Walking is, literally, second nature to humans. Along with speech, it kinda makes us what we are. The manner in which we do it sets us apart from other species, and it comes naturally to pretty much all of us.
Walking is not hard. But sometimes, in that perverse way we have, we choose to make it hard. Or hearty at least. We choose to set out on a blimmin’ long hike, carrying a heavy rucksack, and leaving behind our cosy homes and creature comforts to pit ourselves against the weather and landscape.
Hiking, rambling, ambling or even bimbling is an extremely common hobby. And for the British at least, along with the attendant cream teas, cheeky halves and picnics, it is part of our national psyche, as attested by the proliferation of local and national walking societies.
am I good enough?
However, ingrained in many of us, women especially, is ‘imposter syndrome’ and the worry that we are somehow not doing it properly, not to the required level, or not as well as others. I belong to a number of wonderful social networks which seek to connect women to the outdoors; Glamoraks, Adventure Queens and Love Her Wild, to name a few. The most common refrain I encounter on these sites is the tentative post from a ‘newbie’ who has been watching silently from the shadows, intimidated and self-critical for weeks, before she raises her head above the parapet to squeak; ‘gosh, I’m so inspired by you all; I am not really a proper (adventurer/hiking/wild woman) and can’t manage the distances some of you seem to be doing, but I just wanted to say hi, I love walking but don’t get out as much as I’d like…’ etc etc. Due to the brilliant ethos carefully curated by the administrators of these sites, the response is always encouraging and inclusive, and said woman is warmly welcomed.
As far as I am aware, there is not a ‘right way’ to walk, or any hierarchy of ‘walkiness’, but as with so many pursuits, the myth of a qualified fraternity or sorority is pervasive, such that many feel initially put off or see themselves as unwelcome. Whether it’s the chat about specialist kit, the use of jargon or the sense that everyone already knows each other, entrance to the community can seem coded. Add to that the practical concerns about fitness, dietary restraints, equipment, accommodation, safety etc, and it is easy to see why the simple act of ‘going for a walk’ can seem ridden with obstacles, even before the first hill is encountered.
What follows is some hopefully helpful advice about how to pare it back to the basics, keep it simple and make walking hearty, heart-filled but not hard. I am writing specifically here about day walks in the UK, or multi-day walks with hostel/B&B accommodation and catered meals; i.e. not remote camping expeditions, but what follows would be a useful starting point for those too.
There is so much written about kit for outdoor pursuits. In some circles, kit and kit-chat is almost as large a hobby as the activity itself. There are endless forum posts, sponsored articles and comparison charts that one could spend years researching online before ever heading outdoors. My personal philosophy is not to read kit reviews. Ok, I don’t want my kit to break, but aside from that, if it works, then by-and-large, I’ll be happy because I won’t actually know how a different brand of kit would compare. Ignorance is bliss. I have A Rucksack and A Tent and A Sleeping Bag, and when they die I will get A Nother one. So I won’t be mentioning any brands here.
so, what do you actually need:
- Walking boots. OK, there are millions of different types. Bottom line, it needs to have good grip, and ankle support if you’re going off the beaten track. End of. Oh, and break them in (i.e. wear them a bit on short-medium walks) before you wear them on a long walk.
- Rucksack. Again, infinite options. You can try it out in a shop, but it’ll be empty and you won’t know until you’ve got all your kit in it whether it’ll be comfortable. It won’t be, not really. But it won’t be painful. You’ve worn a rucksack before, right? Bottom line, it needs to have a hip band so that you carry most of the weight with your hips, not your shoulders.
- Waterproof. Unless you spend hundreds of pounds, it won’t be fully waterproof. Get something that will protect you from showers. If it pours with rain for hours on a walk, you’ll get wet. So will everyone else. Or you can all choose to wait out the storm in a pub. Hurrah.
- Clothes. There is SO MUCH written about merino and high-wicking and technical etc. Bottom line, cotton gets really heavy and cold when wet from sweat or rain and takes ages to dry. Jeans are a bad idea, for the same reason. Anything else is fair game I reckon. If you want to wear hot pants, a ball gown or a onesie, and are comfortable, knock yourself out.
- Water bottle. A receptacle to carry some fluid. End of. Bonus points for re-usable.
- Compass. If you have one and know how to use it, bring it. If not, don’t bother; someone else will have one. Or you won’t need one at all, because signposts.
- Map. Ditto.
- Emergency stuff: Whistle, spare socks, jumper, energy-rich snacks, torch. But like, only if you’re going somewhere remote or alone. If it’s an amble round Surrey woodland, probs not.
Except I know what you’re thinking. Cos it used to be one of my major pet peeves; someone more experienced gives you a minimalist kit list, which you dutifully follow, and then when you turn up, they’ve got a whole host of other really useful stuff which you could also have brought along if they’d told you. And the hierarchy of ‘expert v newbie’ is maintained, and you spend the whole time a little bit uncomfortable and resentful of their smugness. Grrr.
