Five Thoughts on Long Distance Walking
Welcome to another five thoughts essay. I am starting to think that these are going to be an ongoing feature and will probably have very wide ranging subjects but at least this one is very much on topic for this blog.
Five Thoughts on Long Distance Walking
I don’t think that I can call myself an expert at long distance walking, but I am getting there. I may not yet have done my 10,000 hours, but I have walked 10,000 km as I write this (almost 12,000 km if I include the-test walk) and have definitely reached a few conclusions about what works and how it affects you.
I am not even halfway through my walk from Stockholm to Sydney and hope to learn a lot more in the coming year or two, but these are my thoughts as they pertain to long distance walking, as off now. I’m certain I will change and refine some of them with more experience and feedback but that is as it should be.
This is a start and as everything in life, it is susceptible to both change and improvement!
Walking is the most natural and instinctive form of locomotion there is. We are all more or less capable of it, in one form or another and it can take us almost anywhere in the world.
If you are like me and you can’t walk on water, there are some natural limitations, but you get the idea.
The one “problem” is that it is far from the quickest form of transportation available. But that is also its greatest feature.
Because of the time it takes to walk, and the way you are exposed to the environment during your walk, it is the method of moving that most fits the axiom “It’s the journey that is important, not the destination”.
In fact, I would claim that the journey is the only important part of a long distance walk. The destination is only a way to set a limit. The “perfect” walk would be never-ending, without a destination, existing only as an end in and of itself.
A walk through life.
It is fascinating that the the Chinese philosophy, or religion, of the “Tao” can be translated as “the way”.
When you walk you are necessarily exposed to the world around you. If it rains you get wet, and if it’s hot you will most likely sweat. Reality is all around you and becomes a part of your experience.
You are forced to live and experience the present and your surroundings as they are, without the filter of air conditioned comfort. Even if you choose to leave your current location, you have to interact with it as you slowly move towards your new destination. No jumping on a plane and being transported from the biting cold of a northern Swedish winter, or to a warm tropical paradise.
You become aware of the environment and how it affects you. You adapt to it and try to become part of it. The environment and weather conditions become part of the moment, the experience and not just something to escape.
It’s the same with relationships, the people you meet along the way. You have time to observe what they are doing, reflect on it and possibly interact. Rather than an ever changing calaidescope, rushing past outside the window, you are there, a part of the moment and have time to absorb and process the feelings and emotions they generate.
If I could change one thing about the-walk, it would be the fact that it has a set destination. I find myself striving to cover distance and move “forward”, towards the destination and not being enough in the moment. My focus becomes to much on arriving, and how to facilitate that, rather than experiencing and living in the now.
Others might not experience the same problem and not have an issue with the limitations that a set destination generate. In fact, for most people trying to do a long distance walk for the first time, it is probably necessary to set a destination that works within the time constraints and logistics of work and family.
But even if you have to have a set destination and even a set timeframe, try to not let that limit the experience. If your walk takes longer than expected, let it. Don’t force yourself to conform to an arbitrary, preset goal. Let the walk generate its own rhythm and accept that reaching the destination is secondary to the experience as a whole.
If you are going to be walking long distances, for long periods, then shoes become very important.
Let me state straight away that the most important aspect is how your shoes work for you.
We are all going to have different needs and preferences and the only thing that matters is that your equipment suits you and your needs.
I am going to offer a lot of suggestion that work for me, that I have discovered through trial and error. I have arrived at these conclusions after more than 10,000 km of walking in less than 18 months and they work. For me. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different solutions to find your “perfect” set up, it may differ a lot from mine.
I am very much a proponent of the minimalist shoe approach. There has been a large movement towards barefoot and minimalist shoes in running during the last 5-6 years and I tend to believe in a lot of the arguments for it. I’m not going to go into all the pros and cons here, just google barefoot running and you will find a lot of information, both positive and some more doubting.
One thing that might influence if you can use the minimalist approach is if you decide to either use a cart or carry a pack. Carrying a heavy load might make sturdier shoes a better choice. See the section on wether to carry or cart later in this essay.
The one most important consideration is to get shoes that fit. For me that has proved rather difficult. I have wide feet with large toes and have a hard time finding shoes with sufficient width. If you have more normal feet you might find it a bit easier!
