Most of us enjoy a big route, something to really get our teeth into. From popular walkers' or runners' challenges to ambitious peak-bagging missions, it's the toughest and longest trips that often lodge most firmly in the memory. But the more distance and elevation you add to your day, the greater the demands on fitness, preparation and mentality.
If big routes often stretch from dawn until dusk, or beyond, then you'll need speed, stamina and plenty of calories - and never more so than in the limited daylight hours of winter. There's more to setting a steady pace than physical fitness alone, and maintaining an efficient mindset is key. You also need to choose the right gear for the job, saving weight where possible without compromising too far on function, comfort and safety.
If you're keen to walk further, faster and stronger then there's a lot to consider. We've asked three big route pros for some nuggets of hard-won wisdom.
Put in the right sort of training
"I'm a big fan of 'terrain specific training' for achieving specificity in preparation for endurance challenges" says hill running guide Keri Wallace, of Girls on Hills.
"If you want to walk in the mountains for many days, or over a long distance then you need to build up those miles and build up the amount of ascent your body is accustomed to. This is the only real way to achieve a truly relevant training effect and avoid overuse injuries at the same time. This doesn't mean hiking the full distance of your intended journey, but accumulating mileage and ultimately 'time on feet' in order to best replicate what your body will have to endure. Luckily, long days in the hills, and (ideally) back-to-back days are the most enjoyable way to train!
"Using and carrying the same equipment you intend to use on your big route is also great preparation. For example, start using your chosen poles, boots and pack well in advance so that you can find out if they work for you and identify any annoying features or irritating seams and labels. Anything that creates a 'hotspot' on shorter walks will likely flare up into a debilitating blister or other significant issue over a number of days."
"Nutrition on the hill is such a big subject, a combination of personal preference and good nutrition choices" says UKH contributor, Winter Mountain Leader and massive hill day aficianado Kevin Woods (see kevinwoods.co.uk).
"The simplest place to begin is packing the right food, things you want to eat, and when on the hill, actually making sure to eat it. I think it's important to be pretty punctual with this. These two points take you the vast majority of the way; the energy problems I've had in the hills were most often because I ran out of food in the first place, or I didn't stop to eat which I find surprisingly easy to do.
"It's important to look at the nutrient content as well as calories. And don't just binge on sugar. I used to power big hill days on all kinds of junk (and still do to a lesser extent!), and that's the innocence of starting out. These days I'm often either on the hills or recovering from a hill day, and the need for good diet is really felt in the rest of life. If you don't fulfil that, you'll always just suffer for it in the end. There's no way around that.
"I don't normally carry too much fluid on hill days, drinking a lot before and after instead" says Kevin.
"But I'll take something, usually flavoured. I've also never had a problem refilling from streams, but I only do it from higher on the hills. This is less advisible in heavily populated or intensively sheep-farmed areas of course, so consider carrying a water filter."
"In winter, a flask of tea has become a must. Maybe I went soft! I always struggle to drink enough fluid in winter, so figured you could never have too much hot drink. It works for me anyway. Without a hot drink I do tend to get more dehydrated in winter, as I just don't feel like drinking cold fluid."
"I'm tempted to the change the heading here to 'packing right', as in; right for the terrain and conditions you are expecting. But how do you know what's right? It's part experience and part research " advises David Lintern, author of The Big Rounds, a new walkers' and runners' guide to the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds.
"The amount of insulation and backup kit you personally need for a long walk over the South Downs will differ wildly from the same length of trip over the Kintail Munros. It's different for person to person, too. There are no quick fixes in 'mountaincraft' – enjoy the learning."
"I'd also caution on setting out on a big walk with new and untested kit, as small niggles can surface with prolonged use. Or the item can fail outright, leaving you with no backup. I once took a new UL sleeping mat on a traverse of the Haute Route Pyrenees. It failed after 14 days, with no chance to replace it for another week. Take newer items out for a shorter walk first, to find out their limits before you commit to them on a bigger route."
"And here's a tip which will definitely save weight. Water weighs a kilo a litre, so don't carry it (or, at least, not too much of it). Use dehydrated food if you're out overnight, and fill up from streams along the way. That means more planning ahead (to make sure you can refill… look at the map), and also means you may need to carry a water filter. It also illustrates the concept of redundancy: if my food is dried, it's far more important I can boil water, so I carry both a firesteel and a lighter (in case one fails or is lost) plus a couple of Platypus' – foldable plastic bottles. This isn't light for the sake of it, but it's lighter than several litres of water… and right for bigger trips in wet places like the UK."
A gram on your feet feels heavier than a gram on your back, so cutting weight in your footwear is a good way to reduce fatigue and keep yourself happily on the go for longer. But it's quite possible to go too light.
