Walking the 630-mile-long South West Coast Path continuously in 52 days taught me a lot about hiking and camping. Some of this knowledge was gained from my experience, and a lot from friends, family and people I met on the trail.
I tend to over-prepare, but for this journey, I am pleased that I spent the time I did getting fit and practising with my kit.
Get walking fit
Luckily for me, I could replicate the overall ascent and descent on the South West Coast Path (c3.5%) by walking out from my house onto the Malvern Hills. Because of the coronavirus lockdown, I had time to walk every day, building up distance first and then adding the weight of my rucksack. Once I felt walking fit, for the last 2-3 weeks before I left, I mixed it up a bit with some shorter walks, some longer walks, some with my weighted rucksack and some with my day pack.
That walking practice was invaluable in getting off to a good start on the path.
Familiarise yourself with your tent
I had all sorts of trouble with my tent when I first got it. It seemed that whatever I did, the fly sheet would touch the inner tent during the night, making the inner tent – and anything that brushed against it – wet. This really showed the value of practising near to home, as I eventually worked out what I needed to do to stay dry through the night.
Knowing that I could pitch my tent quickly and efficiently, and that it would keep me dry all night, gave me far more confidence when I started walking the South West Coast Path.
This photo shows my tent in the morning after my first night's wild camping in it. You can see how badly it was pitched, with the fly sheet resting against the inner tent.
Test your kit
I took my trusty (and dusty!) old rucksack out of the cupboard and packed it with everything I needed for this trip. It was only 2.5kg heavier than it was when I used it to walk 190 miles to Liverpool, the only other really long walk that I’ve done (and that time without my camping kit).
I hauled it onto my back and set off for a short walk. Almost immediately, the pain started in my neck. Three and a half miles later, I was back at the car, happy to relieve myself of the agony of carrying it. There was no way I would be able to walk 630 miles with that on my back. Thank goodness I found that out before setting off!
I had a similar situation with our existing stoves. For one reason or another, I rejected all of them except one - a solid fuel eco-stove. I took this with me for an overnight trip to practice camping on my own. It boiled the water fine, but there were flames everywhere – sideways and down towards the ground as well as up towards the pan. I spent the whole time it was burning watching it like a hawk, fearful that I would accidentally start a forest fire with it, and I had no way of controlling the flames. There was no way I was going to take that stove with me either!
It is difficult to test a waterproof jacket during a long heatwave. But luckily, this is England, and the weather did break before I set off on my journey. As soon as it started raining, I went out for a long walk. Two hours later, and my upper body was more than just a little damp. My waterproof had failed, despite my attempts to wash and re-proof it. I was near home, and had the opportunity to get home and dry. If I had found this out while walking the South West Coast Path, I could have spent a lot of time cold and wet.
Be sure about your boots
My walking boots were about ten years old already when I started to think about walking the South West Coast Path. They were comfortable, but I knew that they wouldn’t last the distance. I spent the summer walking in barefoot trail shoes, which I found even more comfortable. I thought that I would just be able to buy a pair of barefoot boots from the same brand for the path, but when they arrived and I tried them on, they didn’t fit the back of my feet.
Deeply disappointed, I went to our local outdoor shop and left with a pair of lightweight waterproof walking shoes. In the shop, they were comfortable. I walked around in them at home for a few days, and they were comfortable. I walked on the Malvern Hills for ten miles at a time, and they were OK, although nowhere near as comfortable as my barefoot trail shoes. And then I walked 18 miles in them. I developed huge blisters on the sides of my feet and toes before I was really aware of the discomfort. But, worst of all, I wore them for a couple of hours in drizzle – and they weren’t waterproof at all, so I returned them to the shop.
By this point, there were only a couple of weeks left before I was due to leave, so I decided to walk in barefoot trail shoes and take Sealskinz waterproof socks for when I needed them.
I am glad that I left the time I did to sort out my footwear, but also wish that I had given myself longer. All sorts of people on the path told me about the trouble they had had with their walking boots or shoes during the early days of their walk. Some reported blisters, others that their feet were ‘shredded’, and some that they had had to send home for alternative footwear, or shop for new boots on the way. None of these seem like good options to me – I would prefer to be sure of my footwear before setting off!
These are just a few examples of the things that I learnt by practising with my kit before starting the long-distance path. Taking the time to be confident in my kit helped to give me the confidence to tackle this adventure, knowing that I would be as comfortable as I could be, warm, dry and well fed.