Most shoe soles have what I consider to be a strange shape. Place you feet, without shoes or socks, on a piece of paper and then trace the outline with a pen. Look at the resultant shape and take it with you when you go shopping for shoes. What you will find is that nearly no shoes are shaped like real feet. They nearly all force your feet into a elongated, possibly pointed shape that looks nothing like your natural footprint. Try to find shoes that fit you feet as comfortably as possible and don’t forget that you will need to buy them 1 or even 1,5 sizes to big.
When you start covering long distances on foot, your feet will swell to at least one size larger and you need to take that in to consideration. You need to have wiggle room for your toes, even when your feet are swollen.
Another thing to look out for is that your toes don’t hit the front of the toe box. If they do, then when you walk downhill, your toes will continually hit the front of the shoe, generating sore toes, blackened nails and discomfort.
The best all-round solution for me has been sandals, or even flip-flops. These may not always be warm enough or offer protection in rough areas but can easily be complemented with a pair of gore-tex trail running shoes for the really rough stuff.
There is nothing like a long, hot days walking to discover any problems you might have with your shoes, or even worse, a long wet day.
Eventual blisters on your heel are easy to alleviate with tape or one of the special blister bandages that are available. If you know you are susceptible to blisters, it could be a good idea to tape your heel before you get any.
Another area I have problems with is between my toes. There are a few remedies to this. You can lubricate the area between your toes, tape them or use toe-socks. These are the socks that have separate compartments for each toe, like gloves. Toe-socks are my favourite because using any form of lube gets messy. It might work if you go out for a long run and then get to go home for a shower, but if you are on a long distance walk and will be camping, then it’s a lot less messy to use toe-socks. Sure, they might stink a bit the next day, but at least they aren’t covered in lube that attracts dirt and sticks to your sleeping bag!
You might think that you already know what will work for you, but unless you have tried to walk in a pair of shoes for 10 hours a day, several days in a row, you can’t be sure.
Keep testing and don’t be afraid to try some new solutions if your current setup doesn’t work.
There is really nothing all that special about clothes for long distance walking. All the general tips for hiking are applicable.
Use a layered approach, with a base layer, a middle layer and an outer shell. How much clothing you will need will depend on the climate you will be walking through and remember to take any possible weather fluctuations into account when you plan.
The one most important consideration is to avoid cotton, especially in the base layer! Cotton soaks up moisture and takes forever to dry. My favourite base layer, and this includes underpants and socks, is wool. Cool in the summer, warm in the winter and wicks moisture away from your skin. Not only that, it does not start smelling bad as fast as cotton. I can usually only wear a cotton t-shirt for one day before becoming uncomfortably aware that it, and therefore I, stink. A lightweight wool t-shirt can last 3-4 days, easy, without becoming repugnant.
There are some synthetic materials that are starting to get close to the performance of wool, but they are not quite there yet, and wool remains my favourite for the base layer.
The middle layer is easier, there are a lot of synthetic fleece materials that work well, but again, avoid cotton.
The outer shell should be waterproof and breathable. How serious you need to get here depends a lot on where you are walking. If you are crossing the Himalayas, you are going to need much more advanced clothing than if you are taking a summer stroll through Florida.
Because I am walking halfway across the world, I have to pack clothes that are suitable for a range of different climates and that can be worn both in cities and in the outback. I believe in buying good quality stuff that not only works, but looks good, and I have chosen to use Houdini Sportswear. To be totally transparent, I did receive a discount when I purchased my gear, but only after I had already decided that was going to use Houdini clothes and approached them for some help in keeping the costs of the-walk down.
Both wool and synthetic clothes are easier to wash and especially dry than cotton. I can usually wash my base layer in the evening and then use it again the next day. Try doing that with cotton!
If you are walking in sunny areas, remember to be careful with the sun. Long sleeved t-shirts or shirts in a light material will help keep the sun of your skin and some sort of sunhat is absolutely necessary. Cover up and use sunscreen! Don’t forget to check that your shirt actually offers protection from UV rays, not all do.
Don’t forget things like sunglasses, warm caps, buffs and gloves on you packing list.
Above all, keep it simple and minimalist. While walking you can get by with very few clothes, just be prepared to be a bit “sweaty” and wash your walking gear whenever you get the chance. You will become very good at washing in hand basins or even running streams!
I try to keep a lightweight pair of pants and a shirt in reserve and clean for use when I reach a town, but that might be unnecessary if you don’t plan to socialise a lot during your walk.
