From Dreams to Footprints

How to Plan a Long Distance Walk

As I write this it is 10 months until my departure on my Lands End to Cape Wrath walk. This time next year I’ll be reaching the Pennines. The route is planned, the departure date is set, I have a spreadsheet of all my kit (and how much it weighs) and I’ve spent far more hours than I will admit to debating exactly which one-man tent to buy. But how did I get to this point? And why did I need to do it a year in advance?

Lots of people like the sound of going on an adventure but for many it’s a dream that never quite becomes a reality. The first thing to do is decide what your goal is. Which walk do you want to do? This is an amazing excuse to spend hours reading articles titled “100 greatest walks” and scrolling through endless screens of breathtaking photos. It’s one of the most fun and inspiring parts of the whole process and certainly worth taking your time over. Some routes come ready made while others need a bit more in-depth planning. For example, there isn’t a set Land End to Cape Wrath trail so I started my route by buying a huge map and joining together as many national trails and mountainous areas as possible.

Few of us are free to wander the world at our leisure and the most important part of turning dream into reality is deciding when your walk is going to happen. If your goal is a 2 week trek it might fit easily into annual leave but 4 months is a different matter and may need to be planned far in advance. Think about what time of year is best for your trail and when you can feasibly get time off (think unpaid sabbaticals, or a gap between jobs). If the two don’t match it might be worth re-thinking the where – better to enjoy a different part of the world than find your walk cut short by waist-deep snow.

This ties quite closely into the when so it’s important to think early about whether this is going to be a solo venture or whether you’re going to be co-ordinating plans with a walking companion. If you’re looking to do your whole trek together it’s worth talking in depth about your personal goals and making sure you really want to spend months in very close company. Talk about what you like to eat, how far you walk in a day, whether you like to get up early, what your thoughts are on hitching a lift, and whether you prefer to chat or walk in silence. The considerations are endless and the best thing is to go on a trial walk together of at least a few days, making sure things work when you’re cold, tired and hungry. Of course it’s not all plain sailing for the solo traveller and it’s worth going on a few shorter walks by yourself and making sure you really do enjoy your own company!

This is the real nitty gritty. Will you be camping or using accommodation? What will it cost? Does it need to be booked and if not what’s the back-up plan if you arrive and it’s full? If you’re going to wild camp where will you find suitable sites? Another big consideration is how you plan to navigate. For walking in wild areas I would always recommend carrying physical maps rather than relying on electronics but on a walk covering thousands of miles how are you going to avoid carrying a library? The best answers to these questions will be found from people who have walked your trail before you and there are loads of blogs, books and how-to-guides out there for most of the well established trails. Reading through others accounts will likely throw up loads of answers that you hadn’t even thought to ask about and (assuming that they had a good time) will keep you inspired through the process.

Kit time! If you’re a bit of a gear geek this can be an amazing opportunity to acquire loads of ultra-specialised high-tech new kit. In contrast if you’re a seasoned walker on a budget it might just be about packing the same bag as you’ve done dozens of times before without a penny spent. There are plenty of online kit lists to give you ideas but the only real way to find out what you do and don’t need is to go walking with it. If you’re going to walk hundreds of miles it is vital that you are able to carry your pack comfortably and a good rule of thumb is to never carry more than a quarter of your body weight (remember that this includes food and water!). On the flip side if you’re walking for months at a time you are going to encounter every kind of weather and extremely light weight walking can lead to dangerous situations if you find yourself without the kit needed to keep you warm and sheltered from the worst your trail can throw at you. Before spending a small fortune on new gear have a read about the environmental impact and feel free to browse through my personal kit list and recommendations.

Personally I enjoy the planning in its own right but it’s easy in months of preparation to become bogged down in the details and lose sight of the overall goal. Or to feel that your walk is so far in the future that it’s never really going to become a reality. It’s important therefore to think about why you’ve set this goal and let those reasons carry you through – they’ll be even more important when you’re out there on the (literal and emotional) highs and lows of the trail!

Written April 2019