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Long Hikes. . . Romance vs. Reality

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This was authored by Paul Mags and was specific to his audience of backpackers. Though directed at wilderness backpacking, I thought there were a few similarities to Camino walking that made his article worth sharing.

Let me be sure to clarify the point that this article is not directly applicable to Camino pilgrims in general, but there are some similar themes which may be worth thinking on. As such, the thing I want to avoid is a debate on why the article does not directly apply to Camino walking. It Doesn't. I state this because I am very cognizant of the differences between wilderness backpacking and a Camino; the two have only superficial connections.

And please keep in mind that when Paul is writing about gear and weight and backpack loads, etc, he is talking about carrying the kit one needs for a full-on week long, or longer, load that includes food, fuel, and cooking gear, tents, sleeping mats, etc. . . . None of that is even remotely needed for Camino where one is not walking in the wilderness from camping spot to camping spot, but from town to town, village to village, alburgue to alburgue, etc. :)

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Long Hikes: Romance vs. Reality
Author Paul Mags
April 5, 2019


If you were to hop on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook forums, or the occasional website, you’d see pronouncements. Pronouncements full of dreams, romance, and aspirations.

A person declares their intent to hike a long trail. A journey full of rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine. They’ll sit at alpine lakes, have John Muir-like epiphanies, and become one with the universe.

Long hikes are viewed a bit like a cross between Dharma Bums and The Motorcycle Diaries mixed in with a healthy dose of Walden and Desert Solitaire.

And to get ready for this #EPIC journey?

Gear gets discussed over and over. People eagerly watch mostly aspirational vlogs and refer to the videos as scripture. People declare that they are going to conquer the trail. And invariably people say, “YOU GOT THIS!” to encourage the person on their pilgrim path.

Except the reality is that you’ll sweat, stink, and possibly ache, and those idyllic John Muir-esque moments by the lake are preceded by schlepping a pack, sleeping on the ground, and walking steeply up and down routes.

Is a long hike rewarding? Of course, the journey is rewarding! There is a reason why many people adjust their lifestyle to take longer journeys on a more frequent basis.

In the words of Colin Fletcher in River:

…there is nothing like a wilderness journey for re-kindling the fires of life. Simplicity is part of it. Cutting the cackle. Transportation reduced to leg- or arm-power, eating irons to one spoon. Such simplicity, together with sweat and silence, amplify the rhythms of any long journey, especially through unknown, untattered territory. And in the end, such a journey can restore an understanding of how insignificant you are – thereby set you free.

“Where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

A wilderness journey does free you in ways that aren’t understood. That is until that pack is shouldered, or you raft, or bike, and travel in the mountains, woods, or the desert.

But too many people focus on the romance of the journey rather than reality. The pragmatic nuts-and-bolts crap that lets you enjoy the journey even if you are stinking, hurting, sweating, and chaffing. You might curse at the steepness of the trail or misreading the landscape, but you know it is part of the journey, shrug, and move on.

And find contentment. Something beyond happiness. And it is a heady feeling.

I am not discounting the romance of the long journey. Imagination and yearning turn dreams into reality, after all.

But to make sure the dream does become a reality and not a maxed-out Visa due to gear purchases, airfare, shuttle fees and another plane ticket home a few weeks later, some simple ideas might be warranted.

Be realistic in your skill level, financial situation, obligations, goals, and when you can go on a long hike. Do some research. See how much a hike realistically costs even on the low end. A figure outdated twenty-years ago is even more outdated today. You might have all of June off this year, but that does not mean you can hike The Colorado Trail with your current skill set. If most experienced people tell you something (Yes, you really should not carry just your phone on the Hayduke. No, your discount tent and a January start of the Appalachian Trail is not a good idea.), perhaps you should reassess. Do you have family members who would be impacted by your decision to take off for weeks or months? In the end, are you looking for affirmation and validation or advice and suggestions?

See if you enjoy backpacking! No, really. Sounds silly. But a good amount of people gets out there without ever having backpacked before. We all have heard of someone who tackled the XYZ trail and never backpacked a day in their life. But when 75% do not complete their attempted thru-hike of the AT, I am more curious about the 75% non-completers vs. the 25% completers. Not that having experience backpacking guarantees completion of a long hike, but a seven-day backpacking trip at a moderate ~10-15 mile per day pace is an excellent baseline for most trails. A Saturday, a Sunday, and a week of PTO makes for a modest investment in seeing if you enjoy a taste of a long journey. You get to test your gear, see some beautiful areas, and see if you enjoy being outside at a pace similar to a long hike.

