Deciding you want to embark on a long-distance hike is one thing, but choosing which one and planning for it can at times feel more challenging than hiking the actual trail.
In this guide we outline five key factors to consider when choosing long distance hiking trails for beginners or those looking for their next hiking challenge, and provide suggestions of trails that suit various interests and needs. So, get comfortable and ready to take notes, because this is the first step in planning your long distance walking adventures.
Choose your own adventure: How to pick a hiking route
You’re going to be out there for days, weeks, even months, and one of your biggest challenges will be one of your least obvious; monotony. Day in and day out you pack down camp, walk, eat, rub your blisters, walk, ask yourself for the hundredth time what the hell you’re doing out there, sleep, pack down camp, walk…
You may have your mind locked on a trek that’s been made famous because other people liked it, but it doesn’t mean you will. Do you love the idea of being able to swim or look out at the ocean? Find a coastal trail. Do you like the challenges and epic views that come with mountainous terrain? Find a mountain trek. Do you like the woods? Desert? Snow? Jungle? Do you want to see animals? Are you interested in history or culture? Whatever your interests, there is a long distance walking trail that covers it.
If you’re looking for…
A Coastal Trail: GR 34
- Location: France
- Distance: 1,800 km
This is an old trail that runs along the coastline of Brittany and offers secret coves and breath-taking cliff-side views, including Cap Fréhel and the ever-changing tides of the Emerald Coast. Plenty of opportunity for a dip (if the weather is good) and even a stop off at the incredible Mont St Michel, if you plan it right.
A Mountain Trail: Tour du Mont Blanc
- Location: France/Italy/Switzerland.
- Distance: 170 km
Traversing three countries, this mountainous hike with its jaw-dropping panoramas circles Mont Blanc. With 10,000 metres of climbing involved this trek does require a certain level of fitness but it’s worth it. One for the experienced long distance hikers among you – maybe one to aim for.
History and Culture: Kokoda Track
- Location: Papua New Guinea
- Distance: 96 km
The Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea played a significant role in the campaign of Australian soldiers in WWII. Guided treks through the humid jungle follow the steps of the soldiers and outline features of both historical and cultural significance. The wildlife and scenery is fantastic
Choosing a hike by distance or time
The duration of your hike is determined not only by distance, but by factors such as terrain, climate, access to supplies and your pace. You might be used to walking 5 km in an hour at home, but are you used to walking 5 km per hour for multiple hours in a row, up and down mountains in cold temperatures while carrying a backpack?
It’s hard to anticipate how long it will take you to complete a journey full of challenges you haven’t faced so don’t set rigid standards for yourself. Cold hard calculations won’t factor in surprise weather events, injuries, getting lost, trail detours, walking faster than you thought, finding a place you want to spend extra time or meeting people you want to hang out with a little longer.
That said, you do have to draw the lines somewhere. Factor into your decision what about this hike is important to you (it might be that you want to walk a certain number of kilometres or visit specific places). Make this your central goal, then set some flexible, ‘bonus’ goals (like hiking an extra 50 km if you complete your main goal). Try to determine a conservative estimate of duration based on your central goal, and if you achieve this you’ve got your bonus goals to fall back on.
If you’re short on time: Lantau Trail
- Location: Hong Kong
- Distance: 70 km
Bays, mountain views, history and culture are all included in this well-maintained trail. It is divided into 12 marked sections, so if you don’t have time to do it all just choose the sections you want.
Ready for something longer? : Pacific Crest Trail
- Pacific Crest Trail
- Location: USA
- Distance: 4,270 km
Made famous by the book and movie Wild, this trail stretches along the east coast of the USA. Those who ‘thru-hike’ this trail (from start to finish) typically take about 5 months.
Up for an ultimate challenge?: The Triple Crown
The ‘Triple Crown’ is the recognition of those who have completed the three major long-distance hikes in the USA, one of which is the Pacific Crest Trail, mentioned above. It also includes the Appalachian Trail, 3,515 km, and the Continental Divide Trail, 5,000 km. These can’t be done consecutively, to complete all three hikes you would likely be walking over a year and a half!
Choosing the right hike for your fitness level
While fitness needs to be factored in when choosing a trail, the mention of it shouldn’t scare you if your fitness levels equal that of a potato. Long-distance hiking is not only for elite athletes. Yes, the challenge and ability differ across varying fitness levels, but this is not a competition, your challenge is personal and your choice in trail needs to reflect that, not what you think it should be based on the experiences of others.
There are many different physical challenges on a long-distance hike, and you need to honestly assess what you think you’re capable of.
- How far do you think can you walk?
- What terrain do you find challenging (sand, rock, snow, etc.)?
- What climate are you comfortable walking in?
- How much can you climb? Both ascending and descending?
- How much can you carry on your back?
- Do you have any weaknesses or old injuries that can be exacerbated by certain activities, temperatures or terrains?
Answering these questions should not discourage you from hiking, rather it should assist in making a trail choice that suits you.
