to be flexible and always be prepared for rain.
Daily conditions generally are highly changeable, but there are no extremes of heat and cold. Average January temperatures vary from 38 °F (3.3 °C) on the north coast to 35 °F (1.7 °C) in the east; in July, temperatures of 65 °F (18.3 °C) are common.
In late spring and early summer, the east has slightly lower temperatures accompanied by coastal fog. The temperatures in the uplands are a bit lower than in the lowlands, so the snow, which is rare at sea level, becomes more frequent here from November to April.
Good to know
The landscape of Northern Ireland is rich and varied, offering lots of opportunities for all abilities. There are amazing coastal walking routes (Causeway Coast) but there are also hills and mountains, particularly the Sperrin mountains in the west, which reach up to 678 meters (2,224 ft), and the Morne mountains in the south-east, which reach up to 850 meters (2,790 ft).
Northern Ireland has activities for all abilities, but before you set off it is important
a) be honest with yourself about your and your
b) check the latest weather and ground conditions.
Take advice and only attempt an activity if the conditions are within your and your
If you are unsure as to how to prepare for walking in the uplands then register on a training course with Mountaineering Ireland or go on a guided walk – this way you will gain the skills and guidance you need to explore Northern Ireland in comfortably and safely!
There are some areas where people are more likely to get into difficulty than others, so here’s a ‘heads up’ on the hotspots in the region and how to stay safe.
- Fermanagh Lakelands
Upper and Lower Lough Erne is a very large scale interconnected waterway with many channels, islands, bays and coves and also lots of very accessible points and jetties for people of all abilities (Round “O” GR H228445; Ballenaleck GR H236391; Knockninny GR H278313; Derryvore GR H349233). The Erne System flows from south to north, that is, from Upper Lough Erne to Lower Lough Erne, north of Rossigh. The flow is insignificant on the lough sections where wind direction is a much more important consideration and therefore this should not impact on your decision of which direction to travel.
- Lower Lough Erne
The open area North of Rossigh (GR H174556) and Inishmacsaint (GR H167541) is known as the ‘broad lough’ and can become very rough in strong and especially south west winds, so this is an area best avoided in breezy conditions (Force 3 (7 – 10 knots)).
- Around Enniskillen
Paddle boarders and kayakers are at risk from collision with powered craft. In most areas on the Lough there is plenty of space but boat traffic can be intense around Enniskillen especially in summer and risks of collision or being run down are significant in summer and at busy times. There is good access here but look out for other craft.
There is a small flow along the River Erne section through Enniskillen. It is possible to paddle ‘upstream’ most of the year, however, flow can become very significant after periods of high rainfall so it is wise to check conditions in advance. The best way to check is to look for an obvious current flowing under the main road bridge (GR H231443).
- Upper Lough
While the islands and quiet shores of Upper Lough Erne are ideal for exploring, it can be very disorientating as many look very similar; therefore navigation is challenging. The Ordnance Survey activity map of Lough Erne shows all the navigation markers and the associated numbers, making navigation much easier.
- The Sperrins
The Sperrins are the largest and least explored mountain range in Northern Ireland. They are made up of vast rolling hills with few navigational features so it is easy to lose one’s way. Having a map and compass along with the skills to use them is essential for this environment.
Although not as high as the Mournes, the Sperrins are further from the sea and get significantly more snow and ice than other mountain areas in Northern Ireland. White-out conditions in the Sperrins are not uncommon in winter, go to Be AdventureSmart in Winter to make sure you are prepared.
- Strangford Lough
Strangford Lough is the largest sea lough in the British Isles. The Strangford Lough canoe/paddling trail includes the opportunity to camp on Salt or Taggart Island. Whilst very sheltered from the main Irish Sea there are some areas such as around Sketrick and Rainey Island GR J524627, The Dorn GR J593568 and Audleys Point GR J579505) that need to be understood and treated with caution.
Journeying on Strangford Lough is best 3 hours on either side of high water at Killyleagh, as at low water it is revealed that the coastline has a muddy foreshore, making it difficult to launch and land at many places. Check the tide times before setting off.
