I can’t even count the number of times I have heard the saying:
I’m not hiking/walking to get anywhere; I’m out for the walk itself
I’m pretty sure I’ve said this myself many times, but I can easily recognise, now, that many times it is an attempt to just convince myself, and is not the truth. When I’m walking, I walk fast, constantly and without stopping – I love walking. I love the movement, the falling into the stride pattern, the ability to automate the movement and focus on my surroundings. I truly enjoy long and hard days, but I also love getting to the end of the day, especially when I have a clear goal in mind like a specific camping spot or catching a train back home. So as much as I’d like to tell myself I like the journey, what I really, really like is getting to the end of my day, to my goal. The biggest problem with being so goal oriented (also the reason I don’t compete!) is that sometimes I have a hard time knowing when to stop, when to accept that pushing to my goal is not the right move; so over the years, I have developed a few ways to know when it is time to stop for the day and how to identify the signs.
Do you know when to stop?
The first step in solving a problem is accepting that there is one…. so when should you stop? And what does stopping mean?
I usually ultrapack or backpack, so for me it will be stopping to walk, either for the day or for the whole trip, just opting out completely. As a walker who is so intensely interested in the act of walking and so goal oriented, when I give myself a goal (aka, a point to stop walking) I just have to get there, so for me to stop walking conditions must be very specific. I’m also a family man, with two young children and a wife who worries about my outdoor endeavours, so the rules about pushing the limits when I shouldn’t are very clear to me and I have learned that I need to tone down my risk taking. The two opposite conditions above are what make sure I pick the right time to stop, the right spot on the line between feeling like I failed and feeling like I’m playing with my kids’ future and their opportunity to grow up with two parents.
Conditions that made me stop 5 years ago (before kids and serious responsibilities):
- A change in weather conditions about 3 levels beyond what my gear allowed for. For instance: a snow storm with 2 season gear, 15km walk in hot conditions with only 1 litre of water left or a grade 3 scramble with sandals only. I would have continued in any of those situations if I had 3 season gear or 2 litres of water or real shoes…..
- Finding myself in such a completely unknown environment that I could not even recover my previous positioning and I had no means of finding where I was supposed to be going next. This usually happened when I was totally in the zone while walking and took the wrong turn about 2-3 hours back.
- An injury that 2-3 painkillers couldn’t turn into a dull ache. If I could suppress the pain with pain killers, I usually just continued without much thought about it and dealt with the doctor visits later.
- Vertical climbs/drops with no gear. I do climb (not so regularly any more!) so it is not about the skills, but the fact that I always knew that a fall, especially when solo hiking, would pretty much be a death sentence.
What didn’t make me stop:
- A slight change of conditions (mainly weather) when I had enough gear to deal with it. I have been in snow storms with 3 season gear more than once, I have done 15+ kms in the desert with only 3 litres of water and I have definitely scrambled with trail running shoes. I didn’t need much to cross the stupid risk limit.
- Being almost sure that I knew where I was, despite being utterly lost – I usually just kept on walking until I found something that made sense; either on the map or on the ground.
- Weather warnings. If it was bad weather that might come, I didn’t care, I just kept of walking, hoping it would blow away or that I would out run it.
- Fatigue, small injuries and lack of nutrition. All the things that won’t kill you immediately but will take a couple of weeks to do so have been my partners at times, mainly on long solo trips in the Andes.
As you can see, there wasn’t much to stop me from getting to my planned locations. I usually found some self motivation/excuse/lie to keep on going despite the fact I shouldn’t have. Now, though, I have a bit more common sense and a lower tolerance for risk – my wife will revive me and kill me again if I killed my self outdoors! This has meant that I needed to adjust my risk tolerance to more reasonable levels and learn to stop before it became too much.
What makes me stop now:
- Extreme conditions with no adequate gear. If I don’t have 4 season gear, I’m not going to stay out in that snow storm and I definitely won’t try a grade 3 scramble without a partner or the right footwear.
- Bad weather warning or an unexpected turn of weather. If the weather is worse than I planned for or there are warnings for some bad weather on its way, I no longer try and conquer it – mother nature is better than me and I accept that.
- Extreme fatigue, injuries and lack of nutrition. I no longer abuse my body as my chances to recover properly at home are pretty slim, so I keep myself just under the point of breaking, staying healthy, full of energy and well rested (-ish) when on multi day trips.
- Navigation errors that I can’t retrace. I stopped trying to just plod ahead, but instead prefer to make sure I’m always on top of my route by using better navigation tools and turning back when it seems that I’m too far off course. If I’m lost, I just try to escape the route.
- Climbs/drops with no climbing gear. This hasn’t changed and I doubt it ever will; I like risk but I’m not an idiot.
As you can see, these are more restrictive standards in which I make sure to stop, but how do I actually do this without feeling like a failure?
Tips for stopping in the right place
On trips that are just one night, I don’t really bother with too much thinking – if any of the conditions are too bad to enjoy the walk or if I have just had enough, I go home, no hard feelings and no one is hurt – I have just made it into a rule. The problem is with longer trips: especially trips lasting 3+ days where planning has gone into it and there are costs of travel. I also usually have a strict route for longer trips with very clear places in which I need to catch the train back home, so I would have to find my way to those places. For those long trips I have a set of tricks, or tools, I use to make sure I don’t push it too much:
- As I’m planning my route, I will plan for 3 possible places to finish the day: the optimistic plan with the maximum distance I think I can cover (usually around 25-35 miles, depending on the season); I also pick a place that is about 80% of my optimistic plan (about 20-28m miles in) and at the end I also pick a worst case scenario place that is about 60% of the optimistic plan (15-20 miles). With 3 possible stopping points, I never really fail. The route for days that follow are based on the 80% stops – that way I can either have a hard day-easy day-hard day-etc system, or I just have less to try and catch up with.
- I make sure my train back home can be reached from a few places on my last day (or two in even longer trips), so if I need to get to the start of the last day late, I can still make it to my train back home. For instance, on my coming Cape Wrath Trip, I can catch my minibus to Lairg (and a train to Inverness to catch a plane to London) from several places from the middle of the 7th day: 2 days before I’m actually planning on taking it, so if things are not going as planned and I lose up to two days of walking, I can still make it home on time.
- When planing my trip, I make sure I know about at least two potential escape routes from my trip in case of a change of weather or worse-than-planned weather. By having those in the plan, they no longer feel like a fail but more like an alternative.
- Make sure I always carry gear that will work for slightly worse conditions than I think I will encounter. Having fewer gear limitations means I can go for longer with less compromises. My kit is almost always 3 season, even in the summer or late spring.
As always, most of my tricks and tips are around better planning, especially as I have more time constraints on what I do. As much as I enjoy just roaming randomly, I keep those for over night trips with the ability to have fast escapes without too many barriers.
When it comes to longer trips (3+ days), I plan better so I my ability to know when to stop is not too skewed by my ego or my over achieving goals/plans. What about you? When was the last time you overdid it in a way that you know you shouldn’t have? Surprise me with a good story!