These are my thoughts on how to plan a successful long-distance walk (or thru-hike). All learned from 40 years of hiking, including walking the length of the UK twice and wild camping nearly every night – LEJOG and Dover to Cape Wrath.
Although perhaps this depends on the definition of successful. I’ve completed every long-distance walk that 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 long-distance walk or thru-hike.
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 experiment and decide what’s best for you.
There seems to be a competition on who’s got the lightest base weight, but I think this isn’t helpful. You have to balance this goal with making sure you will be warm, comfortable and safe. Sometimes those few extra grams are absolutely worth their weight for added safety and enjoyment of the walk.
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 allow 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…
What you wear on your feet is probably the most important decision to make. This will be a personal choice and must be made from your own previous experience. The footwear choice will vary depending on the type of walk and time of year. If you get this decision wrong, sore feet and blisters are the most likely things to end a long walk.
I have found that there is no one type of footwear that is perfect for all walks. For me the Inov-8 Roclite G 345 and 400 GTX V2 boots come close and in summer I like the more breathable RocFly G 390 boots or Roclite G 275 shoes.
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. Or add something you’ve forgotten.
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.
What you need 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 my hike I review all the gear taken and if I change anything, I make a new gear list ready for the next 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…
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 1100 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.
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.
You cannot plan for every eventuality before you start a walk – so stay flexible and don’t get stressed if things don’t work out as you imagined. Just re-think things and change to a new plan.
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.
Eating well is key to a successful long-distance walk. Dehydrated and light weight hiking meals are pretty 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. I try to eat as much as possible in towns and especially when passing pubs.
Eating regularly (even if you’re not hungry) is important. It doesn’t have to be a meal: a snack bar, beef jerky or some trail mix is enough. I’ve realised that if I go a few hours without any food at all, I have less energy and my pace slows considerably.
On long hikes where I’ve no chance of resupply, I carry a mixture of dehydrated meals. I buy a wide variety of meals so that I enjoy eating them. Also different calorie meals for different times of the day. For example: I’m not usually that hungry in the mornings so I like the 600Kcal Trekmates breakfast and similar size Firepot meals for lunch, then a higher calorie Expedition foods dinner. I will often carry some Tentmeals as well because they are lighter weight and have less packaging.
This way I don’t get bored of them and look forward to stopping for the meal.
Remember – 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.
Don’t worry about what other people think and relax about hygiene. I grow a beard and accept that I’m going to smell a bit and 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 lot, but it doesn’t completely solve the smell problem.
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.
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