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Hard Lessons & Inspirations by Chris Townsend

A typical exposed camp in the Scottish Highlands
A typical exposed camp in the Scottish Highlands

Thinking back to some of the mistakes I made as a novice backpacker makes me shudder. Did I really suffer that much? Yes I did! With no instruction or mentors I learnt initially by trial and error, mostly the latter. Sleeping out in the rain in a feather and down sleeping bag in a plastic survival bag and discovering the joys of condensation and a wet bag; trying to sleep on frozen ground with no insulating mat and discovering why these pieces of expensive foam were needed; buying a piece of open cell foam from a market because it was cheaper than a real camping mat and finding out just how much water it absorbed when sleeping in a single-skin tent with no vents in the rain – result: a sodden sleeping bag again. Then there was humping an external frame pack round the English Lake District with no hipbelt (these were “optional extras” in Britain in the early 1970s). A shocked American hiker had me try on his pack with hipbelt – I’ve been in loved with hipbelts ever since! I also had the experience of realising that one of those compass things might be a good idea after getting lost on featureless moorland in a November storm and descending in the dark, cold and wet, when I also realised a flashlight would be a good idea as I stumbled into bogs and fell over rocks. Then, just a week later, I realised that spare batteries were a good idea as my new flashlight failed as it had accidentally switched on in the pack and I was again slipping and sliding down in the darkness.

On the Whitefish Divide, Pacific Northwest Trail
On the Whitefish Divide, Pacific Northwest Trail

Those episodes and more taught me a great deal, as they would anyone who survived them. I don’t recommend following my example though. Far better to learn from those with more experience, whether in the wilds or from books, blogs and articles. Back in my early days the Internet didn’t exist so I couldn’t just pull up advice and gear reviews in an instant. Instead, when I realised that I would like to be more comfortable and safer, I read backpacking manuals and joined The Backpackers Club, a new organisation in Britain at the time. Those books – Peter Lumley’s Teach Yourself Backpacking and Derrick Booth’s The Backpacker’s Handbook (whose title I pinched for my own how-to book a few decades later) – were invaluable. I still have them and when I glance through them now although the gear seems old-fashioned the advice is sound. I also went on Backpacker’s Club meets and learnt much by talking to experienced backpackers as well as hiking with them and observing the techniques they used.

Below Mount Baker, Pacific Northwest Trail
Below Mount Baker, Pacific Northwest Trail

As well as instructional books I read books about long-distance hikes and soon aspired to undertake similar walks. My first really long walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain, the story of a backpacking trip from the farthest apart points on the British mainland, Land’s End and John O’Groats. Hiking 1250 miles that spring long ago was a revelation. Two weeks and 270 miles was my previous longest walk. This one was long enough to become what I did, my way of life for the 3 months it took. This, I realised, was really living, this was what I wanted to do. Also on that walk I discovered my love for real wildness as I crossed the Scottish Highlands and revelled in the remoteness and vastness compared with the English countryside. I still didn’t know what real wilderness was though. And I didn’t know I didn’t know either.

A Beginning: At the Mexican Border, Pacific Crest Trail
A Beginning: At the Mexican Border, Pacific Crest Trail

After Hillaby came Hamish Brown and his wonderful Hamish’s Mountain Walk, the story of the first ever walk over all the 3,000 foot mountains in Scotland (the Munros) and still one of the best long distance hiking books I’ve ever read. Inspired by Hamish and my walk through the Highlands on the Land’s End to John O’Groats trip I set out to climb all the Munros on backpacking trips. It took me 4 years, during which I undertook two 500 mile hikes and several shorter ones, and I learnt much in the stormy Highlands where camps are often exposed and subject to high winds and heavy rain. I think that if you learn backpacking skills in the Highlands you can easily adapt them to anywhere else. (Many years later I spent 4 and 1/2 months on a continuous walk over all the Munros plus the subsidiary tops during a wet summer that really tested my skills and my perseverance).

The Ridiculous High Sierra Load, Pacific Crest Trail
The Ridiculous High Sierra Load, Pacific Crest Trail

Whilst bagging the Munros I was lent a book an acquaintance had picked up in the USA, a book that would change my life even more than Hillaby’s and Brown’s had done. It was The Thousand-Mile Summer by Colin Fletcher. Reading Fletcher’s wonderful prose about backpacking in big wilderness in California inspired me to think about hiking overseas. A little research (again, without the Internet – I can’t imagine now how I did it!) turned up the Pacific Crest Trail. I knew the moment I read about it that I wanted to hike it. The year after completing the Munros I took my first very nervous steps north from the Mexican border. Although early April it was hot and the desert landscape was completely alien to me. I had much to learn again. My first lesson was that a half litre water bottle is nowhere near adequate in dry places. In Scotland I barely ever carried any water – there were always plenty of streams and pools. The idea of no water for tens of miles was inconceivable (again, the information now available on the PCT wasn’t around back then). Once I’d added some soda bottles to my load so I could carry enough water all was well though and I began to enjoy and appreciate the strange landscape.

Below Mount Jefferson, Pacific Crest Trail
Below Mount Jefferson, Pacific Crest Trail

The next challenge came as I approached the High Sierra. Late snow meant it was completely snowbound. I bought some snowshoes and crampons and teamed up with three other hikers. Together we made it through the snow, taking three weeks on the longest section. My pack was so heavy at the start that I couldn’t actually lift it. I had to sit down, put it on then gingerly stand up. Every hour or so I had to rest as my shoulders and hips were going numb. However I can’t now remember the weight or the pain it engendered but I can remember the joy of spending so many days without leaving the wilderness. The weight was ridiculous and I’ve never carried such a stupid load since but the rewards made the effort worthwhile.

