I’ll start with a disclaimer – I’m not going to tell you how to walk a long-distance path or even what to pack. But what I will do, is encourage you to think about how to plan it and undertake it so that you’ll get the best out of your big hiking adventure.
Why do it?
Arguably the first question is why do you want to do a long-distance walk? Is it for the challenge and the feeling of achievement when you complete it? Perhaps it’s to improve your fitness? Maybe it’s for the stunning views and the wildlife you’ll enjoy every day? Seeing new places and meeting people?
Choose your walk
Once you’ve decided why you want to do it, it’s time you to choose which long-distance path you want to walk. And there are many to choose from in the UK alone. There are a few considerations as a beginner. You obviously don’t want to choose one with a huge mileage or challenging terrain. But you might want to choose one that has an accessible start and finish, one that has accommodation near your destination each day, one that has a baggage company to transport your baggage each day or one that’s suitable to take your children on. Choose one that really appeals to you though because this should keep you motivated.
When will you go?
Do you want to walk it outside the main holiday season when it will be easier (and cheaper) to book accommodation and you’ll benefit from a less crowded environment and you can see the spring wild flowers or stunning autumn colours. Or maybe you’d love to see the carpet of purple heather across the Peak District’s moorlands during the latter part of August. And if you’re going to Scotland, you’ll almost certainly want to avoid the midge season.
What type of accommodation?
Will you camp, stay in youth hostels, B&Bs, pubs or hire a caravan, house or apartment to use as a base? Whichever you choose, you’ll need to book early enough, especially in popular areas and on popular trails, because you’re going to need a bed for the night after each day’s hike.
Everything I’ve mentioned is, of course part of you’re planning but what other aspects do you need to plan for? Well let’s suppose that you’ve chosen your long- distance walk, decided when to go, and booked your accommodation each day. What next? Transport – how will you get to the start and back home from the finish? Will you need public transport to your start point each day and to your accommodation at the end of the day. When we walked the South West Coast Path there were some days when we had to get two buses just to get to our start point and the same for our return journey. This might be quite unusual but it did take a great deal of planning in advance.
Fitness and ability
Fitness and ability are another key part of planning. If you’ve never done a long-distance walk before you’ll find that it can be demanding walking long mileages day after day whatever the weather, although you’ll most likely get fitter as you go along. Can you navigate by using a map and compass because, depending on which route you choose, you might need to use these skills. So, my advice is to spend time doing training, starting slowly and gradually building until you can walk comfortably for the mileages that you intend to do (on similar terrain) and carrying a similar amount of weight in your rucksack that you will do on your long-distance walk. And by packing your rucksack you’ll soon find out whether you’ve got things packed in the right order and indeed, whether you can fit everything in that you intend to take (this isn’t something to leave until the last minute!). Long distance walking can be mentally demanding too because if you’re physically tired and your legs are aching, or you have to endure blisters, or the weather is horrendous, you still have to push on.
Clothing and equipment
And that’s the next consideration – what clothing will you use and what will you carry in your rucksack? This will depend of course, on how long you’re going for, what the terrain will be like, the time of year (and likely weather conditions) and what accommodation you’re using. My first long-distance walk was the 190-mile Coast to Coast in 1984. My rucksack was twice the weight of my walking partner’s pack and it was a very challenging walk for a first walk. We were mainly using Youth Hostels with some B&Bs and so we carried toiletries and clothes to wear in the evenings. Twenty years later, in 2004, I walked the Coast to Coast again and then for a third time in 2012.
I’d learned a lot from that first experience and we used a baggage company to transport our baggage each day so that we only carried daytime essentials in our rucksacks. Of course, baggage services come at a cost, and if you can’t afford it then it’s not for you. But it’s something I’d recommend if you can. Clearly, a good pair of walking boots (or walking shoes if appropriate) are essential kit. Waterproof jacket or cagoule and leggings, warm clothing, spare walking socks, first aid kit and map and compass are also essential. Food and drink are obviously essential but can be heavy, and so if you are on a route where refreshments are available along the way, it may be worth considering that. Hydration is paramount though so I would always carry a drink and emergency food supplies.
So, packing your rucksack is a dilemma. I’m not going to list all the kit here – you can find lists in walking books or online. But you want your rucksack to be as light as possible to make your hike as comfortable as possible. You need to take essential items and then decide which of the ‘non-essential’ items to take or leave but what is considered essential and non-essential is usually down to personal choice and circumstances.
Doing the walk
Based on your level of fitness, and taking account of the mileage, ascent/descent and terrain, decide what you can do comfortably each day and plan accordingly. Don’t forget to include time for travelling to and from your accommodation each day, time to have refreshments and rest stops and time to take photographs and enjoy the views. It’s demanding walking day after day (whatever the weather) so you might want to build in a rest day into your itinerary. And don’t forget that at the end of each day, you’ll need to time to shower and change and possibly walk to wherever you’re having your evening meal. If you feel a ‘hotspot’ on your foot, stop and put a blister plaster on before it develops into a blister – this can save you a lot of painful walking for the remainder of the walk! I’ve mentioned food and drink but it’s importance can’t be understated on a long-distance walk. Dehydration can seriously impair your walking performance so plenty of fluids are essential. And slow-release carbohydrates will help your endurance whilst quick release sugar foods might help you when you’re struggling.
If you’re new to long-distance walking, hopefully you’re now better informed about how to approach it. The more you put into choosing, planning and organising your walk, the more you should enjoy it. And there’s no doubt that the experience on your first big hike will provide you with a wealth of knowledge to help you make changes and fine-tuning for your next one. So, start planning now and enjoy your walk!
And as the creator of the the NEW ‘Peak Way Walk’ and the author of the guide book please consider this brilliant walk (wwww.peakwaywalk.com). Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once – you could do half this year and half next year, or even break it down into smaller sections.