Going the distance

This year is set to be a bumper year for long-distance hiking in Great Britain. Read our expert’s guide on key factors to consider when choosing and planning a multi-day walking adventure.

Words by James Forrest

Aerial view of a long path going to the distance

Walking the Ridgeway, a route used since prehistoric times

This year is set to be a bumper year for long-distance hiking in Great Britain. Read our expert’s guide on key factors to consider when choosing and planning a multi-day walking adventure.

Brits have always loved a good countryside ramble. But, ever since Covid-19 lockdowns sparked a surge in walking’s popularity, collectively we’ve been hiking more often and for longer. New research from Ordnance Survey – based on analysis of 900,000 walks logged on the OS Maps app – suggests Brits completed 46% more hikes in 2021 than 2020, while the average walk length increased, too. What we can perhaps infer from this data is that more Brits are getting into hiking, and they’re keen to push themselves to bigger adventures, meaning 2022 is predicted to be a boom year for long-distance walking.

Whether you’re an ambitious newbie or an enthusiastic old hand, opportunities for an epic multi-day walk are plentiful. The Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) lists 1,500+ trails – and there’s something for everyone, from hardcore Scottish mountain treks and rugged Welsh coastal journeys to gentle English village-to-village ambles. But how on earth do you choose the right trail for you? And, even if you can decide, how the heck do you go about planning the darned thing? It’s almost enough to make you ditch the idea altogether. But that would be a travesty. With our comprehensive how-to guide there’s absolutely no need to prematurely abandon your hiking dreams.

Let us walk you through every step of the process (pun intended), from route-plotting, itineraries and accommodation to navigation, fitness and kit. And by the end, you’ll hopefully be halfway towards a wonderful long-distance walking experience.

A person walking a path up towards large hills

Catbells ridge, Lake District by Ian Burnell

Why take a long-distance walk?

Long-distance walking (any walk that takes longer than a day) isn’t all sun-drenched hillsides and idyllic camping. There will be ample anguish along the way. You’ll be cold and miserable, your feet will scream, your waterproofs will leak, and you’ll sometimes wonder why you ever signed up for this godforsaken journey. But, ultimately, the juice is worth the squeeze.

Long-distance walking has the capacity to restore your mood, rejuvenate your spirit and make you laugh like a child. A therapeutic cocktail of fresh air, big views, escapism, tranquillity, nature and exercise will help you de-stress, while the slow pace will give you a truly intimate interaction with your chosen landscape and a wonderful sense of achievement at the finish. As Alex Roddie, author of The Farthest Shore: Seeking Solitude and Nature on the Cape Wrath Trail in Winter, puts it: ‘There’s nothing like long-distance walking – you learn to see the landscape in a completely different way when you spend days outside, going to sleep with the sunset and waking at dawn.’

Opportunities abound

While New Zealand boasts 10 Great Walks, France has a 37,000-mile network of Grandes Randonnées (Big Walks), and the USA’s National Trails System is a whopping 88,600 miles long, the UK can still compete on the global scale when it comes to hiking infrastructure. England and Wales have 2,500 miles of hiking paths across 16 National Trails (nationaltrail.co.uk), while Scotland has more than 1,900 miles of routes across its 29 Great Trails (scotlandsgreattrails.com). These official lists of the best-maintained and most iconic ‘off-the-shelf’ routes are the perfect place to start for inspiration.

But they aren’t the only option. Remember the LDWA (ldwa.org.uk) has a searchable database of over 1,500 UK paths, covering more than 88,000 miles, and these lesser-known trails traverse the length and breadth of Great Britain. You could pick one to walk in its entirety, or alternatively why not combine several into your own bespoke route? You could walk from home to a relative’s house, plotting a wiggly route between your two favourite towns, or whatever else your imagination can conceive. The Slow Ways project is developing a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities (beta.slowways.org).

A man with walking poles climbing the last steps to a summit

James hiking in the Kentmere fells, during his solo round of all 214 Wainwrights

Choosing the right trail

Ask yourself these three questions and it will help narrow down your choices.

Which trail excites me? 

Focus on your passions and pick a trail that stirs your emotions and fills you with enthusiasm. Don’t be swayed by misguided preconceptions of what a ‘real’ long-distance walk should be. Choose something you really want to do, whether it’s an off-grid wilderness challenge, luxury B&B-hopping ramble, history-themed hike, or birdwatching bimble.

When, where and for how long?

Can you take a weekend, week or three months off work? Do you want to stay local or travel to a far-flung destination? And do you fancy a wintry wander, quieter spring stroll or sun-drenched summer saunter? Defining the parameters of your walk – its ideal length, time of year and location – will help immeasurably in choosing correctly.

How fit and experienced am I?

The difficulty of long-distance walks varies massively. Some like Hadrian’s Wall Path are relatively flat, with good tracks, excellent signage, regular re-supply opportunities and achievable daily distances. Others such as the Cape Wrath Trail demand first-rate fitness and die-hard determination, and self- sufficiency in the mountains, including wild camping, river crossings and precise navigation over pathless terrain. It’s vital to choose a route that suits your particular skill set and fitness.

A man walking alone along a stone path, by a green valley

How to plan

Step one is to plot your route. While old- timers might draw red marker pen lines on maps, the 21st-century approach is digital. With a navigation app such as OS maps or Komoot, you can precisely plot a trail (with infinite revisions), track exact mileage and ascent stats, and download it to a phone. You might not even need to create the route yourself, as pre-plotted GPXs of popular trails are often available.