On Oregon lava, Pacific Crest Trail
On Oregon lava, Pacific Crest Trail

For much of the PCT the beauty and wildness of the landscape had me floating along on a high. I was astounded and overjoyed to discover such wilderness. The whole trail was an inspiration. It remains the one walk that stands out in my memory; the one where I discovered real wilderness and the great pleasure of hiking and living in it. Since the PCT I’ve done many other long walks, most recently the Pacific Northwest Trail, and all have been great experiences. None has quite the magic or power of the PCT though. That was my first wilderness walk and as such remains special.

About Chris Townsend

Chris Townsend is a writer and photographer passionate about mountains, wilderness and long distance walking. Chris has hiked the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail; the 3100 mile Continental Divide Trail; the 800 mile Arizona Trail; 1300 miles south to north through Norway and Sweden; 1,000 miles south to north through the Yukon Territory; 1600 miles along the length of the Canadian Rockies, the first time this walk had been done; 1600 miles over all the Munros and Tops (3,000 foot summits in Scotland, another first; and most recently the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail. Chris writes regularly for British hiking magazine TGO (www.tgomagazine.co.uk) and has a blog at http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com. Chris has led ski tours in Norway, Spitsbergen, Greenland, Lapland, the Yukon, the High Sierra and other areas and led treks in Nepal. Chris is involved with several outdoor and conservation organisations and has served as the President of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. He is currently the Vice-President of the Backpacker’s Club. Chris lives in the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands.

Chris has written 22 books on the outdoors, including the award winning The Backpacker’s Handbook (now in its fourth edition); Scotland in Cicerone’s World Mountain Ranges series; Crossing Arizona, the story of a hike along the Arizona Trail; Walking the Yukon, the story of his walk through the Yukon Territory; The Munros and Tops, the story of his continuous round; A Year In The Life of The Cairngorms, a photographic study; and, most recently, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, the story of his Pacific Northwest Trail hike.

 

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10 comments

  1. Good post. We’re always learning. Two biggest mistakes I’ve made recently is not taking a warm enough sleeping mat in February and not seam sealing a tent properly.

  2. Thanks for a very nice article. I remember those days (back in the latter 60’s and 70’s.) The wife, and I set off into the wilderness with *heavy* loads. Her pack went close to 30 pounds, mine was closer to 55 for a weekend! It was a great thing to start shedding a lot of weight.

    I remember hiking in a couple gallons of water for the wife and I. I discovered Iodine and used it for a while. I could not believe the weight and bulk of drinking water we saved. I went down from 2.5 gallons to 2 quarts. . .an easy 14 pounds saved! Of course, we didn’t bother with a camp stove…wood fires, raw coffee in an aluminum pot. The saving grace was we didn’t hike in very far. We couldn’t. Seven to ten miles per day was a long day.

    Bringing up our kids was one major goal of our lives we put behind us. Gone are the days of discovery, of catching leeches because they changed shape. Of walking up a mountain, trying, and failing, to keep up with their exuberence on the trail. Of making fleets of toy canoes from an old bit of birch bark. Of watching the stars at night, of watching meteors burning through the atmosphere of a dying campfire. Gone, yes, but well remembered. The ghosts of those days still linger in the flames of our campfire.

    We did the Northville/Placid trail one year. Got a canoe the next and visited the St Regis area for the first time. Did some marches to Bug Lake in the central ADK’s…about 25 years ago. On our first trip up one year we scented the fragarence of Balsam, and saw the sign for “Entering Adirondack Park” and decided we were home. We lived in a couple different houses, traveled to NY City for work, moved to Ithaca for to help out at school. But the constant has always been the Adirondacks. We go there for no reason…just to go there. The house is simply a place to spend the time between trips. The Adirondacks is home.

    I am sure our trails differ. My thanks for the great article! .

    ,

    • I very much liked this post. Starting off by listing all the mistakes you made as a novice hiker was a real grabber for me and made me recall the stupid things I did when starting to learn about camping and hiking. I guess sometimes we all learn the hard way.

      It was refreshing to read about the trails in Scotland, since I have not heard much about them. Your love for long-distance hiking is inspiring, especially as I read your bio.

  3. Chris, you listed some of your heroes: John Hillaby, Hamish Brown, and Colin Fletcher. [Who could ever forget The Man Who Walked Through Time?] Luckily anyone coming along today will be inspired by your own example. Thank you.

  4. Great article, and as a self-taught hiker myself I’m ever so grateful for the internet and sites like Section Hiker. Id truly be lost without them.

  5. As a wise man once said ” you should never stop learning until you are dead” or words to that effect. I reckon that every time you strap on your boots and shrug on a pack that you need to be ready to learn something new after all thats what makes life so interesting.

  6. Inspiring.

  7. Chris has been an inspiration to me for decades now. I remember reading (in The Great Outdoors Magazine), an account of his CDT hike. I was amazed that anyone could hike so far and the dream of doing a Thru Hike has been with me ever since.

  8. Wow, what an enlightening post. Kinda makes me feel like a bum for hanging out inside today. :)

    Beautiful photos and what cool and inspiring trails you’ve been on.

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