Walking the South Downs Way is a great option for anyone wanting an easy/moderate long-distance trail in the UK that can be completed in under 10 days, at a very chilled pace – or a week if you want to move a bit quicker.

The South Downs Way is one of 16 National Trails in the UK. Stretching the full width of the South Downs National Park, the trail starts in Winchester, Hampshire. It finishes 100 miles later in Eastbourne, East Sussex. The full trial has about 4,150m of ascent.

Although the relentlessness of the hills shouldn’t be underestimated, I’d say this is a good trail for hiking and backpacking beginners. The views are pleasant and consistent. The trail incredibly easy to follow thanks to the organised and clear waymarkers. And you are never far from a pub or road if you need a getaway.

In this guide I cover everything you need to know to do the hike yourself – from details on camping and accommodation options, wild camping choices, costs, what you need to pack, food, top tips and the best South Downs Way route planners.

Before we start….

I wanted to start with a brief introduction to give this guide context. I’m Bex Band – a full-time adventurer and founder of the UK’s largest adventure community for women, Love Her Wild. I’m on a mission to make getting outdoors and adventures as easy as possible by providing all the information you need to plan an adventure. I’ve done lots of adventures myself from hiking the length of Isreal to kick-scooting the length of the UK (you can see a list of my adventures here).

You can sign up to my newsletter here. Also check out my recently published book Three Stripes South, all about my first big adventure hiking the length of Israel.

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Deciding to hike the South Downs Way

Growing up in Hampshire I wasn’t far from the South Downs Way. Over the years, I’ve walked many sections of the trail multiple times over the (especially my favourite stretch – the Seven Sisters walk which you can do as a lovely day hike).

I decided I wanted to stretch myself more as a hiker and to try a multi-day hike…..specifically one that was wild camping. This was partly in preparation for a 1000km trek I was planning, hiking the length of Israel.

I settled on the South Downs Way because I knew the navigation was easy and there were no major climbs. Although wild camping isn’t the easiest on the trail and most people opt for b&b’s or campsites, it’s absolutely doable (more on that below).

Because time was short, we opted to not do the full trail in one go and settled on a 50mile multi-day hike, from Amberley train station to Eastbourne. At the time we were living in London and this made it easy to get ot and from the start via public transport.

Note I’ve also helped a family member walk the SDW using accommodation such as b&b’s and hotels so have included an itinerary for those wanting this option. All the recommendations are based on the feedback I received from their visit.

What was walking the South Downs Way like?

We loved our hike although it wasn’t without it’s challenges. We found the terrain to be easy underfoot and the sloping climbs manageable with our heavy packs containing all our camping gear and food.

The views were consistently pretty. The west half of the hike is mostly through farmland and forests. The east half is a bit more spectacular. In particular when you reach the cliffs and have the dramatic coastline ocean views.

The downside to having the views is that you are very exposed and this was our biggest challenge as we ended up hiking in some pretty poor weather (it was a rainy long weekend in May). The wind was especially relentless on the cliffs, and always coming from the right side which started to drive us a bit mad. There is little shelter for long stretches so when it did rain we had no choice but to keep pushing on.

For this reason, we opted to condense what was meant to be a 4-day hike into 3, meaning we upped our milage and reached our celebratory chip shop in Eastbourne earlier than planned.

If we’d been staying in hotels and b&b’s there’s no doubt we would have kept to 4 days with the promise of a dry bed and shower each night. But as anyone who has tried wild camping and a self-contained hike knows, there is some satisfaction to being out in the elements overnight….even if it does mean getting a bit wet!

a guide to Walking the South Downs Way

How long does it take to walk the South Downs Way?

8-9 days is a good estimate to walk the entire route at an easy pace. This would require you covering around 12-15 miles a day. Your mileage will considerably increase though if you are traveling into villages/towns for accommodation as there aren’t many conveniently located on the trail so this will reslut in a lot of yo-yoing.

If you are an experienced hiker, you may want to look at doing the trail over 5-6 days to make the distances each day a bit more challenging. Ultra hikers and runners often cover the distance in a 2-day 100mile challenge (hats off to them!). Or you could try and beat the 14hour running record if you really want to give your legs a battering!

How hard is it to hike the South Downs Way?

This is a very manageable trail in so much as the route is easy to follow and the terrain is flat and with very little ascent. You do still need to be able to complete a long day hike comfortably with a day pack (or more if you are planning to camp).

The hills on the coastal section of the hike can feel a little endless at times – lots of up and down. But nothing steep or too big.

