Evolution of a Walker

Evolution, n: any process of formation or growth; development. A product of such development. A process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change or development.

I have to admit that the idea for this post arose from watching a TV show: The Origins of Us, currently showing on BBC2 and presented by scientists’ crumpet, Dr Alice Roberts.  In the show, Alice shows how our particular branch of the primate family came down from the trees, walked upright and adapted to life on the ground, from the specific angle of the physical changes that happened to our bodies, and why.

Having caught up the second episode the other day, I then headed out to the shops to replenish essential supplies of baking ingredients, and as is usual at such times, my mind drifted off to mulling over future walks in the hills, and memories of past walks.  And at some point the two thought streams merged, and I posed the question to myself: How have I evolved as a walker?  (I know, a bit tenuous and cheesy, but that’s really what happened).

So after some further thoughts, here’s what I came up with:

1. Outdoors v Indoors

As a child, I was in the Scouts, deciding to join-up after I was invited, for some long-distant reason I can’t recall, to go with them on a night hike across the North Downs, which turned out to be a cold and wet experience.  And I used to enjoy going to camp.  My group of friends several times did cross-country walks (ok, it was to the pub for Sunday lunch), and my (future) wife and I climbed Helvellyn.  So I’ve not always been an indoors person, but somewhere along the way when I left university, I stopped going outdoors except for the short walk to the car, and instead stayed indoors and put on weight.

As a child I used to hate going to National trust gardens (castles were acceptable), or even going much into the garden at home.  Comments were always made if I voluntarily ventured into the garden.  And in my household, it’s still my wife who does the gardening.

So it’s fair to say that when I started walking again in 2005, there was some surprise and incredulity often expressed something along the lines of “But you don’t like going outdoors”.  Even after reflecting, I’m still struggling to determine what it exactly was that drew me to the outdoors given my history, and I’ve simply come to the conclusion that it was the dormant memory of years ago coupled with a realisation that I could really do with being a bit more active.

And of course, it was timing.  The opportunity to take part in a group 3 Peaks challenge just came at the right time.

To start with, so called “bad” weather was the enemy, and to this day I’m far less likely to bother going out for a walk if it’s raining than if it’s nice, but then again who isn’t?  In my early walking career, being dry and warm featured very high on my list, to an extent that I laugh at now.  In 2010 and 2011 I have been out in much worse weather than I could ever have dreamed of then, spent much of the day soaked below the waist, and thought very little of it.  So I think I can say I’ve definitely got used to being outside.

My tolerance of the weather has also had big impacts in terms of gear, as having invested heavily in heavy waterproofs, leather boots and thick fleeces at the start, nowadays you will see me out on the fell in trail shoes and softshell in all but the most heinous of conditions.

And the other big thing is camping.  One of the knock-on impacts has been that the family go camping together now – at least one of our family holidays is under canvas each year.  It’s almost a rule.

Family camping every year - it's a rule
Family camping every year - it's a rule

Of course, I still have further to evolve – arguably my first hike was at night, and I’ve not done it since.  And although I’ve flirted with wild camping, I’ve never actually had the nerve to do it.  But I think next year it may happen when my time in the Lake District focusses on the Far Eastern fells where logistically I may have to wild camp whether I want to or not.

And I’ve still not cracked the fitness thing either.  Living in Essex, hillwalking of the kind I enjoy isn’t something I can easily do every weekend, so I struggle to keep hill-fit in between trips north and west.  I’m hoping that taking up orienteering will help with this, as well as improve my micro-navigation and further toughen me up in terms of being out in shitty conditions over the winter.

2.  Gear

I’ve already mentioned enough about gear to make it clear that I now travel much more lightweight than I did to start with.  But it’s been a long journey and I’ve still got far to go.

In 2005 in preparation for the 3 Peaks, I went down to my local outdoor shops (Milletts and Blacks) and kitted myself out – a nice grey Peter Storm raincoat, waterproof overtrousers, a fleece as a mid-layer and some nice Berghaus Tech Tees as base layers.  And apart from the Tech Tees, which are on their last legs (or should that be last arms ?!), I don’t use any of it today.

