ten backpacking lessons learned from walking the South Downs Way

Many people may think that I am a seasoned hiker/camper, but in reality, that is not the case.  Yes, I have enjoyed many adventures and even long-distance trails such as the Camino, The Cotswold Way etc, but on all of those trails, I slept in a comfortable bed, not a tent.  Camping whilst hiking is a completely different experience, so as a novice, I thought I would share with you my findings and lessons learned whilst camping along the 100 miles of the South Downs Way.

Lesson #1 - Take your time pitching your tent

After walking 18 miles on my first day, I pitched my tent in a hurry.  I also tried pitching it with bare feet, which was crazy!  My feet were very hot from the day of walking and the fresh grass felt wonderful beneath my feet.  In hindsight, slipping my camp shoes on would have been wise but I just wanted to get the tent up and make my way to the pub.  The tent was pitched on a slope, it was taught in the wrong places and in the morning I woke up with a wet sleeping bag as I had slipped downhill and the bag and mat were now touching the tent.  When you are hiking, a good sleep in paramount.  You are not in a rush, so slow down, take your time and pitch your tent properly.   I spent some time on YouTube watching "How to pitch a Lanshan 2 tent", so I knew how to pitch it correctly, I was simply too impatient and I paid the consequences.  Lesson learned - be more patient!

Lesson #2 - Pack light

When you heave your full 25llb rucksack onto your back when you are at home it does not seem that heavy.  In fact, I remember thinking to myself "this is absolutely fine, what is everyone moaning about?".  Walking for 15-25 miles, in the heat, up and down steep inclines and you will soon start to moan about the weight. My final pack weight was around 23llbs (10.50 kg), and I struggled.  I was eating food just to get rid of the weight!   Buying lightweight gear can be quite expensive, but the investment is so worth it.   I carried a few luxury items that I could probably have done without such as a comfy pillow, and my Jetboil is quite heavy, but hey, sleep and coffee are also important!

Lesson #3 - Embrace the stink!

If you have watched any of my videos then you will have heard me ramble on about how I need a shower and how much I hated feeling sticky and unclean.  I have these wicked compression towels which expand in water, so I had a bed bath every evening, but it is not the same as having a shower.  It really got to me and made me doubt if I could embrace a long-distance trail such as the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Appellation Trail with a lack of a shower or bath for months on end.  I ended up brushing my teeth in the tent, which was also very strange.

Going to bed feeling unclean is not something that sits well with me.  As the weather was so hot, I would also wake in the night feeling sticky and needing to strip off.  No wonder the guy at Cocking Post Office treated me like a homeless person.

Lesson #4 - You will be tested both physically and mentally

When your body is in pain, then mind soon follows if you let it.  I spent five days backpacking the trail on my own and I certainly shed a few tears along the way and questioned why on earth was I putting myself through this?  My ankle had doubled in size on one occasion and I had no-where to sleep for the night.  I kept telling myself "the trail will provide" as I hobbled into the next village and sure enough it did.   Mentally, you have hours and hours of time on your own with your own thoughts.  You can use this time constructively or just let your thoughts wander and see where it takes you.  On a bad day, if I found my mind was wandering into unpleasantville, then I would plug myself into my favourite audiobook, podcast or skip along to a few tunes.  The key is to acknowledge that you need to shift your mood to something more positive otherwise you can be rather vulnerable on the trail.

Lesson #5 - Be prepared for the lack of shops and cafes of the South Downs.

On previous hikes such as the Camino or The Cotswolds Way, there was always a cafe or somewhere I could buy a coffee or resupply along the way.  Along the South Downs Way, there are very few villages with shops/cafes.  If I had researched the route in more detail then I would have been prepared for this.  When I set off from Winchester, all I had in my pack was three Adventure meals (for emergencies), some nuts and a packet of cherry drops.  What was I thinking!  Luckily, at the end of the first day, I just happened to have stumbled upon a post office that sold all sorts and enabled me to stock up on snacks.

Lesson #6 - Umbrella's rock!

If there was one luxury item that I will take with me on all of my future backpacking trips, it is my umbrella.  I used the umbrella as a shade from the sweltering sun.  I may be sitting down in a park under my umbrella or it was attached to my rucksack in the midday sun.  The umbrella also came in very handy when the rain came!  I loved my umbrella and have no regrets of taking it.

Lesson #7 - Voltorol and Ibruprophen

Many people will disagree with me on this one, but taking two ibuprofen before I went to bed, and smothering my shins with Voltorol was a saviour.  I would go to bed in pain and wake up pain-free.  I rarely took tablets etc during the day, but this was my evening routine.  Towards the end of my trip, the Votorol would also be smothered onto my sore shoulders and swollen ankle.  A friend recommended Votorol and I have never looked back.  It's magic stuff!

Lesson #8 - Buy a decent charger pack

If there is one element of my trip that gave me heightened stress levels, it was when my phone battery was reaching 20% or less.  I was using my phone for navigation and more importantly, I was using Apple Pay as my only form of paying for items (as my wallet was stolen two days beforehand).  If my phone died then life would be really miserable.  I ended up leaving my phone on aeroplane mode to save battery, which meant that no-one would be able to know where I was.  This was not clever.  I was utilising a Smart Battery Case and I also had a Belkin Powerpack, but I was still using a lot of power as I was recording video constantly on the trail

I know it adds to the weight but for me, my next trip will include a hefty power pack that can provide ample power for my phone for at least a few days.

Lesson #9 -  Don't live your life through your lens, but certainly record your travels.

When backpacking the most bizarre things will happen.  If you are a vlogger then it is important to tell your story as soon as possible to capture the mood of the moment.  This is much easier when you are walking on your own, but when you are with others then it can feel rather uncomfortable.  Over time, my walking colleagues got used to me chatting away to the camera, but I certainly missed lots of moments that would have been great for the book or the vlog.  I am not saying that you should live your life through the eye of a camera, but recording your story after the event and throughout the day helps when putting your final edits together.  I managed to record a daily morning video telling people what the plans were for today, but I would often fall asleep at night without writing anything down or recording a round-up of the day video.  I regret not doing this so I need a better system for vlogging on the trail.

Documenting my travels is my way of being creative (similar to an artist who loves to paint).  As I am walking a trail my eyes are constantly on the lookout for new things.  I enjoy every aspect, from huge ants crawling on a tree to wildflowers growing in a meadow.  I love the detail of nature and therefore my eyes are always on the hunt for something that will enhance my experience.

Lesson #10 -  Get up early

I am a natural early bird anyway, but rising with the larks has many advantages when backpacking.

  • Taking amazing sunrise photos
  • You will see wildlife that you would not usually witness (especially deer and foxes on the South Downs).
  • There will be a be dent in your mileage for the day before the midday sun.
  • Arriving at your final destination nice and early is always a good feeling!

There are a few negatives about getting up early.  It is often a bit chilly in the mornings, and your feet may become wet when walking on the dew.  Packing up a dew ridden wet tent is also not fun, but that sunrise is worth it!