The Pennine Way

Walked in August - September 2007

Pre-trip Preparation

1st August 2007


I was pretty sure I’d bought most, if not all of the kit I’d need, but I was sure that I’d have forgotten something. I was happy with the rucksack and sleeping bag (although I bought these at least a year ago when Darryl and I had decided for definite that the walk was going to happen) and I tested them to make sure they worked. Well, I fumbled around like a fool in the tent one night (indoors) trying to determine if I would fit in it (and I did, just about), but obviously I wasn’t able to use the pegs without causing some distress to my landlord. The sleeping bag was comfy and warm and the luxury Thermarest sleeping mattress (an extravagance I thought I might regret when I had to lug it around with me every day) was perfect. So far so good. I bought a small cooking stove (mainly for making coffee), some mess tins for cooking and eating from, a water bottle, a box of waterproof matches, a walking pole (for testing wet ground) a decent first aid kit and extra plasters and blister packs (which I’m certain will be a necessity), painkillers, Nytol (just in case sleep is a problem) and a few other bits and bobs, some of which I was prepared to jettison depending on how heavy the pack became. I tried the pack on with most of the gear in it and it didn’t feel too bad, but I had a feeling it would be heavier when the first day of walking came around, so I had to be strict with what went in it. It really was a good bag though, and fit my back comfortably, distributing the weight in a pain-free way.

Way too much gear!
Way too much gear!

I was intending to take the two Pennine Way National Trail Guides (North and South) by Tony Hopkins, and one or two novels to read, but since weight was an issue, I had to leave one of the novels behind. I was taking a notebook as well to record the trip, just in case I was unable to remember everything, and hoped I would have enough energy at the end of each day to scribble a few lines. I packed the better (but sadly bigger) of my two digital cameras, intending to take hundreds of pictures to document the trip. At one point I was flirting (like a harlot) with the idea of taking a video camera on the trip, but after realising how much weight this would add to an already heavy pack, I decided I could do without it. My digital camera had a video feature which would suffice for small clips.


We didn’t plan a definite route, until shortly before we left, and we knew that any schedule we did make could change during the walk. We aimed for an average of 25 miles a day, give or take, with the intention of staying at campsites or youth hostels along the way. We booked train tickets from London to Edale, and from Berwick upon Tweed for the return journey, in advance. It is possible to travel from London to Edale (beginning of the walk) in around three and a half hours, with just one change, but on the way back we would have to get a bus from Kirk Yetholm to Kelso, then from Kelso to Berwick upon Tweed, and from there to London. We hoped to do the return trip on the last Saturday morning… All being well.


Tuesday 14th August 2007

I started planning a long walk for the following Saturday to get my body used to the distance and the weight I’d be carrying in advance of the start of the walk, and also to check that my walking boots had been sufficiently broken in. Fitness-wise I felt fine. I had a rather harrowing and embarrassing experience two weeks before when I succumbed to heat exhaustion near the end of a ten kilometre run in my home town of Tenbury Wells. I was less than a hundred yards from the finish line when heat and dehydration got the better of me. One thing the experience taught me was to be better prepared for physical endurance in the future, to keep myself properly hydrated, and to never drink alcohol the night before a race. I planned to get in a few small runs before embarking on the trip, to help with general fitness, but nothing strenuous.

Darryl and I compared all the camping equipment we’d bought so far via email and came up with a few items that were missing from both our lists. I intended to lay out my current kit the following Saturday and take a photo while it was all new, intact and accounted for. I also wanted to test the items I hadn’t tested yet. No doubt, responsible people would have advised me to do it before going on a trip, rather than waiting until I’m at the first campsite trying to put up a faulty tent in pouring rain with Darryl shaking his head at me with his mug of coffee in his nice warm tent. And he would too, not because he’s callous, but because he’d be too exhausted to help. But if the shoe was on the other foot I’d no doubt do the same thing, so no worries there. Exhaustion can be an excellent excuse for so many things, as we proved a few times during the trip!

Darryl wanted to take a small coffee pot and some filter coffee, but I managed to convince him to let me bring a bag of MSC (pronounced ‘musk’ - my own nickname for it), which is a blend of equal parts powdered milk, sugar and coffee. It’s a concoction I read about in a Pennine Way diary on the internet, and is a time saver as you only have to add hot water to it.

I unwrapped the walking pole I’d bought on ebay and had a look at it. It telescopes out rather like the leg of a tripod and can be extended long enough to form a staff. When reduced to its smallest length it will easily fit inside a pack or attach to the outside. Darryl was unsure about the usefulness of it, but after reading about the nasty bogs and marshes that the average walker can encounter along ‘the way,’ I thought it might be best to play it safe, especially considering the amount of rain the country had had this year. Ultimately however, I left the pole behind after considering it non-essential weight. Luckily it was the right move as the weather we had for our trip was very favourable, and all the bogs we did encounter were negotiable.