Start thinking of gear as a system. Do your initial research and start thinking of your gear as a system for a specific environment and style of backpacking rather than as individual pieces of gear. I’ve discussed this concept before. The individual weight of an item does not matter if it does not fit in your system overall. A frameless pack sans a hip belt works best on-trail with light food carries and with a minimal kit overall. Your favorite YouTube vlogger probably has more experience (maybe?!?!) to make a minimalist kit more comfortable. It probably will not work for you.

Go as light as you can, but don’t stress over it. Similar to the above. Do some research. Read reviews from trusted sources found at various places. See what works for your comfort level, style, and budget. Be wary of people posting their gear spreadsheets as something to emulate. Many of these spreadsheets are more theory than practice. Anyone can make a list that looks good on paper but is not tested in the real world. And be double wary of Top Ten Lists from some “expert.” The lists are of dubious value and are more to sell gear than to give you advice. And, finally, with modern gear, it is exceedingly difficult to get a heavy kit. Don’t take five pairs of socks, the espresso maker, and too many tchotchkes. Think minimalist and carry less. Even with “off-the-shelf-gear” at REI vs. cottage gear, you’ll find that your gear load is a respectable sub-20 lbs. And you can go even lighter without having to spend a lot of money to achieve an overall lighter pack weight.

“Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care” Photo from The Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Backpack some more. And hike. And backpack still more. Start with the first item above. You’ll hear the old saw “You’ll get ready on the trail!” Well, maybe. But if you are spending a lot of money, time, and preparation for something that involves hiking, wouldn’t it make sense to hike a bit? Besides, being outside is more enjoyable than spending a weekend shopping, reading about things you want to buy, or watching YouTube videos about someone else’s hike.


And you find you don’t like the longer mileage days, weeks away, or even backpacking? There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors. Long walks are just a small subset of ways to enjoy the outdoors. Take a road trip, camp, and enjoy a few months of shorter backpacks. I did. And found it immensely satisfying. Or join a trail crew for a summer. Bike across America and see the small towns instead of the wilderness. Of hike the trails in vacation-length segments instead. You get the idea. A different path may be best for your outdoor enjoyment.

Get passionate about your hike. Envision yourself in a place more beautiful than you imagine. And get excited about the journey. But take a few steps to make your dream a realistic endeavor.

Dreams are wonderful. Making your dreams a reality is even better.
 
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Bradypus

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Year of past OR future Camino
Too many and too often!
Be realistic in your skill level, financial situation, obligations, goals, and when you can go on a long hike.

I think the biggest catch-22 for first-timers in both long-distance backpacking and walking a Camino is making that realistic assessment to begin with. If you have never done either how do you judge your own abilities? It oftens surprises me when I read people posting that walking the Camino Frances is literally their first experience of a multi-day walk. I've even read of people who bought their first-ever walking boots then never took them out of the box until the day they set off for Roncesvalles :rolleyes: Fortunately most first-time Camino walkers choose the Camino Frances which has a huge infrastructure which can accommodate drastic revisions of plans when the romantic vision runs up against the painful reality!

Another problem in making a realistic plan is that there are so many conflicting opinions from past pilgrims to choose from. In the past few days I have read posts elsewhere stating absolutely that it is impossible to walk from SJPDP to Roncesvalles in a single day and that one MUST stop at Orisson overnight. And implying that carrying a rucksack is near-suicidal. Others have breezily posted that it is far better to walk right through Roncesvalles and further on to Burguete or even further. Which advice does a newbie follow? The same is true for dozens of topics on which there are opinions 180 degrees apart. I have often thought that there is very little point in asking many of these practical questions on a forum like this since if you genuinely have no preconceived opinion then there is nothing very useful to be done with the 70, 80 or 90 differing opinions. Probably better to start small with shorter trips and build on the experience incrementally than dive-in to an 800km journey and fall flat on one's face. Metaphorically or literally.
 
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Year of past OR future Camino
2012
Didn't most of us who ended up as experienced back-packers, long-trail hikers and even serial pilgrims start out in blissful ignorance?

I've posted previously about "making it all to easy" (historians may care to research ;)). The impact of the internet on such a simple human endeavour as putting one foot in front of another until you get to a place different to where you started is frightening. Never mind pornography, bank fraud and mis-information. So when did going for a walk get so complicated? How organized do you really need to be to make it from A to B.

