Crucial Advice for Long-Distance Walkers & Hikers
Over 2,000 miles covered over the past 2 years. This is the best advice from my mistakes and successes.
Like many activities in life, walking is easy until it becomes hard. As the miles increase, so must your mental and physical tolerance of ache and pain.
There’s very little you can do to make walking and hiking easier. As the saying goes: “It doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger”. But you can help yourself to be as comfortable and pain-free as possible out there on the trail.
Unlike most articles and videos you’ll find on this subject, this isn’t a strict set of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. Nor is it a list of gear and gadgets you “must” have to reach your goals. It’s simply my best advice, based on the many mistakes I’ve made.
Everyone’s on their own journey. Your goals and purpose are different from mine. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice with this. We all learn what’s best for us as individual adventurers. So while you take my advice with a pinch of salt, I hope you gain something from it, and maybe mold my advice to suit you.
Like most hobbies, when we get excited, we can go crazy with buying gadgets and gizmos. I did this myself, to the extent where my original passion for walking started to disappear. Walking is a very simple activity that shouldn’t be over-complicated by the world of commercialism.
Technology is a tool. We should use it to our advantage: not let it take over.
Only take what you absolutely need. When you’re packing for a walk, ask yourself: do I really need this? What are the chances I’ll use this? Will it add to the experience, or will it distract you from it?
When it comes to phones, I keep my internet turned off. Many of us go out walking to get away from the virtual world, so why would we take that with us? Phones are great tools we should utilize, though. We can take photos, check the map, research a monument, jot down a creative idea, etc.
The other 2 gadgets I take are a GPS watch and headphones. GPS watch to record my stats. Headphones to lift my mood during the tough miles.
I used to lug around a DSLR camera, in the hope of gaining an amazing landscape shot. But it wasn’t worth carrying it just for that. But you may feel that taking professional photos adds to your experience. Or maybe you’re content with phone photos. Evaluate and decide.
Walking and hiking involve a lot of trial and error. Take what you think you need, but if you don’t end up using certain items, consider ditching it. The same applies to what you don’t take that you’ve actually needed out there on the trail; take that item with you next time.
When you have lots of gadgets, you have to maintain them. You have to keep on top of charging, fixing, cleaning, etc. and that brings its own set of frustrations and implications into the simple activity of walking.
I like to use a rule I made up called the Rule or More. Take more than you think you need at first. Then, over time, get rid of the stuff you don’t use on your walks. This is better than doing the opposite: not taking enough and being caught out while you’re far away from civilization.
As a side note, I also find that leaving the virtual world behind reminds us of how to be human beings again. Out there in the lanes and hills, I find that people always smile and say hello. I wish it was like this in the city. This kind of quick and easy communication can really make someone’s day. And how lovely it is to admire and appreciate this beautiful world around us.
On the other hand, if you like the idea of getting stuff done while you walk, you’ll find that walking without distraction is amazing for coming up with ideas and content for whatever creative field you’re in. As mentioned, technology can and should be used to your advantage.
I find this to be true for myself. When we’re outside enjoying the real world, instead of being distracted by the fast online world, we allow our brains to slow down and wander freely. One thought leads to another, and before you know it, you’ve got a bunch of ideas to crack on with when you get home.
One study found that ‘exercise, especially endurance exercise, is known to have beneficial effects on brain health and cognitive function’.
When it comes to gear and accessories, I never buy the fancy stuff or go for any “proper” gear. I used to watch a bunch of “pros” on YouTube. These people made me feel like I had to get a long list of gear, from certain brands, to really be considered a walker or hiker. What a load of rubbish.
Many of these YouTubers have affiliations with brands. In my experience, these specialized stores will just rip you off. As mentioned above, when I first got serious about my miles, I naively bought into the gadgets and gizmos. Most of what I bought I never needed, nor did I ever use once.
I simply buy and wear what I feel comfortable in. As I said at the beginning, that’s the number 1 aim: to be as comfortable as possible.
How these companies and influencers made the extremely basic function of putting one foot in front of the other so expensive and confusing is a topic for another time. But being aware of this obvious commercialism is all you need to ensure you avoid that expensive, time-consuming trap.
I wear tennis shorts because they’re loose. No chafing whatsoever and air can flow freely. I’ve had the same two pairs of shorts for over two years now, and they were only £20 ($25).
I wear a thin running top because it’s breathable and sweat doesn’t stick to the material as it does with cotton. These are more expensive at £15 ($19) per shirt. But again, two of these have lasted me over two years so far.
As for shoes, I wear running shoes. This is because running shoes are light and flexible, yet padded. I go into the store and try on whatever’s on the SALE shelf. If they feel comfy when walking around the store, I buy them. It’s as simple as that.
For hiking, I wear trail running shoes, as they’re tougher and have more support for rough surfaces, such as uneven, rocky ground. Many will advise big boots, but they’re for extreme conditions. I find that wearing big boots on an easy walk or hike just makes my feet unnecessarily more sore and sweaty.
The only piece of gear I can’t be cheap with is socks. I’ve tried normal everyday socks from the supermarket, but they became worn and holey very quickly. I’ve also tried generic sports socks, but they’re too thick and not breathable at all.