Blacks in particular did really well out of me that year.  As well as the stuff I’ve already mentioned, I added a Berghaus Freeflow III 35+8 rucksack, a Camelbak 3ltr bladder (both still central to my gear today), headtorch, gaitors, trekking poles, and a huge collection of socks.

But as I did more and more walking, I went to gear shops more and more, spent more and more, and built up a huge stockpile of stuff that I don’t use.  To the extent that almost anything I buy nowadays, other than routine replacement of consumables, has to be physically sneaked past my wife and gradually infiltrated into the household laundry system.

In 2007, I discovered soft shell.  Yes, I’d read articles about the brave souls who trusted their lives to soft shell, but that wasn’t what made me buy my first soft shell jacket.  No, it was red and it looked cool.  And I’d just had a hard couple of days in poor weather and needed cheering up.  I’ve only worn it once in anger – when I did the Welsh 3000ers that same year.  It took me two more years, and two more soft shell jackets, before I actually took to it as my main outer layer.  And the irony is that when I did finally commit to it, I was wearing a cheap own brand jacket that cost under £60, not my “cool” jacket that cost twice as much and is actually, as it turns out, shockingly bulky and heavy to be practical for me nowadays.

My real breakthrough came when I bought my North face Apex Soft Shell trousers.  On a wet and windy 5 days on the South West Coast Path in 2009, I wore them and my cheap soft shell jacket from Decathlon the whole time and although they did wet through, they dried so quick that it was never a problem.  My traditional waterproofs never left my rucksack.  And this year they didn’t even make it into the rucksack in the first place.  This was because I realised that if the weather was wet enough that my soft shell wasn’t enough, chances were that my Dad and brother, who I do the annual SWCP section with, would want to bail out of the walk anyway.

And then in 2010, having just passed the Wainwright halfway mark, I bought another soft shell – a bright orange Haglofs Viper.  But this time a difference – I actually use it.  It’s light and comfortable and I practically live in it.

A gourmet dinner
A gourmet dinner

And the soft shell has also had a parallel on my feet – the move to trail shoes.  Having bought a pair of North Face (hey I know I’ve mentioned TNF a lot, but I’m not on their payroll and it is really only their soft shell and footwear that I like), Vindicator Lows at a good price in Decathlon in 2008, I took the plunge and wore them for the first part of the SWCP a few weeks later.  It was baking hot the whole time and I positively skipped along.  A walk on Pumlumon at Easter 2010 when there was still snow on the tops, cemented it.  I can’t even recall where my leather boots are anymore.

But I’ve not gone completely lightweight.  I bought myself a Trangia and a backpacking tent weighing nearly 2.5kg for my first long Lakes trip in 2007, and I still use both because I can’t bear to be parted from them.  Both are utterly dependable, and suit me perfectly.  So I’ve somehow managed to resist replacing both of them, and probably will until they give up the ghost.  I just compensate by being a bit more squalid with my clothing supplies.

Tonight's accommodation
Tonight's accommodation

And you know what, I can walk past Blacks nowadays without being lured in every time.  Or I can go in there just to browse and be confident that I won’t buy something. I guess I’m one of the many who are responsible for the financial trouble they’re in, as I use them primarily as a showroom for gear that I then buy online.  And I’ve also discovered, mainly through having an enormous Decathlon within walking distance of home, that cycling, running, ski and even fishing gear can sometimes be useful.  Hell, I’ve even been seen on the fells wearing something I got from B&Q.  As I turned 40, looking “cool” went out the window, and I now have the confidence to wear whatever I feel works for me.  I may even get around to making my own gear one day.

3. Knowledge

It’s a no-brainer that as you do more walking, experiencing a wider range of conditions and get to know the hills better, that your knowledge increases.  I can still recall the time when I’d hear the name of a Lake District fell and have to consult maps and AW’s books to work out where it was.  Now, I pretty much have the whole map in my head.  And, just as always seems to happen in central London, I now find myself giving directions to others whilst out on the hill.

It’s very satisfying to look around you in a 360 degree circle and know what everything is, to be able to read the shape of the land, to predict the terrain and where paths that will get you out of trouble are.

