Sunday 5 May 2013

Thoughts On Long Distance Backpacking

I'm thinking about long distance backpacking even more than usual at present as I'm deeply involved in planning for my forthcoming Scottish Watershed walk and have the book on my Pacific Crest Trail walk that I'll be writing next autumn in the back of my mind. A few years ago, reflecting on a recent TGO Challenge crossing, I wrote a piece for The Great Outdoors about the reasons why long distance backpacking is so satisfying. Here it is again:
What is it about walking for day after day carrying all you need on your back that is so fulfilling? Day walking is easier, staying in roofed accommodation is more comfortable. But neither has the same intensity or produces the same feeling of contentment as long distance walking and camping. The reasons, I think, are complex and many. They are to do with the nature of journeys, the significance of self-sufficiency and the importance of closeness to nature.

Backpacking is about travelling, about moving on from place to place, with the only limitation being how far you can walk each day. This can be done as a random venture, setting out each day with no destination in mind, just following the whims of the hour, and with no overall aim for the walk. Such relaxed unpressured backpacking sounds appealing but in reality I’ve found it strangely unsatisfying on the couple of occasions I’ve tried this approach. Whether on an overnight or a multi-month hike I like an ultimate point to aim for via a series of intermediate destinations even though I know that what is most important is what happens between those points not in reaching them. Having an objective gives a purpose to a walk, a structure around which to plan and an incentive to keep moving. A walk like this becomes a journey, an odyssey, an exploration. The goal gives the walk shape and meaning. It becomes a challenge too, something that requires physical and mental effort. And on long walks I find that the two go together and that increased physical fitness and increased mental sharpness add to my appreciation of and involvement with nature and the landscape.

A backpacking journey is a progression, a slow accumulation of distance, a gradual movement towards the final destination and away from the beginning. Every journey grows, matures and then declines. At the start there is anticipation, excitement, even trepidation as I look ahead to the adventure to come and wonder what it will bring in the way of joy and difficulty. Once the journey is well underway and the little niggles of the first days, the concerns over equipment, camp sites, water sources and route finding, have faded away its nature changes. The experience becomes deeper and more intense and I can concentrate on the land and the walking and camping. On multi-week hikes it becomes my way of life. This is what I do, this is what I am. Then as the end approaches the journey starts to wind down and the mind leaps beyond the world of the walk to the one outside that I am about to rejoin. Life after the walk suddenly emerges and becomes a reality whilst the walk itself starts to fade as I complete the last miles. 

A journey on foot is the best and arguably only way to journey through a landscape and really see it, really take in the details, the subtle changes, the way the land works. Walking speed is just right for this. The faster the travel the less the engagement with the land, culminating in the supersonic speed of jet aircraft, which is fine for whisking you from continent to continent but useless for experiencing anything at all about those continents. Mechanized transport is about getting to places as fast as possible not about the journey itself. Backpacking, slow and inefficient at getting anywhere, is about the process not the product, about enjoying nature and land, about relishing the physical effort of walking and the skills of navigation, camping and coping with the terrain and the weather. The backpacker has freedom and depends on skills and knowledge, the mechanized traveller is bound by timetables and dependent on the abilities and competence of others. There is no sense of personal involvement or adventure let alone any connection with nature. Even when the landscape can be viewed, from a train or car window say, it’s no more than a scenic backdrop rushing past, pretty perhaps but no more than that. You can’t touch it, smell it, feel it change under your feet, experience the wetness of the rivers, the roughness of the rocks, the warmth of the sun, the rush of the wind down the glen or hear the wild sounds of nature – a stag’s bellow, a diver’s weird shriek, a barn owl’s chilling scream, the softer tunes of song birds. A landscape is far more than a picture but to realise this you have to become part of it, slowly, and on foot.

Backpacking is the finest way to lose yourself in a landscape. By spending days or weeks moving through the land and sleeping there at night you become attuned to its characteristics (that soft down slope wind that arises after dusk, the bright green attractive looking ground that signifies a deep bog), its smells, its plants, its wildlife, its feel. And as you move through the landscape you can watch it change, watch mountains and rivers grow and diminish, watch forests deepen in the valleys and thin and dwindle as you climb, watch the shape of the land gently alter as rocky peaks give way to rounded hills and the latter in turn to low moorland or forest. A picture can be built up of the way the land is formed and how it changes. TGO Challengers know this, beginning on the wild, indented western coastline where rocky pointed mountains rise steeply from the sea with narrow glens and fast short rivers winding through them, then walking out of this tightly packed landscape into a more expansive one of massive, steep-sided, flat-topped hills, broader, gentler glens and bigger, longer rivers. Finally this central and eastern Highland landscape is left for a slow descent from the last low moorland hills into flat forests and farmland and the towns and cities of the east coast. The various landscapes merge and intertwine with each other, details fading in and out from one to the other. There are no straight lines delineating the end of one landscape and the start of the next. The wild is not neat and tidy. Yet at the same time there is a clear progression from the wild west to the tamed east.

In my opinion the best backpacking routes are natural ones that fit in with these changes in the landscape. By this I mean ones whose start and finish points are determined by nature not by humanity. The TGO Challenge is a good example. Coast to coast is a natural route to take, with clear, indeed absolute, end points. Walking the length of a mountain range, as I did in the Canadian Rockies, is satisfying in the same way. I finished that walk looking down on rolling hills as the big mountains I’d been following for 1600 miles faded away.  Ending the walk at the end of the mountains felt appropriate, a suitable way of completing a long journey. That’s how a backpacking journey should end, with a satisfying sense of completion.


  1. You write the way my mind thinks.
    Thanks for sharing Chris!

  2. So good to be reacquainted with this excellent article. Puts the backpacking experience in a nutshell. Thanks.

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