Starting out in long distance walking
Long distance walking is a wonderful way to experience the countryside and a great way to stay fit. A walk that takes all day is a different experience to a stroll of a few hours. You can go further, see more and feel more in tune with the environment. Walks that take many days to complete enhance the feelings of involvement with nature even more. Being in the countryside and moving on each day becomes the norm rather than a quick escape from everyday life.
Being in the countryside and moving on each day becomes the norm rather than a quick escape from everyday life
Walking for many hours and days at a time requires good fitness so novice walkers need to build up to this, gradually increasing the distance walked. Those who already walk regularly should be fit enough to undertake long distance walks without any extra training. Some long distance walks also involve much ascent and descent, often on rough terrain. These are more strenuous than walks on relatively flat terrain and require greater fitness. If you're not used to climbing hills it's best to undertake some shorter hill walks before attempting a long distance one.
Day or days
Long distance walking can mean walking a long distance in a set time, usually a day. There's no set figure, but if you walk more than 20 miles in a day it's a long distance walk. Another meaning of long distance walk relates to the total distance walked not the time taken to walk it. For example the 270 mile Pennine Way is a long distance walk whether you walk it at 20 miles a day or 10 miles a day.
Where to roam?
Long distance walks can be undertaken anywhere, even in a city (though few would want to do this). There are long distance paths everywhere from canal towpaths and lowland farmland to coastlines and hills. Many long distance paths pass through a variety of different landscapes. Indeed, the constant change of scene is one of the joys of long distance walking.
Overnight camp © Yuriy Kulik
There are many long distance footpaths, which are well marked on the ground and for which you can buy maps and guidebooks. Britain has many of these, such as the Pennine Way and the 120-mile West Highland Way. There are plenty worldwide too, including the 280 mile Kungsleden ('King's Way') in arctic Sweden, the 210 mile John Muir Trail in California and the 120 mile Tour of Mont Blanc in the Alps. The longest paths are found in the USA. The big three here are the Appalachian Trail (2100 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,700 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles). Complete all three and you are entitled to the Triple Crown award.
You don't have to follow a long distance footpath. Many walkers like to plan their own routes. A popular one in Britain is Land's End to John O'Groats. This can take in shorter long distance paths along the way, as there is no set route for the whole walk. To plan your own route you do need some experience and the confidence to head out into the unknown. It's probably best to complete some recognised long distance paths before planning your own adventure.
On some multi-day walks you can stay in accommodation each night, whether it's a youth hostel, B&B or mountain hut. The last are common on long distance paths in the Alps, Scandinavia and the Pyrenees. On walks in more remote areas you have to camp - something many long distance walkers like to do anyway as it gives much more freedom than having to reach a specific place each night.
Mountain huts are common on long distance paths in the Alps, Scandinavia and the Pyrenees
Long distance walking is a year round pursuit but it needs to be tailored to the season and the weather. In particular, mountainous areas can be very hazardous in winter and spring when snow-covered, requiring mountaineering as well as walking skills. However, winter is the ideal time to undertake desert walks such as the Desert Trail in California. The easiest paths to walk in Britain in winter are the coastal and low-level paths.
Solo or Group
Long distance walking can be a solo or group affair. If you walk with others it's very important that your goals are the same. There will be problems if one person wants to complete the walk as quickly as possible while another wants to spend time watching wildlife or taking photographs. With people you haven't walked with before it's best to check your compatibility on short walks before setting out on a long distance venture. If you don't know anyone interested in long distance walking you could join the Long Distance Walkers' Association, who have local groups and who organise long distance walks in many areas.
Although the basic equipment is the same, long distance walkers tend to be far more concerned with the weight of their gear than other walkers. When you're going to carry everything on your back twenty or more miles in a day, or for many days in succession, the weight of your load matters. Whether a fleece jacket weighs 16 ounces or 20 ounces may not seem important, but differences like that over a range of gear can add many pounds to your total load. When there's a choice of gear, go for the lighter option.
Long-distance gear © Lolo Stock
What gear is needed depends more on the season and the place than the length of the walk. Far more gear will be needed for a winter hill walk than a summer coastal one. On some walks you'll need camping gear but where there are huts or other accommodation you can travel with much less.
The two most important items of gear are your footwear and rucksack. Because it is lifted with every step the weight of your footwear really does matter. Most experienced long distance walkers prefer very light footwear, often choosing trail shoes rather than boots. Their fit is even more critical than for shorter walks too, as any problems will be magnified on a long distance walk. Choose your footwear carefully and take time in getting as perfect a fit as possible.
Rucksacks need to be comfortable too, especially on camping trips. Again, take time choosing one and make sure it fits well. Try it with the weight you will be carrying. A rucksack that feels fine with 20 pounds in it may not feel so good with thirty. Check the weight of the sack itself, as some rucksacks are very heavy but there is an increasing number of excellent lightweight rucksacks on the market.
Your clothing needs to be comfortable and unrestrictive. If it rubs or binds anywhere this could become a big problem on a long distance walk. Clothing should be easy care too. If you're out for many days you want garments you can hand wash in cold water and which will dry very quickly. A basic long distance wardrobe would be:
- T-shirt or shirt
- Long trousers
- Warm top (fleece, wool or insulated)
- Windproof top
- Sun hat (for summer)
- Warm hat and gloves (outside summer)
- Remember to check the weight of all clothing items and note that simple designs usually weigh less than complex ones.
If you're camping, your gear needs to be tailored to the expected conditions. If much wind or rain is likely then you need a strong tent. Your sleeping bag should be warm enough for the lowest temperatures that are likely (which doesn't mean the lowest ever recorded - if it's exceptionally cold you can wear clothes inside the bag). Your choice of stove should be geared to the type of fuel that is available along the route.
Take the time to look round and experience the world. That's what it's all about
Whether there are any hazards and how serious they are depends on where the walk is and when you walk it. Low-level walks close to towns are usually the safest and remote walks in mountain wildernesses are potentially the most dangerous. On the Continental Divide Trail in the USA there are grizzly bears! However, on many walks the weather is the greatest hazard. Lightning, heavy rain, cold, burning sunshine and strong winds may all have to be dealt with. Find out in advance what weather to expect so you can plan for it.
Finally, remember that the purpose of long distance walking is enjoyment. A long distance walk shouldn't feel like a treadmill or a racecourse. Take the time to look round and experience the world. That's what it's all about.