TRANSFORMATIONAL TRAVEL EXPERIENCES: Thru-hiking, the ultimate transformation
“Meet me there, where the sea meets the sky, Lost but finally free.”Raynor Winn, The Salt Path
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
I’ve just finished one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. The reason that The Salt Path was so thought provoking for me, was that it is a story about thru-hiking and the transformative power that long distance walking has. For anyone who hasn’t heard of The Salt Path, it is the story of Raynor and her husband, referred to affectionately as “Moth” throughout. The couple find themselves homeless, at an unlikely time in their lives in their 50s, and make the brave decision to walk the South West Coastal Path.
I say “brave decision,” but it’s clear from reading the book that they felt as though they had little option. With no money, no home and no employment (their livelihood was their home) the pull of the path called to them. Perhaps because the only other “option” was to live on the streets. But through their epic walk around the South West Coast of England they found something that they didn’t expect. They found a place to be each day. They found somewhere they belonged, a routine and a challenge that fulfilled them.
“Lying in the sun on baking-hot grass, having walked four miles before lunch and eaten a handful of elderberries straight from the tree, there’s a lot to be said for being a vagrant.“Raynor Winn, The Salt Path
It really is a great read, a page turner, not least because I wanted to find out whether Raynor and Moth made it to to the end of their 630 mile trek. But, what I was particularly struck by as I finished this book, was the feeling that I got. We all know the feeling when you finish a great book. There’s a sense of achievement, you’ve learnt something new, you’ve met some new characters, but overall you’re really quite sad that it’s over. This reminded me of the exact bundle of feelings that I get when finishing a thru-hike or a long distance walk. It’s a total transformational travel experience.
What is thru-hiking?
“Thru-hiking”, it’s become a bit of a trendy phrase. It means a long distance hike from one set point to another. Quite often thru-hikes are from one side of a country to another, such as The Jordan Trail which runs from the North to the South of the country. By nature, thru-hikes tend to be multi-day because they cover such long distances.
There isn’t an exact threshold to define “long distance”, but purists would probably say that anything less than 300km is probably not a long distance hike. Thru-hiking is also contrasted to “section hiking” which is a term used when someone walks a part of, or section, of a long distance trail. However, a section hike could still be a long distance hike. Still with me?
Personally, I don’t go in for the exacting definitions. Call me a maverick, but I think a thru-hike can be any semi-long distance multi-day hike from one point to another. Regardless of how long the walk is, how many days you’re on the trek, or where you get to – the common thread of a “thru-hike” for me, is that just like a good book, it changes you. Thru-hiking is transformative.
How does thru-hiking change you? Why is it a transformational travel experience?
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks”John Muir
A better question might be, how doesn’t thru-hiking change you? Really, thru-hiking will change and transform you as much as you let it.
You can, of course, choose to just enjoy the experience of thru-hiking. Perhaps you become fitter physically, and that’s it. Perhaps the hike becomes a distant but fond and valued memory. Or simply an anecdote that you can reel off at the pub in 30 years time. But, you might also find the transformative power of thru-hiking, if you want to and if you let it in.
Many people talk of finishing a thru-hike, such as the Camino or the PCT, and realising that they aren’t actually at the end. Yes, they’ve finished the walk that they set out to do. But instead of feeling that they’ve completed a mission, they’ve actually discovered something new. They’ve found a door and they’ve opened it and now it’s open they can’t shut it. Like a gleeful can of worms. At this point, perhaps the transformation they find is that they want to keep walking and they sign up to do another thru-hike immediately. There’s a reason that “thru-hiking” has a bit of a cult status.
Others may find something else that they’ve been looking for when tackling a thru-hike. Maybe they meet their one great love, or somebody that transforms their life or takes it into a new direction. Perhaps, like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, they find the answers to questions they’ve been looking for. Taking the time to soul-search and redirect their lives, change tracks if you will.
Capability and resilience: Transformational Travel Experience
It is all there if you want it. In fact, it’s really quite difficult to start a long-distance thru-hike and finish it as the same identical person that you were at the start. A thru-hike is a challenge and completing it might teach us lessons about ourselves, about how our capacity, our capability or our resilience is greater than we thought or anticipated.
“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.”Cheryl Strayed, Wild
I love this quote from Wild, because it speaks to two huge transformations that we undergo on a thru-hike. We realise that we don’t need anything but what we can fit in our backpacks. Walking a long-distance trek starts a new journey towards minimalism for many, or indeed consolidates minimalist leanings that they may have harboured all of their lives. But, as Cheryl says here, we also realise that we our bodies are more capable than we think. We have all the strength that we need within.
Transformational Travel Experience: Physical Transformation
There’s a lovely part of The Salt Path when Raynor comes out of the shower and thinks that she’s being confronted by a stranger in the campsite toilet block. The stranger is in fact her own reflection in the mirror but she doesn’t recognise the person that she has become in such as short space of time.
“A woman on the other side of the room looked up at me: hair like a bird’s nest, burnt brown face with a shredded red nose, red calloused feet, lean athletic legs and ribs poking through saggy flesh.”Raynor Winn, The Salt Path
When I googled thru-hiking as part of the research for this article, I found oodles of results for “thru-hiking before and after,” and then thousands of pictures of men and women before and after thru-hikes. Without fail, all of them look slimmer, more lean and more toned. Thru-hiking can have huge transformational impacts on your body and your physical being.
Not all of these are good. Personally, a bit like Raynor, I ended up with a birds nest on my head after walking my first Camino. My hair is still in the recovery position. However, in general, the transformation that your body can undergo during a thru-hike is significant and positive. Muscles will become stronger, cardiovascular systems will improve and weight will be lost.
In fact, in the Salt Path, Moth who had been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, finds that his health improves during the thru-hike, despite medical professionals refusing to accept this. Moth refers to the walk as an “extreme form of physio” and quips that “maybe I’ll have to keep walking all of my life.”
I’m with Moth on this. During my first Camino de Santiago thru-hike I overcame a gnarly (but not serious) knee injury that I had spent years in physio trying to resolve. J and I both felt fitter than ever when we arrived in Santiago. Fit and full of life. This can be a really addictive result of thru-hiking, because when (or if) we go back to our normal daily lives, sitting at a computer or on the sofa for hours on end, we might find the fleshy dough creeping back onto our bodies like a familiar, but unwelcome friend.
Everything is impermanent: Transformational Travel Experience
“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”Henry David Thoreau
One of my favourite things about thru-hiking is the predictability of it. That may sound dull. Isn’t thru-hiking supposed to be a thrill seekers adventure? Who wants predictable?
Predictable can be good. No fuss and no muss. When the sun rises you head out, boots hit the ground, backpack hoists up and off you go. Then there’s a joyful lunch break, a few cups of coffee and a few more miles. At the end of the day, the sun sets on somebody who feels satisfied, sweetly tired and sated.
But what is so wonderfully enriching and, here’s that word again, transformative, about this predictable thru-hiking routine is that it reminds you that everything is impermanent. As you march on along the path, as the miles add up, as the sun rises and sets, everything is changing. Time is passing.
Every person you meet, every scenic vista, every satisfying sip of water, every painful step – it’s all temporary. And that’s OK. Because as soon as you realise this, you can enjoy it.
Who should try a transformational travel experience like thru-hiking
“Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and the sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way. Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence.”Raynor Winn, The Salt Path
Thru-hiking really can be for anybody. It is not an exclusive club for the super-fit, or indeed the super-wealthy. You can do it on a budget, or on a total shoe string (as Raynor and Moth did). You can also train to prepare for it, or you can just gradually build up to the bigger routes.
One of my favourite blogs, Camino Stories , is filled with tales of normal people who have taken on the Camino. Anyone even considering doing it should peruse this and read just a few stories of thru-hiking transformation. I challenge you to not feel just a tincey wincey bit inspired.
Whether you’re an empty nester like Carolyn Gillespie, author of Pilgrim Finding a New Way on the Camino de Santiago, undergoing significant life changes like Raynor and Moth, searching for something like Cheryl or grieving like Michael Sheen in The Way – thru-hikes are there for you. So why not give it a go in 2023?
*Raynor Winn’s fabulous book is available on Amazon – here.*
John and Emma’s hiking gear. These are items we love to use when we go hiking, find them here on Amazon.
Osprey 40L, Multi, O/S
HOKA ONE ONE Mens Speedgoat 4 Textile Synthetic Trainers
HOKA ONE ONE Women’s Clifton 8
CWVLC Unisex Cushioned Compression Athletic Ankle Socks Multipack
Dr. Scholl’s Blister Cushions, Seal & Heal Bandage, 8 Cushions
Montem Ultra Strong Trekking, Walking, and Hiking Poles – One Pair (2 Poles)
More hiking blog posts
Most of our planning is done using other blogs, but you can’t beat a guide book at the bottom of your case.
Find them here on Amazon.
USEFUL LINKS FOR FLIGHTS, ACCOMMODATION AND TRANSPORT
CHECK LATEST FLIGHTS
ACTIVITIES TO CONSIDER
FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Please note that some links on our website are partnered with affiliates. Using an affiliate links does not make it more expensive for you to purchase. We receive a small commission whenever you buy something which in turn allows us to keep writing independent travel guides and your support is greatly appreciated.