The South Downs Way (SDW) is a 160km long distance trail from Winchester to Eastbourne (or vice versa) on the UK’s south-eastern coast. It was my first thru-hike and I walked the majority solo with two days accompanied by my mother.

I did a fair amount of research for South Downs Way advice before the trip but still learned plenty while on the trail. If you’re considering walking the South Downs Way yourself, here’s a head start for your trip planning.

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South Downs Way trail details

The South Downs Way is a 100 mile (160km) National Trust maintained trail with no fees directly associated with walking sections or the entirety of it.

South Downs Way trail difficulty 

The SDW is a low difficulty trail. There are plenty of hills but there is nothing technically difficult about walking up and down them.

The main thing I was surprised about was the number of times I had to ascend 300m or so metres to a hilltop, just to immediately descend again on the other side.

I had (wrongly!) believed that the majority of the Way would be walking along the top of a fairly flat ridge.

This is mostly true for the section from Bramber all the way to the A27 and a few other short sections (e.g. Harting Down to Cocking) but not for the rest of the Way.
How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - signpost

South Downs Way maps and navigation

The trail is well maintained with excellent signage along the route. The South Downs Way symbol (an acorn inside a blue arrow) was well used on gates and fences in addition to regular wooden directional signs at junctions.

One in every ten of these signs would have the distance to and from the nearest locations on it (I wish there had been more!)

There were only a handful of occasions when I was confused about where to go next but was able to use my book and South Downs Way map to deduce the route.

The South Downs Way map I used, by the way, was the Harvey’s South Downs Way: National Trail guide and it was really useful. I especially loved that it was waterproof and durable.

South Downs Way trail condition

One important factor to note about the actual condition of the trail; a substantial amount of the surface is made up of sharp rocks.

For this reason, one of my other top South Downs way advice to hikers would be to wear a shoe with a thick sole (or substantial lugs).

Those stones can be such a foot killer after hours of walking; it was such a relief to reach sections with grass or dirt instead of rock. Also notable alongside the sharp rocks, are sections with exposed chalk, which can be slippery in the morning and after rain.

Straight rocky road leading into the distance
Hiking on Roman roads on the South Downs Way

Facilities and services on the South Downs Way

There are around 20 places to get water along the South Downs Way. I carried around 2l of water and then topped up during the day as needed. There are more water taps and toilet facilities at the Eastbourne end of the trail, especially on and around the Seven Sisters section.

Alfriston is the only town of any size that the Way actually travels through so a detour is required if any extra items are needed. Do not expect small villages close to the SDW to have many shops if any at all.

I was surprised how limited these settlements were, usually only containing houses, a church and maybe a couple of B&Bs or pub. The one item I wish I’d had more stock of was plasters/band-aids like these Nexcare Blister Bandages. They stick and cushion really well.

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Pig farm near Bramber

How long should you spend walking the South Downs Way?

The recommended time to walk the South Downs Way is 8 days, with an average of 12.5miles/20km a day.

Of course, this figure is trail distance only as most walkers stay in accommodation located another few miles away from the Way. I personally walked 114miles/182km in the end.

8 days is a reasonable target for most people with reasonable fitness due to the low difficulty and excellent condition of the trail. I met a few people on the SDW who were stopping for pub lunches most days (usually off-trail) but they were particularly speedy.

My South Downs Way itinerary

My original South Downs way itinerary looked like this –

Day 1: Winchester to East Meon – 20 miles (Camping at Sustainability Centre)

Day 2: East Meon to Cocking – 20 miles (Camping at Malthouse B&B)

Day 3: Cocking to Amberley – 12 miles (B&B)

Day 4: Amberley to Bramber – 12 miles (Pub)

Day 5: Bramber to Kingston-near-Lewes – 20 miles (Camping at Spring Barn Farm)

Day 6: Kingston-near-Lewes to Seaford- 18 miles (At friend’s house)

