On Long Walks

Hi. My name is Bjørn, and I’m a walker.

When I first began traveling, I would focus on well-known highlights. If I went to Paris, I basically saw the Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Montmartre. Bangkok was the Grand Palace, a couple of other temples, and Khao San Road. Egypt? The Pyramids and Luxor.

I was often underwhelmed by what I saw. Sure, the places had all the bits that were advertised, but they were also full of all kinds of annoying souvenir sellers, scam artists, and hordes of tourists like myself.

With severely limited funds, I usually walked from A to B instead of paying to travel as efficiently as possible. I often found that the main attractions were not what I enjoyed the most, but all the small discoveries I made on my way between them.

Gradually my walking got out of control. My best days became those I spent randomly on foot just going in whatever direction that looked most interesting for whatever reason. The looks people back at the hostel in the evening gave me when we told each other about our day said it all. Clearly, I had gone crazy.

But I was happy being a lunatic. Never was my satisfaction more complete than when I could end my day by crawling exhausted to bed, where a host of new and surprising impressions could sink in while I slept.

Eventually I would make long walks be all I did for an entire trip. Day after day. Sometimes with a road, street or trail to follow. Sometimes not. All the items I needed, I would carry in my backpack. This piece is about long walks like that.

Why on Earth?!

Most people are willing to walk a bit to see a particular place or to enjoy a great view. As long as it’s not too far, that is. Motorized transportation is easier. All the fuzz about climate change has made people somewhat more positive to saving the planet. They just don’t necessarily want to do so on foot.

In principle there’s no big difference between a short and a long walk. You get on your trail, you do your best to stay on it until the end, and then you’re done.

In your mind, however, a long walk may intimidate you. Most people perceive a long walk to carry a much larger risk than a short walk does, although you rarely get an explanation for why people feel that way.

I guess the phenomenon can be explained like this: Say you take a nice, wide board and lay it down on the floor so that anyone easily can walk back and forth on it. That’s a short walk. Then you raise the same board to high up in the air, connecting two towers. Most people I know will now be reluctant to walk across. This is a long walk. The board is the same in both cases, but as the potential consequences of stepping off the board become more dire, people’s willingness to walk it is dramatically reduced. It’s an instinct, and we all have it.

It’s a bit like if you’re invited to eat at a new restaurant. “Yay!”, is your immediate response. Then it turns out that the place is an Helvanian restaurant. You’ve never been subject to Helvanian cuisine before, and when you get there, the menu is printed in letters and in a language you just cant’t read.

You know that you will be served food, but since you don’t know exactly what you will be eating or how it has been prepared, you may feel a bit wary and insecure. Suddenly going for a Big Mac instead doesn’t sound so bad, although you also know that if you go ahead with the Helvanian place, you’ll probably end up with a nicer meal than what the American embassy with the golden arches offers.

Oh well. Enough metaphors. Let’s establish some good reasons for going on long walks.

Pilgrim on Camino de Santiago walking early in the morning.

For the views?

Many splendid views can be enjoyed while sitting comfortably inside a car, and many more just by walking a very short distance from one. But to really appreciate a mountain, lake, city or ocean, you should see it from more angles than the one you can have from next to the souvenir stalls.

By hiking, you get as many angles as you want. The further you walk, the more you see.

On the other hand, the quality of a scenic view will often depend heavily on the weather conditions. And what those will be like can rarely be guaranteed when you have to start walking days earlier to get to the view you want to see.

The view that you may or may not enjoy on your trip, should probably not be your main reason for taking any random long walk. Still, long walks will sometimes be the only way to enjoy certain views. So there’s that.

For the vanity?

I once walked for 11 days to complete the Jotunheimen Trail, about 350 kilometers. I posted a trip report from my experience to my web site, to inspire other wanderers.

A few days later I logged a crazy number of Japanese visitors on my site. It turned out that a Japanese on-line weight loss community were using my before-and-after self-portraits from the trip as “proof” that going for a walk is a good thing to do if you’re a bit on the chubby side.

