Hadrian’s Wall: solo hiking a long-distance path
What’s it like solo hiking a long-distance trail like the Hadrian’s Wall path in northern England, alone and carrying all your kit on your back? Empowering and inspiring? Or lonely and knackering? Guest writer Grace Williams wanted to find out…
In 2014, Reese Witherspoon starred in ‘Wild’, a film of Cheryl Strayed’s account of her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the western US. Reese/Cheryl begins her hike staggering under a colossal rucksack and the emotional weight of her mother’s death. Hundreds of miles later, she’s survived running out of water, losing her boots and even the threat of attack by predatory men. She finishes physically and mentally transformed, ready to move on to her new life.
I loved the book and the film, and I’ve had some challenges of my own in recent years which attracted me to the idea of a long-distance solo hiking walk as a ‘personal journey’. Without months of free time for the PCT, I chose a much smaller challenge, the Hadrian’s Wall path in northern England. This path runs 84 miles from the west coast of England almost to the east. It follows the route of the ancient wall founded in AD 122 to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.
Doing it the hard way
It’s perfectly possible to complete the Hadrian’s Wall path in relative luxury, staying in bed-and-breakfast (B&B) places, hotels or hostels every night and having your bags transported for you. But I decided to camp out for at least a few nights, both to keep my costs down and to see whether I might want to do a much longer, PCT-style hike in future. That meant carrying camping gear, of which more below.
Most people also have company on the way. I did it on my own partly because I couldn’t find a friend who both wanted to do it and could get the time off work. But I didn’t try very hard to find anyone. I was curious about what it would be like alone, if only for 10 days rather than months on the PCT.
Planning to walk Hadrian’s Wall
Many people do the walk in less than a week. Because there are so many Roman sights and I wasn’t sure how I would cope with a big backpack, I gave myself 10 days. I planned to camp, on campsites since wild camping is not permitted around this trail, for three nights and to stay in hostels and bunkhouses (basic accommodation, often on farms) the rest of the time. A luxury B&B was my reward at the halfway point and I also booked a hotel in Newcastle, at the end of the trip. Since I was solo hiking in the summer, the high season for Hadrian’s Wall, I booked my accommodation ahead of time.
Solo hiking kit
I carried a 65 litre backpack containing a lightweight one-person tent, a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, camping stove and cooking gear, plus of course clothes, washing kit, some food, water bottles, first aid kit, books…and a lot of other miscellaneous items (makeup, a heavy pair of sandals, two powerpacks with the wrong lead for my phone) which I could have done without. It all added up to more than 16kg when I set out.
In general, my cautious approach to the mileage worked well. I’m reasonably fit for my age (40s) since I weight-train and run regularly. I was tired after each day, but I had no unusual stiffness or muscle issues.
I did, however, have a serious issue with painful feet for the first few days. There was nothing wrong with the fit of my shoes or socks, so the foot pain must have been simply due to the unaccustomed weight I was carrying.
The first few miles on day one were easy and I strode out with my walking poles tapping the way. But after about 6-7 miles I developed ‘pins and needles’ sensations in my feet. The tingles soon turned to aches and then to burning pains. By the afternoon of day two, approaching Carlisle and only 15 miles into the walk, my feet were hurting so much that I started to think about calling the whole thing off.
My solution was to buy some orthotic insoles in Carlisle, ruthlessly declutter my rucksack and post home almost 3kg of unnecessary stuff. Over the following two days of walking the pain diminished. I still had tingles in my feet and toes, but I was able to carry on and it didn’t interfere with the remainder of the walk.
The emotional journey
My main worry setting out on this trip was that I might be lonely – not so much when walking, but my heart sank at the thought of eating alone in the evening and wandering back to my single-person tent (probably in the rain, I pictured!) on my own. When I’ve previously been on holiday in cities alone, I’ve sometimes felt very conspicuous, aimless and even vulnerable.
On this trip, though, I found that there was a natural connection with others doing the walk and that being alone made me talk to people. On the very first night, I met a group of three lovely women staying in the same bunkhouse. We went to the local pub for dinner together, talked for hours over wine and chips, and parted the following morning with lifestories told and emails exchanged.
That evening was the first of several similar encounters with fellow walkers. I realised that when travelling with a partner or a friend, it’s too easy to stay in your own little “couple-bubble”. Other people tend to see couples as a unit which may not welcome approaches. On your own, it’s easier to make connections. Some people may see you as rather eccentric – but who cares, you’ll probably never see those people again!
I did have evenings alone, of course, but in cosy village pubs where I felt welcome. Maybe it was the rural setting or the legendary friendliness of the north of England, but I genuinely never felt lonely. I always had the experiences of the day to reflect on, the following day to plan or some people-watching to do.
Finishing the walk
I finished the walk on schedule, and in the last couple of days I found myself completing the day’s mileage by lunchtime. So even over that relatively short trip my fitness was improving. But the main benefit was a huge sense of empowerment. I may not have walked hundreds of miles through wilderness like Cheryl Strayed. But I did plan and carry out my first ever long-distance hike, on my own with a big pack. And I had a great time, enjoyed my own company and met many lovely people. I’m going to do another one, and next time it’ll be longer.
Hints and tips for solo hiking
If you fancy a first long-distance, solo hiking walk, like Hadrian’s Wall, my main tips from this one are:
- However much you pack at first – cut it down. I’ll be taking fewer, more carefully chosen clothes, and doing more washing next time. Since returning I’ve been reading up on lightweight backpacking. Even at around 13kg, my pack was on the heavy side. I aim to get it under 10kg next time.
- Take more food. Although I had a stove I only took one instant hiking meal and some snack bars. I generally ate in pubs, but on one evening I had a long walk to reach the nearest pub. A couple more ‘emergency’ meals, or even extra snack bars, would have been very useful.
- Plan to cover fewer miles each day than you think you can. Walking day after day with a load is very different from an occasional day hike of the same distance.
- Have a paper map, so you aren’t relying on a phone or GPS alone for navigation. Paper maps don’t need batteries or a mobile signal…
- Talk to anyone. Most people are lovely – and if they’re not, you won’t be with them for long.
This blog has focused on my personal experience of a first long-distance solo hiking walk. The history and archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall added a whole extra dimension to the trip. A couple of recommended resources about the path are https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrians-wall-path and the Cicerone Press guidebook at https://www.cicerone.co.uk/hadrian-s-wall-path.