Day 7: Seaford to Eastbourne – 12 miles

= 114 miles / 182km

What I actually did was – 

Day 1: Winchester to East Meon – 20 miles

Day 2: East Meon to Harting Down (NT) – 14 miles

Day 3: Littleton Farm to Amberley – 6 miles

Day 4: Amberley to Bramber – 12 miles

Day 5: Bramber to Kingston-near-Lewes – 20 miles

Day 6: Kingston-near-Lewes to Seaford- 18 miles

Day 7: Seaford to Eastbourne – 12 miles

Day 8: Littleton Farm to Harting Down (NT) – 12 miles, completing previously missed section

= 114 miles / 182km

You can read more about why my plans changed here: Why I Quit My First Thru-Hike on Day 2

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Sheep in fields

South Downs Way safety

As a solo female hiker for the majority of the time on trail, I felt safe 99% of the time on the South Downs Way. 

Road walking

The main occurrence of feeling remotely uncomfortable was when walking on roads. There are few unavoidable 200-300m sections on my first day (Winchester to East Meon) that required walking directly on rural, single lane roads with no footpath.

With the speed limit being 60mph/100km and with the presence of several blind corners, I really disliked walking these sections. I tried to get them over and done with as soon as possible. 

Crossing major roads

Aside from this, there were a couple of busy road crossings that were a bit intimidating, specifically the A29 near Amberley, the A42 south of Washington, the A283 south of Bramber and the A237 just north of Pyecombe. I managed to cross all of these safely but they required some patience.

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Crossing the M3
Crossing the M3 (via a bridge) at the start of the South Downs Way

Other people on the trail

The South Downs Way is a well worn multi-use path and, as such, it was unusual not to see other people at least every few hours. Traffic was, however, inconsistent; sometimes I would see dozens of people all at once and then no-one for a long time.

On one specific day I saw less than five people the whole time I was walking. In comparison, the last day of my hike was a sunny and warm Saturday with seemingly hundreds of people exploring the Seven Sisters portion of the trail (arguably the most popular section).

Communication

Mobile signal was patchy throughout the Way. There were maybe a dozen times I noticed no connection at all on my phone. For the most part, I usually had one or two bars of signal.

Finding civilisation on the South Downs Way

There are opportunities to leave the Way and head for a nearby town every 4 or so miles. Civilisation is only two or three hours walk away at maximum. The trail winds its way directly through a number of farms and settlements and well as across some busy roads.

Accommodation options on the South Downs Way

Most people who walk the South Downs Way stay in hotels or B&Bs located just off the path. I did a combination of camping, staying with a friend, one B&B and a pub hotel.

B&Bs and Hotels

Walking between B&Bs is a very comfortable way to complete the South Downs Way as hikers do not need to carry much in the way of supplies or food.

The downside is obviously cost, with the average B&B charging around £70-100 a night. While this price does include a substantial breakfast every morning, it means the total cost for a South Downs walk via B&Bs is in the region of £700.

I stayed at the Two Farm Cottages in Amberley and the Castle Inn in Bramber. The former was a short walk outside of the town but was run by very, very friendly owners and featured spacious accommodation with lots of privacy.

Looking to book a stay in Winchester at the start or end of your South Downs Way hike?

Mercure Winchester Wessex Hotel – Amazing city centre location

Saskia’s Rooms (B&B) – Great value

King Alfred Pub – Highly rated on Booking.com

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Bramber Castle hotel
The Castle Inn in Bramber

Camping on the South Downs Way Long Distance Hike

Camping is a much cheaper option but comes with its own challenges. For one thing, there are few official campsites directly on the SDW (the Sustainability Centre, Housedean Farm, Saddlescombe Farm). Other campsites involve the same 1-2 mile (minimum) detour off the trail as B&Bs and hotels.

In addition, I discovered that finding campsites at reasonable intervals along the trail was difficult. It is certainly not as easy for campers to keep even mileage every day as much as walkers staying in B&Bs can.

