A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 1)

my top 6 tips for planning any long distance event, new activity or life in general.

I’m not sure what age I was when I started walking (I think I was the child who was happy to sit in one spot for hours at a time?!) but given that I’m 53 now, I reckon I must have been on my feet for about 52 years. Over the past 18 months, walking has helped me process grief and hormone-related depression and has increasingly become an inherent part of me. There’s something in the rhythm of walking that makes me feel truly alive, which is why I’m about to set off for my first long distance walk (LDW) next week…

Earlier this year I decided that I was going to walk The Pennine Way (a vague dream I’ve had since I was a teenager) and then I looked into it in more detail and got a bit scared. It’s not my style to do an organised walk, with baggage transfers and plush b&b nights, so I realised that I wasn’t quite ready for this particular challenge for my first solo LDW. Instead, I set my sights closer to home, with a shorter, less challenging walk – The South Downs Way (Winchester to Eastbourne) plus an added day to get me to Hastings.

It occurs to me that this might be the most planning & preparation I’ve done in a long time, largely because this is the most I’ve stepped out of familiar territory for a long time too. I’m not worried about the walking itself, even though my longest distance so far is not equal to my longest days on the SDW, but I wanted to feel confident about following a map, having everything in my backpack where I can access it easily, staying dry in the pouring rain, not looking like a total novice, etc, etc.

rain poncho happiness
the joy of a waterproof
rain poncho 🙂

I’ve been thinking about the process of preparation a lot over the past few weeks and as result I’ve written my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk.

Although it is about walking for me, I think that many of these stages are relevant for any long distance event, new activity or life in general. I’ve tried to put them in some sort of order, but of course many will overlap. This post covers the first 3 tips (the getting started stuff) and I’ll share the next 3 tips (the practical stuff) tomorrow.

I hope you find something useful, whatever you’re planning.

Start where you are:

It sounds obvious, but it is too easy to wait until everything is in place before we start doing something new or challenging. We might wait until we have all the right equipment, or until we have lost weight, or until we feel fitter, or until the weather is better, or until someone can do it with us…but actually what we really need to do is just start.

I wanted to do a LDW so I started by walking further:

  • I signed up to #walk100miles which has been a great source of motivation and information
  • I began adding extra distance whenever I walked the dog (walking around an extra field, or going twice around the local woods instead of once)
  • I started planning longer walks on the weekends, discovering new footpaths near my home
  • I set up an informal walking group every Wednesday morning – making a commitment to be there for other people has helped me to make a commitment to myself
  • I have made more effort to walk instead of using the car for local trips, eg. going to the library, collecting parcels form the post office or a quick visit to the supermarket

The best thing is that over the past few months, walking has become such a great part of my day that it no longer feels like an effort to do it.

Plan your event:

Give yourself time to think about what sort of an event you want to do and then take time to research the various options available.

I knew from the start that I wanted to do an independent, unsupported walk – ie. not a pre-planned, organised walking holiday. For me, walking has been about learning to believe in myself, and so it feels important to do this by myself too. It wouldn’t be everyone’s choice, of course, so I think the first thing when planning your event is to know what is right for you.

Once you have decided on your event, and made some initial plans, step back a little and take time to review and re-plan as many times as you need. For the SDW, I bought a book which covers the whole walk plus lots of advice on suggested daily distances, places to stay, etc. I went through it in fine detail and planned out my daily schedule and places to sleep. The next week, I looked it over again and re-scheduled the whole thing. And the next week, after reading another book on the subject, I did the same again! Only then did I feel ready to book my accommodation and arrange time off work.

My main focus in the planning stages was:

  • getting the distances right (not too short – arriving by lunchtime – and not too long – arriving after dark)
  • guessing my likely average pace with a backpack (not something I had practiced at this stage)
  • sticking to a budget (ie. finding the most cost-effective places to stay without resorting to sleeping under canvas)

Try to plan well-ahead of your event so that you have plenty of time to review and reschedule if necessary.

Create a training ‘schedule’:

As a fitness instructor, this one is an obvious consideration but actually I only recently realised that I have been doing it all along without having specifically planned it out from the beginning.

Since I planned my event, I have gradually increased my weekly distances; walked over different terrain (to more closely replicate the terrain on the SDW); gradually added weight to my backpack; trained in different weather conditions; mixed in shorter, faster walks with longer, slower ones; and walked with and without the dog (he’s not coming with me on the SDW so I needed to check how it would feel – in truth quite lonely, but much easier to only think about me and not him too).

Archie’s face when I told him he wasn’t coming with me…

A few weeks ago I increased my weekly mileage by 50% and experienced my first (and only) blisters. It was quite an important lesson and luckily gave me time to review and change my boots while I still had time to do so.

Once the boot issue was resolved, I upped my mileage again for one week just to see how it would feel doing three long walks in a row; and since then I have tapered off again in the same way that I might if I was training for a marathon.

If you’re not sure how best to train for your event, get some help – talk to friends, look online, find a trainer, join a club or read-up on your activity. Training is not rocket-science but you don’t have to learn everything the hard way – unless you want to!

empty plate
scrambled eggs be gone!

With one week to go I am now focusing less on distance and more on making sure I eat and sleep well. I know I can walk, and I’m confident in my kit, so now I need to make sure that I’m in good shape to do it well.

Tomorrow I’ll add my next 3 tips focusing on what kit to invest in, how to check it’s the right kit for you and how best to fuel your body…

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