In February of this year I was talking to a work colleague about my long distance hiking plans for the year and realised that there was a strong likelihood I was going to be doing the Heysen Trail. This realisation prompted me to start doing some serious physical preparation. Given my issues with my last two long distance hikes, the success of my trip was dependent on attaining the level of fitness I achieved for my 2018 Bibbulmun Track
What this meant for me was an increase of physical training over and above my normal fitness routine, starting six months out. My biggest challenge was that at the start of 2021, I was at the heaviest I have ever been and around 12kg heavier than I like to start a long distance hike. As I write this post with just over 5 weeks to the start of my trip I still have 8kg to go and in all honesty while I will loose another 2-3kg, I’m not going to reach my goal. On the plus side, my fitness level is heading towards a fairly high point so I’ll cope with the additional weight and with the amount of weight I expect to lose on this hike, this is not a bad thing.
My fitness regime includes daily walking totalling around 6km, a weekly hike of up to 20km, two weight sessions a week, two cardio sessions, hill walking and pack training. I integrate pack training into the last two months of my preparation and I am now using a pack that is permanently set up and now weighs in at 18.5kg which is around my maximum pack weight for this walk. While this physical training is extremely important, it has an added side effect of preparing me mentally and as a solo hiker this can’t be overlooked.
Every hiker prepares differently for a long distance trip and my lead-in preparation has been developed over a number of years. I know what I need to do to be prepared; I just don’t always do it!
While I put a lot of thought and consideration into every piece of gear I choose to take on a long distance hike, without a doubt I put the most effort into choosing my footwear. Each and every hike I do varies and it’s rare that I choose the same pair of shoes for two hikes in a row. The reasons for these changes include the ever changing model updates by the footwear manufacturers as well as the expected trail tread and distance.
My previous shoe of choice was the Altra Olympus 4.0
and I also considered the Altra Timp 3.0
. Both are very good shoes but given I am planning on walking nearly 1200 km on the Heysen Trail, I wanted something that would last the full distance. As much as I love the Altra shoes their inability to do the big distances would have meant I needed two pairs to complete the trail.
After spending the past eight months testing different footwear options, I’ve chosen the Topo Ultraventure Pro
combined with Superfeet (Blue) Premium Inserts
(three pairs). For me this combination provides a beast of a footwear combination that will cope with everything this long trail can throw at me while being comfortable at the same time.
While Topo shoes don’t have the street cred of Altra, they are gaining in popularity. I have found that each of the three models I have tested and used for extended periods have all been great but from my perspective, the Ultraventure Pro is the evolutionary peak of the range to date and one well worth considering.
There’s a saying in hiking that goes ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ which essentially means the experience you have on a particular hike is uniquely yours rather than trying to fit into someone else’s expectations. Many people hike to escape the pressure of their daily lives, to return to a more natural existence away from technology and the daily grind. For others it’s an opportunity to get out into nature to enjoy the natural environment or just for the sake of it. And for others it’s the physical challenge.
When I hike long distance, and solo, I do so for a number of reasons. These reasons differ from when I’m doing a hike with my wife Gill and include:
- The logisitics
- I’m one of these weird, but very common people, who love the planning component of hiking. I typically start out planning a hike two years in advance and while at this stage its more of an extremely high level thought process it focuses me on what’s happening. As I head into the final 8 months prior before a hike the planning becomes much more specific.
- I find that doing long distance hikes gets me to my fittest by the end. Health-wise this is borne out by the before and after health tests I get done for each trip and anecdotally I just feel better.
- Yes I love being out in nature and in particular my favourite environment is the Australian arid and semi arid regions. Having said that I’m not the sort of person who enjoys just sitting and looking at a vista for hours on end. My limit is at most 30 minutes and for me that’s a long time. In my case the landscape is a backdrop to my experience, and while I enjoy it and savour those occasional moments of sheer splendid beauty, its not my main focus.
- The solitiude
- Humans by our very nature enjoy a degree of interaction and heading out on a long distance hike for 6-8 weeks, solo, is a challenge for that. When I did my Bibbulmun Track Hike in 2018 I was on-trail, rest days included, for 36 days. During that time I estimate I spent a total of 8 hours talking to other people which is a far cry from what I would normally do given my job involves a degree of stakeholder engagement which means I spend much of my day talking.
- I find I love the high levels of solitude that a multi week long distance hike affords me. I have to ability to ‘get in the zone’ and let my body take over as I cover my average 32 km days. I dedicate just enough mental capacity to keep me on-track and safe, and this is almost a subconscious process as I scan the trail for proper footing as well as dangers like snakes and drop offs.
- Long distance solo hikes afford me the ability to think and think deeply which is something that the distractions of day to day life prevent me from doing. For me this is the main reason I do long distance solo hikes.
There are as many reasons to hike as there are hikers so ultimately it comes down you ‘do you’ and don’t try to live up to others expectations about what a hike should be.