Walking from StJdP to Santiago in the 21st C is a bit like walking down the block to your favourite coffee shop with frequent stops in nice warm, clean rest-stations. Hiking anywhere in Europe scarcely gets more difficult unless you are determined to do the Tour de Mont Blanc in plimsoles, in Winter and carrying a fridge full of cold beers and a solar panel to charge the fridge.

OK, I know, long-distance hiking; hiking day after day after day seems like a challenge for most who think that walking anywhere is a significant achievement - "I walked to the gym today" - but it isn't.

We have a new member today who is so concerned by death and crime on the Camino that they are hesitant to face the possibilities and seeking re-assurance from a bunch of random, anonymous posters on an internet forum that everything will be ok.

@davebugg thanks for posting the quotes from Mr Mags, there is some good, sound advice there. But don't you too hanker for the days when the whole point of the exercise was finding out for yourself? And @Bradypus couldn't setting out from StJdP in brand new, ever so shiny, unbroken boots provide, in just a couple of days, the sort of life-lesson that the individual might otherwise have skipped every semester for ever?
 

Bradypus

Moderator
Staff member
Year of past OR future Camino
Too many and too often!
And @Bradypus couldn't setting out from StJdP in brand new, ever so shiny, unbroken boots provide, in just a couple of days, the sort of life-lesson that the individual might otherwise have skipped every semester for ever?
Agreed! I can still remember very vividly walking over the Route Napoleon for the first time on a July day way back in another century. Being Scottish the whole concept of "sun" was a mystery to me. I was also yet to get to grips with the idea of "dehydration". Just beyond the border I discovered the fuente was dry. Hot, headachy and nauseous. I looked up to see two vultures circling above me. I swore at them - "***** off! I'm not dead yet!" - and carried on down to Roncesvalles. I'd love to be able to say that I learned all my lessons that day but there were quite a few more to come, especially on the meseta... :)
 
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Deleted member 67185

Guest
@davebugg thanks for posting the quotes from Mr Mags, there is some good, sound advice there. But don't you too hanker for the days when the whole point of the exercise was finding out for yourself?

I do hanker for those days. Many of us had fathers, brothers, friends with fathers and mothers, etc, who could take us on out first hikes as children and softly introduce us to hiking, then camping, then weekend backpacking, then much longer forays going from trailhead 'A' to ending up at trailhead 'B'.

It used to be that our backpacking and trekking mentoring was human and not YouTube digital :) The internet can be a valuable tool, but like everything else it is replete with both great information and horrible information. . . without much that can distinguish one from the other to a newbie.

I'll never forget late September 2017 when Caleb and I came up to two women sitting to the side of the road about 1 Km above Orisson. They had left from St John Pied de Port and I had remembered them passing us around Huntto going gangbusters. They were really huffing and puffing, and somewhat obese. After wishing them a warm "Buen Camino" as the zoomed past, I remember mentioning to Caleb that I was really concerned about their pace and pack sizes (which seemed filled beyond capacity), and that maybe they were just doing a real short day to Orisson.

We stopped for about an hour at Orrison, eating breakfast and enjoying the morning, before continuing on. Further up Napoleon route were the women. One had her shoes and socks off and was just sobbing. The other was worn to a frazzle and seemed on the verge of complete collapse. We stayed with them and made sure they drank water to rehydrate, and I gave them each a Gu energy gel.

After about 15 minutes, both seemed to recover significantly. I asked them if they wanted to continue or go back to Orisson. The one who had been sobbing said something to the affect, "I quit. Everything I read on the internet said that this is something anyone can do. Why would anyone say that?"

I didn't bother to point out the obvious issues that impacted them: their pace, their lack of fitness, the backpack weight (they did weigh a ton). I simply dressed blisters and waited for them to recover enough to continue on. Fortunately, one other pilgrim had stopped to help, so Caleb stayed with the packs while the other fellow and I each grabbed one of the women's backpacks and escorted them back down to Orisson.

Before I left to re join Caleb and continue to Roncesvalles, I encouraged both women to at least get a full night's rest before deciding whether or not to continue. And also to consider having their backpacks sent ahead if they continue, at least until they figured out how to lighten the load. I also gave them some tips on how to pace themselves.

The wonderful folks at Orisson assured me they would assist the women from there.

Maybe that's why a lot of us do what we do with the Forum. . . and why I love this Forum so much. It is my hope that those who are new, and for whom the Camino is going to be their first long walk, will learn enough here to enable them to meet their goals, rather than end up collapsed in a heap wondering what went wrong.
 