Wild/free camping

I did see some potential for wild camping on the trail but it was not something I wanted to do on my own. I only met one other party attempting to camp during my week on the trail, so there wasn’t even much opportunity to join with others.

MSR Freelite 2 tent, lit up by tent lights
Camping at the the Sustainability Centre on the South Downs Way

Accommodation tip – Avoid starting on a weekend

While at first glance there appears to be many B&B and hotel options around the trail, demand is actually quite close to supply at certain times.

With many walkers setting out on Saturday with an 8-day itinerary, there are inevitable bottlenecks. Starting on a Sunday and aiming for 7 days, I caught up the large numbers of ‘Saturday starters’ on Tuesday.

It was difficult to book B&Bs at the two locations my mother and I had picked for overnight stays due to the amount of these ‘Saturday starters.’ The number one piece of South Downs Way advice I could give you is to not start on a Saturday or Sunday!

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Camping near Lewes
Camping at Spring Barn Farm, just off the South Downs Way in Kingston near Lewes

How to Walk the South Downs Way - South Downs Way Advice - Start of Seven Sisters

If you need any more South Downs Way advice, ask below!

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in British Columbia, Canada. Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi! I’m planning on walking the South Downs Way and this blogpost has been very useful, especially because i’m planning on walking the trail alone, as a female.
    In your blogpost, you mention that you don’t really cross that many towns with a lot of facilities. As i’m planning to stay at camping sites, I was wondering if you’d advise me to take a lot of food with me? Or would you just advise me to take a detour once in two days?
    Thank you so much!

    Kind regards,
    Hannelore

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Hannelore! Good to hear that you’re planning to walk the South Downs Way! On the food question, it really depends on what you are comfortable with. Personally, I don’t like detours so would carry food with me. Since so many sections are quite high on a chalk ridge, it’s a bit of a pain to get down and then back up in my opinion. However, I met quite a few people on the trail who were quite happy to take detours to avoid carrying more food. Going east, the closest (and easiest to access) stores I can think of would be in Cocking, Amberley, Bramber/Upper Beeding and a BP petrol station (offering M&S food I think) at Pyecombe. After that, the trail stays pretty high until you reach Alfriston.

  2. Avatar

    Hi Gemma

    I’m also planning on doing the south downs ways this spring alone. I love your blog its had some really helpful advise! I see you used the MSR elixir 1 tent which i had been planning on purchasing for my trip. Did you find the light grey tarp let sun light in and woke you up in the morning??

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us!

    Charlotte

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Charlotte,

      I’m glad you found this guide helpful! I hope you have a wonderful walk on the South Downs Way.

      The tent I use (and the one pictured in this post) for all my hiking is the MSR Freelite 2. It is a smaller and lighter tent than the Elixir but does have the same colour and style of fly. I’ve camped probably over 60 nights in this tent over the last two and a bit years and have never had a problem with too much sunlight coming in. So I hope that helps, even though it is a slightly different tent.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you so much this was very inspiring, as I am looking to walk it myself on my own, my main concern is walking through fields of livestock, did you have any bad experiences?

    Thanks
    Victoria

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Victoria!

      No, I didn’t experience any issued with livestock fields on the South Downs Way. The majority of the fields I walked through with livestock contained sheep – they always ran away pretty quickly!

  4. Avatar

    Thanks for a good introduction. I did Offas Dyke and Coast to Coast previous years and flew in from Hong Kong to hike the Pennine Way… but weather ‘oop north doesn’t look good and I really dont need a CT selection yomp… and so since I am in Eastbourne the south down way looks like a good route … the Pennine way will have to wait until next May/June . I plan to free camp and walk 25-30 miles a day as I did on Offas Dyke and Coast to Coast. Agains thanks for write up. R

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      I hope you have a great time walking the South Downs Way Rupert! You must be disappointed about the Pennine Way but I reckon you’ll be pleased with the SDW. I imagine you’ll find it quite a bit easier than Offas Dyke.

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