A Complete Guide to Backpacking in Ireland

How to save and hike in Ireland

Green hills in Connemara, Ireland
 Aurélien Pottier/Getty Images

Backpacking through Ireland can be a rewarding experience for anyone who wants to see the great outdoors while also exploring on a budget. Several way-marked routes are available for long-distance hikes and there are always shorter hikes and hill walks available across the country.

Planning the ultimate backpacking trip in Ireland depends on budget, priorities in terms of time on the trails versus sightseeing in major areas, timing, and gear. Here is how to be prepared for just about anything, and tips for saving some cash, while traversing across the Emerald Isle.

Cost

Backpacking in Ireland can be a great way to see the remote corners of the Emerald Isle on a pretty low budget. There are usually no fees for the actual hikes so you do not need any expensive permits to access the trails. If you already own all the appropriate gear, then the only thing if a plane ticket and a plan.

That being said, there are two major budget considerations are more dependent on where you chose to stay (camping, hostels, B&B or hotels), and how you plan to get around when you are off the trail. Plan to pay a base of €25/night for the most basic campsite or hostel, and then around €20 for private buses between major cities.

Eating out in Ireland does not have to be expensive, but a basic pub meal will set you back around €10 and pints start around €4.50. Of course, there is also plenty of Irish fast food if you are on a serious budget. If you plan to camp, supermarkets are plentiful in cities and towns.

Where to Stay and How to Get Around

Your preferred sites will lead you to where to stay while backpacking through Ireland.

Irish Caravan & Camping Council lists 150 caravan and campsites to use in Ireland. If you know your itinerary, you can book the dates ahead of time to ensure a spot at coveted sites. To find similar information for Northern Ireland, try Go Camping NI.

Most larger towns clean, if not always modern, hostels. For a cheap place to stay with a homecooked meal include, family-run B&Bs are very popular throughout Ireland. The best way to decide where to stay is to plan your routes first, then pick stops along the way. For example, it is not always possible to stay inside parks, so if you plan your hike, you can then find the village closest to where you will exit for the day.

Stay in Dublin for a day or two to see the main sites, then head to hike in the Wicklow Mountains. The Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland also have fantastic coastal hikes, and are the gateway to discovering the rugged and beautiful backcountry. Connemara is known for its untouched landscapes, and there is nothing like the rolling green hills of Kerry. To the north, the Giant’s Causeway is a backpacking must. For a great outdoor time, also plan to spend a few days exploring the Mourne Mountains.

Renting a car and driving gives you the most flexibility if you want to see some smaller trailers and more distant corners of the island. However, you do not need a car for any of the cities and parking will be more hassle then it is worth.

Bus Éireann is the main intercity option for buses and tends to be more popular than trains. Be sure to check the schedule ahead of time because certain routes can be sporadic. In major cities like Dublin and Belfast, public city buses are a great option. In rural areas, strangers may offer to give you a lift in their cars. Use basic safety knowledge and good sense before hitchhiking.

Private walking tour companies can organize to transport you and your gear between trail stops for the most comfortable way to backpack.

When to Go

The best time to backpack in Ireland is in spring and summer, ideally between April and mid-September. These are the months when Ireland's weather is warmer (though unlikely to go above 75F) and usually less rainy than fall and winter. The only drawback is dealing with larger crowds and higher prices for accommodation and plane tickets.

Autumn and winter are options but are much less recommended if you want to spend much time outside. National Parks also often adopt shorter winter hours or close their visitor’s center outside of peak summertime periods. The days are also considerably shorter, leaving less time for walking in the sun (if it happens to make an appearance). Many campsites and country hotels also close during the winter season.

Gear

Packing the right clothes is a key part of comfortably backpacking in Ireland. If you plan to really hit the trails, good hiking footwear is the most fundamental piece of gear to pack. You want your shoes to be sturdy and waterproof. A pair of running shoes is really not going to cut it if you plan to do real hillwalking.

Always check the weather before you set out and build some flexibility into your schedule to be able to reroute in case of storms. That being said, rain is possible at any time of year in Ireland so a waterproof outer layer is necessary – plus a cover for your backpack, if possible. It is a good idea to pack a spare set of clothes if you plan to be out for the day when there is a wet forecast in store.

Pack a small flashlight if you will be backpacking longer distances. There can be very little ambient light when you are outside of towns so the flashlight will be a lifesaver if you get caught outside after twilight.

Climbing Irish mountains is not as intense as scaling Everest, so you can leave most free climbing gear behind. However, the walks can be challenging and walking sticks can keep you keep your footing in slick or muddy conditions.

In many cases, you will have to walk along some quiet Irish roads for at least part of your journey. Most walkers in Ireland carry a high visibility vest and don the bright yellow safety gear if they are along the shoulder. Roads are curvy and narrow so it is always better to be seen. And remember – drivers will be on the left.

Most trails are well marked, but if you are doing some serious backpacking then you will still want to bring a map and compass. A good hiking guide is also the best way to determine detailed routes based on difficulty levels.

Be sure to pack your cell phone, too. Coverage can get spotty in rural areas and inside some national parks, so be sure someone knows where you will be and when you plan to be back in case you run into trouble.

Finally, bring a tent and sleeping bag if you are going to camp, but leave it behind if you want to stay in hostels – they simply aren’t allowed.

Money-Saving Tips

One of the highest costs to factor into your budget is transportation between trails. If you plan to take the train, look out for mid-week deals or book your tickets in advance from Irish Rail. Same day tickets tend to be more expensive.

Wild camping in Ireland would be the cheapest way to stay overnight and while it is not technically banned, it is also not so easy to do legally. To pitch your tent outside of a campground, you need to the permission of the owner – be that the local council or the farmer. Be ready to seek out the landowner and maybe even bring a small token of appreciation if you are being granted permission to stay on private land. Even if you have to spring for a campsite, they can start as low as €25 a night if you have your own tent.

For the best B&B and hotel deals, stay outside of major Irish towns and cities. Smaller villages offer a quaint appeal and better prices. If you do plan to stay in a city center, try to avoid booking your trips around major events like the Galway Races, which cause accommodation prices to skyrocket.

If you are still in college, be sure to pack your student ID. Students are entitled to discounts on a range of things in Ireland, including tickets to many main attractions as well as public transportation passes.

Shop at the market if you plan to cook for yourself as a way to save on your food budget. Aldi and Lidl are two low-cost supermarkets that are found throughout Ireland.

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