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Kanga

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Staff member
Year of past OR future Camino
Francés x 5, Le Puy x 2, Arles, Tours, Norte, Madrid, Via de la Plata, Portuguese, Primitivo
A great thread and terrific anecdotes and advice from seasoned members. I was one of those obese, overburdened, new boots people who had never hiked, on my first Camino! But I had prepared by doing some training, lots of reading, and having a determined mindset to get to Santiago walking - taking as long as I needed to get there. Endurance and flexibility are, I think, the key. The first two weeks were a real struggle and a constant shedding of weight - from my pack and from my body. There was no luggage transfer in those days and I am now glad that was the case, because it did teach me so much - what was really critical, what was optional, how much freedom comes from eliminating choice, how to trust myself to be creative, how little I really need to be happy. It makes me a little sad that today’s pilgrims miss those lessons, with the option of having their packs carried.
 

Camino Chrissy

Take one step forward...then keep on walking..
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I too, love this thread and each and every comment that has been posted..lots of good thoughts!

And I really like the word "hanker". You don't hear it any more, at least not where I live. My mom would say she had a "hankering" for a milk shake on a hot summer night. My dad packed her and us five kids in our pj's in the station wagon and headed down to the local Dairy Dream. Great memories...and nothing to do with this thread! 😂
 
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Turga

Camino tortuga
Year of past OR future Camino
CF (Aug/Sep 2017)
CF (Aug/Sep 2018)
Great article, lots of food for thoughts. About the ongoing debate of being prepared versus being over-prepared, about over-planning versus just getting out there and see what happens and handling situations as they happen.

One of the things that strikes me is the ending remarks about being passionate, excited and having dreams which seems to contradict the popular view that you should “go without expectations” (ok, then we can discuss the difference between dreams and expectations). Personally, if I didn’t have dreams and expectations I would never get out of my couch to go travelling or caminoing.

The quite well known (I think) Danish explorer and navigator Troels Kløvedal once said, when asked what happiness is, that happiness is when reality meets expectations… :)
 

VNwalking

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Baztanés/CF ('17)
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Dave, thank you for this thread.
I resonated so much with some of the points in your original post, as well as some of the responses.
@Kanga 's especially:
There was no luggage transfer in those days and I am now glad that was the case, because it did teach me so much - what was really critical, what was optional, how much freedom comes from eliminating choice, how to trust myself to be creative, how little I really need to be happy. It makes me a little sad that today’s pilgrims miss those lessons, with the option of having their packs carried.
In planning a camino, we have so many options, and often too many choices - of gear, of logistic assistance, of potential levels of engagement. And there's so much hype hype which promises the 'camino mystique' without mentioning its challenges: offering a journey of getting and experiencing, with none of the difficulties.

When we've filled ourselves up with expectations based on movies, books, or other people's stories, and then try to force the camino to be that way, we're adding a heavy mental burden on top of whatever physical burdens we're already lugging around. Then reality hits: the first mud, hills, and blisters; the first loneliness, the first difficult interpersonal interaction. Disappointment is inevitable, and all those myths will never sustain us when the inevitable challenges come.

But if we approach the camino as an journey of simplicity and gradual revelation - of letting go, as opposed to one of collecting a series of iconic "Camino Experiences" - there is much less likelihood of disappointment.

To simply walk the way that unfolds step by step as we meet and overcome whatever challenges present themselves is all any of us need to do. To challenge the limits of what we think we can do, to meet the grit along the way is where we find levels of resilience and strength we never knew we had.
 

AlmostAnastasia

New Member
Year of past OR future Camino
Camino Francis 2018
Well, I think everyone walks their own walk. I think it is a wonderful way to begin walking. Where else can you find a fully supported walk, with many cafes, and pleasant people to chat with along the way? You can walk one week at a time, or from SJPP to Finnesterre. People figure it out along the way. So many options. Happy walking.
 
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Camino Portuguese, 2018
I too, love this thread and each and every comment that has been posted..lots of good thoughts!

And I really like the word "hanker". You don't hear it any more, at least not where I live. My mom would say she had a "hankering" for a milk shake on a hot summer night. My dad packed her and us five kids in our pj's in the station wagon and head down to the local dairy dream. Great memories...and nothing to do with this thread! 😂
Oh, my Mom was a “hanker-er” too and i’ve not seen/heard the word in a long time. Thanks for the memories !😋
 

jmcarp

Veteran Member
Year of past OR future Camino
Camino Frances, 2013
Camino del Norte a Chimayó (USA), 2015
Camino Portugues, 2017
...In the past few days I have read posts elsewhere stating absolutely that it is impossible to walk from SJPDP to Roncesvalles in a single day and that one MUST stop at Orisson overnight. And implying that carrying a rucksack is near-suicidal. Others have breezily posted that it is far better to walk right through Roncesvalles and further on to Burguete or even further...
Unfortunately, too many people these days have a hard time distinguishing the difference between "their reality" and "the reality."
 

