Hiking is great, the fresh air, the exercise, the freedom, the escape from the hectic pace of modern life. A long distance hike can help slow your mind down, giving you some space to think, time to sort through the million ideas buzzing round your brain, time away from the constant beep of emails, texts, facebook and all the other distractions we have grown used to living with but which constantly sap your attention. Hiking can even make you reevaluate what you really need in life, help you realise you can survive for weeks with just a couple of sets of clothes, a single gas stove and a tent no bigger than a small double bed, and make you appreciate all the things we do have. A week with no shower water makes hot water on tap seem like the miracle of engineering it really is.

However, planning your first hike can seem like a daunting task. What route to take, what kit to bring, what boots to wear, what food to eat. There are a lot of big decisions to make and, well, I’m going to ignore pretty much all of them. There are people out there with years of experience, blogs full of kit comparisons, highly trained sports nutritionists, they can take you through the big things. I’m here to talk to you about the little ones. The small details, little tidbits of advice I’ve heard and things I’ve learnt that will make life in the field just that little bit more comfortable.

First, planning your route. I joke, but will say this. It’s easy to walk twenty miles in a day, but doing it day after day gets difficult, fast. Take whatever distance you think you can cover and knock off maybe a third, at least for the first few days. You’ll either end up with a much more realistic plan or with more time to enjoy the view and kick back in the evenings. If you do find yourself finishing early in the day still bubbling with energy you can always extend your hike, a plan is great but you control it, not the other way round.

This flexibility is important, and one of the joys of hiking. For once you don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time, or get there by any particular route. If you meet someone on the trail who says “hey, route A is good but route B is better” why not switch? If you’re finding things easy go farther, if you’re finding things hard why not take a rest day? Even a change of transport doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After injuring my knee (too much weight too many miles, a testament to the importance of not packing the kitchen sink) I found myself a knackered second hand bike and rode for a few days until the knee decided it would play nice again. Appreciate that these options may not always be available but the basic point is important. Changes can be good, the freedom to make them is important.

An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away Well, technically, one each evening. Sleep is important, especially after a long day’s hike, it’s when your body and mind rest and rebuild. If you’re laying in your sleeping bag with shoulders bruised and legs aching from hauling  a heavy bag up a few steep hills, you’re not going to get your full forty winks. A low dose ibuprofen before bed can help soothe those pains and let you get a proper night’s sleep. Do, however, avoid taking painkillers during the day. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong and any persistent pains (especially around your joints) should be noted before they develop into full blown injuries.

To stick with the subject of getting a decent rest, the skill of picking a good spot to pitch your tent is an important one to have. The difference between bare earth and a nice, soft bit of grass is like that between a plank and a mattress (a good bed of moss is the height of camping luxury, like a fine memory foam mattress). Also, try to pitch your tent with its back to the wind, this should create a nice patch of calm in the porch for cooking, and if you end up on a bit of a hill sleep with your feet down slope, otherwise all the blood will rush to your head and you’ll wake up with a splitting headache.

Camping isn’t luxurious, even with a nice mossy mattress, and that’s kind of the point. It’s about getting out of our sterile modern world, back among nature, and it’s okay to be a bit grubby, everyone on the trail smells to a certain degree. But, try to at least rinse out your clothes every few days (I’ve seen socks so solid they could be used as crowbars). Sweat contains salt, and when the water evaporates it gets left behind. No one is going to judge you for a few white lines but, if they build up, the salt crystals will rub, causing a rash that feels like a hundred angry ants using your back for biting practice.

Respect the nature you’re passing through. Bring a bag for your rubbish, and a trowel for your more “natural” waste. The countryside is beautiful and we all want to keep it that way.

“If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, it ain’t worth fixing”, a phrase that has become near gospel for many hikers. I’ve got the stuff holding together my tent, boots and back (I ran out of plasters…). Bring a roll along, even if nothing breaks you can always use it to tape your friend’s mouth shut when you get bored of them talking.

As much as camping is about enjoying nature and getting connected to your surroundings, there are few nicer ways to spend an evening than sitting round a campfire with a good book. A good book, or ereader, is an essential bit of kit, and a well stocked mp3 wouldnt go amiss (the BBC has some great podcasts to exercise your mind as well as your legs). These are especially advised when hiking solo. It’s great to get away from everyone, but after a few days it can be nice to hear a voice that isn’t your own.

Even with all these things to entertain you, the best planning and the lightest kit, there will be hard days. Days when you want nothing more than to pack up and go home, but don’t give in, and  don’t feel bad for feeling bad (no one can be happy all of the time, even on holiday). If you can get to your mental and physical limit, when you think you can go no further, then put on your boots and keep on walking. Well, few things compare to the sense of achievement that will give you, and remember, the worst days make the best stories.

Don’t forget to write those stories down. Keeping a diary is a good way to sort through your experiences, and can help you see the funny side of  a bad day.

The last, and really most important, thing to remember is this. Ask for help. Whether it’s help planning or help on the trail, just ask. We’ve developed a society where talking to a stranger is almost a social faux pas, but once you get over that initial awkwardness you’ll be amazed just how happy (most) people are to help (some will just give you a sour look and a muttered expletive, but some people are just miserable). A Swedish mountain guide told me, in her opinion, the sign of an experienced hiker is someone who will stop you and ask what the trail is like up ahead, where the good camping spots are and so on.

So, whilst this won’t have helped you pick the right tent, or compose the perfect meal plan (there isn’t one, you will be hungry no matter what) hopefully it has given you an insight into a few of the little things, not often mentioned in the more professional articles, that change a long distance hike from a bearable challenge to an enjoyable adventure. 

If you do have any questions, or pieces of advice of your own, I would love to hear them.