I don’t want to be that person. So instead, I’m going to share my additional hiking hacks with you, and you can rest assured that if we ever meet on a walk, this is genuinely what I will be doing:
Wear two pairs of socks; 1 thin, as in inside layer, and 1 thick on top. More cushioning = more comfort and the rubbing which might cause blisters happens between the socks, not between the sock and your foot. Plus, to get the new sock feeling on day 2, you need only change the inside layer. The thick pair could last you a week!
To prevent blisters, put on compede (whoops, that is a brand, but they are brilliant!) or wrap in zinc oxide tape as soon as you feel a ‘hotspot’ coming on. If you get to a body of water and fancy a break, take your boots off and put your feet in the water. It’ll feel lush and the coolness will reduce swelling and soothe hot spots. Definitely do this at least once a day on any warm weather walk.
If it’s too late and has become a blister, thread it. What? Ok, brace yourself. Thread cotton through a needle. Pierce the needle into the blister and back out again on the other side. Pull the thread through. Remove the needle from the thread and LEAVE THE THREAD HANGING THERE. What?? Seriously, trust me. Mop up any ‘juice’ and pop your sock back on. The thread will continue to draw the pus out. Soon the blister will be empty and you can slide the thread out without leaving an open sore. And you feel HARD AS NAILS!
Re. clothing, be bold, start cold. I used to think I got really cold walking. I don’t; I was wearing too many layers, so I’d get hot, sweat and then get cold when I stopped cos my shirt was wet. Get your legs/arms out and bring layers for later.
Bring a range of pieces of material, by which I mean a selection of sarong, flannel, sweat rag, snood, headscarf, handkerchief etc instead of a towel. I have a headscarf which is sold as having 100 uses, and I am at least halfway to finding them all.
Make your wash-kit tiny; a mini soap in a tin, travel-size toothpaste, decant your shampoo and moisturiser into little containers. Use SPF lip-balm; Vaseline is oil which will burn your lips in the sun.
Put a couple of safety pins on the front of your rucksack. Always useful for a clothing malfunction, plus you can dry a pair of socks/pants/trek towel etc while you’re walking.
Wrap a metre or so of duct tape around your water bottle. You’ll always have it handy to mend a broken item, strap up an ankle, cover a tear etc, or label your bottle if it’s the same as someone else’s.
Wrap your stuff in dry bags for peace of mind. You can get them small for phones, or large for clothes. Also helps to keep your kit organised in your rucksack. Plastic bags, well wrapped, achieve the same effect.
Walk with a stick. Great for dodgy knees/hips but also for authoritative pointing, artful leaning and purposeful marching. You can buy titanium poles, but there are these brilliant things called ‘woods’ where you can get all sizes of walking sticks for free.
Or don’t do any of these things. Each to her own, and I’m sure you’ve got your own ideas which suit you. And it doesn’t really matter; if you’re not comfortable or realise you haven’t got something useful, nothing bad will happen and you’ll remember for next time. The more walks you do, the more you’ll develop your own hacks which you can then feel smug about. Just make sure not to keep them secret!
Plan in advance. Consider transport, parking, food stops, timings and accommodation. Think through what you’ll do in the event of a problem; i.e. if you need to stop early or get lost. Most of this can be achieved by just having your phone with you on the day, but it might die or be out of range. And you might just want to walk without it! Tell someone your plans, and your ETA.
Enjoy it. Notice the landscape. Take in the views. Drop into the slower pace of life in nature. Practice mindful walking or zone out and daydream. Do whatever you do to tune into the joy of walking. Your pace will be about 3 mph. 4mph if it’s flat and the wind is at your back or you’ve got a stomp on. 2mph if you stop frequently to take photos and smell the roses.
If it gets tough, mentally break the route up into sections with regular breaks. Walk and talk, sing or play games. If you need to go quickly, tread purposefully. Choose where your feet will land and make it happen. Use your stick and feel the euphoria of eating up the miles. Stop for a 5-10min rest roughly every hour.
Take on food and water frequently. If you feel cross or irritable, you’re probably thirsty. If you feel tired and moody, you’re hungry. Have snacks in an accessible pocket for munching on the go.
The word ‘encourage’ is key for me; it literally means ‘en-heart-ness’, i.e. to give someone heart. My aim is always to encourage more women to feel that the outdoors is there for them and theirs for the taking. A walk outdoors can be both hearty and heart-opening; a wonderful way of widening our perspective, being in connection with nature and getting present to our own nature. I post about my walks on social media, and connect with other women who love walking, and I love being part of this growing movement of empowerment, nature connection and re-wilding which is sweeping through the national consciousness.
So let’s encourage others! Find a group to meet like-minded walkers; join a walk that others are organising, suggest a walk or open a conversation. Offer gentle advice; when you’ve been for a walk, tell others about it, post pictures and instructions and let others know how to get there. Be inviting and inclusive; share your tips and hacks and use welcoming laywoman’s language. Share your concerns and vulnerabilities without scare-mongering. Offer lifts or bits of kit if you can. Open your heart to others and help make walking hearty, but not hard.
- Bring the kit you need and are comfortable carrying.
- Know your route.
- Tell someone where you’re going.
- Have fun.
- Be nice.