Pack the absolute minimum to keep both weight and size down and enjoyment as high as possible.
Pack or Cart
The simplest way to carry your gear, and the way most people envisage doing a long walk, is with a backpack. Sometimes this is the only option, especially if walking a rough hiking trail.
But there is another option to consider if you are walking along roads or bicycle paths. A cart.
Both have advantages and disadvantages but unless you really are covering terrain that is to rough for a cart, that is what I would recommend. A cart can be any sort of bicycle trailer or baby jogger, just make sure it rolls easily and is large enough to hold your gear. With a cart you will not be as limited in what and how much you can carry, but that does not mean you should load it up with everything, including the kitchen sink. Instead, see it as a means of carrying your necessities in the easiest possible way. The big advantage with a cart is that it is possible to walk unsupported across long stretches of arid country, where water is not easily available and you need to carry water for many days without being able to resupply. You need to drink a lot of water, especially in a warm, dry climate, and this adds up to a lot of weight. A lot more than you could comfortably carry on your back. When I crossed Texas at the height of summer, I routinely had 20 litters of water with me. Enough for 3 days. That adds up to 20 kilos of extra weight, on top of the rest of your equipment and food.
There are other advantages to using a cart. I find it easier to organise my stuff so that I can get at it quickly and, perhaps the biggest advantage, you will be able to cover much longer distances each day.
All that said, sometimes it is just not feasible to use a cart and you will have to resort to using the time tested backpack. If this proves to be the case, make sure you get a backpack that fits you properly and learn to be the best minimalist packer ever. At the end of a long days walking, you will feel any extra weigh in the pack as a huge load. There are plenty of resources on the net with information on how to minimise the weight of your pack, any good hiker knows how disheartening a heavy pack can be.
While I have been walking across the USA, I have been reading the accounts, both books and blogs, of people who have done the same thing themselves. Many of them start out using a backpack but, especially when they reach the long, dry stretches of the west, end up changing to using some sort of cart. It is the only way to carry a sufficient amount of water if you are unsupported.
Whatever method you decide on using, try to minimise your equipment list as much as possible. There is nothing as disheartening as carrying “stuff” that you never use, especially when road starts heading up and up and up!
Pack to suit the climate and never forget that it is often easier, and sometimes cheaper, to acquire equipment as and when you need it, rather than carrying it with you all along.
Loneliness and Meditation
Long distance walking takes time. That is a simple fact and it has a few consequences. You will be walking for many hours each day and you will be walking for many days. If you are walking by yourself, you will be spending a lot of time in your own company with only your own thoughts to relieve the boredom.
One of the beauties of being out and exposed to your surrounding for such an extended period of time is that you can’t avoid paying attention to it. You soon discover that every landscape has interesting features. That was very convincingly brought home to me recently, when I traveled along a section of road that I had recently walked, in a car. In the car, the scenery blurred into a grey, green mass without any points of interest and was just plain boring. By contrast, when walking, I had time to see all the different variations, experience all the very separate parts that went into making the whole, and found myself seeing new things all the time.
But even if you are attuned to your surroundings, you are going to have a lot of time to think. Think about what you have done and experienced in your life and what you want to do in the future. For me, this has become a form of meditation that is invaluable. It is not transcendental meditation, but a more freeform type, where your thoughts wander and you have time to examine your experiences and motivations in depth. The background beat of your steps reinforces the timelessness of your thoughts as they swirl through your mind and new concepts and ideas arise to both compete with and complement already existing ones.
Many creative people, from all scientific and artistic fields have praised walking as a way to maximise creativity and help sort through seemingly insurmountable problems. Human beings evolved to be active, to walk or even run every day and it is not surprising that walking is beneficial not only to physical health but mental as well. It has been proven again and again that physical activity positively benefits cognitive reasoning.
I have often been asked if I don’t get lonely when I’m walking. That has never been a problem for me because I seem to meet new and interesting people all the time. Every time I stop at a shop or pass through a small village, there always seems to be somebody that wants to talk to me. I meet more people most days than I did when living in Stockholm. But there are naturally days that go by without much human contact and I have come to enjoy them as yet another opportunity to experience my surroundings, try to live in the moment and meditate.
Hope this helps any of you out there that are contemplating a long walk of your own.
As I have already stated, this is very much a first draft and as I continue walking I expect to learn more and welcome any feedback that you might have.
Please spread this essay to anyone you think might be interested and above all, keep walking!