A few weeks ago, I invested in 1000 Mile socks. These socks are quite expensive, at £13 ($16) for two pairs. I’ve done about 100 miles in them now, and I have to say that I love them. They’re thin and breathable, yet padded on the toe and heel areas.
Lastly, I wear a casual outdoor bag. Just a bigger, tougher version of your average laptop bag. A generic outdoor bag, if you will. Bags are a lot more subjective, though. You may just need a small side bag for keeping your wallet and keys in, or you may need a big hiking bag for multi-day trekking. You may not need a bag at all, keeping what you need in your pockets.
Whatever your carrier needs are, I advise going to a store and trying them out. Getting a bag that fits your needs and feels comfortable is important.
It’s the most mundane one, but arguably the most important. You can avoid so much ache, both during and after your walk, by stretching regularly throughout your walks. For so long, I just put up with the ache that came with increasing miles, not knowing about stretching.
One article makes the point of the muscle being similar to a rubber band. If it’s cold and brittle, it’s likely to snap. But a warm, flexible rubber band will stretch and return to its original shape.
Any time during your walk you feel a little tightness in your thighs or legs, stop and stretch. Just 10 seconds on each leg will give you such relief. It feels so nice to stretch away that ache. A study published by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise advises ‘holding a stretch for 10–30 seconds at the point of tightness or slight discomfort’.
Take a look at what stretches are most popular, try a bunch of them, and stick with the ones that work best for you. I have one stretch, which is shown below. Most of my ache is in the calves and hamstrings. The stretch below is the only one I’ve found to help with both of these areas at the same time.
Whenever I find a surface that’s lower than my hip, I pop my leg up and do the stretch. As mentioned, I do this as soon as I feel any tightness.
While your legs will suffer from ache, your feet will suffer from pain; more pain than any other part of your body, in my experience.
In today’s modern world, we grow up wearing socks and shoes,all day every day. While it’s conveniently comfy to have these pillows under our feet, it actually weakens them; our feet adapt and rely on this padding and support.
It’s not something I used to think about. Are humans meant to be barefoot? Whatever the answer is, we’re so used to wearing footwear that almost none of us will give it up. We have to pay the price for that, but we can certainly fight against it.
As mentioned, your feet will take a lot of damage out there. This is partly because of the body weight coming down on them, pressing them against all sorts of rough surfaces for hours at a time. Here are some tips:
- Toenails: Each year, all of my toenails go black and crusty, while most of them peel or fall off on their own. As gross as that sounds, it’s no big deal. It’s not that painful and it seems to be a common trend amongst walkers and hikers. I recommend cutting your toenails and ensuing you have room in the front of your shoe, to ensure your toenails don’t get crushed.
- Shoes: As mentioned, I use running and trail running shoes. Just ensure you try on shoes in-store and get a feel for them before buying. This is so important, as badly-fitted shoes can cause a lot of issues down the road.
- Tightness: Ensure your shoes are not so tight that you feel them press against the top of your foot, but so loose that you feel your heal rubbing against the back of the shoe. You can largely control this with how tight you tie your laces.
- Blisters: This is the most common issue for many. I usually get these when gravel somehow gets into my shoe. When I get the chance to sit down, I take off my shoes and shake them upside down, to ensure nothing is inside. You can also buy a gaiter, which is a piece of cloth that stops little bits going into the shoe.
- Change: Something I’ve recently started doing is changing into a different pair of socks halfway through a long walk. The feeling of a fresh pair of socks is simply amazing. Your socks will get dirty and damp throughout the miles, so changing them makes sense. Some people change their shoes too, but I don’t do this, as I don’t want to carry another pair with me.
- Tape: Leukoplast Zinc Oxide Tape is a godsend. Any area on your foot that’s damaged or giving you a hard time should have this tape on the top. I use it for loss of skin, scratches, scrapes, loss of toenails, scabs, blisters, etc. I don’t know how it works, but it does! It’s sticky and strong, staying on you for days and weeks, while you heal. Highly recommend!
Don’t be too specific with your targets and goals. Keep it vague and realistic. I used to stress myself out with reaching a certain number of miles each day, week and month. Obsessing over numbers sucks the fun from the experience.
Just do the miles you can realistically do and do the miles you’re happy to do. Don’t turn your hobby into a second job. Don’t bury the many benefits that come with walking by overthinking and overdoing.
Never turn it into something that’s unsustainable; so much so that you end up hurting yourself and/or hating it. There’s really no rush to progress. Just do what you can and you will get stronger and you will go further.
You’re not a machine: you’re human. Give in to having fun and cut yourself some slack. I have a rule that if I see an ice-cream van, I get an ice-cream. This rule can be applied to anything. If you see something you’d like to stop for, then imply stop for it. The trail isn’t going anywhere. Make some memories.
The two rules I would like you to take from this post are: 1) Use common sense, and 2) Do what makes you feel comfortable.
When it comes to buying and packing gear, ask yourself if you really need it. Will it add to the experience, or will it distract you from it?
When it comes to making decisions on your goals, have faith in your mind and body, and continue to push the limits. However, don’t get too hooked on specifics or copying what others are doing. You’re on your own journey.
Oh and, of course, stretch!