Chris Townsend: how to get into long-distance walking

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 31/03/2016
Chris in Northern California, with Mount Shasta behind. Photo: Chris Townsend
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The BMC's hill walking ambassador Chris Townsend is one of the world’s most respected experts on long-distance walking. In this 'how to' interview, he offers tips for getting started with extended hikes, reveals his next goals, and shares some thoughts on windfarms, camping bans in Scotland and other topical issues.

Chris has ticked off many incredible routes including the Pacific Crest Trail, the length of the Canadian Rockies (a first), the Yukon Territory south-to-north, Scandinavia end-to-end, the Munros and Tops (another first) and the Scottish Watershed. He's equipment editor for The Great Outdoors magazine, but the breadth of his experience means he's a veritable expert on all hill walking topics, which is why we made sure to catch him for a chat.

CT: Over the past year I've had some wonderful camps: on snow on Ben Macdui under a full moon, waking in summer on Braeriach to a herd of reindeer grazing outside the tent, a double rainbow over my camp after a stormy day at Camasunary on the Isle of Skye, and a round of the Quinag peaks in sunshine after a night beside Lochan Bealach Cornaidh, to name a few.
 
The thing I love about long-distance walking is being in wild places for so long that it becomes a way of life. I also like moving through those places at a speed that feels right for feeling part of them and watching them change.

If I had to pick my favourite long-distance walk I'd say the Pacific Crest Trail. It was the first long walk that took me through real wilderness areas.

For anyone wanting to get started with long-distance walking: start off with one in Britain. The Pennine Way was a great choice for me. If that’s too long then the West Highland Way takes less than a week. You’ll find out if you enjoy moving on every day and camping out at night. 

I wouldn't walk long distances without: Pacerpoles and Superfeet footbeds. These two items have been on every long distance walk with me for many, many years and are definitely favourites.

WATCH: Chris Townsend's Hill Walking skills series on BMC TV

When I started writing about the outdoors I didn’t have a plan and I still don’t. I just wanted to go walking, tell people about my trips and earn enough money to go walking again. Everything slowly built from that.
 
My aim is to spend as much time outdoors as possible. My next goal is to undertake the venture I had to abandon last year: walking from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley.
 
My latest book Out There is a collection of essays published in magazines over the last three decades. Topics include stories of long and short walks and ski tours, and my thoughts on many topics such as peak bagging, rewilding, outdoor writers and long-distance walking.

I’m pleased to be the BMC ambassador for hillwalking as I had felt for years that the BMC needed to be more explicit about the fact they represent hillwalkers as well as climbers. I’m also pleased the BMC now has a hillwalking officer and I think the current Mend Our Mountains is an excellent and much needed campaign.

Murmurs about restricting access to the Scottish hills in winter come up every time there are serious winter accidents. They’re annoying and need rebutting but I don’t think they need taking too seriously as they’re only ever suggested by journalists (usually the same ones) and a few voices on social media.

The extended camping ban in some parts of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is more worrying. Even though it only applies to some roadside areas, it sets a precedent. Totally innocent campers are being penalised for others' behaviour; behaviour that breaks the access code and in many cases also breaks the law. There’s no need for a ban, just enforcement. 

I’m in favour of rewilding. In fact I think it’s essential if we want our mountains to be wild rather than tame.

I’m not against wind farms per se, location is key. I’m opposed to any development that damages wild land, whether a wind farm or a bulldozed road or a ski resort.

I'm in favour of peak bagging. Collecting summits is a way to experience the wide variety of landscapes in the hills and is often a spur to going out when the weather isn’t too friendly. 

I spend far more time sitting at a desk than people imagine. The world is very different now than it was when I began writing of course. The internet has made a huge difference. Finding an audience is much easier now, however, earning money from writing is possibly harder. The main thing is: you have to enjoy the writing as well as the outdoor activities.

Visit Chris Townsend's blog for more of his thoughts.


MEET: Our Ambassador Team

WATCH: BMC Ambassador James McHaffie on BMC TV

WATCH: BMC ambassador James McHaffie taking a fall from the Headwall Pitch of Salathé Wall on BMC TV

WATCH: Mary-Ann Ochota in Great Walks: Catbells on BMC TV

WATCH: BMC Ambassador Steve McClure on BMC TV


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