Simplicity and slowness are core components of virtually all the best adventures.
Walking is king of both of these. Walking requires no expertise and can, if you prefer, entail zero training, preparation, or planning. If you decided that you wanted to walk around the world, you could be packed and on your way ten minutes from now. It’s that simple.
Walking journeys require little gear, though it is worth spending more money on lightweight kit if you can. You could, in fact, fly to the start line of most walking journeys using only your carry-on luggage allowance on the airplane.
In many parts of the world, you will stand out on your travels for being very rich. Rich enough to afford the time for your adventure. Rich enough to buy fancy snazzy equipment, a plane ticket, and a possess passport. Going for a long walk gives you a better chance of not being perceived in this way and to engage more naturally and equally with the people you meet. People will think you are crazy – that is a given. But they will at least not be covetous of your expensive bicycle. You will share the road, as an equal, with people walking to school, walking to work, walking to their fields, walking as a pilgrimage, walking because they are too poor to take the bus.
On the flip side, walking can be very monotonous – arriving at the horizon takes an inordinate amount of time. When you’re hungry and thirsty the ‘just a few miles’ to the next town can last an eternity. Blisters, a heavy pack, and a blazing sun can turn a walk into the most exquisite form of agony.
I don’t think I have ever done a journey as painful as one on foot. And the agony is not reserved for long journeys: I once walked a lap of London, a week-long walk, with a friend of mine, Rob, who has also done a 3000-mile walk. He still tells me that the pain he was in on our stroll trumped anything he experienced trekking all the way from Mongolia to Hong Kong.
I have also walked 600 miles across southern India. It was a tiny journey compared to the vastness of India as a whole. So I saw but a fraction of the country. And yet it remains one of my richest travel experiences. What I saw, I saw well. I wanted to walk because walking is slow and simple and difficult.
I wanted to visit India. I decided to walk from the east coast of in Tamil Nadu to the west coast of in Kerala. I did the tiniest amount of planning I could do yet still have the nerve to commit to the journey. And then I set off. The most difficult, nerve-wracking part of the whole trip was landing in India in the middle of the night, getting to a bus station, finding the correct bus in the melee, then surviving the suicidal, maniacal drive to the coast where my walk would begin.
I hated those first 24 hours. I always do. I find crowded foreign places lonely, overwhelming, and frightening when I am by myself until I am established in a country. I invariably wish I’d stayed home and not bothered. It’s only once I commit to the journey, get moving down the road, that I can relax and the joy and excitement and curiosity comes bursting forth once more. I followed the course of a holy river through southern India carrying a tiny pack. I ate at street stalls, and at night I slept under the stars in my mosquito net, in cheap trucker’s hostels, or with kind families who took me into their homes. It was a busy, noisy, crowded journey and I savored it for those very reasons.
Indeed, it was a very conscious contrast to a walk I had undertaken the year before when I crossed Iceland by foot and packraft. I chose Iceland for its emptiness and beauty. I traveled with a friend so I had none of that pre-trip worry and I could share any other concerns that I had. We didn’t actually have time to worry: the night we arrived in Iceland we gorged on a barbecued whale, knocked back vodka shots, and danced the midsummer night away so effectively that we were too hungover to begin our expedition the next day.
If you decided that you wanted to walk around the world, you could be packed and on your way ten minutes from now. It’s that simple.
Twenty-fours later, then, we were off. Laden with all our food for a month, plus cameras, crampons, and packrafting gear, our 40kg packs were a daily torture. We walked as fast as we could: move slowly and the trip would take longer, so our rations would be spread thinner still. My main memories of that journey are pain, hunger, incredible scenery, isolation, and lots of laughter. It was a great trip.
You can speed up the slowness of your walk by running. And anyone can run; Jamie McDonald was a novice runner when he set out to run thousands of miles across Canada. I have never done a running journey, but I have run marathons and ultramarathons, including the 150-mile Marathon des Sables through the Sahara Desert. The memories are seared into my mind, perhaps from the pain, perhaps from the euphoric satisfaction of being very fit and churning through distance.
You cover miles more quickly when you run than when walking, so you can potentially do a longer journey. But you also risk greater agonies and need to travel even more minimally to reduce the weight of your kit. Every gram counts. Injury risks rise. People will think you are doubly crazy, but this may play to your advantage if you’d like to raise money for a charity during your trip, as Jamie did, running in a superhero outfit costume.
All the long-distance runners in my new book, including senior citizen superhero Rosie Swale-Pope who ran around the world, have resorted to using some form of trailer during their expedition. It improves the efficiency of their run but reduces the minimalist simplicity. Karl Bushby is using a trailer for his multi-year hike – the longest human walk in history – and Leon McCarron and I took the cart idea to stupid extremes when we set out into the Empty Quarter desert with the worst cart in history (designed by the combined genius of both our incompetencies) laden with 300kg of food and water.
Terrible though our cart was, when the terrain was good it was incredible how easy it was to tow such a vast weight in a cart.
If I were forced to choose, I would say that bicycle trips trump journeys on foot, except where the terrain would be impassable on two wheels or if there is some other reason why a bike would not work, for example, the vast load of our cart in Oman.
I have done lightweight walks and walks laden with wilderness gear. I’ve walked with a big cart and I have run through the Sahara with my toothbrush sawn in half to save weight. It’s hard to lump all these experiences into one category.
There is one common thread, however: travel on foot is slow. It is the speed that most of the human race experienced life for thousands of years, right up until the last couple of hundred years.
In the time span you have available for your adventure, you will see the fewest places if you decide to walk. But the places that you do see, you will truly see. And that is worth a lot.
This post originally appeared on Alastair Humphrey’s website.