Even moderate winds out of the North-East and South-East are most challenging wind direction for paddlers. When the tide changes to go against the wind it can massively affect and increase the size of the waves on the lough.Most of Strangford Lough has little tidal action allowing for pleasant and relaxing journeys. However, the places where there are tides (Sketrick, the Dorn and Audleys but also the main Narrows south of Strangford and Portaferry where the Lough exits to the Irish Sea) they tend to be ferocious and unforgiving if you get caught in them. Check the tide times before setting off.
- Strangford Narrows
In the Strangford narrows, the tide can reach up to 6 knots – you won’t be able to paddle against this! This area should only be undertaken by appropriately experienced paddlers. Areas around the Narrows, such as Kilclief Bay, Granagh Bay and Cloghy Rocks, that appear sheltered can quickly become challenging once you leave the shelter of the rocky outcrops, as you will be exposed to the rapid tidal streams and winds.
A ferry operates between Strangford and Portaferry every 15 minutes. Other larger boats are restricted to a channel due to the necessity of avoiding shallow water. This can mean they are unable to steer around smaller boats.
The currents around this more sheltered part of the lough still move at up to 5 knots (faster than you can paddle) so it is important to have the skills and knowledge to negotiate this section. Those seeking less dynamic water and with less experience and knowledge would be best launching from White Rocks and heading South instead.
The Mourne Mountains
- The Mourne Mountains
The Mourne Mountains include the highest peaks in Northern Ireland – six peaks over 700 metres and the highest mountain Slieve Donard (850m). There is something for everyone on the right day.
The Mourne Heritage Trust (MHT) has engagement rangers out on a daily basis on the hills to provide advice, support and information on safety, the environment and local issues.
The weather and visibility can change quickly in the Mournes so even the easiest of walks require the ability to read a map and navigate safely over the mountains. The Mournes weather is much more extreme than that at sea level. Temperatures drop by approx. 1°C for every 100m ascended, so at the top of Slieve Donard it can be 8°C colder than at sea level. Winds are also much stronger higher up, with significantly more cloud and rainfall. It’s always a good idea to check a Mourne mountain forecast to help you decide on your journey and always wear and pack suitable clothing and equipment for the day.
- Slieve Donard
The route to the summit of Slieve Donard from Donard Wood (10km round trip) is moderately strenuous but fairly straightforward and from the saddle between Donard and Commedagh, the Mourne Wall provides an easy navigational handrail to the summit. However, the section from The Glen River Valley (GR 351284) to the Commedagh – Donard saddle (GR 350280) is steep with a series of stone-pitched steps. In winter when temperatures are below 0°C, this becomes treacherous with water running across the granite steps freezing and becoming like a skating rink. The risks are exacerbated when descending especially on tired legs.
- Slieve Binnian Loop
Slive Binnian is an extremely popular and dramatic walk. The path which starts at Carrick Little car park (GR 345219) is pretty good most of the way but does require some care in places, especially on the descent. After leaving Bernagh summit 747m (GR 320233) and heading north to the lower northern summit it can be very disorientating in poor visibility, so if not a competent navigator with a map and compass, backtrack and return the way you came. The descent from the north summit tors descends some tricky, steep terrain and brings you very close to the significant cliffs of Buzzards Roost. Once you have descended to the saddle between Bernagh and Slieve Lamagan (GR320256) you are on quite rough and loose paths. There is one significant river to cross (GR332245) and after heavy rain, it is to be avoided.
- Devils Coach Road / Slieve Beg
The Devils Coach Road is a large gulley that cuts through the southeast-facing slope of Slieve Beg from the floor of the Annalong Valley (GR 342273) directly to the summit of Slieve Beg (GR 340276). Once you leave the valley there is no obvious path and the terrain underfoot in the gulley is steep and extremely loose with many large unstable boulders and a narrow slot to negotiate/scramble out of at its top. After heavy rain, the terrain becomes quite unconsolidated with boulders rolling down the gulley (other persons above you in the gulley would also seriously raise the probability of rockfall). Ascending or descending this gulley requires considerable experience and judgment to make the journey safe and there are many days when it may be better to look elsewhere. Check the Mournes forecast Met Office before setting off.
