That first night on the trail is an exciting one, isn’t it? The novelty of crisp air against your cheeks, hard ground underneath you. But it soon becomes part of life, and I think the longer you’re out the more you have to adjust when you return home.
I recently returned from a 280-mile hike through the Highlands. This is the longest route I’ve completed to date, some 40 miles longer than my Cape Wrath Trail last year, and I wanted to maximise my chances of completing it without injury or mishap. So I started on the comparatively easy West Highland Way and gradually ramped up the difficulty.
This strategy made the initial period of adjustment very easy. The first day on the WHW may have been twenty miles, but the trails were very easy and it felt a little like a walk in my local English countryside. I gave myself time to ease back into the simpler rhythm of life on the trail.
So many things require adjustment:
- Sleeping patterns. Back home, I usually go to bed at around 11.00pm and wake at about 8.00am. On the trail, a few lazy late mornings aside, I usually find myself conforming to the sunrise and sunset patterns of each day, only drifting off to sleep when the light fades and waking early. Midsummer in Scotland this can be problematic but I always feel like I’m getting enough sleep, even if that’s only five hours a night. I think the daily pattern of intensive exercise helps here.
- Talking of the exercise, that requires some adjustment too! I like cycling and walking in my everyday life, but my job keeps me chained to a desk. Walking all day every day for long periods is outside my usual frame of experience. It normally takes me about three days to get used to this level of physical activity again.
- Although I rarely suffer from blisters these days, the soles of my feet grow a thick layer of hard skin when I’m hiking long distance. Callouses start to develop almost immediately, but it takes at least a hundred miles for my soles to begin resembling shoe leather again. This layer of armoured skin is pretty much impervious to everything and I know that when it has arrived the risk period for blisters is well and truly over.
- If the weather is hot and sunny, it takes about a week of careful suncream use before my skin adjusts and I can depend on avoiding a burn without it.
- When I begin a hike, my rucksack feels heavy, unnatural and cumbersome – no matter how light I pack! But within a few days I stop noticing it. It becomes an extension of my body, and I only notice its absence when I walk anywhere without it. Of course, if I suddenly add to my pack’s weight by adding a week’s worth of food, I’ll notice it then, but otherwise it’s an effortless burden1.
- The food I eat on the trail is completely different to the food I eat at home. When hiking, I live a diet that consists almost entirely of things like peanuts and raisins (in VAST quantities), cereal bars, dried pasta meals, cheese, and couscous. It’s an almost entirely vegetarian diet, although for the protein I’ll supplement it with smoked sausage, beef jerky, chorizo and canned mackerel fish when I arrive in civilisation for resupply. I find that when I’m hiking I don’t really miss variety in my food and can quite happily eat nothing but peanuts and macaroni for a week with no complaints2.
- In my day job, I’m connected to the internet more or less all the time – for communication with clients, research, and document access. On the trail, internet access is sporadic at best. I tend to ignore email when I’m hiking and only occasionally check in with social media. Once I make the mental decision to change my default state from online to offline, this is a surprisingly easy adjustment to make.
- Perhaps least tangibly of all, being surrounded by a constantly changing vista of spectacular natural beauty can be overwhelming at first. For a couple of days I’m compelled to photograph everything, to stop and stare at every scene as I become saturated with the wonder of it all. Then proper perspective returns – I become more selective with my photography, and although I enjoy and appreciate it all, it just becomes part of the background of trail life.
After a week or two on the trail, all these things – once exotic and exciting – have simply become part of life. I get up and strike camp, hike for ten or fifteen or twenty miles, then camp again. Rinse and repeat. It never gets boring, but the giddy excitement wears off and I find myself able to appreciate the finer points of trail life: the long, uninterrupted periods of time I can devote to my own thoughts; the numerous moments of magic I notice in the woods or on the hill; the basic, simple pleasure of selecting a good campsite and creating a sheltered place to sleep for the night. Life has slowed, changed, become simpler and less urgent.
But what about when I return home? I think this adjustment is more significant. Rather than going from a way of life that is complex to one that is simple, I return from simplicity to complexity, and that’s always the harder transition. In most cases I have to reverse the adjustments listed above, and for a couple of days I often feel overwhelmed by things like walking along a busy street, or typing on a computer, or composing a to-do list, or responding to a stack of unread emails.
There are physical changes when I return. I have to learn how to sleep in a soft bed between set hours of the clock again, and the hard skin on the soles of my feet begins to peel away, not to return until next time. The tan lines from the sun slowly fade.
Sometimes there’s an echo of loss as I look through my photos and remember, but I don’t begrudge the return to my other reality. I have never made the mistake of wishing I could live on the trail forever – a foolish daydream that has no place in the complex mesh of a real human life, with all its relationships and warring priorities. I may miss the hills when I’m at home, but when I’m out there hiking a long trail I miss home just as much. This is just as it should be. Each reality complements and reinforces the other.
I have experienced 280 miles; I can visualise 500, and some of my future expeditions will approach this length. But any longer would be tipping the balance too far in the wrong direction for me. A thousand miles feels like a journey too far down the rabbit hole, too distant from the other people and things that matter.
- This seems to be the case up to a total pack weight of about 15kg. After this point I’ll start to notice it on steep ascents. Lightweight backpacking has really helped in this regard. ↩︎
- This has also opened my eyes to the idea that going vegetarian would not actually be as big a step as I thought it would be. Although I have no plans to do this, it isn’t exactly a crazy idea – I’m vegetarian on the trail for a week or more at a time without missing meat. ↩︎
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