Now, I wasn’t particularly flattered by that, but I was highly amused. #8D)

Anyway, going for a long walk will make you a slimmer person. When you walk all day, you can eat as much chocolate as anyone could possibly want, and still not suffer from it weight-wise. More importantly, walking day after day in the wild is exactly what your genes want you to do. As long as you take it nice and slow and do not overexert yourself, there’s a good chance that after a long walk you’ll end up looking a lot healthier.

(Never mind the potential downsides to losing fat. When you return home you may prefer to start carrying a pillow with you, so that you can put it between your boney ass and any hard seats. Don’t worry. You’ll soon enough grow your padding back.)

As long as you can avoid being eaten by an animal and falling off cliffs, walking will benefit your health and your appearance. This is a good reason for going on long walks.

BE FO LON WOK.
AF TE LON WOK!!!

For the company?

On many long walks you will spend your evenings at designated camp sites, hostels or cabins open to anyone out walking. Even if you walk alone, you’re likely to encounter other hikers on your way.

If you’re on a popular trail, like the Overland Track in Tasmania, the Jotunheimen Trail in Norway or the Appalachian Trail in the USA, you’re all doing the same thing. This means you will probably see the same people again and again, throughout the day and at a resting site in the evening.

I’m not saying that these people necessarily are particularly interesting, but they are likely to have a lot in common with you. This will at the very least theoretically make them interesting to you, and you to them.

You’ll be amazed by how quickly strangers can become best friends when you all share a challenging long walk. You will help and motivate each other, and it’ll feel great both to give and receive that support.

True, some of them will annoy you, and they will all be smelly. Still, in the end you’ll probably appreciate having other people around. Both for safety and because you will learn something from having met them.

On the other hand, there are many long walks where you must be prepared to spend many days alone. You will not have anyone at all to talk to or be helped by. This can be difficult to handle.

Make sure you’re prepared for any situation your walk may involve. This may include sharing a dorm with the national snoring team of Germany, or having to spend a week or more without a single intellectually stimulating conversation. Life on the trail can be pretty hard either way.

No roads here.

For the lack of alternatives?

Sometimes the only way to get somewhere is by walking, and most of that walk may be plain out boring, before you get to the interesting bit.

In particular this goes for mountainous regions, where roads just can’t be built, where helicopters are not allowed, and where sitting on a horse or a donkey would simply be too scary.

Clearly, unless you’re willing to walk a long way, you will deny yourself some of the greatest scenery on Earth. No pressure, but I think you deserve to see some of that. Come on, walk a little!

For the enlightenment?

Do you truly know what you are capable of? Many just assume that any seemingly strenuous activity that they have never tried or wanted to do, is something they simply cannot do.

All the time, all over the world, someone has to flee from home. Countless refugees seek relative safety by walking vast distances through deserts, jungles or otherwise hostile surroundings. There may well be people among your own relatively recent ancestors who went through something similar.

I do hope that you will never fully understand the feelings involved in that kind of experience. Yet, their suffering tells us that the human body is an impressive machine. If you have a powerful sports car, you will probably take it for a spin on a race course to see what it can do. Similarly, you should consider exploring the abilities of your own body. Chances are that you’ll be hugely and pleasantly impressed.

Oh, and there’s of course also huge satisfaction to be had from having completed a walk that is so long, that you can use a map of the entire world to point out to someone where you walked.

As you may gather, I consider this to be a major reason for pushing yourself into doing a long walk or two.

A few completed long walks in Europe.

You are now convinced

Preparations

Right. Now that you have decided the you will do a long walk, here’s something you should know: In Nature there are no punishments or rewards, only consequences. The better prepared you are, the larger the chance that you will harvest only desirable consequences from your walk.

I suggest being inspired by the first step that members of Alcoholics Anonymous take when they try to resolve their situation: Admit to yourself that you do have a problem! Do not belittle the challenge of getting through your walk alive. You have to take it very, very seriously.

