From couch to trails – a starting guide
When I decided to start a fitness journey at the ripe age of 35, the most pertinent question that came up was about exercise. For someone who had never taken up any kind of exercise, sports or physical activity apart from the occasional stroll around the neighbourhood, the biggest challenge was how and where to begin. I was (and still am) very self-conscious and shy to join a gym and start working out so that rules out many possibilities. Since I had always loved exploration and travel, walking was the primary option that seemed sustainable, and the one that made the most sense. I took up regular walks daily until an exercise routine was established and I started to enjoy being physically active. Once my body and mind felt ready for more, I decided to push it to the next level. That’s when I started discovering the world of long walks and nature trails. The fact that I live in a scenic country like the United Kingdom helped – plenty of options to choose from. Over the past year, trail walking has become an integral part of my travel itinerary, as well as my fitness regime. In my experience, it is the easiest and cheapest option to discover and explore a scenic area and normally involves surprisingly less amount of planning once the groundwork is done appropriately.
Starting on a strong foot
Trail walking is highly nonrestrictive – there are no boundaries and it’s up to the individual to identify and set their own goals and challenges. Trails range from easy to hard, just like various levels associated with hikes or pretty much any physical activity. Better still, some trails include hiking in parts – and vice versa that elevates it from mere walking to a full-fledged travel experience. Choosing a trail appropriate to test the waters of trail walking, simply depends on one’s physical capability, stamina and accessibility. The optimal approach is to start slow and continue to build on the endurance level and distance over time. If you are new to being physically active, as I was when I first began, set smaller targets which are achievable – like a 5 km flat trail. For someone who is physically fit and undergoes a regular exercise regime, anything between 30 to 40 km is fair game. Also, you can choose the type of terrain that interests you the most – fields, woods, coast, hills, riverside – the idea is to enjoy the atmosphere and nature, whilst scoring some exercise points in the process.
Trail walking essentials
Before undertaking the first adventure and putting on those hiking shoes, one must tick off a few little boxes for preparation. Nothing too intricate – the essential commodities to make your trail walking experience comfortable and enjoyable.
Footwear and clothing:- For trail paths involving steep climbs and muddy areas, a pair of hiking shoes or boots are necessary. After all, slippery slopes and rocky hillocks shouldn’t stop you from moving ahead while you are on an expedition. If it is a short and flat trail, regular trainers are more than sufficient – be free to use your favourite and everyday go-to pair. Choosing your outfit according to the type of trail is equally critical. Including multiple layers of clothing which could be added and removed by the weather conditions is what I have found to be optimal. Trails and hikes involving elevation tend to have a colder temperature at the summit as compared to the base. Keeping a hoodie handy will help beat the cold gust once you are at the top, enjoying and clicking photos of the breathtaking scenery.
Food and water:- Apart from water which of course is basic, if you are out on a particularly open terrain during hotter months, have some electrolytes handy. We often underestimate the effects of dehydration and those could feel particularly harsh especially after the body is exhausted by relentless heat. Recently there were some distressing news reports about hikers who unfortunately lost their lives due to extreme heat and dehydration because they were lost in the terrain and had no water left. It is wise to carry more water and liquids than originally needed, even if they make the backpack a little heavier. As for food, pack edibles which are high in protein and will provide a quick burst of energy for tired and sore muscles. Protein bars and nuts are the safest bets – easy and light to carry, and handy to be had without pausing to sit and eat. Too many carbohydrates can cause lethargy and that’s not helpful when you are on a mission. It is advisable to be disciplined and indulges in heavy food once you are across the finish line. Imagine, what can taste better than a pint and roast dinner after completing a 20 km trail?
Navigation & tools:- Gone are the days when signposts and paper maps were the primary tools for navigation. Though I must confess that from time to time I rely on signage for navigation, as opposed to online maps. Technology has made trail walking and hiking so much more accessible and easier nowadays. There are many apps which have detailed maps of designated trails, complete with offline download options and reviews. AllTrails is the best free app available out there for trails and hikes because it can provide navigation, performance tracking and terrain overview all in a single click. Don’t forget to bring a reliable power bank along – if you are in the habit of consulting the map a little too often like myself, your phone will need a frequent recharge. The most important accessory, however, is the presence of the mind. If nothing works and you are lost, have enough courage to approach locals and ask for directions.