The next task is to establish a day-by- day itinerary. Trail guidebooks are useful, suggesting different timescales – five, six or seven-day schedules, for example – based on how far and fast you will walk daily. An average walker should complete 10 miles a day (2 mph for 5 hours, plus 1 hour for every 600m of ascent and additional time for breaks, according to Naismith’s rule), while speed-merchants may aim for 15-20 miles daily.

With a daily mileage target in mind, you can figure out where you’ll be finishing each night, and begin planning your accommodation – wild camping, campsites, hostels or comfier B&Bs and hotels. In terms of food, it’s useful to make similar plans – what shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants will you pass and when? This will help you know, for instance, that you need to buy two lunches and a breakfast at the Co-op in village X, but once in village Y you can eat dinner at the King’s Head pub. And all of this info can be collated into a day-by-day spreadsheet – your long-distance hiking master plan. But it’s important to remain flexible, too. Build in contingency and remember that things might go awry: shops will be unexpectedly closed, storms will appear suddenly, injury may hinder your progress. So, try to embrace the unpredictability of trail life.

Another important consideration is transport. Driving is often convenient, but can pose difficulties – where can you safely park for several days and how do you get back to your car once you’ve finished? If part of a group, you could leave one car at the start and one at the end, but this involves lots of toing and froing. Public transport is often a better option. Book trains and coaches in advance for better prices, or perhaps consider open, flexible fares if you’re unsure of timings.

If all this planning sounds overwhelming, numerous tour operators offer self-guided and guided walking holidays, organising the itinerary, accommodation and even baggage transfers for you. Such an approach can be expensive but hassle free.

A stone trig point, upon a hill with a view to the distance

Kit and equipment

While there isn’t space here for a full kit list, the basics are pretty simple. In terms of clothing, you’ll need breathable, fast- wicking base-layers, insulating mid-layers for warmth, and fully waterproof outer layers to keep the wind and rain at bay. In your backpack you’ll need food, water, map, compass, first-aid kit and other accessories, while if you’re camping you’ll obviously need a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and camping stove.

But perhaps the biggest consideration is footwear. Chris Townsend, author of 20 hiking books, says: ‘The key to enjoyable long-distance hiking is comfortable footwear. If your feet hurt, you’ll hate it.’ So, finding a pair that fits comfortably – and breaking them in properly – is crucial.

Preparation

It might sound obvious, but the best way to train is to simply spend as much time walking as possible – in all weathers and over challenging ground. You will build strength in the relevant muscles, and increase your stamina and endurance. Try to up the mileage, ascent and technicality of terrain each month.

By doing this, you will learn so much and will give yourself a far better chance of completing – as well as enjoying – your chosen long-distance adventure. 

A man walking a long path among grassy low hills

Top tips

  1. Choose your trail buddies carefully – for some, walking solo is a wonderfully enriching experience, but for others the camaraderie of a friend/partner/canine companion is irreplaceable.
  2. Beware the Scottish midge – avoid May to August in the Highlands, because swarms of this infuriating insect can spoil the fun (or pack lots of Smidge spray and a midge net).
  3. Filter water on the go – rehydration is vital for any long-distance hiker, so a bottle with an integrated filter, such as a LifeStraw Go, will enable you to fill up in streams en route.
  4. Don’t run out of power – carrying a portable 20,000mAh power bank will enable you to charge your phone, headtorch and any other electronic devices on the go.
  5. Calls of nature – public toilets aren’t always available, so make sure you know how to responsibly do your business out in the wild, and always carry a trowel and hand sanitiser.
  6. Responsible hiking – always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and Countryside Code in England and Wales

Hitting the trail

Ramblers' experiences on long distance hikes

  • Yvonne Stephenson walked the Fife Coastal Path. ‘It was such an amazing boost to my confidence and mental and physical wellbeing.’
  • Barbara Winwood walked the Thames Path in stages. ‘I was elated to complete it and am now planning to do the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.’
  • Jennifer and Matthew Knights are currently walking 795km/494 miles from the Mull of Galloway to John o’ Groats. ‘We started in August 2021 and it’ll take us a good year in stages, fitting it around work.’ Monitor their progress: ramblingknights.weebly.com and read about their approach in our blog.
  • Graham Wright walked the North Downs Way. ‘No matter how much training you have done, don’t underestimate the cumulative effects of walking 15 miles a day. I find that 
    by the fifth day I need a day off.’
  • Margaret Wallis and Edward Davies have ticked off a number of trails. ‘Walking October to March, accommodation costs are more reasonable,’ says Margaret. 
  • Lorraine Eaves and five friends walked the West Highland Way. ‘Our top recommendation is walking poles.’
  • Gerald and Sandy Swayne completed the Hebridean Way. ‘How far you walk each day is your choice – don’t be pressured by the guidebook.’
  • A group of 24 Redditch Ramblers completed the Isle of Wight Coastal Path, using buses to/from each section. ‘The island’s bus service is 
    very efficient and wonderful value,’ says walk coordinator Paul Field. 
  • Christine Weller recently walked the Hadrian’s Wall Path with Ramblers Walking Holidays. ‘This is a brilliant option for someone who is either inexperienced or looking for company.’
  • Kate Moore completed Lady Anne’s Way from Skipton to Penrith. ‘Don’t be heroic and ego-driven – savour the places you travel through.’  
  • Charles Merkel completed the Cotswold Way on day excursions from London. ‘There were no overnight stays, meals out and the rest and I didn’t use up all my holiday allowance.’