Read all you can find about your walk. There are many web sites, magazines and books dedicated to the subject of long-distance walking. Particularly useful is anything written by anyone with experience from walked the same route as you, during the same season and preferably recently. What will the weather be like and how does that affect walking the trail? Which parts of the walk are more difficult and for what reason? Where can you refresh your supplies of chocolate?

Just like you must know how to interpret the behavior of your own mind and your own body, you need to know your opponent; the walk itself and the land it passes through.

Equipment

I’m not going to tell you what to bring. All I can say is that you must bring whatever you need in order to feel comfortable and safe on your hike. This clearly varies a lot, depending on where and when you’re hiking and for how long you’ll stay on the trail.

In my opinion, people tend to over-invest in new equipment when they’re about to embark on long walks. Of course, if buying some new stuff is what it takes to make you feel confident about going, then that’s probably what you should do. But keep in mind that unless you’re doing a really extreme hike, people managed to complete similar trips even before the invention of things like Gore-Tex, GPS, and well, shoes, I guess.

Hiking the Camino de Santiago, there's a lot of time for reflection.

Packing

This part is easy. When you’ve decided what you need to bring, put it all into your backpack.

If it fits, great! If not, throw away stuff until it does.

Now take the backpack for a test walk in terrain similar to what you will have on your walk. Don’t forget to include as much water as you will have to carry on your real hike. Walk for two hours. Remove your backpack.

If this results in the notion that you should hold on to something in order not to float up into the air and disappear, your backpack is too heavy! If this happens, you will just have to get rid of some things. Do not bring any books. You’ll be too tired to read them. And you really don’t need many changes of clothes. You will soon enough have to start re-wearing filthy and smelly clothes anyway.

Do not begin your hike until you are confident that you will be able to carry your stuff all the way to your destination. Just don’t. Having your appendix removed or getting a haircut isn’t really necessary to minimize weight, but you have to make an effort to get rid of all weight that takes more than it gives.

Maps

Choose a map that covers your trip and not too much else. In many areas a map is no good unless you also bring a compass, which you have to know how to use. A GPS device can be useful, but you should always have a paper map as well, in case you run out of batteries or the device breaks.

For most famous treks you can buy small booklets that contain just the maps and trail descriptions that you need. If not, you can make one yourself, by cutting and pasting map fragments from maps you scan/photograph or find on the Internet. Print your new map onto a semilarge (A3) piece of paper.

Here’s a map I made for a 320 kilometer walk in Norway, Jotunheimstien. (Click it to open the full version in a separate tab/window.)

You can most likely complete your walk without an incredibly detailed map of your route. Long walks usually follow paths that are signposted and easy to follow. But every time you take a break and sit down, it is hugely satisfying to have a glance at your map and see proof that you’re actually getting somewhere.

Before you leave home, carefully study your map. Understand the area you’re hiking through. Look for sources of water and places to camp. Maybe there are side trips you should look into. It’s impossible to know beforehand exactly how far you will walk per day. You should have several options for where to spend your nights, with no more than 2-3 hours of walking between them. This way you can be flexible and get the most out of every day on the trail.

There’s also a chance you will have to break off your journey, due to mishaps or simply because you’re exhausted. You should know where your “emergency exits” are. Decide what are your best options for leaving the trail to return home or to seek help. Also make sure that you know where you can fill up on supplies. If it’s an option at all, try to figure out where there may be cell phone coverage, in case of emergencies or to get an updated weather forecast.

Learn from my mistakes

Here are a few bonus tips, based on various awkward situations I have found myself in.