Tuesday 14th August 2007

‘Baptism by Fire’ is the best way I can describe the experience I had the day before on my ‘assessment walk.’ The idea was to pack as much of the kit I’d be taking on the actual walk as possible, into the rucksack and walk 6-7 miles along the Grand Union Canal out of London and back again, making a total of 12-14 miles. This way I would not only get a good idea of how heavy the pack really was, and how I coped with it, but also the overall physical experience of carrying a heavy pack over a long distance. I was also mindful beforehand that this was something that could not be left to the first day of the actual walk. I’d read that 75% of people who set out to walk the whole length of the Pennine Way, give up after the first day. I have a feeling that a lot of this has to do with lack of preparation. The walking aspect is something most people could get away without preparing for, unless they’re wearing brand new shoes for the first time without breaking them in (fools), but carrying a heavy pack up those first few hills between Edale and Crowden is likely to be a big shock to the system if it’s the first time it’s been on your back, and will certainly drive most people to defeat. So I made up my mind to spend the Saturday before the walk (the first free Saturday I’d had in a while) to test out the pack and get some serious miles under my belt. As I said, I tried to get the contents of the pack as accurate as possible, but did leave a few items behind as I was having trouble packing them. The pack was heavy enough already though, so I thought it best not to go mad, and I could always reassess the weight situation later if I had problems on the test walk (and I did!)
I took the tube from home (Osterley) to Boston Manor Road tube station (both on the Piccadilly line) then walked out on to the main road and began walking to Boston Manor Park where I joined the canal. If I had to do this again I’d have just walked from home, as the only reason I went to Boston Manor Road was because it avoiding walking along the busy Great West Road and afforded much nicer scenery on the way to the canal. Walking back I ditched the idea of taking the tube again and just walked from the canal to home.

I had a sports GPS system with me which I used to measure mileage, but I had problems with it walking along the canal, and only managed to measure the first seven miles (which in itself was slightly inaccurate because I accidentally paused the watch for several minutes along the way). Nevertheless, I knew I had walked around seven miles, so I only had to turn back, go home and know that I’d done a total of fourteen (it was probably more than this, but who’s counting?)

As soon as I started walking I knew the pack was too heavy. I just couldn’t get comfortable, and during the whole walk I couldn’t take the pain from my mind, something that would be too much of a distraction along the Pennine Way where I’d want to focus on the scenery and not on my own discomfort. Even though I wasn’t really bending forward, I was looking at the ground a lot of the time, but this may well have been because for a lot of the walk I felt like I was on an enforced march, and was just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I began with a time of approximately sixteen minutes a mile, but this dropped gradually, especially for the last few miles. It’s a shame because sixteen minutes a mile seems pretty good to me, especially with a very heavy pack on, though the canal walk is all flat, and so naturally climbing up a mountain would affect the time a great deal.

I’ve done this walk before, without a pack, and can remember it taking almost as long as it did yesterday, so I was generally pleased with how I did, but it was still very uncomfortable and raised a few issues, the most important being, as you may already have guessed, the pack (bloody thing). A lot of people who choose to tackle the Pennine Way, stay at Bed and Breakfasts and Youth Hostels for the simple reason that they are more comfortable, have better facilities and mean that you don’t have to carry quite so much in your pack. You certainly don’t need a tent and sleeping mat anyway. The downside to this arrangement is that it can end up being quite expensive (certainly a lot more expensive than camping) and can sometimes mean a fair bit of extra mileage gained in leaving the PW and rejoining it. Personally, I wanted to camp right from the word go and never felt inclined to change my mind. If I was to do the PW again, which is entirely possible, then I might do it over a longer period of time, say three weeks, and stay at Youth Hostels and B&Bs in order to enjoy the route at a slower and more enjoyable pace, taking time to really appreciate the scenery and landmarks. The first time, for me, has always been held up as a challenge, almost a feat of endurance, and I think this is the way Darryl sees it too. We’ll certainly enjoy and appreciate the scenery, but then we won’t be hanging around either!

Getting back to the issue of the pack, it’s something that only campers should really be concerned about. Those Pennine Way walkers staying at hostels and B&Bs shouldn’t have a problem with pack weight, and if they do, then they’re doing something wrong and need to seriously re-evaluate their needs for the walk and jettison all items they don’t need. This is, of course, something that the camper has to do also, only with lesser rewards. Even getting rid of everything you can afford to do without (and remember this really is a ‘need’ over ‘want’ situation) will still leave you with a hefty weight to carry around, and you need to be prepared for this… Hence the ‘assessment’ walk.

Just to reiterate, in case you’re missing the point, don’t even think of undertaking the Pennine Way with a heavy pack without doing at least one assessment walk before you go, otherwise, someone could well be ‘undertaking’ you, if you catch my drift.

Even before I finished the assessment walk my shoulders were hurting, my legs were aching and my hips were quite sore where the horizontal strap of the pack was digging in. Completing the walk was certainly a feat of endurance, a painful one. The weather didn’t exactly help either. It wasn’t hot, which was good as I was finding it difficult to stow my water bottle somewhere accessible, and it wasn’t too cold, but it did rain a bit, and I had to stop to take out my waterproof jacket and pack cover (handy as this was how I worked out how to attach it). I didn’t have any waterproof trousers with me, so I had to plod along in my shorts which wasn’t comfortable, and I made sure to take trousers on the actual walk after realising how important they were.

Twenty-four hours after I finished the test walk I had badly aching joints and muscles. But at least I was suffering then rather than at the end of the first day of the PW. The worst effect was the pain in my shoulders where the pack’s shoulder straps had dug in. I found a couple of pieces of foam from work and made some pads to put underneath the straps for added comfort. They actually helped too, and solved one problem that could have given me serious grief during the trip.

I was relieved to find that my back felt fine after the test walk, so my pack’s design couldn’t really be faulted, and my feet felt Ok too. I suspected that my shoes had been suitably broken in, but was still surprised that the soles of my feet were only a little bit sore with no sign of blisters. I’ve done a fair amount of walking and running in the past, so maybe that and the decent shoes I’d bought helped.

So with a few things to work on to get the pack (and indeed my body) right, I was still enthusiastic about the walk and knew that even though there would inevitably be discomfort on the horizon, I should be able to deal with it. Bring it on!


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