How I plan my hikes + travel adventures
the granular stuff in one spot + a jumble of my best hiking adventures
Right. This newsletter has come about because I get asked to outline the steps and tricks and links pertaining to my hiking habit repeatedly. (And in the next emittance or so I will cover how I pack. Again, because I’m asked for it so often.) You may want to share these about the place.
I’ll do it as a series of categorised tips and links. And I’ll illustrate things by using a real-life example - my Tour de Mont Blanc hike from a few weeks back and include some lovely imagery and pointers.
And while you’re there…you might like my latest podcast with Katherine May on Wintering. Wintering is the process of resting and withdrawing in dark, or fallow, periods, respecting the rhythm of the cycles of nature and the role of winter… a lot of my fellow Australians, I think, will find this a wonderful salve as winter drags on. This chat gives a beautiful “naturalist”, spiritual framework to both hard times and long winters. I recorded it in London with Katherine and we had much in common, including an awkwardness around hugging. We agreed not to!
The early planning guff
I get inspiration from Instagram. I follow a bunch of handles - OutsideMagazine, HelloEmilie, Jess.Wandering, etc. I screen-grab ideas and email them to myself and keep a “Hikes” folder for such things. I’m sure you have more elegant ways of storing things. This has been my method for 20 years, so….
For yonks I’d seen Mont Blanc references about the place. I don’t tend to go for the “blockbuster” hikes, but Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) had all the ingredients to get me excited: It’s a circuit; it is mostly off-road single trails away from towns and cities (many blockbuster hikes are on roads); and the accomodation is hut-to-hut, many of which are only accessible by foot or horse.
I look up compilation lists done by reputable outlets. Many magazines and newspapers put these together, often compiled by hiking fans. The best ones to keep an eye out for:
The Telegraph (UK)
I simply Google “best multi-day hike (insert location)”.
I will then use these compilation articles to find hiking tour companies and other services, as well as food ideas. I rarely use a hiking tour company, but will head to their website to see which areas they focus on (I figure they will be the best).
However, for the TMB, I did indeed use a tour company - PygmyElephant. They do self-guided hikes, as opposed to group/led hikes. (I mostly Google “best self-guided hike companies (insert area)”. This set-up offer the tour with varying levels of comfort. You can ask for luggage to be transferred each day and you can opt for budget hostels, or more lush auberges where you can have a single room to yourself. Full disclosure: Pygmy Elephant helped me out with this trip as I was happy to promote their work. They are seriously superb and their level of care is life-affirming. I paid my own way there, but they covered logistics etc for me. As you know, I do this kind of thing from time to time.
TBH, you do need a tour company for this hike, if organising from afar, I feel. Navigating such a big hike (it extends up to 13 days) that crosses three countries (entailing three languages) with complex train and bus travel to get there and between markers (as I did, because I got sick), you do need someone on the ground who knows the best direction to walk the route (pending weather), the best huts to book, navigate lining up hut bookings with your preferred hiking distances, where you can food and water en route, etc.
Choosing the exact (best) hike
First I don’t worry about finding the best hike. So that subhead is misleading. Every hike is my best hike.
I often get asked, what’s your favourite hike and I answer, “my next one”.
I do a combination of the below whenever I set out, and save the hikes in an email folder or in the app, categorised by area, ready for when I head back to the same region again.
When I’ve chosen an area/country I use Alltrails app. Type in a location (or it defaults to “nearby”) and all recorded hikes will pop up, with level of difficulty, length, ratings, reviews, map etc. I go through and save great ones as favourites in various folders. I tend to choose circuits or train station-to-train station options.
This app works around the world, and on the TMB I used it a lot. As you may have read, I got sick with a raging fever as I arrived into Couremayer, my starting point for the hike. So I had to abort plans and “exist” through my flu in bed for four days. It was frustrating as all get-up. The local doctor told me I should abort mission and rest for at least a week. But that displeased me. With Pygmy Elephant’s help, and Alltrails, I mapped out ways to walk some of the sections as day walks. And then, as my strength came back, I rejoined the last three days of the route via some complex bus and train combo-nutting.
I complement things with Pocket Earth app. It’s a detailed map that works offline and details every single trail ever traversed. If I’m on a trail and need to find a shortcut (for example, if I’ve run out of time), it will show me all connecting donkey trails, wombat and kangaroo paths etc.
It’s also great for when you’re in an obscure area that doesn’t have “hiking trails” as such, but you just want to go for a walk. When I first arrived into Europe from Australia at 11pm, I used it to just find cross-country trails around the little town on Lake Como that I was staying in.
In Greater Sydney, the best app/site is WildWalks.
If I’m doing a day walk I google “best hikes in (insert location) circuit route”. I don’t like doing there-and-backs.
Or I’ll search for “station to station” walks in any given city/area. I love these hikes. Invariably a local website or service will pop up. It means I can catch a train to the start and hop on at another station at the end and head home. Elegant. In Sydney, Sydney Train Walks lists quite a few.
A 10-15km walk is best for an easy half-day walk. Allow 8am-3pm for a half-day walk, inclusive of travel etc.
A 15-25km walk is what most fit people can handle in a day, if carrying a pack.
I also search “inn-to-inn” or “ pub-to-pub” to find overnight walks. You will probably find some amazing walks in the UK and Europe this way.
Building the experience into an adventure
I put the hike back into google to read forums, see if anyone’s recommended amazing eating stops etc.
I will add drop-pins for eating stops etc, on the relevant app or on GoogleMaps, as well as train stations etc.
I incorporate some ritual. I pack a fun breakfast and a takeaway coffee (in a jar, that I often then use for water on the trail) to have on the train on the way there. I download a podcast or two. This is all part of the adventure.
Download all maps then go offline (aeroplane mode). Download the route (on GoogleMaps, Alltrails, Pocket Earth) and make sure you scroll all the way to the end of the walk so it’s fully downloaded. The little blue ball will trace your travels along the route, even when there’s no signal. I turn my phone off so I have peace and also to save battery.
I do a screen-grab of all routes for good measure.
Carry as little as possible. I go into this in detail next post.
Some hikes I’ve done, to get you inspired
Here’s a village-to-village hike I did in Spain…I found an author of a book on hiking in the region to help me with this one (again, via googling).
I’ve also done a slow food and hiking guide to Mudgee, a hiking guide to Iceland, a hiking guide to Sardinia, and a hiking guide to Andalusia, and many more (some of these are a bit old now). For the full list of hikes guides, you can head here.
Rightio. Feel free to provide additional tips for the community below. And feel free to share this post with mates you might like to hike with (and I invite you to join the membership community while you’re at by subscribing, below).