Over the course of a long day (or several) comfort becomes more important, while for carrying a heavy pack on rough ground many walkers will want something supportive. Then there's the weather, the bogs, river crossings, scree and snow. Your choice of footwear needs to suit the expected conditions.
"A potentially contentious one, this" says David Lintern.
"Your mileage may vary, but I find it impossible to keep my feet dry, especially over multiple days. I generally avoid membrane lined footwear outside of winter, because while they eventually let the water in (through that big hole in the top), the membrane will stop the water leaving. Trenchfoot is a real risk over a very long walk, and very unpleasant! Unlined trail runners or simple leather boots allow your feet to breathe and take far less time to dry out when it eventually does stop raining."
"In summer, I opt for unlined trail shoes. The expected terrain and the weight of my pack will dictate whether I choose a low drop, no rand 'slipper' or something more protective and supportive. In winter, frostnip is a real risk and traversing snowslopes means that footwear with a stiffer sole is safer and more comfortable. That needn't mean ice-climb-ready B3 boots; there are plenty of modern alpine style boots that are lightweight, and provide good weather protection and some stiffness to deal with mixed conditions."
"A final note on gaiters, which to my mind are just as important as getting your shoes right. In summer, I use nylon mini gaiters on my trail runners to keep grit out, prolong the life of my socks and reduce the risk of blisters. In winter, a full under-knee gaiter keeps the snow out. Pro's tend to wear their gaiters under their trousers, but Scotland's freeze/thaw mix of ice, slush and mud has sometimes had me reconsidering my sartorial cool and going for the baggy knee look regardless."
"Preparation is key to avoiding the feeling of being daunted by a big challenge" says Keri Wallace.
"Not just in terms of training but also in terms of route choice, navigation, escape-routes and bad-weather alternatives. The less you leave to chance, the less out of control you will feel on-route. Having said this however, if the outcome was certain, then it wouldn't be a challenge! A true adventure necessarily involves stepping into the unknown – and it's more fun to embrace this aspect than to fight it. But being well prepared, both physically and mentally can make the difference between success and failure.
"A good tactic to try is 'chunking'; breaking down a big challenge into smaller more digestible 'legs' to make the overall objective seem less intimidating. Focus on one 'leg' or section of the journey at a time, rather than the enormity of the whole task.
"My tactic for staying motivated when things get a bit tedious is to 'step out of myself' for a while. I do this by listening to podcasts or audiobooks, or by letting my imagination unfold as the miles tick-by. I find this helps me find my 'flow' and makes the time pass quicker, enabling me to get through a relentless climb or long uninspiring section of trail. If things get really tough and my motivation starts to waiver, then I try to focus on the way I'm going to feel when it's all over - the sense of accomplishment. I also like to think about all the 'normal' things I'm going to reward myself with afterwards – like a hot shower, a cup of tea and fluffy dry socks! Big routes are the antidote to fast-paced, high-comfort living and can really inject some magic back into the simple things in life.
"It's all about having systems, knowledge of your kit and when you'll need it" advises Kevin Woods.
"I find mornings can be susceptible to faff with any shopping or packing needing done. Once you're on the hill, things are a bit clearer as everything is in the rucksack and you're on your way."
"I don't think faff matters quite so much when you are on your own, if you can make up time later. However on big solo days, finding efficient ways to move across mountains has always been part of the fun, and this includes having your kit really dialled in. The bigger the day or the tighter the margins, the greater the demands on your kit selection and use of that kit. If you feel ever so slightly under-dressed when stationery then you're probably dressed about right for moving, and shouldn't need to stop to de-layer so often."
"Faff is more of a potential issue in groups. If the weather is really poor or folk aren't so fit, then time your stops well so everyone can get a bite to eat or change layers. Try to minimise these rest-and-adjustment breaks, but without pushing folk too hard. It helps when the weather is really bad and everyone just wants to move. In this case, it's good if everyone does similar tasks at the same time, whether changing layers, eating lunch and so on."
Long distance days demand stamina, the endurance to keep chugging along hour after hour. Rush it and you'll risk running out of steam, but of course the opposite extreme is no good either, and if there's a long way to go then you can't hang around. Try to adopt a pace that you can keep up for hours, with your speed just a notch below the point that feels like hard work. Get into the zone and you can stride with a smooth unhurried rhythm that steadily eats the miles. Walking poles help keep the beat, and if used correctly add some forward propulsion too.
A good way to get inspired and motivated is is to have a particular big route in mind. This will give you something to work towards in training, and a specific goal to aim at on the day. It could be a well known hillwalkers' challenge like the Yorkshire Three Peaks or the Welsh 3000ers, a multi-day backpacking adventure, a classic runners' round like the Bob Graham (done at whatever pace you prefer), or a DIY route of your own making.
Here are a few ideas for starters: