Long distance walking

“I didn't plan it as a spiritual journey - I would have scoffed if you'd suggested it,” says Steven Van Beek, who embarked on our 15-day Winchester to Canterbury pilgrims way vacation, “But it became that.”

Long distance walks – which we’ve classed here as vacations that involve roughly ten or more days of continuous walking – are deceptively simple. Who could have guessed that putting one foot in front of the other, half a million times in a row, could be so profoundly lifechanging?
Continuous walking can bring you into a state of flow. Absorbed in its enjoyment, exertion seems effortless and you lose all sense of time. The effect on your mental health can be profound.
Knowing that all you need to think about that day is the trail can be fantastically liberating. Yes, all you’re doing is walking, and yet, somewhere along the way, the experience is transfigured into something very meaningful.

Going to Everest Base Camp, or walking the Camino de Santiago might be marketed as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, but we should probably add a disclaimer: you might want to do them again. Walking is addictive.

Here’s a guide that celebrates long distance walks – in all their simplicity and sublimity. If you don’t want to fall into a cycle of training for the next walk as soon as you’ve finished the last, we suggest you read with caution.

Long distance walks are…

epic, on-foot adventures that will whet your appetite for further challenges.

Long distance walks are not…

done against the clock. It’s better to take it slow.

What does long distance walking entail?

Booking enough time off

Long distance walks are not races. It’s important to take your time. On high altitude treks you’ll have to factor in careful, short ascents so you can acclimatise. On ambitious routes like the Portuguese Way it’s better to take it slow day by day, instead of risking an injury that ruins the rest of your trip. Don’t be fooled by days on the itinerary that involve shorter distances. “We often measure in hours rather than distance – as distance can be really misleading – a 10km day could involve 1,000m of ascent,” says Gordon Steer, from our expert long-distance walking partner World Expeditions.

Long distance walking vacations are always longer than the walk itself. If you are venturing into a remote region, there may be some considerable traveling either side of your walk to get to the trail head, and to get away. For example, in Nepal, this might be a long journey by jeep into the mountains. If you then fly back out of the mountains, then an extra buffer day might be built into a trip in case the weather is too bad on one day for the flight.

Self guided or small group?

On self guided walks you’re provided with maps and instructions, and all your stops and reservations are made for you, but you do the walking itself unaccompanied. Self guided long distance walks are possible when there’s no need for porters and you won’t be encountering high altitudes or remote locations.

Self guided walks can be great ways to do pilgrimage treks, such as the Camino de Santiago in Portugal, France and Spain, or for exploring the English countryside, where you’re never far from the nearest road. Some degree of map reading and orientation might be required of you on these routes.

For exploration in remote regions involving high altitude, a small group is best. The advantages are practical – You’ll have a guide to navigate and check the weather – but also social. You’ll form lasting bonds and friendships.

“The human element becomes very strong in long distance walking” says Umer Latif, founder of our specialist trekking partner in Pakistan, Beyond the Valley Adventures. “By the time the trek finishes the members of your group will become your best friends because you are so open to them.”

Taking it slow

All the advice says the same thing about long distance walking – pace yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and injuries must be avoided at all costs. There is no point walking hard on the first few days, only to get blisters and spend the rest of the trip in agony. Be kind to your feet, and they’ll carry you far. Walking is about far more than putting in the miles, after all. It’s about what you experience on the way.

Take rest days, acclimatisation days and longer trips seriously. Don’t try to do a trek over a shorter time to save a bit of money, if it means compromising safety or comfort. With these big distances, it’s important to go slow and steady – you might not have the chance to do this trip again, so do it right.
With these big distances, it’s important to go slow and steady – you might not have the chance to do this trip again, so do it right.

Training for a long distance walk

There are very few people who could go and do multiple seven-hour days of walking without some training first. “Some people might climb Snowdon in a day – but then need three days to recover from it,” says Gordon Steer. “You can’t afford that on a long distance walk. You’ve got to get yourself ready.” The good news is, that most people can train themselves to walk over multiple days. There’s no secret to it, it’s as easy as putting your best foot forward.

“It’s about getting out there and doing the hard yards,” says Gordon. “There’s only one way to train for a long distance walk – or any walk for that matter – and that is to walk.” He suggests building up gradually, doing two or three hour routes on the weekend over consecutive days, so your body is used to continuous walking. Training wearing the equipment you plan to use on your trip is vital too, to check that it is comfortable.

Long distance walking packing lists

One of the best things about long distance walking is what you can achieve with only a set of good footwear. Take the kit lists that you are suggested seriously, though, especially when it comes to what you put between you and the ground. Even though the list is usually quite short, it is created from years of experience.

“Socks and boots are the most important item,” says Gordon. “The boot is the thing that protects you from the ground– it’s where you're most likely to get your problems. Make sure your boots have good soles, such as Vibram soles, and not too much lateral movement from heel to toe.”

Make sure your day pack is comfortable – you will want to walk with it during your training. Trekking poles – if you like them – are particularly good on hilly walks as they tend to make walking downhill easier on your knees. But they’re rarely essential. You may need a spare pair of trainers to ford streams and rivers, and sun protection. At high altitudes you will find there is little protection from UV rays.

You can pack all you like for a long distance walk, but nothing will prepare you for finishing one. Celebrations are bittersweet – you’ll rejoice, knowing you’ve completed one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, whilst experiencing profound sadness that it’s over. Better book in the next one.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Long distance walking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tdway] [Intro: Mikael Leppa] [Are/Aren't: Tyler Nix] [Training for a long distance walk: Colby Winfield]