Since I wrote about hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path I’ve been asked about the practicalities of hiking England’s National Trails. How fit do you have to be? And is it easy to find accommodation along the way? As an averagely fit person with a taste for creature comforts, I’ll try to give you some of the answers.
Why Tackle a Long Distance Path?
But first, why would you want to risk blisters and aching limbs by walking for days on end? Everyone has their own reasons, but for most people fresh air and exercise, a love of the countryside and a sense of achievement feature highly. Others may set a personal challenge, walk for charity or take part in a group event.
For me it is also about gaining a different perspective and discovering new places, many of which are only accessible by foot. I’ve walked three of these trails now and each had something different to offer. Hadrian’s Wall Path gave me a deeper insight into Roman Britain. The Dales Way passed historic sites, remote villages and some of England’s most beautiful countryside. And the Ridgeway (Britain’s oldest road) was incredibly varied, taking in several neolithic and Iron Age sites, a stretch of the River Thames and the Prime Minister’s country residence of Chequers.
How Fit Do I Need to be to Hike a Long Distance Trail?
Most of England’s long distance paths can be tackled by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness – generally the hills are not too tall, the terrain is not too rugged or the weather too hot. Nor is age a barrier – in fact many of the people I’ve met on these walks have been middle-aged, or older. However there are a few things to bear in mind.
Firstly, be realistic about what you can do. If you are not a regular walker or haven’t done one of these walks before, you may want to choose one of the easier paths (the National Trails website gives information about each path). And decide how far you want to walk each day. I have come across people who were hiking up to 20 miles (or even more) every day. But even if you are fit enough for such distances, you may prefer a shorter daily trek that gives you time to look around and explore along the way. Your mileage will to some extent be determined by the availability of accommodation, but personally I prefer to aim for an average of 10 to 12 miles a day.
Secondly, be sure to get plenty of practice before you set off. Walk on a variety of terrains, including hills (if there are no hills in your area, try walking up and down steps or set the treadmill at the gym to a steep incline). And finally, don’t walk in new boots (or use any new clothes or equipment): make sure that everything is thoroughly tested and comfortable before you start.
Having said that age is no barrier, I’ve rarely seen children on these paths, although there is no apparent reason why they should be unsuitable for older children or teenagers. And, unfortunately, frequent stiles and uneven surfaces may make some paths unsuitable for people with mobility problems. However, the Dales Way does have a small section that has been specially adapted for wheelchairs, and many stretches of the Thames Path (which is mostly flat) provide easy walking.
One class of walker that we have frequently encountered is dogs. On our recent walk we watched a dog bounding over every stile she came to. Her owner informed us she had recently been to agility classes!
What About Food and Accommodation?
The hardiest walkers carry tents and supplies with them, making use of camp sites along the way. But B&Bs, hotels and eating places are generally available, although you may have to deviate from the path to find them. We’ve always taken the easiest option, using a specialist company to find and pre-book accommodation. They also arrange baggage transfer between one night’s accommodation and the next. This means that you have to carry nothing but a day pack and can concentrate on enjoying the walk. (The websites for each trail will provide information about holiday companies and baggage carriers.)
Whether you use a specialist operator or arrange your own accommodation, you might want to consider factoring in one or more rest days. I’ve always found rest days to be more than just a break from walking. They are also an opportunity to enjoy the countryside and explore the area in more depth.
You may be wondering why I’ve only written about the English National Trails. The short answer is that these are the only ones I’ve walked in their entirety. But of course there are similar paths all around the world. Some of these may be more challenging and, for myself, I find walking in extreme heat much more difficult. But I am tempted to try some trails in other countries. In particular, I really want to have a go at the Camino de Santiago. And there are some fantastic paths in the US (check out this article for more). There is a whole world out there to discover, and walking is an excellent way of doing it!
Have you ever hiked a long distance trail, in England or elsewhere? Which was your favourite path? And do you have any tips to share?