Some of the life decisions I make are very random and spontaneous while others are planned down to the nth degree. In regard to my hiking, I fall into the latter category for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as someone who still works I have a limited amount of leave and if doing a walk, of whatever length, I need to set a defined start and finish date. I have ‘zero days’, rest days without walking, ‘nero days’ with almost non walking, and I also have two days where I’ll be walking 40+ km a day. Understandably on these days I’m getting down in food and my pack weight is either at or near its lightest. Having said that I always build in contingency days to make allowances for things outside my control.
Secondly, I am goal driven on my solo hikes and if I set myself a daily distance I will typically achieve this. In regard to the Heysen Trail I will be staying in a combination of hostels, caravan parks and campsites and will need to book these, campsites included. Stopping in towns over weekends is a real issue with a number of events impacting my trip and again requiring me to lock-in accomodation sooner rather than later.
Thirdly there’s the food. I need to know how much food to carry with me as opposed to the meals I will be buying at a cafe or store on trail.
Last but not least from a safety perspective I need to provide a schedule to my wife Gill so she knows where I will be but also when and where to send my food drops.
This schedule is all about the logistics and nowhere in this post have I talked about the experience, that’s next week’s post!
As Australian long distance trails go the Heysen Trail is just that little bit different. While other trails will very strongly recommend you don’t hike in mid summer doing everything they can to deter you from walking while on the whole keeping the trails open. Not so the Heysen Trail which typically shuts off sections around mid November and reopens them around May. This means you have a defined window if you wish to do an end-to-end thru hike.
For me the major contributor in deciding to start my thru hike at the end of July was the maximum temperatures on the northern sections of the trail. I am definitely not solar powered preferring cooler conditions. In fact if I am given the option I like my maximum daytime temperatures to be around 12-16 degrees Celcius – within that range I won’t overheat. I also won’t get overly cold and can keep walking quite comfortably for the entire day. I don’t mind the cooler nights, getting better sleeps when I’m not sweating off the excess heat of hotter climates.
When doing a long distance hike like the Heysen Trail, checking weather records for a few locations along the length of the trail is just one of the tasks. As an example the northern trailhead, located at Parachilna, has minimum temperatures that are cool but not cold (at least from my perspective), the maximums are typically below 25 degrees and the number of rain days is pretty minimal.
One other bonus of walking in July is that the water tanks are more likely to have been topped up but for me that’s a secondary concern.
So July it is!
Amongst the many decisions I needed to make in walking the 1200 km Heysen Trail is the direction of travel. There are so many reasons for starting either direction. From a planning perspective this choice is not as simple as it sounds and influences just about every other decision you make including camping locations, food drops, transport and even distances travelled per day. Do I start on the coast which is relatively flatfish at the southern end, has more access to towns and facilities, and in most cases shorter distances between campsites or do I start at the northern trailhead in the arid north and head south?
I have previously published an article on choosing travel direction called Walking Home: a creature of habit where I outlined my reasons for choosing the travel direction on a hike; in my case I am definitely a creature of habit. In regard to my 2021 trip I’ll be starting at the northern trailhead in Parachilna and heading in a southerly direction.
I have two key reasons for this decision. First and foremost walking towards home. On this walk there really is no such thing. Gill has offered to meet me at the end of the walk and we will be driving back to Canberra rather than getting a flight. For her meeting me at the southern trailhead will be a much easier option.
Secondly, from a transport perspective getting the bus service to Parachilna after flying into Adelaide, and then heading south means that if I arrive at the southern trailhead early or late it doesn’t create and issues nor mean I would have to wait for a bus service that is limited.
This year’s long distance hike was originally planned to be an overseas adventure but you know how that’s worked out! So many factors to consider on which hike to do but given we are still dealing with COVD I decided to do a hike that didn’t cross multiple state borders just in case of another outbreak. So this ruled out trying again to walk the Australian Alps Walking Track and in all honesty, it could do with a bit more recovery time from the 2019-2020 fires.
Instead I’ve brought forward my 2022 trip, the 1200km Heysen Trail in South Australia. This trail starts/ends at Parachilna Gorge in the north of the Flinders Ranges, and Cape Jervis in the south (depending on which direction you go). Anyone who has ever caught a ferry to Kangaroo Island will more than likely have seen the southern trailhead located at Cape Jervis which is immediately adjacent to the ferry terminal.
While I still have some logistical considerations to sort out like transport, my holidays are now booked and I have done the first draft of my itinerary including camping stops, food drops and daily distances. Being me I will continue to pull this apart and try different options over the coming weeks until I come up with an outcome I am happy with. Over the coming 78 days I will be posting at regular intervals, initially once a week, and then daily in the final two weeks in this section of our website as I ramp up my preparation and planning for this hike. What I do know is that I will commence walking on July 29!
Some of the podcasts leading up until my July start date will relate to this trip but as usual, once I start walking I will be recording and releasing podcasts on the trail as well, so you can hear the highs (and lows) as they happen – depending on internet availability of course.
I look forward to sharing this experience with you!