- Slieve Meelmore & Slieve Meelneg
Slieve Meelmore (GR 305285 687m) & Slieve Meelbeg (GR300279 708m) are two very accessible Mournes summits often hiked as a circuit. Most walkers will leave from the car park at Happy Valley (GR 292297) or park at the Meelmore Lodge car park (GR 305307).
There are obvious trails and a wall to help guide you. In conditions where the visibility is poor, care should be taken when leaving the summits as it is very easy to get disorientated and come down off the wrong side of the ridges which drop from the summits.
If intending to descend the northeast ridge of Meelmore, be aware, it terminates at the 200ft cliffs known as Spellack (GR 311294). Head either south, south-east or north, north-west to avoid the steeper ground. These options still require good route finding and in poor visibility will require the use of a map and compass to descend safely.
If intending to return via the Trassey Track to the main road, there is a river to cross which after heavy rain becomes impassable. In these conditions return via Meelmore Lodge.
- Bernagh Loop
The walk from Trassey Car Park (GR 311313) or Slieve Meelmore Lodge car park (GR 305307) to the summit of Slieve Bernagh (GR 312280, 739m) via the Trassey track Mournes peak is spectacular. The Trassey Track route to the Saddle at the “Hares Gap” (GR 322287) is, at times, steep in both ascent and descent. In cold temperatures, the section of track up to the Hares Gap can be extremely icy and difficult to negotiate. The Mourne Wall offers a useful navigational handrail to the summit of Bernagh but be aware, the trail does not always follow the wall directly.
When descending the northwest slope of Bernagh to the Bernagh – Meelmore saddle (GR 309282), keep left of the wall (south side) and follow the disjointed and loose sections of zigzagging trail to the saddle to avoid some very steep and unconsolidated terrain. From here it’s a rough trail back to the Trassey Track and home.
The Causeway Coast
The Causeway Coast
The Causeway Coast is an amazing and exciting environment for the experienced paddlesport enthusiast. There is a good range of access points, from tiny and forgotten fishing piers to beaches of sand and cobbles and several lively harbours (Ballintoy GR D048453, Dunsevrick GR C000445, Port Ballintrae GR C926421).
On this section of the Atlantic coastline (Bengore Head GR C974459, Sheep Island GR D049459, Carrickmannon GR D093443 and Fair Head GR D178439), there are fast tidal currents, white water type rapids caused by the tide (overfalls) and large breaking waves even on calm days, caused by Atlantic swell. Due to the dynamic nature of this environment, the sea can become very rough quickly with the change of tide, weather and swell.
The predominant wind direction is south-westerly so there is a frequent risk of being blown offshore when away from the shelter of the cliffs.
Areas along the Causeway coast such as Ballintoy GR D048453, Dunsevrick GR C000445 and Port Ballintrae GR C926421 that appear sheltered can quickly become challenging once you leave the shelter of the rocky outcrops, as you will be exposed to the rapid tidal streams swell and winds.
There are a few places on the causeway coast offering shelter for the less experienced paddlers, including Portballintrae, Portrush Harbour and Dunseverick. Sheltered water can also be found a short drive away on the Lower River Bann and the Cushendun and Cushendall coast.
Although the bay may look sheltered it can quickly become challenging once you leave the shelter of the rocky outcrops. With Atlantic swell, there can be large and rogue waves that can inundate this area with broken white water. Beyond the harbour, there is a sand bank that can cause large waves to form. There are also strong tides in the bay which can cause rough water and carry paddlers offshore.
Less experienced paddlers are recommended to head for more sheltered waters including Portballintrae, Portrush Harbour and Dunseverick. Sheltered water can also be found a short drive away on the Lower River Bann and the Cushendun and Cushendall coast.
The Ballycastle marina and harbour is an ideal location to launch to journey to Kinbane head. If wishing to launch from here you need to speak to the Harbour Master. Another option for the less experienced paddler is to jump on the ferry with your boat and paddle in the bay off Rathlin harbour. This bay provides paddlers with spectacular views of the Causeway coast.