Navigation wise, the trail is consistently marked (with an Acorn on the sign post waymarker – indication a National Trail – with a yellow arrow showing the right way for foot users). Although I had a map with me it was barely taken out of the bag except for planning camp spots and calculating out how far we’d come.

East to West or West to East?

Most consider West to East to be the best way and I agree! This way you save the best views until last, build up resilience for the more relenting coastal hills and can also finish your trek with seafront chips in Eastbourne.

When is the best time to walk the South Downs Way?

There are 2 factors to consider when picking your dates. The first is weather and the second is how busy the trail is going to be.

In terms of weather windows from April-October will give you the best weather. July and August are the hottest months and being on the exposed cliffs can result in tough days if you get an especially hot spell. For this reason spring and autumn are considered the best times to hike, although really you can do the walk all year round.

It’ll be blustery, cold and windy over winter so you’ll want to wrap up warm. There is something beautiful about the UK’s rugged coastline in winter!

The SDW is a very popular trail, especially the Seven Sisters section as you near Beachy Head and Eastbourne. At the weekend, the trail gets crammed with vistors and dog walkers. I suggest going outside of school holidays if you can and avoiding any bank holiday weekends. Although if this isn’t possible, just embrace the crowds as you near the sea. Although the quiet is nice, people watching can also be very entertaining!

South Downs Way Route Planner and map

Although you can get OS maps showing you the route, I wouldn’t suggest using them necessarily as it’s so well sign-posted and you are unlikely to get massively lost. Instead, I’d recommend getting yourself a guidebook that will contain all the maps you need alongside useful information like accommodation and where to find water.

The Cicerone South Downs Way guide book is my favourite, although the Trailblazer one is also good.

You can also just navigate using a phone. Even Google maps have the South Downs Way! It might be easier using a South Downs Way Route Planner app such as Komoot, which are designed to provide hikers with useful information and to work offline should you lose signal.

Whatever you use, make sure you take a battery pack (I always use an Anker pack) as having a fully charged phone is essential for safety – as well as useful should you need to check things like opening times or to call a pub to make a reservation.

Transport to and from the trail

One of the best things about the trail is how easy it is to get to the start and finish using public transport. For the start point you want to head to Winchester. For the end you will be catching a train from Eastbourne.

Although there are long distance car parking options in Winchester, I’d urge you to do your bit for the environment and take the train. It also saves you the hassle of needing to return to the start point at the end.

If you want to just do half of the trail, you can catch a train to Amberley and head either East or West from there.

Walking the South Downs Way

It is possible to carry a weeks worth of supplies although your bag will be very heavy so planning to stock up half way is your best option. If you get stuck for shops – a good idea is to stay a night in a cheap b&b and ask if you can send them a resupply box in advance. You can pack wraps and tups of peanut butter for lunches, pasta, couscous or freeze dried meals for dinner.

How much does it cost to walk the sDW?

When budgeting for walking the South Downs Way, you’ll need to factor in:

  • equipment
  • travel and insurance
  • accommodation
  • food
  • contingency – it’s always good to have a contingency in the budget, £200 should be plenty for their hike to account for any unplanned taxis or accommodation if needed

Doing it on a tight budget
If you are on a tight budget, camping and wild camping will be your cheapest option accommodation will be free or very cheap (most campsites are about £20 a night). You can carry most of your food, opting for sandwiches and simple pasta meals cooked on your stove at night (ignoring the pub temptations along the way).
£20-30 a day should be plenty for campsites, DIY food and the odd drink/ice cream although you’ll also need to add in transport costs (we spent £53 each on return trains to London) and your gear which you may already have.

A more comfortable budget
If you want to stay in hotels and b&b’s and make the most of the delicious pub meals along the way, you are going to need a bigger budget. Prices of hotels have gone up in recent years so you are looking at an average of £50 a night per person for a comfortable bed (full list of recommended accommodation below) – although most will include. A pub meal will cost around £20 for a main and drink and a light lunch (sandwich and snacks) £10.
£80-90 a day is about right for a more comfortable experience.

How much did we spend?
Barely anything!!! We wild camped the whole way, bringing all the food with us bought in advance. Had some ice creams and lunch along the way and a bag of chips at the end. We already owned all the gear we needed.
Travel – £53
Accommodation – £0
Food – £27
TOTAL – £80

Where do you find food on the South Downs Way?

Whatever your approach to food, you are going to want to make sure you start with plenty of snacks in your bag to keep you going on your 100mile hike. This will also save you the job of having to hunt down supermarkets to stock up along the way – although a couple of the villages you pass have small shops and convenience stores.

