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Planning Your South Downs Way Walk

South Downs Way Harting Down

So you’re thinking of walking the South Downs Way? Or some of it? Great, it’s an incredible experience however much of it you manage to do. And having walked it recently over eight days, here is our guide to planning your South Downs Way walk.

South Downs Way

Which way and how far?

Obviously, one of your first decisions is whether you’re going to walk the whole way, whether you’re going to travel from east to west or the other way round and over how many days.  This will depend on the time you have available but also your level of fitness and personal choice.   We walked it from Winchester to Eastbourne and the views got better and bigger so this way would be my recommendation. And there is something quite compelling about walking towards the sea.

South Downs Way

We also took eight days allowing approximately 20 km a day. We both had a reasonable level of fitness, I am a runner and a keen walker but in terms of training, I had not walked 20 km very often and certainly not day after day with a backpack. As it turns out, 20 km was a comfortable distance to do in a day and allowed us plenty of time to start late if we wanted to, stop for a long lunch or just stop to take photos. Our experience (as walkers of a certain age) was that it took the first 5 km to warm up, then 5 to 15 km was pretty comfortable and we started to tire from 15 km onwards. On a couple of our days, we only walked 17.5 km which was great, but on a few days, we walked well over 20 km.

South Downs Way

You do get tired feet and aching shoulders, but again, I got stronger and stronger over the eight days and felt much fitter and better by the end than at the start. At the end of the first day, I wasn’t sure I could finish. At the end of day eight, I wanted to keep going. We met plenty of people who were doing it in fewer days than us (some of them in 4 days). Most of them looked utterly broken and I’m not sure they enjoyed the experience.

Cuckmere Haven


The good news is that I planned our trip very last minute (think Wednesday planning for a Sunday departure) and even though it was the end of August / early September, I was still able to sort suitable accommodation for almost all the nights. The bad news was there was one night I couldn’t find anywhere to stay near the South Downs Way. I concluded that planning a little earlier would have been sensible.

South Downs Way

In choosing the time of year, bear in mind that for large stretches of the South Downs Way, there is very little if any shelter. That means on a hot day you are baking in the sun. But it also means that in the winter it can be much colder than you expect. In fact, we had one day on the 31st August when it rained all day and there was a bitter wind and virtually no visibility. We were very cold and wet at the end of the day. So our advice would be to walk in late spring or early autumn but make sure you take equipment for all weather. We cover that below. The chalk ground also gets very slippery when wet.

planning your south downs way walk


You can walk the South Downs Way in whatever level of luxury you wish. Here are the two main options:

Cocking Manor Farm campsite

Wild camping, campsites, bunkhouses and youth hostels  

In order to wild camp you will need to carry provisions and you will need the permission of the land owner. However, travelling west to east, there are a number of campsites, youth hostels and bunkhouses along the way, namely (distances are estimates only):

  • Holden Farm (about 12 km from Winchester)
  • Meon Springs (about 5 km from Exton)
  • The Sustainability Centre (about 9 km from Exton)
  • Cocking Manor Farm (very basic)
  • Graffham (about 5 km from Cocking)
  • South Downs Bunkhouse in Houghton
  • Washington Park (near Washington)
  • White House camping (near Steyning)
  • YHA Truleigh Hill
  • Southdown Camping (near the Keymer Post)
  • Housedean Farm (near Lewes and where the SDW crosses the A27)
  • YHA Southease
  • Alfriston Camping

planning south downs way walk

Airbnb, B&Bs and hotels 

There are plenty of Airbnbs, B&Bs, and pub accommodation along the way. Choose as close as you can to the South Downs Way to avoid dead mileage. Some hosts will collect you and drop you back. And there is nothing to stop you sleeping in style if your budget allows, at some of the nice hotels along the way.

South Downs Way accommodation

Baggage transfer 

There are hotels, hosts and individuals who will transfer your backpack to your next set of digs for you. Ask your host for details when booking.

South Downs at Clayton

Food, drink, and life’s essentials 

Many hosts provide an evening meal, breakfast and a packed lunch but check when booking. If they don’t, check what other facilities are available near where you are staying and what is likely to be open. I walked over a bank holiday weekend and everything was shut on Sunday evening. There are cafés, pubs and coffee vans on the South Downs Way itself and you will find details in our 8-day itinerary. A good guidebook should also have details of these and it’s well worth thinking ahead about when you eat and any comfort breaks. As women, comfort breaks were a big topic of conversation when we walked.

planning your south downs way walk

Planning your South Downs Way walk packing

The general consensus is that your backpack weight should ideally not exceed 10-15% of your body weight for everyday use, and up to 20% for activities like hiking, depending on your fitness level. And it’s incredible how much even a few items can weigh. So you have to be ruthless. I took three shirts. I could have managed with two. I washed one each night and dried it as I walked. Same with socks. If you can spend a bit more on your kit it will usually be lighter and better.

South Downs Way packing


  • A hat/gloves
  • Compeed
  • Walking poles
  • First aid kit and foil blanket
  • Sun cream. Even if it’s not sunny.
  • Phone (consider installing What3Words, etc.), powerpack and cables for charging
  • A good map/guidebook
  • Waterproofs – lightweight jacket, whole body gagool and backpack cover
  • One jumper
  • Water bottle/camel pack
  • Energy snacks
  • Footwear – hiking boots or trail running shoes. Personally, I abandoned my hiking boots in favour of my trail running shoes and they were much better.
  • Lightweight, plastic flipflops for walking around in the evening
  • Plastic bags for rubbish, wet clothing, etc.
  • Microfibre towels
  • Pee cloth (look it up – genius!)
  • Toiletries. Think long and hard about what you really need. Decant into smaller lightweight containers where necessary
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Undies.

South Downs Way


We’re not fitness experts but it is important when planning your South Downs walk to think about training. Suffice it to say, the South Downs Way is 160 km long with numerous steep ascents and descents and uneven ground. You will be walking quite long distances day after day and at times you may lose your phone signal and not pass anyone. You’ll also be carrying a backpack. You will need a reasonable level of fitness.

planning your south downs way walk

Top tips

  • Top up at every water station as some of them are quite far apart.
  • Expect a bit of give when it comes to the distances in the guidebooks.
  • Plan food ahead. Food, drink and refueling are really important. Drink lots of water.
  • When you stop, you cool down very quickly. Have a jumper to hand.
  • Stop every 5 km and check-in. Every 5 km I checked in with my family via WhatsApp and sent them my location. On the whole, they ignored me but it was a safety net.
  • Good luck and enjoy every moment. It’s a fabulous experience.

Amberley Mount

If you’ve enjoyed this post about planning your South Downs walk, you may also enjoy:

The South Downs Way – an overview 

Discover the South Downs 

South Downs Way 8-day itinerary 

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