The South Downs Way is one of the UK’s most well known National Trails. This classic walk in the south of England takes walkers from Winchester to Eastbourne over the course of 6 – 10 days. The route takes in pastoral English countryside, quaint villages, and the famous Seven Sisters Cliffs.
The trail is well served by a variety of accommodation options including hostels, bunkhouses, B&Bs, and campgrounds. The post will provide an introduction to the South Downs Way by providing in-depth maps, navigational resources, and more!
Let’s get started.
In this post
- Where is the South Downs Way?
- Interactive South Downs Way map
- How long is the South Downs Way?
- South Downs Way Elevation Profile
- Which maps should I carry on the South Downs Way?
- Stage-by-stage maps for the South Downs Way
- South Downs Way GPS/GPX
- Apps and offline mapping
Where is the South Downs Way?
The South Downs Way traverses southern England across the South Downs and connects from the cathedral village of Winchester in the west to seaside Eastbourne in the east with much of the route crossing through the South Downs National Park. The route is traditionally walked from west to east finishing at the sea, although it can be walked in the opposite direction as well. Along the route you’ll pass through several lovely villages with friendly locals and beautiful scenery.
The South Downs Way is easy to get to from London and the rest of southeast England with a variety of rail and bus connections available. Southampton in the west is the nearest large city to the start, while Brighton is the nearest large city to the end of the walk in the east.
Between the beginning and ending points, the South Downs Way provides some of the best walking in southeast England, and indeed all of the country. Highlights of the walk include the stunning cathedral in Winchester, the pastoral Queen Elizabeth Country Park, the quaint village of Amberley, and of course the iconic Seven Sisters.
The route is typically completed in eight days walking, although there are countless opportunities to shorten or extend your walk. It is also possible to camp along the South Downs Way, as there is an excellent network of campgrounds located along the route. Below is the standard route for the South Downs Way:
- Stage 1: Winchester to Exton
- Stage 2: Exton to Buriton
- Stage 3: Buriton to Cocking
- Stage 4: Cocking to Amberley
- Stage 5: Amberley to Upper Beeding
- Stage 6: Upper Beeding to Kingston Near Lewes
- Stage 7: Kingston Near Lewes to Alfriston
- Stage 8: Alfriston to Eastbourne
In addition to the traditional walking route described above there are several options for alternate routes and excursions on the South Downs Way. For those planning to cycle or ride on horseback there are a few mandatory alternate routes in place where the path is restricted for walkers only.
In addition, the final day of the walk from Alfriston to Eastbourne has an alternate inland route that avoids the Seven Sisters trail. Most walkers will want to take the main trail here as the views of simply stunning, but it is always good to know your options!
Below is a list of the alternates/detours along the South Downs Way:
- 01A – Winchester to Exton – Just past the start of the walk in Winchester there is a short detour off the main trail for equestrian users and cyclists.
- 01B – Winchester to Exton – Prior to reach the village of Exton, those cycling or riding the route on horseback will have to detour off the main trail. Access to Exton is simple and easy from this slight detour.
- 05A – Amberley to Upper Beeding – This alternate route provides walkers with access to the town of Washington.
- 08A – Alfriston to Eastbourne – The route along the Seven Sisters is restricted to walkers only. Those cycling will have to take the inland Bridleway connecting Alfriston and Eastbourne.
Interactive South Downs Way map
The interactive South Downs Way map below will allow you to zoom in on the various stages as well as view the traditional stops along the route.
How long is the South Downs Way?
Most sources will tell you that the South Downs Way is 160-km or 100 miles long. While this is certainly a very accurate estimate, we measure (via GPS) the South Downs Way to be 162.6 kilometers or 101 miles long from the center of Winchester to Eastbourne.
Of course, this exact measurement has little practical value to the average walker. You will almost certainly end up walking further than the distance provided in this post as many of the accommodation options are located a bit off the track itself. Add in a few side trips to see worthwhile attractions and you should plan on walking well over 100 miles on your own South Downs Way adventure!
However, it is still helpful for trip planning purposes to have a sense of the total length as well as individual segment lengths on the South Downs Way. The two maps below show just that, with the approximate distances for the standard eight stage itinerary shown in both miles and kilometers.
Note that these distances do not include alternates or variants, and should only be used to get a general idea of distance.
South Downs Way Elevation Profile
Over the course of the South Downs Way 101 miles (or 162 kilometers) the trail has approximately 9,060 feet or 2,760 meters of elevation gain. Averaged across the traditional 8 stages, this equals around 1,100 feet of elevation gain each day. That’s nothing to sneeze at!
Much of this elevation gain is evenly spread out along the undulating route, although there are a few particularly steep sections. The most notable climbs on the South Downs Way are the walk up Rackham Hill just outside of Amberley, the steep walk up Truleigh Hill on stage six, and the steep ascent up Itford Hill on the way to Alfriston.
The high point of the South Downs Way sits at Buster Hill (270m above sea-level) which you encounter on the second day of the walk, just before reaching Buriton.
