Long Distance Walking - The Mental Game. Chapter 4. Managing the Length of Time

Long Distance Walking - The Mental Game. Chapter 4. Managing the Length of Time

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This aide memoire was originally written for our younger walkers about to embark on a three week adventure on the Annapurna Circuit. It's been incrementally fine tuned since then. You may find it helpful. Feedback and ideas always welcome.

Managing the Length of Time

A major contributing factor to anyone mentally or emotionally struggling with a long trek is the sheer length of time that is involved. Few people you meet, even on your regular walking tracks have been in the bush a week. Even fewer have been out for ten days. Those who have been out for twenty one or twenty eight days are far fewer still. So how do they, and we, manage a long period of time on the track?

The are a number of tools to help you.

  • First, be resolved to enjoy the experience. Too many start out with a sense of dread, a gloom they never shake off and which colours their whole trip. They start from behind, even before they start. Anticipate a positive experience. Soak up what each day gives you. Do that and ensure you are not just counting the days.
  • Keep a diary. But get confessional in it. Write down what you are really feeling. Down as well as high. It’s a good way to test what you are really going through. If you are missing someone, write to them, and tell them what you are feeling. You may have to wait to post it of course. Or you can simply show them when you get back.
  • Walk each day at a time. If your trek leader is not briefing you on what is happening each day ask them to do so (they should be doing so as a matter of course). Understand when the breaks are planned. Know what the objective is for each day. Visualise your camp spot that night and what you will do when you finish for the day.
  • In walking each day, break the trek into manageable blocks. It’s not a marathon in which you have to run for hours and hours. It might be a thirty minute or one hour block. On Aconcagua in Argentina it was 50 steps at a time once we got above 5000m and the going got a bit tougher. Reward yourself at each stop. It might be a simple ‘well done’ or a snack or some other treat. One person I know pulls his boots off and airs his feet whether they need it or not. It’s his little reward for making it that far. And it has the added benefit of forcing himself to pace himself. On Kokoda one trekker made a point of swimming in each stream we crossed, as his reward to self.
  • Resist thinking about ‘next week’ or dwelling on events many days into the future. Worrying about them will not make them come any quicker and may only make you fret ore. Worse, that thinking and focus has the potential to distract you from the enjoyment of the trek. Walk each day and at the end of the day start thinking about the next day ONLY. A good trek leader will help you do that by debriefing on the day just completed, and will start to give you an idea of what to expect on the next day. And at the beginning of each day the trek master will give you a decent brief on what to expect for that day.

I spend a lot of time poring over the map and planning the stages. Looking at the ground, estimating times and breaking it down into legs. By the time I come to my route card I can picture all the stages in a macro sense. The daily legs are then broken down into a micro sense. I know that 2 hours into the day, I should be passing over a col, crossing a stream.

What this does is put a sense of responsibility on me to keep focused, be aware of my surroundings; geographically, and force me to watch the weather and changing conditions and if need be adjust my planned day as I go along. If I don't do this and rely on others to do it then I would just mong along and then all the doubts you talk about creep in.

The first 3 days is about getting fit. After that I am away and feel strong.

I walked the Swiss High Alpine Route. The Guide book said it was 15 days of strenuous walking. I did it in 9. I had 10 days leave. Good planning, good weather all helps get over the humps and crack a good hard walk.

Frank, British Antarctic Survey Guide and Survival Specialist

  • Summary: the best way to handle a long walk is to reduce it to single, day-bite pieces. Walk the day, not the trek.
  • When trekking the Temang Heritage Trail in Nepal in early 2020 (a comparatively short walk of seven days) the destination each day was often visible across the deep valleys that divide the peaks and ridges over which the trail runs. A point of our conversation turned on whether or not it is better to see the destination in the far distance all day, or whether it was best to come across it at the end of the day. Is it better to see the destination or is it better to imagine or visualise it? The answer really depends on you but also on the rigour of the trip. Seeing the destination in the far distance can be daunting when you know you need to descend 800m, cross a stream and then ascend another 800m to reach it. Ignorance is bliss. Others are happy to see those obstacles and break down the trip into manageable sections which help them stay on top of the day.  

The photo is taken in Nepal. We have walked for half a day and Briddim, our destination, is visible on the far side of the valley. Is that encouraging (we can see where we are going) or discouraging (we have a long way to descend then a long ascent)?

Chapter Three: Know Your Emotions

Chapter Five: The Group

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