A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 2)

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

Here’s the next section of my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk, created as I prepare to embark on my first one. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here

Consider what you need to spend money on:

When I started walking in January, I was wearing jeans, a cotton t-shirt, a cotton hoodie, a vaguely-showerproof dog-walking coat and some vintage walking boots I found tucked away in my shed! On long walks I was covering 13 miles so the lack of ‘proper’ clothing didn’t stop me walking, but I realised fairly early-on that I would need to up my game a bit…

My first purchase was a pair of decent walking socks. Unfortunately they weren’t the right ones for me, but the second pair was much better and I’ve stuck with those ever since.

The thing I resisted buying for longest was a pair of walking trousers, just because they seemed so geeky!! Happily I found a pair that weren’t beige and I haven’t looked back since!

NB If you’re buying new clothing for your event, don’t do what I did and buy three pairs all at once, only to find that loose and comfortable at home = chafing and uncomfortable over a longer distance. I have had to buy a couple more pairs, a size smaller than I would instinctively go for, to get the right fit. I’m hoping the larger size will come into their own in the winter as I’ll be able to fit a pair of leggings underneath, but I could have done without the additional expense.

The first time I wore ‘all the gear’ I felt like a potential fire-hazard, dressed head-to-toe in man-made (aka technical) fabrics, but over the past few months I have appreciated the benefit of said fabrics many times over.

all the gear…in all the colours!!

Finding the right footwear was a bit of a mission but now that I have ‘the ones’ I am glad that I didn’t settle for those which just didn’t feel quite right. The difference they make is huge and it is so good to feel confident that my feet will be ok, especially when I’ll be relying on them as my sole (see what I did there?!) mode of transport from the moment I step off the train in Winchester until I arrive on Hastings pier. If you only get one thing right for your event, make sure it is your footwear!

pair of boots #5

Unexpectedly, my best purchase to date has been a rain poncho. I’ve learned that the thing which annoys me & slows me down the most is faffing on and off with my backpack to put on/take off a waterproof coat when the weather just can’t decide what to do. The rain poncho goes on over everything (including my pack) so on days when I think I’ll need it, I hang it (rolled up in its little bag) from a hook on the front of my pack, ready to pull out and throw on at a moment’s notice. I believe that it is also the most truly versatile piece of kit – ground sheet, canopy, one-woman toilet-tent, hammock, curtain (for my dorm-room bed), talking point…I tell you, it is genius & I love it!

Of course you don’t necessarily need to spend money on everything – ask around and see what you can borrow, even if it is just to try things out before you buy. I have borrowed a sleeping bag for my event and have borrowed a trekking-friends’ poles to train with. In truth I could have used them for my walk too, but I had the romantic notion that I wanted my own pair of poles so that they would be with me for all my memorable walks, now and in the future. Daft I know, but that’s the way I roll!

[I’ll write a separate post about trekking poles soon…lots to say!]

Test everything:

Once you have acquired your kit, or as you are busy acquiring it, get it on and test it how you will use it for your event. Test it in every type of weather, over different distances, with different loads (if you’ll be carrying a backpack) and at different times of the day. Even if you feel silly walking the dog with a 50 litre backpack on, do it anyway! It will create no end of interest from your neighbours, but more importantly it will tell you what, if anything, you need to refine.

Things to consider (obviously the specifics will vary with each type of event):

  • does your underwear chafe? (it’s important to find this out early on)
  • how do your feet feel after  x-hours or x-miles?
  • are your waterproofs waterproof?
  • how does your backpack feel on your back/shoulders/hips?
  • how easy is it to get your gloves out when a sudden cold wind whips up a hail-storm without warning? (answer – far too long, but lesson learned!)
  • how quickly do your clothes dry off after walking through a field of long grass right after a heavy downpour?
  • how easily can you access the things you might need frequently? (in my case the things I like to have in easy reach at all times are lip salve, tissue, phone, map, snacks & water, plus gloves, hat & sunglasses accessible without needing to take off my backpack)

Use every training session as another chance to test out your kit, as getting things right will make the biggest difference for your actual event. Feeling confident before you start is one less thing to worry about when the time comes.

Work out the right fuel & hydration for your body:

This has probably been my biggest lesson.

When I started in January, I was covering 13 miles without any snacks (except for Christmas cake on one joyous occasion) and only rare, brief stops for sips of hot water. I didn’t think I needed any food because I wasn’t getting hungry, and I only noticed how thirsty I was at the end, but what I did notice was that I became very cold as soon as I stopped walking, and then felt totally exhausted for the rest of the day (and sometimes the next day too).

Over time I have experimented with different fuel options and have found a formula which seems to work for me, while I’m walking and afterwards. For a long walk I now carry:

  • a 2 litre water-bladder in my backpack, from which I take small and frequent drinks (I also have two 1 litre collapsible bottles for the SDW so that I can carry extra water on the really long days/in hot weather)
  • an insulated bottle with hot water in it for when I take a break
  • a nut bar or sesame seed bar for protein and energy
  • a raw fruit bar/snack for energy
  • a packet of oatcakes for slower release energy (and because sometimes I want something savoury rather than sweet)
  • Kendal mint cake as a back-up / treat towards the end of my walk
snacks for walking

snacks that work for me –
what are your favourites?

I won’t necessarily eat all of these things (it will depend on time/distance/exertion) but I now have a better understanding of the fuel I need to get me where I need to be and in good shape when I get there.

Giving some focus to this area of my preparation has been very important. To start with I didn’t like drinking cold water (because I don’t like how it feels in my stomach) but I have adjusted and become comfortable with the stomach-feel during recent weeks, spurred on by the knowledge that sipping hot water wasn’t giving me the hydration I needed. The benefit of testing out lots of different food options, has been that I now have four go-to products which my body copes with well.

There was a near-choking scare along the way – I was eating nuts and raisins, whilst walking and talking to a friend; as I did so, I partly inhaled a half-chewed nut, which got a bit stuck in my throat for a few worrying seconds, while I coughed and spluttered and my friend tried to work out how she would be able to perform a back slap while I was wearing a backpack!!! That one incident (and visions of choking to death alone on the SDW) did more to focus my mind on potentially suitable snacks than anything else.

As with your kit, test out your fuel options every time you train for your event – it is another area where confidence in a tried-and-tested approach will make a huge difference when it matters most.

When I started thinking about walking the SDW, I thought it was just about doing the miles and had no idea how much I had to learn, but the process of getting ready has been as positive as the practice walks and physical & mental health benefits. I am feeling slightly nervous about what I’m about to do, but so excited that I have this opportunity to challenge myself in this way.

I’ll report back soon to let you know if all my planning came good and to add anything new that I haven’t learned yet!

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