Everything you need to know about Ten Tors: the Real Story

Last weekend was Ten Tors, an event that has been a huge part of my life since I was 14. Based on Dartmoor, teams of six teenagers walk 35/45/55 miles over a weekend. I did the event four times (35, 45, 45, 55 respectively) then came back to help lead for the same walking group. Now I’m in Dartmoor Search and Rescue, I not only get to help train Ten Tors teams, I also get to be out on the moors dealing with incidents for the weekend.

Just before I headed up to Ten Tors on Thursday, I spotted an article claiming to tell you everything you need to know about Ten Tors. Here is a slightly more down to earth, slightly spoofed version of the article, as Ten Tors looks from the inside.

What is Ten Tors?

Ten Tors is a walking challenge, where teenagers (aged 14-19) walk 35, 45 or 55 mile routes across Dartmoor. They walk in teams of 6, selected out of a months of training. The official description of the event and other information can be found on the Ten Tors website.

“The weekend of May 5 to 7 sees hundreds of young people from all over the country taking to Dartmoor for the annual Ten Tors expedition.”

The event used to be open to teams from anywhere in the country, but several years ago it was restricted to team from the greater south west area. Most teams come from Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, with a few from further afield.

“They will have spent months training for the challenge that lies ahead, spending long weekends through the winter and spring, hiking into some of the most inhospitable corners of the Dartmoor National Park.”

This may sound cynical, but since the routes changed in 2014 they are definitely in the corners and not in the inhospitable areas of Dartmoor. Where once the routes stayed mainly in the middle of the moors, doing a complete North-South circuit over the weekend, they are now concentrated mostly north of Princetown and contain many off-moor checkpoints.

Okehampton Army Camp on the day before Ten Tors. It was very windy!

When did it start?

Ten Tors started officially in 1960. At the 50th anniversary event in 2010, men from some of the original teams were allowed to participate, forming the Denbury Boys. The original event finished at Denbury Camp, but has since moved to Okehampton Army Camp. It was started by the Army and has continued to be overseen by them.

Where does it go?

“Teams will be allocated to 26 routes, each with its own unique problems and combination of Tors.”

The Ten Tors Challenge has become a misleading name. Most no longer involve ten actual tors on the route. There are still ten checkpoints but many, such as White Barrow and Postbridge, could never be mistaken for a tor. The route can also include as many as four “vias” which require you to go via a certain checkpoint, but don’t count as a checkpoint. The full list of routes can be found here.

There used to be a full alphabet of routes. The 35 milers would be allocated one route from A to L, 45 milers from M to V and 55 milers from W to Z. There is still an alphabet, but now 35s can have (different) routes A to R, 45s from O to X and then 55s have W to Z  – meaning there are two X and W routes each. The rationale is to have a similar number of teams on each of the 32 routes whilst keeping the alphabet structure…

These routes are all measured as the crow flies, causing some contention with teams. Try explaining to a teenager on a 45 mile route that they actually have to walk 51 miles to get their medal.

Why do they do it?

Ten Tors has become an enormous part of the Dartmoor calendar. As schools are becoming more aware of the benefits of learning outside the classroom, more outdoor education departments in Devon are offering teams and training. When I started Ten Tors in 2007, our school didn’t have any outdoor education and no Ten Tors team. A bunch of us wanted to do it, so we set one up.

Since that first year, I’ve been doing Ten Tors with an independent outdoors group. We are something of a dying breed. The overwhelming breakdown of teams is now school groups, cadets and scouts. There are only a handful of groups doing it with children from several schools who like the outdoors.

As for why the children want to walk it at all, everyone has their own reason.

There are, just like in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, some children who are there because their parents make them do it. But, unlike the all inclusive DofE, most of these will never make the final team. It’s just too much hard work to be half-hearted about.

Some do it for the challenge. Most children in Devon have heard of Ten Tors, most associate it with pain and blisters. To do it is to be considered hard core by your peers… never mind occasionally getting to wear flip flops into school and skip PE. It’s about proving yourself – whether just to yourself, or to your peers, friends and relatives.

There is a bronze/silver/gold medal at the finish to take home forever, but the experience and the training weekends often mean much more to the participants than that. I’ve heard too many participants remark that the 35 medal looks poo-coloured to believe it’s a bit incentive.

Many, including me, will resolutely claim that they do it for the pasty at the finish.

Out walking on the moors. Credit

Why don’t they do it?

This section didn’t feature in the original article, but is definitely worth a mention.

“Why do so many young people still do it in era when the experts keep telling us that young people don’t exercise any more?”

A huge number of young people in the south west exercise. Particularly those who are luck enough to live near a national park. It would be very interesting to see how the south west compares to the rest of the country for getting children outside.

Over the past few years, we’ve really struggled to find enough committed walkers to fill our Ten Tors teams. Well, perhaps that’s unfair, but when I did Ten Tors, out teams were well over-subscribed. Coming back from university, we might have one person spare if we were lucky. Why’s that? GCSEs.

Seriously. I’ve had so many conversations with walkers who want to come back next year but can’t because they’re not allowed to. Because so much pressure is being put on about studying for GCSEs and A-levels that a weekend out of the house is not on the cards.

Go figure.

Is it really all that tough?

Well yes. It’s a long way with a lot of kit for some still pretty small people. If fitness doesn’t get you, then the mental challenge might. There’s not a lot of landscape variation – although there can be enormous weather variation – on Dartmoor. The new routes also incorporate a large number of paths, so there’s far less navigational interest than before. Don’t go crazy.

“Tors are the highest points on the moor, and each one means an ascent that can be long and arduous.”

Dartmoor is categorically not flat.

But anyone who’s been to the Lake District will be laughing themselves silly over that statement.

Is it safe?

“… if push comes to shove, you’re in the hands of the Army.”

The Ten Tors event is organised by the Army. However there are many other personnel who are there ONLY for safety reasons, not logistics too.

Honourable mention to the four Dartmoor Search and Rescue teams who cover the quadrants of the moors for the duration of Ten Tors. But it’s not just us out there, St John’s Ambulance have also been involved at safety checkpoints.

If there’s a first aid incident going on, you are well and truly covered by swarms of first aiders desperate to help. Fear not.

Is it a race?

No. But you can finish first.