Keith Foskett and his blog were recently chosen as the winners of the inaugural GO Outdoors walking blog awards. Keith is a keen long distance hiker and writer, and with distance hikes covering thousands of miles at a time, we wanted to hear from the man himself about what it really means to be a distance hiker, below Keith covers in his own words some of the questions he is regularly asked about his hobby.
Not Why, but How?
I’m regularly asked why I hike long distances. In fact I get bored with the question, as do most thru-hikers. However, whilst enjoying a beer in the pub recently, someone asked me how. I was so surprised that it completely stumped me, no one had ever asked me how before and I was momentarily lost for words.
I don’t think the actual accomplishment of hiking 2,000 to 3,000 miles or more is not achievable for most people. Fair enough, there are those that are genuinely unfortunate to be in positions where they cannot physically hike, or hike for long distances but some people seem astonished it is even possible.
Why not? Allow me to try at least try to answer some common questions and expand on how.
Have the desire.
First off all you have to want to. This may seem obvious but thru-hiking is not for everyone. Don’t go and buy a backpack and jet off to the start of the Pacific Crest Trail out of spite because you lost a bet in the Kings Head with your best mate who says you can’t. If you’re not actually interested in the act of walking, or indeed thru-hiking then it’s not worth pursuing. I’ve seen girlfriends, boyfriends, plain old friends and allsorts dragging their feet along deepest Georgia or highest California because they were persuaded, against their better judgement to do so. If you like hiking give it a go. If you don’t, concentrate your efforts on an activity you do like cycling, swimming or whatever appeals to you.
If you enjoy walking, whether it’s around the block with Fido first thing in the morning, up and down the canal towpath at the weekend or your annual week bagging a national trail somewhere then you can conquer a long distance trail.
This is perhaps the area most battle with. Maybe your weight isn’t down at the level where it should be. You get short of breath climbing the stairs, mowing the lawn gets harder each year or simply the fact you haven’t walked anywhere except to the car each morning makes you think a six month hike is just impossible. Well chances are it’s not.
Depending on your current physical condition it may be easy or extremely difficult. Getting fit for a hike or any sporting activity is a matter of targets and not giving up. Indeed, there is a train of thought many put into practice that hiking the trail itself will be their training. This is to a certain extent true, albeit a reasonable level of fitness before is advisable.
Go out, walk a mile and see how you feel. If you’re an absolute train wreck then take a day to recover and go do it again the day after. Each time will become easier, your time will reduce, you’ll be able to walk further each trip and you’ll start to feel better. Keep at it, increase little by little, in a matter of months you’ll be up in the hills pulling in a 20 miler with a pack and believe me; the feeling of achievement from those first tender steps is magical.
Most thru-hikes are not lost through physical fitness but psychological weakness. Your body, bar injury, will always perform as long as you know your limits. It’s your head that will mess with you. We are all physically capable of far more than we think because our doubts deter us. Sure enough, you’ve just passed 35 miles and you know that 40 miles is where you need to be at. Your legs are slowing, screaming on the ascents and muscles hurt where you didn’t even know there were muscles. Your negative psyche kicks in, it’s a self-protection issue. Your brain is trying to instil a little self-preservation and it will throw a few teasers at you.
Look at that campsite! What a wonderful location! Let’s stop here and make up the difference tomorrow. Is that a blister on your big toe? Feels like it; you should stop and check that bad boy out before it turns nasty.
OK, sometimes even the best of us relent and we do make up the difference the following day but be wary, your psychological side will always try and stop you. Be strict up top and don’t relent, your legs will work regardless.
Thru-hiking demands a serious amount of time. The Appalachian Trail needs about 5 months, the Pacific Crest Trail around 6. Karl Bushby, an English guy walking around the world has been doing it for the last 14 years. This is clearly a problem for most of us holding down careers, paying mortgages and bringing up kids.
