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These my thoughts on how to plan a successful long-distance walk (or thru-hike). Most have been learned from my experience of walking the length of the UK twice, and wild camping nearly every night.

Although perhaps this depends on the definition of successful. I have completed every long-distance walk I have set out on, but they haven’t always quite gone to plan! But then, I think one part of my success is that plans are over-rated anyway.

So here are a selection of ideas to consider for your own successful long-distance walk or thru-hike.

Gear choices

Don’t worry too much about everyone else’s gear lists. By all means read blogs and watch YouTube videos to learn about your intended long-distance walk and the gear other people used. But then decide what’s best for you.

There seems to be a competition on who’s got the lightest base weight. However, you have to balance this with making sure you will be warm, comfortable and safe. Sometimes those few extra grams are absolutely worth their weight!

Not every one can afford the latest and lightest gear, so just use what you have or buy what you can afford. It’ll still be possible to get out and enjoy the long distance walk. When something is worn out, then perhaps look at replacing it with something lighter weight if you can.

I’ve been hiking and wild camping all my life, and only now am I happy that I’ve got the best and lightest gear I can get. This has partly been down to necessity though, as I’m getting older and my joints have started to complain. I’ve needed to lighten the load to alllow me to keep going. I will say all this expense and weight reduction has given me a new lease of life. Te Araroa here I come…

Gear that I used on the Cape Wrath Trail

Shake-down hike

Once you have an idea of what you’d like to take with you, get out and do some shorter walks with it. This gives you a chance to test that the gear is suitable for the trip. You may also find you can reduce the weight a little, if there is something you find you don’t need.

Write a list of all the gear you take and when you get back, go through it all to see what you didn’t use. Take off what you really don’t need and try another walk without it. See if you can reduce you’re pack to the minimum weight possible.

This is a very personal thing. I got my base weight down under 7kg but then started adding things again. On long distance hikes, I found I wanted more comfort and to know I’d be warm what ever the weather did. I successfully walked across Scotland in May on the TGO Challenge with a base weight of 8.3kg (18.3Ibs). I was happy, warm and comfortable and wouldn’t change a thing.

After your shake-down hike, make a gear list for the walk. You can then tick everything off before you leave and don’t have to worry about forgetting anything. I learned this the hard way – I made it from Lands End to the cloudy summit of Scafell Pike before I realised I didn’t have a compass…

Wild camping on the John O’Groats Trail

Stay positive

Long-distance walking is more a mental game than a physical one. I often think that this is probably the only time I’ll be walking this route. After I’ve finished and I’m back at home, I’ll be wishing I was back here. So I try to slow down and make the most of being there while I’ve the chance.

I find looking for small positives in every situation can help. For example, on my 1,100 mile Dover to Cape Wrath walk, I was missing my family and wishing they were there. But then I realised that it was good they weren’t with me, for if they had been I would have had to share my bottle of wine and chocolate bar with them. Little silver linings.

I’ve found that after a month of or so on a thru hike, I suddenly become interesting to people. They will stop me in the street and ask what I’m doing, and often stop for a lengthy chat. It doesn’t seem to matter that I look untidy and smell… The fact I’m out there doing something challenging fascinates them. This really helps with the mental challenge of a successful long-distance walk.

Stay flexible

I don’t book any accommodation or plan too carefully, so I can keep my options open. This is why I usually camp, mostly wild so I can walk as far as I feel like each day. This way I can maximise the day light hours or my energy levels any particular day. This also means I’m never stressed about how far I need to walk any day. Remember long-distance walking is a mental game.

Making the most of a February heat wave

You cannot plan for every eventuality before you start a walk – so stay flexible and don’t worry if things don’t work out as you imagined. Just re-think things and change to a new plan.

Fitness

I live a long way from any hills, so I am never hill fit when I set off on a long-distance walk. Also I rarely do much training before I set off. Instead, I always start my succesful thru-hike with short days for the first few weeks. These low mileages give my body a chance to get used to the extra stresses. This then toughens up my body and I get fit as I go. I often start a walk doing 15 mile days or less, and after a month or so I find I am doing 25 miles a day or more.

Be careful not to over-train just prior to a walk, as you can over stress your body and possibly injure yourself. I tend to do as little exercise as I can get away with for the week or so prior to setting off. This gives my body a chance to heal if I do have any small injury.

Food

Breakfast on the Cape Wrath Trail

Eating well is key to a successful long-distance walk. Try to eat as much as possible, especially when passing pubs. Dehydrated meals are really good, but over a longer period if that’s all I’m eating, I have found my body just doesn’t function properly. So I take every opportunity I can to eat fresh food, especially vegetables and fruit.

Eating regularly (even if you’re not hungry) is important. It doesn’t have to be a meal: a snack bar or some trail mix is enough. I’ve realised that if I go a few hours without any food at all, I have no energy and my pace slows.

Final thoughts

It’s OK to make mistakes… as long it’s not life threatening and you can fix the problem. No-one is perfect. If you’re still enjoying the walk, then everything is fine.

Relax about hygiene. Accept that you are going to smell – don’t fight it. I wash in rivers when I can and use antibacterial wet wipes every night, before I get into my sleeping bag. This helps a bit, but it doesn’t completely solve the smell problem. It is best not to worry about it.

And finally – don’t take this post too seriously either. Hike your own hike. This is one of the most common pieces of advice people give, and for a reason. You will totally understand why after a few weeks on trail. Be yourself and do your own thing. It really doesn’t matter what other people think, as long as you are enjoying yourself. And that is all there is to a successful long-distance walk.

Wild camped on the Scottish National Trail

Further reading

Chris Townsend – Dealing with the challenges of long-distance walking

Dover to Cape Wrath 1100 mile walk

LEJOG and 3 Peaks 1200 mile walk

New Zealand’s Te Araroa trail 1864 mile (3000km) walk

My 11 wild camping rules

Wildwalkinguk is a blog run in my spare time, and I pay for its running costs myself. I do have some Amazon affiliate links and adverts on the site. If you click on these adverts or links and buy what you need (it doesn’t have to be the item we’ve linked to), the company will pay a small commission to me. This money goes towards the costs of hosting the blog. We would be extremely grateful if you could consider using our links when you next need to buy something from our advertisers. Alternatively, you can buy me a coffee here. Thank you so much for your support. Mark.

2 Replies to “How to plan a successful long-distance walk (thru-hike)”

  1. What I wanted to say: this post has a friendly tone, the right voice. Nowhere overly sure, the way many other blogs say ‘you must’ and especially ‘you can’t’. Thanks for that.

    On thru hike plans: two weeks into a 100 day walk, one can’t be bothered with a plan anymore, it seems to have been written by another person and has become irrelevant to the person you’ve become already.

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