When I set out on New Zealand’s 3,000km Te Araroa Trail, the longest walk under my belt was the 65km Overland Track in Tasmania. At six days, it was a world away from the five-month epic I was about to undertake. Though I’d done all the theoretical research, nothing can quite prepare you for the main event. Here are a few things I learned.
One size doesn’t fit all
Whether it’s gear or hiking style, everyone has their own preferences so don’t concern yourself with trying to find the ‘right’ way to do something. Ask a bunch of hikers about the best gear to take and you’ll get a lot of varying opinions, though the one thing they’ll agree on is to go lightweight. Beyond that you’ll need to weigh up options against your own needs. Some people feel the cold/drink a lot of water/need a thick sleeping mat/don’t mind eating cold dinners, etc, while others won’t. On the trail, hikers tend to set their own ‘rules of engagement’ such as speed or distance targets, whether they’re happy skipping bits or not, pack weights, etc. We’re all different so choose what works for you.
Don’t fret about finding a buddy
For those going it alone, the search for a hiking buddy is a relatively common call out on hiker forums. It’s something I worried about myself before heading out but unless you’re heading across the wilds of Greenland, the reality is that you will meet people on the trail and that has its benefits. You’ll have total freedom over your pace and schedule, you can choose who you spend time with and for how long, and when you need a little solo time you can have that too.
It’ll hurt at first
No matter your training, you’re likely to experience a period of adjustment once you hit the trail. Walking all day, every day is not something many of us do, especially with a loaded pack. Your feet, back and shoulders (actually, pretty much everything) will hurt, but after a few weeks you’ll find your groove. You’ll tweak your pack fit and maybe adjust your gear inside so the load sits better. Whether it’s a case of the body getting tougher or the mind learning to ignore pain (possibly a combination of both!) pretty soon you’ll be cranking out long days with relative ease and enjoying it.
You’re capable of more than you think
It’s hard to know where your limits are until you push them. If you’d told me before I set out that I’d sometimes walk 40km days, cross scores of unbridged river crossings or walk solo through trackless mountains I’d have thought it impossible. If you told me I would be snowbound for three days, that I’d be so cold my hands would feel as numb as if they’d been anesthetised, I would have wondered how I’d survive it. Humans are remarkably resilient and though we rarely get to see what we’re capable of in normal life, you’ll likely find out on the trail. Rest assured it’s far greater than what you might expect so don’t give up.
You’ll find a way
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the prospect of a long distance hike but remember, one step at a time will get you there. There’s so much you won’t know about what lies ahead, and the few things you may have heard about (challenges or dangers) can easily take on epic proportions in your head. Don’t overthink it. You don’t have to have every step planned out. By all means do your homework, but face each challenge as it comes. Chances are, you’ll receive the intel you need from other hikers along the way, or you’ll meet the right person with whom you can share a tricky section.
Trust your gut
We’re so used to everything going our way in the civilised world that the nature’s uncontrolled environment and lack of safety nets can come as a surprise. Landslips might unexpectedly make a section of trail unsafe, extreme weather might make it prudent to retreat somewhere for a day or two, or maybe you should wait for a river to recede before crossing it. Just because there’s a route to follow, don’t assume that means you’re safe and don’t follow the herd if your gut is telling you to do otherwise. Nature is sublimely beautiful yet utterly indifferent to us humans. It’s up to us to make the right decisions.
Get out of your head
Long distance walking is a golden opportunity for a reset. Our minds often run at a million miles an hour and it can be hard to break the cycle once you hit the trail but it’s worth making space for it. It took a few months but once my brain learned to be in the moment (not replaying the past or imagining the future) and resist the urge to judge (have I walked far enough today? Am I too slow? etc), my walk became a crazy kind of bliss, plus I started seeing the world with fresh eyes. Which leads me to…
Nothing will ever be the same again
Opt out of civilisation for months on end, surrounded by incredible natural beauty, and returning home can be a real challenge for many. You might feel a bit lost and empty, pine for fresh air and the simplicity of life on the trail, or wonder how on earth you can go back to your regular job. Doing a long distance hike opens Pandora’s Box and many find it hard to adjust back to their old lives and values afterwards. The question is, do you need to? If life is prodding you for change, make it happen. On my return I quit a corporate job in favour of a vastly different career in a field I’d always wanted to pursue – one that ensures life is never boring, and that I get to travel and hike a lot. Long distance hiking can transform your life.
Laura Waters is author of “Bewildered – leaving everything behind for 3,000 in the wilds of New Zealand.”