Getting into long-distance walks: top tips from Chris Townsend

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 08/07/2016
Chris in Northern California, with Mount Shasta behind. Photo: Chris Townsend
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Thinking of tackling your first long-distance walk this summer? We say, go for it! To help you along, here are three week-long route ideas for beginners, offering a mix of nature, history, solitude and challenge, plus Chris Townsend's top tips on getting the most out of the adventure.

Our BMC Ambassador for hill walking is the equipment editor for The Great Outdoors magazine and has ticked off many incredible routes including the Pacific Crest Trail and the Munros and Tops (a first). Don't forget, we have a series of hill walking skills videos presented by Chris on everything from taking a compass bearing to emergency procedures; make sure you're set for the trail.

Factor in rest days

Unless you’re out to break a record, in which case you need superb mental strength, plan to have some easier days and some rest days when you don’t walk at all.

Listen to your body and your mind

You're not at work now, so enjoy the lack of structure. If, like me, you feel lazy in the mornings, why rush breakfast and dash off down the trail? Have another brew, relax and set off when you feel like it. Similarly, if you feel like stopping early do so. There may be other days when you’ll feel like walking into the night. And if your legs ache have an easy day. 

Develop a schedule that suits you

Some people like to walk the same miles each day, some like to have a short break every hour, some like to walk a few hours before breakfast, some to have dinner on the trail and then walk on for a few hours before camping. My daily mileage varies depending on my mood, the terrain, the weather (good weather may mean stopping to enjoy it more often) and the landscape. If I have, say, 100 miles between supply points and I allow six days for this I may walk 10 miles one day, 25 another. As long as I complete the section before I run out of food the daily mileage doesn’t matter.

Treat yourself at resupply points

Especially with food. Chances are you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in. Eating plenty helps restore your body for the next stage. And remember the long distance hiker’s rule – never pass by a café or restaurant!

WATCH Chris Townsend's hill walking skills series on BMC TV:

Sleep well

This is very important for morale and your physical condition. If you’re not sleeping well because your mat is too hard or your sleeping bag is too cold or too hot, make it a priority to change it if you can. 

Take care of your feet

Blisters and sore feet are probably the main reason most people give up on a long-distance walk. Having good quality, properly fitting footwear at the start is essential. If you start getting blisters or your feet start to ache badly think of changing your footwear. I like to have two pairs – trail shoes and sandals – with me. If you don’t want to carry a second pair you could have one sent ahead. If blisters and hot spots do occur treat them straight away.

Break the route up in your mind

The length of a walk can seem daunting if you view it as a whole. Break the walk into sections and just think about the next stage – getting to the next campsite or supply point – so the walk becomes a series of shorter walks.

Keep walking

At times during any long walk various factors – the weather, sore feet, a headache, tedious terrain, a stretch of road walking – can make you feel like giving up. This is when you need to be psychologically strong and tell yourself that this will pass and the best way to get through it is to keep walking. Remind yourself you're completing this challenge to enjoy yourself!

Three ideas for your first long-distance walk

The South Downs Way

  • 99 miles
  • Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne
  • 7-9 days

Walk along the paths that the first settlers used 6,000 years ago to avoid the swampy Weald below; later used by Bronze Age and Romans settlers, too. It’s well-signposted on well-defined paths, and transport, access and accommodation are plentiful. Look out for views over the chalk downlands across the Channel, the Seven Sisters hills, Beachy Head and the Long Man of Wilmington.

The Cumbria Way

  • 70 miles
  • Ulverston to Carlisle
  • 5-7 days

Walk through the heart of the Lake District, taking in Coniston, Langdale, Borrowdale, Derwent Water, Skiddaw Forest and Caldbeck. It's mostly low-level, but with some high-level exposed sections. There are various companies who will transport your bag on for you so you can enjoy the walk unencumbered.

The Great Glen Way

  • 73 miles
  • Fort William to Inverness
  • 5-7 days

Opened in 2002, this is a very well-signposted walk, coast-to-coast across Scotland following the Great Glen Valley along lochs and the Caledonian Canal. Look out for Urquhart Castle, Neptune's Staircase, views of Loch Ness and Ben Nevis, osprey, kestrel, waterfalls and ruined castles.

READ: Chris Townsend: how to get into long-distance walking

WATCH Chris Townsend's hill walking skills series on BMC TV:

WATCH: The whole series of these videos on BMC TV

How to take a grid reference

How to take a compass bearing

How to use GPS devices in the mountains safely

Emergency packing for hill walking

Emergency procedures for hill walking

Know your different jacket types

Know your hill walking footwear

How to pack a rucksack


Don't hang around

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WATCH: BMC Insurance: Get out there

Want to know more? READ: 5 reasons why you need BMC Travel Insurance

*Policy details: £131.56 for 12-months European Trek cover up to age 69. For 45-day multi-trip policies.

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