The elevation profiles below, displayed in both imperial and metric units, will give you an overview of what each stage of the South Downs Way entails in terms of total elevation change and distance. Elevation is shown on the left side while distance is shown on the bottom. Each blue dot represents a stop along the traditional 8-stage walk, with the stop name shown at the top.
The steepness of the line between any two points reflects the steepness of the trail for that particular stage. The distance between the two points shows the length of the stage. For instance, you can see that the stage from Upper Beeding to Kingston Near Lewes is rather long in distance, while the stage from Kingston Near Lewes to Alfriston has a lot of elevation gain.
When thinking about how many days or stages you’ll take to complete the South Downs Way be sure to reference these elevation profiles. They’ll give you a sense of how hard each day is and will let you see which stages may make sense to combine or split up on your walk.
Which maps should I carry on the South Downs Way?
As the South Downs Way is a National Trail, walkers can expect the path to be very well sign posted and easy to navigate. However, as with many walks in England, it can be quite easy to get turned around or generally off the correct track.
There are countless trail intersections, bridleways, and footpaths that can be easy to confuse with the South Downs Way. For this reason, we always recommend that walkers bring a few map resources when walking the South Downs Way.
Our preference is generally to rely on GPS maps on our smartphones when out on a multi-day walk, and we can highly recommend this method for most walkers. All you’ll need is a GPX file for the route (available on the National Trails website here) and a GPS app. We like Gaia GPS, although there are many great options available.
In addition to digital navigation methods, we also recommend you bring a paper map or map booklet along. There is simply no replacement for a physical map, afterall you never know when you may find yourself with a dead battery rendering your GPS app useless!
There are several excellent physical maps available for the South Downs Way, outlined below:
The South Downs Way Map Booklet – Cicerone Guides
In our opinion, your best bet will be to pack this excellent resource from Cicerone Guides. Their South Downs Way map booklet contains Ordnance Survey maps for the entire route, neatly organized into a small and portable booklet.
South Downs Way Adventure Atlas
Another convenient and highly recommended option is the South Downs Way Adventure atlas. This map consists of OS Explorer maps for the entire South Downs Way route, but saves you the hassle of assembling all of the Ordnance Survey maps yourself. It is also a bit larger and easier to read when compared to the Cicerone Map Booklet, which many walkers will prefer.
Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps
Finally, no article on maps for the South Downs Way would be complete without referencing Ordnance Survey maps. These detailed South Downs Way maps provide an excellent level of detail , although you’ll need to carry several maps to cover the entire route:
Alternatively, the Ordnance Survey also offers a package of all seven maps for a significant discount here.
In addition, a weatherproof carrying case like this one wouldn’t hurt to have either.
In addition to the paper map(s) you choose to carry, we recommend using the Hiiker app to navigate on the trail. The app features downloadable, printable, and interactive maps with tons of helpful information, such as elevation profiles, accommodation, and amenities. This is a great tool to have on your trek.
Stage-by-stage maps for the South Downs way
The South Downs Way is traditionally completed in eight stages, with a wide variety of accommodation options available at each point along the walk. The maps below provide a general outline for each of these eight stages and include distance and elevation change.
Stage 1: Winchester to Exton
Distance: 20.45 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +482 m / -459 m
Stage 2: Exton to Buriton
Distance: 20.36 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +561 m / -479 m
Stage 3: Buriton to Cocking
Distance: 17.9 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +495 m / -531 m
Stage 4: Cocking to Amberley
Distance: 19.65 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +462 m / -516 m
Stage 5: Amberley to Upper Beeding
Distance: 20.1 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +448 m / -487 m
Stage 6: Upper Beeding to Kingston Near Lewes
Distance: 28.29 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +828 m / -671 m
Stage 7: Kingston Near Lewes to Alfriston
Distance: 18.76 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +470 m / -627 m
Stage 8: Alfriston to Eastbourne
Distance: 17.13 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +677 m / -632 m
South Downs Way GPS/GPX
If you are interested in getting access to the GPS data for the South Downs Way head on over to the National Trails website here. You’ll find free downloads for the walking route, cycling route, and equestrian route on the South Downs Way. And it is completely free!
You’ll be able to load the GPX file into the mapping software or GPS phone app of your choice!
Apps and offline mapping
As mentioned above we highly recommend utilizing offline downloadable GPS maps on our smartphones to navigate while walking the South Downs Way. This is a great way to navigate on the trail as it allows you to see your progress for the day and also doesn’t require a cell phone signal (which you may not have) to display the map.
Our How to Navigate on the Tour du Mont Blanc post has all the information you need to get set up using an app for your map. Although written for a different hike, this step-by-step article will teach you how to quickly and easily turn your phone into a GPS device for the South Downs Way.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a simpler way to utilize offline GPS/GPX data, the Hiiker App does all of the work for you. The app allows you to download maps and trail information to your phone so that you can use it without the need for a cell signal or data.
Have a great South Downs Way adventure!
We hope this post has given you all the information you need to get a basic overview of the South Downs Way. Let us know your questions or comments below. Happy trails!