Accessories:- One-time investment in a lightweight and waterproof backpack will go a long way. Especially during long walks in remote areas, getting hold of water and food can prove to be difficult. So there is no other option but to carry whatever sustenance is needed, in a backpack. The heavier the backpack is, the more strenuous the walk will feel – striking the balance is key here. It will take a few trials before you find that, so patience is vital. Of course, a cap and a good pair of sunglasses are necessary especially if you are in tropical climates. If you are adventurous enough for walking during the rainy season, go for a waterproof jacket instead of an umbrella. One key accessory that shouldn’t be missed in any weather condition is sunscreen. For the sake of full disclosure, I had a quick look in my trail backpack while writing this. It had the following along with everything else that’s already been mentioned- tissues, hand sanitiser, wooden cutlery, plastic bag, pen and packs of beef jerky. Not a bad haul for a former couch potato!
Some footnotes and more
It is important to pay attention to the upkeep of the trail and avoid littering. Always keep a bag with you to collect the waste generated during the walk and dispose of it after reaching home. Most trails are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and it’s the responsibility of the visitors to retain the sanctity of these places by keeping them clean. Trail walking can be a communal as well as an individual activity. I enjoy both – walks with friends or by myself. During group trail walks, one needs to be cognizant of the people with a slower pace and accordingly adjust the pace to keep up with the group. For those who find steep climbs difficult, walking poles are an excellent aid for clearing slopes.
A level of preparedness is needed to understand the weather conditions, especially if you are in a country where weather changes are frequent. Having a peak at the weather app before starting on a trail, is a good habit which will save a lot of trouble later. Imagine being caught unawares by rain and storm, while you are on a difficult trail without any suitable gear – if my experience is anything, it’s nothing less than a nightmare. If you are undertaking a long-distance walk in autumn or winter when the days are shorter, plan for an early start.
For all the pet owners out there, trails suitable for dogs are also there aplenty. Since some trails happen to be near grazing areas and fields, it is important to have dogs on leashes to avoid unwanted incidents. Also, be prepared to meet and greet cattle during your trails – just takes a while to get used to having them block the entire path!
The first ever trail I undertook was Castlewood circular, a tiny section of the massive London capital ring. It was a 7 km easy walk which I completed in about 2 hours. Parts of me were sceptical whether I would be able to complete it because 7 km seemed like a lot of distance – and 2 hours seemed like a huge amount of time! The sense of achievement after that first trial set the tone for me to embark further on this journey, and attempt more difficult trails and hikes. I am glad to have sustained the enthusiasm and consistently levelled up in terms of distance and difficulty.
Along with nature, cityscapes also provide some very enjoyable trails. One of my favourite such trails is the famous Thames path from Vauxhall to Isle of Dogs. There would hardly be any Londoner who hasn’t been to parts of this 15 km route. As the name suggests, this walk is alongside the iconic River Thames, covering many major landmarks of London along the way. And since it’s a city trail, one could attempt it without any navigation tools simply by following the river path signs. Also, it’s the type of trail where you can opt for a pint break every so often, and go off-route to click pictures of the London eye. I had also taken a couple of friends who were visiting London on this particular route and in their own words, this path is like a mini London tour!
While recovering from Covid earlier in October, I embarked on the longest trail that I have ever done – a 30 km point-to-point trail from Uxbridge to Amersham, in the northwest side of London. And candidly speaking, the final 5 kilometres were positively brutal. Though the trail was relatively flat throughout, there was a small hillock that needed to be cleared which unfortunately appeared towards the fag end of the walk, after both of my legs turned sore and tired from the walk thus far. I was completely out of breath, and fatigued. Though the urge to call an Uber to reach Amersham station was extremely overwhelming, I chose to rest in the woods for a while to get some energy back. Even though it felt impossible at first, I began to slowly walk the rest of the trail and managed to complete the whole 30 kilometres of it.
Of course, the next day my body ached, moaned and complained – but the satisfaction was immense. Trail walking has been transformational for me not only in terms of fitness and endurance, but also to be more appreciative of my surroundings, animals and nature. As my friend and regular hiking companion mentioned recently, the essence of trail walking is very personal and varies with individual focus. For some it’s a way to be closer to nature, it’s a way to build stamina, and for some, it’s a way to have beautiful pictures clicked – the list of reasons is endless. The trails are open and inviting, you need to figure out your reason to start exploring!