A high proportion of thru-hikers are early twenties or past retirement. The younger have usually just finished college and want some adventure before that career kicks in. The retired are doing what they have always wanted to do but work restrictions have stopped them so they wait until they leave their jobs. Everyone in between has a different story about finding the time but they share a common goal in desiring something different out of their life. They believe and hold a passion deep enough to take a risk, whether it’s leaving a job or renting out the house. I can’t give you any pointers here because sacrifice is part and parcel of thru-hiking but whatever you do give up has a strange habit of seeming a tiny sacrifice once you are actually out there and believe me, your life doesn’t collapse. In fact, the rewards are always far greater.
I don’t know whether my relationship history is a disaster zone because my passion to thru-hike gets in the way or because I realise that my love of thru-hiking doesn’t go hand in hand with getting involved with someone else.
If you’re involved and you want to go try a long trail, you will be either fortunate enough to have a partner that understands and encourages you to go, in which case you don’t need my advice, you take your other half with you or you feel that strongly about a thru-hike that a relationship ends. This sounds pretty brutal but I’ve chatted to many hikers who desire a few months in the wild so strongly that they have finished a relationship. The vast majority have told me that they knew things were coming to a natural end anyway.
Believe me, the last person you want to take advice from regarding relationships is me. You have to make your own choices. I have hiked single and I’ve hiked leaving a loved one behind, the latter is not an easy route.
I will say that if your connection is strong enough then it will stand the test of a few months of separation and possibly reap the rewards that only an extended period of time in the wilds can offer.
When I first started long distance hiking I was under the false impression that it would be cheap. After all, 95% of the time you’re in the woods, deserts or mountains. It’s not as if you’re going to be spoilt for choices to spend money.
The truth is it does take more money than you may think. Your hard earned cash takes a hammering when you reach a town stop. Motels, food re-supply, restaurant food is a necessity to replace fats, minerals and vitamins that trail food doesn’t supply. Laundry, gear replacement and this is all expenses incurred whilst actually on the trail. Before you even get out there, flying to the States for example will currently set you back around £500, insurance the same, gear purchased can run to well over a £1000.
Gone are the days when the calculation of thru-hikes costing $1.00 per mile were used. My trail expenses run at around £600 to £800 per month. Initially this seems indulgent but it’s not, everything adds up.
It can be done extremely cheaply – cut your town stops down, shop at the cheap food outlets, buy your food in bulk or perhaps dehydrate and prepare your meals in advance and ship them to stops along the route. Gear sponsorship if you work at it can reap rewards. Buy second hand gear; push your equipment to the limit before replacing it.
Remember also that you’re not earning anything whilst hiking so as well as the outlay and costs as you go, your bank account is not receiving anything either.
I buy trail food as I go, stopping to re-supply in towns as I progress along the route. I prefer it because my diet and preferences change during the course of a hike. The other option which many prefer is to mail their food supplies along the trail to be collected at a post office when they reach it. Others dehydrate their meals or ingredients at home to be mailed out. This is cheap and can be tailored to your individual taste but there is no room to change anything. That tasty Mexican stew which you’ve lovingly prepared, cooked and dried out tastes wonderful during week one but after month two you may be sick of it.
Many think you can’t eat well on a hike but I find often my diet actually improves. I pack nuts, dried fruit, herbs, spices and flavoured rice forms a large part of my main meals. Often I will pack out some fresh vegetables from town that last well such as peppers, small onions and garlic.
I treat every water source, even if it’s from a spring. Don’t become complacent, it’s not worth it. My current choice is a Sawyer mini filter which I consider the lightest, easiest and least time consuming method. You may prefer chemicals treatments or other filter versions.
Area such as the deserts at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail need some planning but a few days on the trail which decide how much water you need, where the sources are and when you need to fill up. I got into the habit of treating a litre and drinking this straight away so it was working for me, then taking whatever would be required for the next section.
There is a lot of planning involved in trips of several months duration. At times you may question if it is even worth it. I can tell you that the time I spend hiking long distances is time that I am truly happy. Being outdoors for an extended period is a wonderful tonic, you return re-charged, relaxed and fresh with ideas on how to live your life. All the obstacles encountered before your trip suddenly seem minor inconveniences.
My point is do not attempt a thru-hike because you believe you cannot do it, because the chances are pretty high that you can.
We’d like to say a big thank you to Keith for taking part in the blogger awards, and for providing us with this great account of what he loves to do.