There are 2 approaches: prepare the food yourself (cheaper) or eat out along the way (better suited if staying in accommodation rather than camping).

If planning to eat out, there are many South Downs Way pubs to enjoy along the way. The pubs can be a little pricey and can get booked up in the busy season (mostly summer holidays) so you may want to make reservations in advance. There are also a few cafes where you can treat yourself to a hot drink and ice cream. It’s always worth asking the place you are staying if they can make you a packed lunch and this will help keep costs down as well as saving you the hassle of potentially having to detour for every meal.

Google Maps is a great tool to use to plan your food stops each day. Just search ‘restaurant’ and it will highlight all the cafes and food options in your area.

dofe dinner ideas

Camping on the South Downs Way

Camping is tricky as there aren’t lots within easy access to the trail. If a campsite is a 2-mile walk from the trail this means you are doing a 4-mile round trip to get there which can be frustrating.

You could look at organising taxis and pickups for some of them or wild camp (see my heading below on wild camping). Or perhaps do a mix of both.

This Campsites South Downs Way directory lists all the campsites available near the trail.

Camping, 8 day: SOuth Downs way stages

If you are planning on walking the South Downs Way while camping en route, here’s a suggested itinerary you might like to follow. Of course you can merge days to suit your walking pace:

*please note distances are just an average*

Day 1: Winchester to Cheriton – 6 mile
Camping at Holdean Farm (Cheriton, Nr Alresford, hants, So24 0NX) close to the trail.

Day 2: Cheriton to Petersfield – 13 miles
Camping at Wetherdown Camping (Droxford Rd, East Meon, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 1HR) close to the trail.

Day 3: Petersfield to Chichester – 19 miles
Camping at New House Farm (New House Lane, East Dean, Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 0NJ). It’s about a 2 mile hike to reach the campsite from the trail or you can arrange a taxi pickup.

Day 4: Chichester to Amberley – 13 miles (Camping wild camp spot)
Camping at High Tittern (High Tittern Lane, Amberley, grid ref. TQ032123) which is a wild camping space right on the trail. There are no facilities.

Day 5: Amberley to Poynings – 18 miles
Camping at Saddlescombe Farm (Saddlescombe Road, Poynings, BN45 7DE) close to the trail.

Day 6: Poynings to Lewes – 13 miles
Camping at Spring Barn Farm (Kingston Rd, Lewes, BN7 3ND)
***Note that Spring Barn Farm has now closed. There are other accommodation options in Lewes from B&B to Airbnb rooms or I’d recommend wild camping this night***

Day 7: Lewes to Seaford – 18 miles
Camping at Foxhole campsite (Seven Sisters Country Park, Exceat, Seaford, East Sussex, BN25 4AG) close to the trail.

Day 8: Seaford to Eastbourne – 12 miles

Wild camping South Downs

Can you wild camp on the South Downs Way? Well….the simple answer is yes.

Legally you are not allowed to camp on the South Downs. However, I have wild camped and found that if you are considerate and follow the rules, it is tolerated.

A big section of the South Downs is privately owned farmland which you shouldn’t be camping on without permission. For this reason, the only suitable places we found were small flat spots very near to the trail itself. As the trail is well used this means really following the pitch late and leave early rule so you aren’t disturbing anyone else on the trail.

With Bivvy bags you would definitely find wild camping South Downs easier (read more about in this Bivvy Bag guide). We used a small discrete 2 man tent without issue.

Before choosing to wild camp on the South Downs Way, please do read this Wild Camping UK article so you know the correct etiquette. And know that you may be asked to move on and will need to do so without complaint.

If you do choose to wild camp, one of the great advantages is that you don’t need such a rigid itinerary. You can have a rough plan of how far you want to travel each day but can also just see how the day takes you, stopping when you find a suitable place to pitch your tents or bivvy bags.

This film shows a couple wildcamping on the South Downs Way…it’ll give you an idea of the types of spaces you might find:

I also really love this video of a lady who travelled the SDW over a 5 day period. She solo wild camped showing that it is both possible and also a safe place to do it:

the south downs way ACCOMODATION: Hotels, B&B’s and Airbnb

If you don’t want to camp there are plenty of other options providing a bed for the night. From guesthouses, hotels and also rooms on Airbnb. The great advantage of using accomodation is that you get a warm bed, hot meal and shower each day making the whole experience much more relaxed. It also means you only need to carry a day pack with you.

