Who decides to do a 3,500-mile solo hike when she can’t read a map and hates camping?
Why, me, of course!
But these were minor glitches in my grand plan. I simply had to figure out how not to get lost/swallowed by bog/fall off a mountain/die while also developing an appreciation of being cooped up in a two-metre long condensation-loving tent right through winter. Walking was going to be the easy bit…
I’m a huge hiking fan; I started galloping up hills and over moors in little hiking boots and embarrassing orange cagoules when I was six years old. Yet reading a map was as familiar to me as diplomacy is to Donald Trump. All those wiggles and lines looked as much like the real landscape as a Tate Modern piece looks like art: it was simply unfathomable. So when I decided I wanted to do a solo mammoth hike through the UK, I had a slightly uphill battle to figure out how the hell I was going to do it.
I’ve had a few messages from people wanting to get started in solo long-distance hiking but have no experience, so thought I’d share some tips on what I did:
- I joined hiking groups. But not those stuffy, traditional organisations. Ones with people that gave me a welcoming response to ‘can you help me read a sodding map please’? I chatted to the leaders, asked (probably too many) questions and looked at their maps during the walk. I met like-minded hikers, some who turned out to be map-reading gurus. Bingo!
Meetup.com is a great place to search for local hiking groups. If you’re in London/SE England check out Meetup’s Go London Hiking with Gary, he’s a whizz at maps, good fun and went out of his way in giving me navigational help and support on my hike.
- I found people who could read maps and latched onto them like a limpet! I hunted down (patient) friends whose idea of top-notch navigation wasn’t getting back home from the pub drunk (although that skill can come in handy). We headed on day trips to Surrey so they could show me the ropes. It’s amazing how friends suddenly became really busy when I suggested a map-reading day… 🤣 But I (very) gradually started to get the hang of it.
- I signed up for group organised navigational challenges, despite having no idea what I was doing. I went on the annual Epping Forest night orientation event, which was hilarious, and our group proudly finished last! I tramped round Hampstead Heath at night with about 50 others trying to figure out how to pace, read a compass and dodge dog sh** in the dark. Two out of three isn’t bad.
- I bought heaps of second-hand Ordanace Survey maps on Ebay and took myself on day walks around Winchester, Surrey, Sussex and Windsor. I went in circles so many times I gave those UFOs and their crop circles a run for their money. But I got better on each trip. (FYI Dash4it also sell cheaper-than-the-RRP paper maps.)
- I studied the legends/keys on different Ordnance Survey maps because OS maps do, among others, 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale maps. I used 1:25,000 maps whenever possible because they give a more detailed view and show the land boundaries.
- I learnt not to take maps as gospel because they’re not always correct. Land boundaries change, new buildings appear, forests get cut down. I also did my fair share of “Ghaa! The bloody map is wrong again!” until I realised I had just messed up!
- I went on a winter mountaineering course in the Highlands of Scotland; blizzards are a great place to learn how to navigate but unfortunately for this purpose we had blue skies!
- I also stopped listening to people who told me I’d get lost…even if that person was quite often me. At the risk of sounding like some ridiculous common sense self-help book, confidence in your navigation is half the battle.
- I set myself a target that I had to work towards, to walk and camp Wainwright’s Coast to Coast hike solo. I got sufficiently freaked out by this prospect that I had to learn to map read. I also lucked out and met an ex-RAF guy on the first night of the C2C who became my navigational hero (thanks John) and we did several long-distance hikes together.
- And it turns out I wasn’t too bad after all. On my year-long solo British hike I got through the most challenging parts with paper maps (the Highlands) and then went digital, purely for cost and lack of printers en route. Did I feel like I was cheating? Yes, but I got over it pretty quickly! Check out my post on OS Maps’ App review.
As for the camping thang, well, I just grinned and beared it. Can’t say I’ve become a huge camping fan but it’s ideal for low budgets, allows you to bed down whenever you feel like it, get off the beaten path and get lost! You can just pitch up and figure it out the next day if need be. Check out my tips on wild camping.
For fitness, I find the main issue is carrying the weight on your back. Doing gym workouts has minimal effect (I’m not a gym fan) so head outside and start walking. Even if it’s pavement pounding around towns at first, get your mileage up. Run up and down stairs then get your backpack and load it up with books / bags of sugar (perfect for when your energy levels drop). And Bob’s your uncle. If Bob can carry your backpack, even better.
For food, get as lightweight and as calorific food as possible. I don’t use the extortionate freeze-dried camping food, just what the supermarket / local shop sells. And carry at least two extra days’ worth until you can get stocked up again, plus a secret stash of energy-boosting sweets.
Seven days’ food (plus extra rations) for the Cape Wrath Trail. Don’t ask me why I have an Oxo box there – I have no idea!
For more hiking tips, check out my other posts.
Jane Batchelor is a travel fiend. In 2015 she decided to do a 3,500-mile hike through the UK. Two years later, after several map-reading disasters, she set off solo and was fortunately seen again (or unfortunately, depending who you ask).