  • Make sure you know how to use your equipment before you leave home. Pitching your tent and lighting up your camp stove is something you may need to do in the dark with cold hands in the midst of an intense mosquito attack. This requires some practice.
  • When you finally decide on what kinds of food you can carry in sufficient amounts for your walk, you may discover that this journey will probably not be remembered for its many great meals. Try living on this diet for a few days at home, to find out how it affects you, both mentally and physically. Especially if you’re walking with others. Some people turn incredibly grumpy when their daily ration of various food ingredients disappears. Don’t be that person. The food must be your friend on your long walk. You don’t have to be delighted by it, but it must not turn you into a walking storm cloud either.
  • Cut your toenails! If you do, you may actually have some of them left after your hike. Your shoes may be friendly towards the rest of your foot, but if your toes continuously bump into the front of your shoes for hundreds of kilometers, your toenails may turn black. Eventually they will fall off. It won’t hurt much, but that’s just not sexy at all.

If you have more tips to share, I’d love it if you add them as comments at the bottom of this page.

Stop for some ice cream whenever you can.

In Conclusion

You can do this! All it takes is a little bit of planning and preparations.

First get used to carrying a heavy backpack. Then camp for a few days in the forest or mountains near where you live. When you feel ready for it, pick your next big adventure from the following map and alphabetically ordered list of famous long-distance walks. All of these walks are excellent choices, and I will not hesitate to recommend any of them for just about anyone who is in decent shape.

Abel Tasman Coast Track, New Zealand
Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Appalachian Trail, USA
Bibbulmun Track, Australia
Camino de Santiago, Spain
Inca Trail, Peru
Jotunheimstien, Norway
Kungsleden, Sweden
Land’s End to John o’ Groats, United Kingdom
Overland Track, Tasmania, Australia
Torres del Paine Circuit, Chile
Via Francigena, Italy
Abel Tasman Coast Track, New Zealand

Location: South Island, New Zealand, from Marahau in the south to Wainui in the north
Distance: 60 kilometers, several side trips available
Duration: 3-5 days
Booking is required, well in advance
More information

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Location: Near Pokhara in central Nepal
Distance: 160-230 kilometers, various exit points possible
Duration: 15-25 days
Booking is not needed, but trekking permit required
More information

Appalachian Trail, USA

Location:  Eastern USA, between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine
Distance: 3,500 kilometers
Duration: 5-7 months
Booking is not required
More information

Bibbulmun Track, Australia

Location:  Western Australia, between Kalamunda (near Perth) and Albany
Distance: 1,003 kilometers
Duration: 8-12 weeks
Booking is not required
More information

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Location:  Pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Distance: Many routes, minimum 100 kilometers, and the popular Camino Frances is 769 kilometers
Duration: 3-5 days for minimum distance, 4-6 weeks for Camino Frances
Booking is not required
More information

Inca Trail, Peru

Location:  Tourist route to Machu Picchu Inca ruins
Distance: 82 kilometers
Duration: 4-5 days
Booking is extremely required, only 200 trekkers allowed per day
More information

Jotunheimstien, Norway

Location:  Trail from central Oslo to Jotunheimen National Park
Distance: 320 kilometers
Duration: 12-25 days
Booking not required
More information, (not available in English, but you can ask me anything about it)

Kungsleden, Sweden

Location:  Northern Sweden, from Abisko to Hemavan
Distance: 440 kilometers
Duration: 3-4 weeks
Booking not required
More information

Land’s End to John o’ Groats, United Kingdom

Location:  The whole length of the island of Great Britain
Distance: 1,400-1,900 kilometers, depending on route
Duration: 2-3 months
Booking not required
More information

Overland Track, Tasmania, Australia

Location:  From Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair on Tasmania, Australia
Distance: 65-100 kilometers, depending on side trips
Duration: 5-7 days
Booking required between November and March
More information

Torres del Paine Circuit, Chile

Location:  Patagonia, southern Chile
Distance: 100 kilometers plus optional side trips
Duration: 8-10 days
Booking of camp sites required during high season
More information

Via Francigena, Italy

Location:  Pilgrimage route to the Vatican / Rome, Italy
Distance: Many entry points, 1,900 kilometers if starting in Canterbury, England
Duration: As many days as you like
Booking is not required
More information

There.

That should keep you occupied for a few years.

Good luck, and happy trails! #8D)

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