But of course, along with knowledge, has come greed.  And in the form of peakbagging and working through the lists of Wainwrights, Nuttalls et al.  But that’s another story.

4. Independence

I realised early on that although it has obvious safety advantages, walking with others has some major drawbacks too.  Firstly that you’re either all reduced to the pace of the slowest, or the group members walk at differing paces and get frustrated at those that are either too slow or too fast.  Secondly, it makes sponteniety much harder too – when I’m out I can change my plan on a whim if I need to or want to.  And finally, the noise.  A group means chat whilst walking, and chat means less notice of surroundings.  And that chat often has little to do with the walking itself when you’re walking with a group of people that all know each other.

So, when I discovered that it is perfectly safe to walk in the hills by yourself, I never looked back.  Of course I enjoy meeting people whilst out, and it’s pleasant to spend a few minutes chatting to a stranger whilst you’re taking a breather at a summit, but I can walk at my own pace, look at what I want to and reflect.

And I find I’ve been drawn to the less frequented places, particularly in the Lake District.  This is partly a natural thing by working through the Wainwrights, but it’s something I now actively seek out.  Some of my best days have been had on fells such as Binsey, Green Crag, Seathwaite Fell, and the outlying fells near Devoke Water.  And if I were able to whittle the list down to my 10 favourite fells, I’m sure that some of these would definitely make the cut.

Another thing that’s helped is taking up watercolour painting, initially as something I hoped would help me record my walks in a way that the camera couldn’t always manage.  I hate being watched, and will always sit with my back to the wall and facing the room in a restaurant, for example, and the same goes for when I’m painting.  That’s partly because I’m so bad still that the last thing I want is people looking over my shoulder while I cock it up, but also because it’s much more conducive to art when you don’t have people around you and are alone with your thoughts and the scene.  So this has also helped steer me to the lonelier places.

I’ve reached a point now where I don’t look that much at routes others have prepared, preferring to research and plan my own.  And when I did the Cumbria Way earlier this year, I actually only trod about 70% of the official route, as I opted to head off-route to visit extra fells along the way (for example, Great Burney, Beacon fell, Holme Fell).  And it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that I’ve technically not done the CW properly as I’ve not stick religiously to the prescribed route.  My route was longer and involved more ascent whilst still covering all of the key parts of the official route.  That’s good enough.  And when I do the Coast to Coast, I’m taking that approach even further and not even starting from St. Bees and ending in Robin Hood’s Bay.  No my C2C is likely to be from Ravenglass (or somewhere near) across to Holy island.  But it will be every bit as good as if I’d done the official route.  Better, actually, as I doubt it will be at all crowded.

A very different Coast to Coast walk

When I started walking in 2005, I took out subscriptions to all the usual magazines, and now have to try to get through Trail, Country Walking, TGO, Lakeland Walker, Trail Running, and Outdoor Fitness, as well the Ramblers’ Walk magazine each month.  And I’m getting less and less from reading them.  Little in the way of useful advice that I haven’t already heard before, expensive gear that I don’t need or want and walk ideas that I’d far rather spend time researching for myself.  So I think I’m going to bail out of some of them.  I can’t remember the last time I went on the LFTO forum either.  Which brings me to…

5.  Sharing

Initially, I started a blog so that workmates could follow what I was up to whilst I took 3 months unpaid leave to walk in the mountains.  I never kept it up as it felt like a chore then, especially as the way I was doing it required a lot of HTML and fannying around on my part.  Of course with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, and as I’ve started to take more photos and videos and publish them on YouTube, I’ve found more of a market for sharing my experiences, and most importantly, tools that help me focus on the content rather than the mechanism of sharing.  It’s now second nature to blog a day’s walk, and to tweet progress as I go, which also has the benefit of reassuring people at home that I’m ok when I’m out in some remote place all by myself.

In summary

I spent my first couple of years following all the published advice about what to wear and where to walk, and I’ve spent the last couple of years gradually undoing it all.  Now, I travel much more lightweight, follow my own route and define my own parameters for enjoyment and achievement in the outdoors.  Long may it continue.

No longer caring how ridiculous I look
No longer caring how ridiculous I look

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