There’s nothing like hitting the open trail with just one bag of belongings on your back and an adventure ahead. The feeling of freedom, self-sufficiency and challenge that comes with such a journey is enlivening, but ensuring you’re ready for your mission, however modest or ambitious it is, can be daunting.
My hiking career began nearly twenty years ago on an overnight jaunt carrying a borrowed canvas external-frame backpack and a ridiculously heavy and complicated bag of cooking utensils.
Graduating from that, I went on to tackle a five day hike with a friend who taught me a few more things about living in the outdoors.
But it was a 3,000km walk from one end of New Zealand to the other on the Te Araroa Trail where I really fine-tuned my act. For five months I walked up hill and down dale, crossing countless rivers, navigating overgrown forests and trackless alpine terrain. It wasn’t easy but it was the most joyous and transformative experience of my life and one that I look back on now with misty eyes.
If you’re planning your own adventure, these tips that I’ve learned along the way might help you.
YOU’VE GOT THIS
Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’re right.” Everyone is capable of succeeding at great challenges with the right mindset, so make the effort to cultivate a positive can-do approach long before you start. It will carry you a long way.
Know that there will be challenges. You’ll get cold, tired, wet, dirty and experience all manner of other discomforts, but these things will pass. Accept the challenges and keep going. Your body was designed to move so give it a nudge and see what it’s capable of.
Reading books written by serious adventurers like Ranulph Fiennes or Cas and Jonesy, who have faced proper adversity, helped put my relatively tame goals into perspective, giving me the mental fortitude to push on when the going got tough. Music is another big morale booster and can help take your mind off things when you’re tired or suffering under inclement conditions, so pack some motivating tunes.
You’ve got to want it. I’ve seen people pull out of extended trips in just the first few days for no real reason other than that it rained a little or they just changed their mind. Ask yourself at the outset: do I really want to do this? And then remember your goal when the going gets tough.
Get your body in balance. Any little niggles you have will only be amplified under the stress of a long journey. I worked with a physio for eight months prior to my Te Araroa hike to fix a postural issue that made me prone to knee pain. It paid off and I completed five months of intense hiking with nothing worse than a couple of achy days.
If you’re embarking on your first week-long hike, get a bunch of decent day hikes under your belt so your body knows what to expect. To prepare for my five month journey I walked two hours a day for three months prior to departure, using the daily commute to work. For the month before I carried my pack as well. You’ll get most of your fitness on the trail but it’s good to get your feet used to the daily impact and your mind used to the new routine.
Stretch. Body maintenance is critical during training and on the mission itself. Your body will bounce back far quicker and any tight muscles that have potential to cause serious trouble will be ironed out. I carry a tiny chunk of Lush massage bar to rub down my legs and feet at the end of a day. A little goes a long way and just five minutes brings huge relief to tired muscles.
KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT
Don’t embark on a trip without researching what you’re signing up for. Will there be long days over hard terrain or is it fairly easy walking? Are there designated campsites or will you have to find somewhere to erect your tent? Is drinking water available? Do you need special skills such as navigation or river crossing experience? It might sound obvious but some people don’t do it and missing this step can mean you’re unprepared, mentally and physically, for the challenge ahead.
Be prepared but don’t overthink it. On a long trip in particular, you can’t plan every day in detail. Weather, fatigue or injury can disrupt your progress, or you may just decide you want to enjoy one spot for a few days. Stay flexible if you can.
PACK RIGHT (AND LIGHT)
Having the right gear can have a massive impact on your enjoyment and safety; there are no short cuts when it comes to choosing your kit.
Boots or trail runners? Tent or hammock? Thick down jacket or just a fleece? Some people feel the cold, some don’t. Everyone has different needs and values so research the clothes/tent/sleeping system that best suits you and the route you’re taking. There is no such thing as the one definitive perfect set of equipment, so follow your gut and do what works for you, not other people.
It may sound pedantic but every little gram adds up so trim weight where you can. Leave the plastic dinner plate at home – you can eat straight from the cooking pot. A sturdy Chux dishcloth will dry you just as well as a travel towel for a fraction of the weight, plus it dries quickly. If you can shave 10 to 30 per cent off every item in your pack by choosing the lighter alternative it might save you a few kilos overall and you will notice that.
Personally I like to remove all stuff sacks from sleeping bags and down jackets. I carried them on Te Araroa but having a bunch of cylindrical bags created a lot of dead space in my pack, plus it’s extra weight and takes longer to pack up in the morning. Make sure your pack is waterproof, or lined with bin bags, and then just stuff everything in, using up every inch of space.
Make sure your pack is properly fitted to your body. Buy footwear with a little extra room, because your feet will swell on long journeys. Two weeks into my hike I didn’t recognise my own feet.
Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS is a good backup but don’t rely on it, because pre-programmed routes are not always accurate and tech or power issues may suddenly leave you stranded.
Long distance journeys can use up a lot of energy, so you’ll need to fuel yourself well, ideally with food that is compact, non-perishable and not too heavy. Dehydrated food, whether supermarket bought or home-dried, is the obvious choice.
Bear in mind that while pasta might fill a hole in your stomach, it’s not going to do your body any good if you eat it every day for months on end. Aim for a balanced intake of fats, carbs, vitamins, minerals and protein to repair and power your body. Research foods that you’ll be able to access en route and then get a little menu plan together. Never underestimate the morale-boosting power of chocolate.
Fresh food is nice but it’s heavy so think about what you can manage. If you’re going to carry some – and I do – be economical about your choices. Opt for a bag of spinach leaves over corn on the cob or half a kilo of raw carrots (yep, I’ve seen it done).
You’ll have to carry out your rubbish so get rid of excess packaging before you head onto the trail.
Plan and prepare, but once that is done just throw yourself to the wind and go with the flow. I faced some decent challenges on my journey such as getting snowed in a hut for three days, nearly being blown off a mountain top and dislocating my shoulder twice; on the other hand I also experienced some of the most blissful days I can remember, where the pure simplicity of a hiking life made me drunk with happiness. Face the challenges but embrace the freedom. Enjoy.