Tuesday 6 April 2021

Dealing With The Challenges Of Long-Distance Walking


With lockdown ending and warmer weather and longer days arriving many people are thinking about long-distance walks – I certainly am. I’ve had a few queries about this recently so I thought I’d post an expanded version of this piece I wrote for the BMC several years ago.

Good luck to everyone setting off on a long walk this year.

The whole point of long-distance walking is enjoyment. Overcoming the challenges involved is part of that enjoyment, or at least it should be. This said, during a walk of many weeks or months there will be times when the mental or physical challenge can seem overwhelming and you feel like giving up. For newcomers to long-distance walking here are some suggestions for dealing with this and its various causes.  

  • Don’t let feeling tired the first few days get you down. You will get fitter as the walk progresses. It’s best to plan for a lower daily distance at the start than you hope to average throughout. By the end of the walk you’ll be doing more than that average without any appreciable extra effort. I reckon on a week to ten days to really get going so I plan a lower mileage for that time.
  •  Familiarise yourself with your gear before the walk. After you’ve set out is not the time to discover your tent is awkward to pitch or your pack uncomfortable. A shakedown trip or two is a good way to check this and to see what daily mileage feels comfortable.
  • When selecting gear think of the weight. Extra bells and whistles may seem attractive but are they worth extra weight? 

On a 500 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies          

  • Sleeping well is very important for morale and your physical condition. If you’re not sleeping well because your mat is too hard or your sleeping bag too cold or too hot make changes when you can, even if it means buying new gear. Don’t suffer unnecessarily.
  • Take care of your feet. Blisters and sore feet are probably the main cause of unhappiness and distress for long-distance walkers and the main reason people give up. Having good, properly fitting footwear at the start is of course important. However, days and weeks of constant use can change footwear internally. If you start getting blisters or your feet start to ache badly think of changing your footwear. I like to have two pairs – trail shoes and sandals – with me and sometimes swap them over during the day. If you don’t want to carry a second pair you can have one sent ahead in supply boxes. If blisters and hot spots do occur treat them straight away. Ignoring them only makes them worse and longer lasting.

  • The length of a walk can seem daunting if you view it as a whole. A finish that is hundreds or thousands of miles away can seem an impossible goal, especially when just reaching the next camp site feels like a challenge. To overcome this feeling break the walk into sections and just think about the next stage. All long walks have resupply points. These can be used as the start and end points so that the walk becomes a series of shorter walks.

Wet misty weather at the start of the Scottish Watershed

  • At times during any long walk various factors – the weather (there’s nothing like day after day of stormy weather to discourage you), sore feet, a headache, tedious terrain, a stretch of road walking – can make you feel like giving up. This is when you need to be psychologically strong and tell yourself that this will pass and the best way to get through it is to keep walking.
  •  Physical exhaustion can be a problem if you insist on doing high mileages every day. Unless you’re out to break a record, in which case you need superb mental strength, plan to have some easier days and some rest days when you don’t walk at all. At times you may feel as though you’re running down, with less energy each day. This usually happens to me after 10-14 days. Then it’s definitely time to take a break.

  • Listen to your body and your mind. If you feel lazy in the morning (my usual state!) don’t feel you have to rush breakfast and dash off down the trail. Have another brew, relax and set off when you feel like it. Similarly, if you feel like stopping early do so. There’ll be other days when you’ll feel like walking into the night. If your legs ache have an easy day.

On a 500-mile walk in the High Sierra, California

  • Develop a schedule that suits you. Some people like to walk the same miles each day, some like to have a short break every hour, some like to walk a few hours before breakfast, some to have dinner on the trail and then walk on for a few hours before camping. I do none of these. My daily mileage varies depending on my mood, the terrain, the weather (and good weather doesn’t mean I go further – it can mean I stop to enjoy the view more often) and the landscape. If I have, say, 100 miles between supply points and I allow six days for this I may walk 10 miles one day, 25 another. As long as I complete the section before I run out of food the daily mileage doesn’t matter. As for breaks, I take them when I feel like it, sometimes walking for hours without a break, sometimes stopping frequently. And meals are almost always eaten in camp. This works for me. To get the most from a long walk you need to find what works for you.
  • Treat yourself at resupply points, especially with food. Chances are you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in. Eating plenty in restaurants helps restore your body for the next stage. And remember the long-distance hiker’s rule – never pass by a café or restaurant! 
At the finish of the Pacific Northwest Trail
  •   Finally, remember, you’re doing this to enjoy yourself!

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