We recently booked a spontaneous weekend away to Wales to do a bit of walking. Mr THL has had his eye on conquering on of the best known Welsh mountain walks for a while now and a short break was long overdue, so we dug out the winter gear and booked an Airbnb. So far, so lovely.
However, our walking weekend also coincided with the weekend that Storm Arwen swept across the top half of the country whilst snow and freezing temperatures swept across the bottom half. Glorious. No such thing as the wrong weather. We did it anyway, and it was brilliant. Having lived to tell the tale and made some great memories, these are my tips for hiking Pen Y Fan.
Know What You’re Getting Into
A quick bit of background because you should always know what your going up against. Pen Y Fan is the highest peak in South Wales at 886m above sea level. It’s in the Brecon Beacons National park, a landscape carved out by glaciers. That makes an unforgiving, but visually stunning environment of mountains, moors and lakes. When I say unforgiving, I’m not kidding. This area is used by the military to test and train special forces.
The most convenient parking is found at Pont Ar Daf carpark, use postcode LD3 8NL. It’s free and there is plenty of space. This parking spot also puts you right at the start of the gentlest route up the mountain.
If this place is full, there is limited parking along the road at the Storey Arms outdoor centre. If you park there, double check the route you’re taking. One of the more challenging ascents begins and ends in that car park. More on routes further down this post.
There’s a toilet block at the Pont Ar Darf carpark. It was closed when we visited, but there is a collection of Port-a-loos. Using them was a bit traumatic given that it was minus temperatures, winds were making them shake and they were less than lovely in smell and cleanliness. No hand wash facilities either. Good thing everyone carries hand gel now.
However, given that there are no facilities on the mountain trail and no coverage if you need to go, this is the only option.
Choose Your Challenge
There are four main routes to the top of Pen Y Fan, varying in difficulty. For a family hike we went for the well worn route known as ‘The Motorway’ due to its popularity. And popular it is- even on on a cold and windy day there was a steady stream of folk heading up and down.
From the car park you go through a kissing gate, over a very pretty wooden bridge and onto a well marked mountain side trail. The path takes you up towards Corn Du, the second highest peak in the Brecons, but then skirts to the right and takes you up to Pen Y Fan. Retrace the route back down, you can’t really go wrong.
The other routes are longer and more challenging. Not for the faint of heart or the beginner, find details here. If you fancy one of the more challenging, be sure you know what you’re getting into. This is beautiful and well known walking country but it’s not the place to be complacent.
Check the Weather
Very British talking about the weather, but it’s necessary if you’re going up a mountain. You need to know if it’s safe and you need to know how to dress. Specific to Pen Y Fan, even on the motorway route, there’s not really any shelter and there are some fiercely steep drops either side of the footpath.
Also be prepared to walk through different weather conditions as you move up and down Pen Y Fan. We had still and cold at the bottom, breezy and fresh as we ascended and then very high winds over the top. Which brings me to my next point…
Be Prepared to Adapt or Abort
So the weekend we booked to walk Pen Y fan was also the weekend the UK was swept with some pretty extreme weather. We left Wiltshire in a snow storm with one eye on the forecast. We figured we’d booked a place to stay so we might as well head down there and make a decision on the ground. As it turned out, conditions in Brecon were cold but do-able and we hiked Pen Y Fan anyway.
But we were prepared to abort the idea altogether if it wasn’t safe. And we did adapt the route a little bit at the peak. Winds were so strong, the kids and I just set foot on the summit then retreated back down a bit out of the worst of it. It didn’t feel entirely safe and my son wasn’t liking it. He’s only ten, he did well to hike up there really.
Dress for the Conditions
Common sense but bears repeating. Check the weather and then dress for it. Go for a good, wicking base layer that will keep you warm and dry, even if you break a bit of a sweat. Some sort of waterproof layer. A well fitting backpack. Sturdy, supportive footwear and socks. You don’t need to spend a fortune on high end outdoor gear, just get the basics right so you are comfortable.
Top tip: if you’re lucky enough to have a husband in the military, raid his winter kit. There’ll be some gems in there. Finders keeper, mine for the Winter now!
Food & Water
Take some. Take plenty. Take stuff you can eat and drink on the go as there aren’t that many convenient places to stop. Not when the weather isn’t great and the ground is icy, anyway. There is a burger van in the Pont Ar Daf carpark selling hot food and drinks and it seemed reasonably priced and popular.
bribed encouraged the kids (and me) with the promise of a post Pen Y Fan McDonalds, so that was our go to. It’s a half hour or so drive through some lovely scenery to McDonalds Glynneath. Postcode is SA 11 5NZ if you want to do the same.
Bad food never tasted so good.
Don’t Be Put Off…
If you think you aren’t fit enough.
Look, I’m not going to fib. Parts of the walk are hard and I ached a bit the next day. More from tensing my legs coming down on an icy track than going up, I think. But don’t be disheartened and don’t be put off thinking you need to be super fit to get this mountain under your belt.
Set out fairly early- plenty of light and plenty of time. Stop when you need to. You’ll want to stop often anyway, the views are incredible. As is the sense of achievement when you get back that kissing gate at the bottom and look back to see what you’ve just done. Go and do it.
It would have been easy to call off the trip in the face of bad weather and uncertainty. I don’t encourage anyone to be reckless of unsafe, but sometimes bad ideas make the best memories. Think this was one of those times. And Brecon was beautiful, hoping to get back there soon.
Tell me what you got up to the weekend Storm Arwen swept the country, I love chatting in the comments. It honestly makes my day. Oh, and if you liked this post you might like to read about the time we hiked down a mountain in the Harz region of Germany. In flip flops and with no plan or map. I’ve learned a thing or two since then!