David Tallan

Veteran Member
Year of past OR future Camino
2018
My favourite part of the article was this paragraph:

But too many people focus on the romance of the journey rather than reality. The pragmatic nuts-and-bolts crap that lets you enjoy the journey even if you are stinking, hurting, sweating, and chaffing. You might curse at the steepness of the trail or misreading the landscape, but you know it is part of the journey, shrug, and move on.

It really spoke to my experience on the Camino. No matter how uncomfortable, painful, or discouraging it got I was always aware that there was nowhere else I would rather be.
 
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Reija

Member
Year of past OR future Camino
CF 2016, CP 2017, Jakobsweg Ulm-Constance 2017-2018, Via Jacobi 2018, (Via Gebennensis 2019)
"They’ll sit at alpine lakes, have John Muir-like epiphanies, and become one with the universe." Off topic: Has anyone read John Muir's work? If so, which book was it and would you recommend it?
 

Nana6

Active Member
Year of past OR future Camino
France ( 2020)
I do hanker for those days. Many of us had fathers, brothers, friends with fathers and mothers, etc, who could take us on out first hikes as children and softly introduce us to hiking, then camping, then weekend backpacking, then much longer forays going from trailhead 'A' to ending up at trailhead 'B'.

It used to be that our backpacking and trekking mentoring was human and not YouTube digital :) The internet can be a valuable tool, but like everything else it is replete with both great information and horrible information. . . without much that can distinguish one from the other to a newbie.

I'll never forget late September 2017 when Caleb and I came up to two women sitting to the side of the road about 1 Km above Orisson. They had left from St John Pied de Port and I had remembered them passing us around Huntto going gangbusters. They were really huffing and puffing, and somewhat obese. After wishing them a warm "Buen Camino" as the zoomed past, I remember mentioning to Caleb that I was really concerned about their pace and pack sizes (which seemed filled beyond capacity), and that maybe they were just doing a real short day to Orisson.

We stopped for about an hour at Orrison, eating breakfast and enjoying the morning, before continuing on. Further up Napoleon route were the women. One had her shoes and socks off and was just sobbing. The other was worn to a frazzle and seemed on the verge of complete collapse. We stayed with them and made sure they drank water to rehydrate, and I gave them each a Gu energy gel.

After about 15 minutes, both seemed to recover significantly. I asked them if they wanted to continue or go back to Orisson. The one who had been sobbing said something to the affect, "I quit. Everything I read on the internet said that this is something anyone can do. Why would anyone say that?"

I didn't bother to point out the obvious issues that impacted them: their pace, their lack of fitness, the backpack weight (they did weigh a ton). I simply dressed blisters and waited for them to recover enough to continue on. Fortunately, one other pilgrim had stopped to help, so Caleb stayed with the packs while the other fellow and I each grabbed one of the women's backpacks and escorted them back down to Orisson.

Before I left to re join Caleb and continue to Roncesvalles, I encouraged both women to at least get a full night's rest before deciding whether or not to continue. And also to consider having their backpacks sent ahead if they continue, at least until they figured out how to lighten the load. I also gave them some tips on how to pace themselves.

The wonderful folks at Orisson assured me they would assist the women from there.

Maybe that's why a lot of us do what we do with the Forum. . . and why I love this Forum so much. It is my hope that those who are new, and for whom the Camino is going to be their first long walk, will learn enough here to enable them to meet their goals, rather than end up collapsed in a heap wondering what went wrong.
This forum and the obvious experienced hikers is a God send to me.
I hiked as a child, camped and was the child of a "Daniel Boone type" but that was years ago. I am in my late sixties and have never had the chance to do any long hike that I have dreamed. However, I find it crazy that people do not plan, train or try to prepare physically, mentally and financially for the Camino.
I understand the DESIRE!. If I could, I would leave tomorrow but I know I am not prepared physically yet Plus, I am still accessing the financial I have the time but not enough resources to stay as long as I would like yet.
I appreciate these posts, the experience and the kindness of sharing without judgement.
Of everything I have read, the true nature of the Camino is alive and well in this Forum.
I humbly thank you and applauded you for all of the experience and kindness that each shares here
 

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