Saturday 18 January 2020

Reminiscences and Thoughts on Long-Distance Walking and Writing, inspired by a piece by Alex Roddie

Writing notes on the Pacific Northwest Trail

In a thoughtful online feature called The Meaningof Adventure Alex Roddie recalls a tough day on the Haute Route Pyrenees and asks himself the question “If I could never tell anyone about this trip, never publish anything about my experience or share any of my photos, would I still put myself through this?” This is not something I’ve ever thought, and it started me considering the relationship between outdoor activities and communication and the huge difference between when I started out and the present. As I’ve written elsewhere the biggest changes in outdoor activities in the last few decades have not been in equipment but in electronics and digital communications. Alex’s article shows the effect this can have, especially on those for who have grown up with social media.

Back when I began long-distance walking the only means of communicating about outdoor activities was via club journals and a few commercial magazines. When I undertook my first long-distance walks I had no thoughts of writing about them. I simply wanted to see what it was like to walk in nature for days at a time. After a two-week walk (the Pennine Way) I knew I wanted to do something longer. After Land’s End to John O’Groats I knew I wanted to do something wilder. That desire became a round of the Munros in several 200- and 500-mile walks and then the Pacific Crest Trail. 

On the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982 with a ridiculous load.

After my Land’s End to John O’Groats walk I did wonder if anyone might be interested in reading about it. I enjoyed reading about outdoor activities (the walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain). Maybe others would enjoy reading my stories. I’d always kept a journal, going right back to nature notes on local walks when I was a young boy, and I liked writing. Tentatively I sent off some hand-written articles to outdoor magazines (of which there were very few). Eventually I had a couple of articles published in a long-gone camping magazine. I enjoyed writing them but didn’t think of them as significant. Other writing work came along, mainly gear reviewing, which has been a mainstay ever since. I could, I thought, perhaps make enough money from writing to fund other long walks. And so it turned out. A book contract came along, and then another, which surprised me. 

This is why I walk. In the Colorado Rockies last summer.

The long walks always took primacy though. This is what I wanted to do. I never doubted that if the writing work dried up I would find another way to fund the walks. I never felt under pressure to do walks in order to write about them. I did sometimes feel pressure to stay in and write when I’d rather be outdoors (and still do, deadlines are deadlines!).

Social media didn’t appear until well over twenty years after I’d begun writing. Suddenly there was a new way to communicate, a way that could reach unimaginable numbers of people. I had a small niche audience – books sales in the thousands, magazine readers in the lower tens of thousands. And everything took time. Books appeared a year or so after I finished writing them, magazine articles often after several months. Social media, including blogs, was instant. Communicate to the whole world just like that. Marvellous!

Going back to Alex Roddie’s question I know that I would continue long-distance walking if I suddenly had no audience but I can see that the pressures are different now, the opportunities to tell people what you are doing enormous, as are the opportunities to read about other people’s experiences. The online long-distance walking literature is vast. Alex writes about reading blogs and social media accounts about Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Some became jaded after a couple of months. I can’t imagine that. I’ve never become fed up with any long walk. Of course, there have been times during every walk when I’ve felt bored or exhausted or the weather has been awful or the terrain difficult, but I learnt early on that such times would pass and that the best thing to do was keep going.

This is why I camp. On the Cairngorm Plateau

Alex also wonders if his expectations of his HRP walk had been shaped by reading about ultralight trends online. It’s easy to look at many of these and see a proscriptive approach – this is the right way to do things, everything else is wrong. Alex meets an ‘Instagram influencer’ who typifies that view, criticising others with bigger packs. This reminded me of meeting someone like that on the John Muir Trail. This person really annoyed another hiker, who pointed out to me that he liked his big pack and anyway was walking further each day than his critic. I’m glad when I started out there were no pressures like this. It was difficult enough to find any advice, on or off the trail. There were no traditional, lightweight, or ultralight backpackers.

It's not always sunny.

At the end of his feature Alex Roddie answers his question. He was hiking for itself but sharing the experience was part of it. That’s what I feel too, though I internalised it long ago and hadn’t really thought about it until reading Alex’s feature. Maybe if I’d been able to communicate instantly and easily when I began I’d have had to think this through back then.

Writing notes in the Cairngorms.


  1. We go on long walks, and have time to think. Sometimes, the sun rises and sets.

  2. This reminds me of when I hiked the Arizona Trail three years ago. I'm not into the whole ultralight thing, so I carry quite a big heavy pack.

    I explained to another hiker that I wanted to enjoy my hike and camps, so I take it easy. Not hike too many miles per day and therefore I carry more food and things like quite heavy binoculars (1kg) to enjoy the birds too. He thought this was kind of revolutionary! He said he never thought it was possible to hike this way! You are "supposed" to be (ultra-)light these days, because social media tells you that it is the "right" way to hike.

  3. I love the internet because it allows me to discover things I would otherwise never have known about and then research and plan adventures of one sort or another. People have become more status conscious and competitive aided and abetted by social media though. I think some people want to do things so they can boast about them. However most of us are still out walking, hiking and trekking simply because it is so enjoyable, One of the best bits about getting older is that I live life on my own terms now and care little about what other people think.

  4. There was a time when I felt like I needed "to perform" and "entertain" people with my adventures on my website. I've gotten over that. I do what I want and carry the gear that I feel like carrying on my trips. A lot of its lightweight ok, but there's a lot more lightweight gear available. I like my camps, sleeping a little longer in the morning, cooking real food, stopping to fish, and to just hang out. I agree with Tim above, that much of social media is for boasting. I've never been one to adhere to doing what else is doing and value my privacy a whole heck of a lot more. I like being selfish about my trips. They're my way of recharging. I don't have anything to prove anymore. BTW, picked up a copy of your "Out There" recently and have been enjoying it. Liked Cameron's intro to that book too. You've gotten me thinking about what I can do to become more of an advocate for the wild.