Just like the campsites, you are going to need to factor in traveling to and from your hotel as there really aren’t loads of options that fall directly on the trail itself. That’s part of long distance hiking though so just embrace the extra wanders into the nearby villages. The accommodation recommendations below are as close to the trail as possible.

There is an option to book taxis to take you to and from your accommodation. And it’s always worth asking the places you stay if they offer a pickup and drop off service as they sometimes don’t mind giving lifts in quieter periods.

Accommodation 8 day: SOUTH DOWNS WAY STAGES

Most people opt for walking the South Downs Way at a gentler pace. Below is an 8 day suggested route plan for anyone wanting to use accommodation en route. All the hotels and b&bs come with a personal recommendation – they are clean, comfortable and have great customer service.

*please note distances are just an average*

Arrival day – if you need to overnight in Winchester I suggest staying at The Old Vine (£140 for 2 people including a great breakfast) which is conveniently located for transport and to start the trail. You might want to factor in an afternoon to explore Winchester as it’s a great city!

Day 1: Winchester to East Meon (18 miles)
Staying at: Angel Cottage B&B (£58 for 2 including breakfast)

Day 2: East Meon to Cocking (18 miles)
Staying at: Hysett House Inn (£90 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 3: Cocking to Amberley (12 miles)
Staying at: Black Horse (£150 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 4: Amberley to Steyning (11 miles)
Staying at: Uppingham B&B (£150 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 5: Steyning to Pyecombe (10 miles)
Staying at: Period Cottage (£131 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 6: Pyecombe to Southease (15 miles)
Staying at: YHA South Downs (£30 for 2 people in a private room. Breakfast available to purchase on site)

Day 7: Rodmell to Alfriston (10 miles)
Staying at: Wingrove House (£170 for 2 people including breakfast). Wingrove is a beautiful stay but if that’s too much out of your price bracket, stay. at Ye Olde Smugglers Inne for something nice but more basic (£95 for 2 – dinner available for an additional £20)

Day 8: Alfriston to Eastbourne (11 miles)
Staying at: Albert & Victoria (£77 for 2 including breakfast….an AMAZING hotel!!). Once you’ve finished your hike, head to the ocean for a swim/paddle and then grab a bag of chips. For something fancier, I can suggest heading to Skylar which is a beautiful restaurant.

accommodation 6 day: SOUTH DOWNS WAY STAGES

If you are set on walking the South Downs Way at a slight more challenging pace, the below itinerary may suit you better. This splits the South Downs Way stages across 6 days. All the hotels and b&bs come with a personal recommendation – they are clean, comfortable and have great customer service.

Arrival day if you need to overnight in Winchester I suggest staying at The Old Vine (£140 for 2 people including a great breakfast) which is conveniently located for transport and to start the trail. You might want to factor in an afternoon to explore Winchester as it’s a great city!

Day 1: Winchester to East Meon (18 miles)
Staying at: Angel Cottage B&B (£58 for 2 including breakfast) – perfectly located on the SDW.

Day 2: East Meon to Cocking (18 miles)
Staying at: Hysett House Inn (£90 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 3: Cocking to Washington (19 miles)
Staying at: Holt House (£88 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 4: Washington to Pyecombe (14 miles)
Staying at: Period Cottage (£131 for 2 people including breakfast)

Day 5: Pyecombe to Alfriston (23 miles)
Staying at: Wingrove House (£170 for 2 people including breakfast). Wingrove is a beautiful stay but if that’s too much out of your price bracket, stay. at Ye Olde Smugglers Inne for something nice but more basic (£95 for 2 – dinner available for an additional £20)

Day 6: Alfriston to Eastbourne (13 miles)
Staying at: Albert & Victoria (£77 for 2 including breakfast….an AMAZING hotel!!). Once you’ve finished your hike, head to the ocean for a swim/paddle and then grab a bag of chips. For something fancier, I can suggest heading to Skylar which is a beautiful restaurant.

Baggage transfer option

There is a baggage transfer option if you are keen on walking the South Downs Way without having to carry your bag.

For a quote you can contact info@southdownsdiscovery.com

South Downs Wild Camping

Where do you find water on the South Downs Way?

Water wasn’t so easy to come by on the trail. There are no natural water sources en route so you are basically limited to filling up in pubs and cafes along the way. Occasionally there is a tap and trough placed for hikers.

This took a bit of planning – it’s especially important that you check opening times for cafes and pubs in advance. I marked all the water options on the map and in advance planned how much I needed to fill up at eat spot to keep me going to the next.