The one with some options for help: Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail
- Location: South Africa
- Distance: 60 km
This is one of the trails out there that offer a porter service to carry your backpack between huts, so you only need to hike with a day pack. In addition, the huts are furnished, so if you do have back troubles that might also be exacerbated by sleeping on the ground, here you have the comfort of a bed waiting for you at the end of the day.
Minimal climbing, maximum hike: El Camino de Santiago/ The Route of St James
- Location: France/Spain
- Distance: 800km
While this path is by no means easy, compared to many wilderness hikes this trail does not solely focus on traversing mountains. This is a pilgrimage route, complete with beautiful landscapes, villages, cultural experiences and monuments of religious and historical significance.
The one with lots of rest stops: Overland Track
- Location: Tasmania, Australia
- Distance: 65 km
If you’re unsure of how far you can walk in one day, choosing a well-maintained hike like the Overland Track in Tasmania will give you ease of mind. Aside from offering you some spectacular scenery, it also offers you regular intervals to rest and set up camp.
Staying safe while hiking
Like physical challenges, threats to safety can come from many directions, and are impossible to avoid completely. Aside from taking measures to mitigate common risks, like exhaustion or injury, there are some safety risks unique to specific types of hikes.
- Wildlife. Some countries harbour aggressive animals or poisonous snakes and insects. The local authorities will likely have published documentation on how to avoid and handle situations involving the local wildlife if the need arises.
- Terrain. More mountainous hikes will require a certain level of expertise.
- Solitude. Some hikes are less poplar or more remote. Without regular foot traffic or the ability to quickly leave the trail to get help, safety precautions and being trained in areas like first aid, are of even more significance on these trails.
- Local Culture. Brushing up on the safety and security issues unique to the area you’ll be hiking in is imperative. For example, the Jordan Trail, a 650 km trail through the deserts, valleys and archaeological sites of Jordan, encourages female travellers to hike in pairs or groups, as rural areas are “not used to” seeing women travel on their own.
- Seasons. Many hikes are subject to seasons. The ‘Triple Crown’ hikes, for example, have mountainous areas that can’t be hiked during the snowy winters, whereas the 1000 km Bibbulman Track in Australia, discourages people from attempting long-distance stretches during the summer, due to intense heat and extreme bushfire risk.
The one with least dangerous wildlife: Te Araroa Trail
- Location: New Zealand
- Distance: 3,000 km
If you’re trying to master all those other skills required for long-distance hiking and camping, and don’t want to worry about crossing a ravenous bear or poisonous snake, you might consider a country like New Zealand. Among the country’s many spectacular hikes, the Te Araroa is a popular one, running almost the length of the country.
Don’t feel confident on your own? : Great Himalaya Trail
- Location: Bhutan/Nepal/India/Pakistan
- Distance: Multiple treks
Confidence is key and if the idea of hiking with someone who has expertise appeals to you, there are plenty of treks that offer guided services. The Great Himalaya Trail, for example, can be as confusing to plan as it can be challenging to hike. There are multiple treks through four countries, and across the network are plenty of trekking services.
Want to hike solo but still have people nearby?: Kungsleden
- Location: Sweden
- Distance: 400 km
Arguably Sweden’s most popular trail, especially in summer, you will come across multiple hikers on this storybook trail. Along the trail are regular self-contained huts, which offer both a sense of security and company.
Sleeping options while hiking
Not all who venture out on long walks like the idea of sleeping on the ground, and not all who like to sleep on the ground are allowed to. If you prefer the comfort and security of a bed and four walls there are plenty of trails with access to hotels, hostels or Bed and Breakfasts along the way.
For those who do opt for camping, be aware of the laws in the country you intend to hike. Some allow for wild camping, where you are permitted to camp in the ‘wild’, so long as you adhere to common courtesy customs, like maintaining minimal environmental impact. In other places camping is only permitted in designated areas.
In addition to comfort and legalities, if you are hiking solo you will also need to consider whether sleeping alone in the wild is something you feel comfortable doing.
Enjoy sleeping in the wild? :The Scottish National Trail
- Location: Scotland
- Distance: 864 km
Camping is permitted in Scotland in wild, unenclosed areas. Scotland has many hikes through its rugged countryside. The longest, and one of the ‘newest’, is the Scottish National Trail, though it does encompass some older and well-loved trails.
Camp, but not go that wild: Sentiers de grandé randonnée
- Location: France
- Distance: Multiple trails
Across France there is an extensive network of long-distance footpaths, covering more than 35,000 km. Across this network are hundreds of camp sites that provide the facilities (hello hot showers!), security and company otherwise lacking when wild camping.
Definitely not camp: Milford Track
- Location: New Zealand
- Distance: 56 km
The Milford Track is a popular one, as it is simply stunning. And if you’re not into camping you don’t have to worry, this trail doesn’t even permit it. Instead they provide public and private furnished huts and cabins along the way.
There are hundreds of hiking trails out there, if what you think you’re after doesn’t appear on this list keep looking. At least now you should have a more finely-tuned idea of what you want in a long-distance hike, which will make searching for it that little bit easier.
Got any hiking tips of your own? Or are you planning your first long distance walk and wondering what you’ve got yourself into? Share your thoughts below…