How do I plan my first long-distance backpacking route?

Chris Townsend, TGO gear editor and Britain's most experienced long-distance backpacker, gives expert route-planning tips

Illustration photo of How do I plan my first long-distance backpacking route?

Within a month of writing these words I’ll be setting out on my walk along the Scottish Watershed so at present I’m obsessed with the planning. Where can I resupply? How many days between these places? What facilities are available along the way? Do I need to send supplies ahead? What gear do I need? How do I reach the start? (Getting home from the end isn’t a worry at the present time).

For this walk I don’t need to plan the route. Whilst it’s not an official long distance path, let alone a waymarked one, the route is predetermined because it follows a natural feature. The Watershed can be followed on the ground and on the map, though it’s not marked as such and in places its tortuous twists and turns can be hard to trace. There is a description in Peter Wright’s Ribbon of Wildness, the book that inspired my walk, but it’s not very detailed or intended to be used as a route guide (I’ll have it with me on my Kindle for reference). My intention was to draw the route on computer mapping but I was saved from much of this task by long distance backpacker Colin Ibbotson, who is currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, who had begun this work himself and offered it to me. This only left me with the far northern section to add. It will be much easier to follow a route already marked on the map than try to work out where the watershed actually is, especially in stormy weather.

Once I know the length of the route – 1,200km in this case – the key to planning a long walk is resupply so the distance can be broken down into manageable sections. I start by listing those places actually on or very close to the route (no more than an hour’s walk) where there is a grocery store or post office. I came up with eight for the Watershed. Then I look at hotels and cafés that are accessible as these are places where I can eat meals, reducing the weight of food I need to carry, and also places that might hold a food parcel for me. This added six more places. Fourteen possible supply points sounds enough for a 1,200km route. That’s roughly one every 86km. I’m reckoning on averaging 25km a day, based on previous long walks, so I could resupply every four days. Except, of course, those fourteen places are not equally spaced. Some in fact are less than a day’s walk apart but others as much as two weeks.