Most of the places were happy to fill our bottles for free.

It’s always good practice to have a spare 1 liter of water with you than you think you need. Especially on a hot day.

Here’s a list of the places en route where you can find a drinking tap:

  • The Milburys – Beauworth, SU 570 246. (fill up in the Pub)
  • The Shoe Inn – Exton, SU 614 209. (fill up in the Pub)
  • Meon Springs – Whitewool Farm, SU 655 215. (fill up in fishing lodge when open)
  • The Beech Cafe – Sustainability Centre, SU 676 190 (fill up in cafe)
  • Queen Elizabeth Country Park – SU 718 185. (fill up in cafe)
  • Hill Barn – A286 crossing, SU 879 166. (tap available)
  • Amberley – Near river Arun crossing, TQ 025 124. (tap available)
  • Franklin Arms – Washington, TQ 123 129. (fill up at pub)
  • Parkfield Farm – Washington, TQ 118 119. (tap available)
  • Botolphs – River Adur crossing, TQ 198 094. (tap available)
  • Truleigh Hill – YHA, TQ 220 106. (tap available)
  • Devil’s Dyke – TQ 258 110. (fill up at pub)
  • Saddlescombe Farm – TQ 271 114. (tap available)
  • Housedean Farm – A27 crossing, TQ 368 092. (tap available)
  • Southease Church – TQ 423 052. (tap available)
  • Alfriston Village – c. TQ 520 030. (fill up at local cafes, pubs or toilets – lots to choose from)
  • The Eight Bells – Jevington, TQ 562 017. (fill up at pub)
  • Seven Sisters – Country Park, TV 518 995. (fill up at tap behind toilet block)
  • Birling Gap – TV 553 960. (fill up at pub and public toilets)
  • Beachy Head – TV 590 958. (fill up at pub and public toilets)

What to pack for the South Downs Way?

To see what kit I take for multi-day treks, check out my thru hiking gear list. Obviously, if you aren’t planning to camp you can ditch the cooking stuff, tent and sleeping gear.

As UK is especially prone to rain I’d also add waterproof trousers to this list. Otherwise, this list should cover everything you need.

Wheels on the South Downs Way – cycling, wheelchairs and buggies

The South Downs Way has become the first fully accessible national trail! That means that they’ve adapted all stiles and ensured the track is suitable for wheels the whole way. Off-road cyclists regularly complete the trail. But now added to that list are wheelchair users and off-road buggies. You can also ride the route on a horse! (here’s a quick guide and video if you are interested in horse riding the trail)

I’m actually intending to walk the trial with an off-road buggy later this year and will be blogging about my experience. Sign up to my newsletter to hear when that happens.

If you want to find more inspiration on doing the distance with wheels or a pram, check out:

guide to walking the South Downs way

Top tips for hiking the South Downs Way

  • The trail can be really busy during sunny weekends. This is especially so for the Beachy Head/Seven Sisters section. Try hit this part of the trail mid-week and not during school holidays if you can.
  • The wind from the ocean can be strong and relentless at times. I’d suggest bringing a buff and a warm hat you can pull over your ears to give your face a break on especially windy days.
  • Don’t stand too near the edges of the cliffs – even if you see others do the same. Lots of people have accidentally fallen to their deaths getting too close or being distracted taking pictures.
  • You might also want to read these top tips for long-distance hiking. And How to pack a hiking backpack like a pro.
  • Once you complete the trail you can get a completion certificate to keep! Follow this link to order yours!

Other UK hiking trails

Once you’ve finished the South Downs Way, you’ll probably be ready to start planning your next multi-day hike (they’re quite addictive!). I can recomend checking out:

FInal thoughts: WALKING THE SOUTH DOWNS WAY

Here are some useful links to other resources, as well as links to blogs to give you a different perspective from others who have hiked the route:

Thank you for reading my guide and I hope it was helpful – I really do love this hike and I hope this will make it easier for you to plan your own adventure. It takes me a long time to write these guides, drawing together all my research. If you want to say thanks, you can buy me a coffee! I use the money to pay for hosting and domain fees to keep the site running.

I’m very happy to answer questions – just use the comments box below. And let me know if you are planning to do the SDW!

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel.

**MY BOOK ABOUT HIKING THE ISRAEL NATIONAL TRAIL** Grab a copy of my published book, Three Stripes South. All about my hike on the INT and how it changed my life. Don’t forget to also sign up to my newsletter to stay up to date with future adventures.

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