So far I’ve mostly devoted this space to telling my hiking stories, but sometimes I get questions about life beyond hiking – and I have to admit some of this could actually be quite interesting as a resource to other hikers, or aspiring hikers! Questions such as, how do I finance these trips and what is my life actually like when I’m not hiking? What about post-trail adjustments or my future hiking plans?
Despite all the posts on this site, it feels a little odd talking about my personal life beyond the trail but I also find myself curious about other hikers, so I figured why not, why not write a post about this stuff. Because in a way it’s all sort of part of it anyways. The lives we lead on trail are only possible through adjusting life off-trail, and I should know after more than three years of walking-a-lot. And for anyone coveting a rich hiking life – it might be good to know that it’s not a glamorous existence. Hiking past gorgeous mountainscapes on a sunny day are one thing, but the reality of trying to save up as much money as possible while essentially being homeless is quite another. It’s probably not for everyone.
The topics in this posts all relate but also vary quite a bit in subject, so I’ll organise this into a selection of chapters:
• Work / Life Balance
• Off-Trail Life
• Post Trail Adjustments
• Future Plans
For the past few years I’ve divided up my life in chunks of hiking and not hiking. Very roughly, I’ll work for half the year, save up money, and go hiking for the remaining time. Despite living in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, living somewhat frugally and saving as much as I can has become so normal to me that I really don’t question it anymore.
Saying that, I don’t make tons of money in my job. A 6 figure salary is nowhere in my future. I work as an interior designer in the commercial interior architecture industry where we’re all generally underpaid and overworked. We do it because we ‘love it’. It’s one of those stressful creative jobs where you pull a lot of all-nighters without ever getting paid for them. But the upside is that with my experience I’ve been able to do contract work, which is great for getting up and leaving constantly. I’ll work at a design studio for a few weeks or a few months, and then I’ll move on to the next job, or the next hike. I didn’t start hiking until I was in my thirties, and I may have been more concerned about getting the right work experience had I been younger. But for me, I now have some ten years of experience, and people don’t mind the huge gaps in my CV. In fact, it generates a lot of interest. Financially, working short contracts also means that I can charge a day rate that’s a little higher than what I’d make if I had a full-time job, and unless I find myself without work for a longer period, it means I can save up a bit more money.
Then there’s the matter of restricting my outgoings. London is expensive, so I have to be careful what I spend my money on. Nowadays I only buy the clothes I really need – generally for work. I walk wherever I can to save on transport costs. I pay for my groceries, a few dinners with friends here and there and sometimes I treat myself to coffees. Last year I worked at a company where we got a free lunch every day. I would secretly take extra and have it for dinner. I would sit in St James Park every evening and eat my food and I’d feel just a little homeless. But it did save me some cash.
Other monthly outgoings are Netflix, a cheap phone contract and a storage unit which holds all of my stuff. I don’t have a mortgage, a car (I don’t even have a license) or debt. I stopped drinking a few years ago, partly to save money, partly because I always wanted to and partly because drinking just doesn’t seem to suit a life of walking in nature. It feels great not to drink.
Work / Life Balance
One of the reasons why I started walking (or originally, travelling – I uprooted my life to wander around East Asia before I started hiking) is because I decided I wanted a better work / life balance. After spending years working late and feeling stressed out, I simply decided I didn’t really care anymore. I didn’t need to work at the best studios in the industry, I didn’t need the best CV. I just wanted a comfortable and enjoyable day job, and I wanted to go home at the end of the day and not worry about work.
Doing contract work aids that in the sense that I can choose companies that I work for (well, if I have the option of multiple offers) or at the least I know that I’ll only be there for a fixed term, so I don’t have to get too invested if the place doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t mean I do less of a job. In fact, it probably helps that I’m more relaxed at work. I feel a lot more confident in my job nowadays. In addition, I have a solid goal of saving money while I’m in London, so I really don’t mind going to work.
These days, when I return from a hike I contact several recruiters and my friends in the industry. Usually, I find a position within a few weeks, and I work throughout my time in London. This time though, after finishing the PCT, it’s all taken a bit longer. I’ve had shorter contracts and am spending a fair amount of time job hunting, which is frustrating and makes me feels like I’m in this odd limbo phase. I guess I’ve hit a bad spell in contract work, which is going to heavily impact my savings.
I live in London, but surprisingly enough, going away for long periods has allowed me to spend more time with my parents, who live in The Netherlands. I used to see them maybe twice a year for short periods, but recently I’ve stayed with them for a month or so before and after every long hike. I’ve been on a few long holidays with my mum after coming back from trails, and it’s been great to see them more, without the pressure of having to go back to a job. Because as long as I’m with my parents, I don’t really spend any money anyways.
Beyond my family, my off-trail life is spent in London. I try and see friends while I’m here (although as I get older it’s getting increasingly more difficult to pin people down as priorities change and everyone gets married and moves out of London.) I walk around, a lot. I write blogs and research gear, and plan my next hike, if planning is needed. I also marvel at the lunacy of consumerism, but that’s an entirely different topic and I’ll talk about that later.
There’s a huge downside to only being here for short periods though. I always struggle to find accommodation. There are not many short-term lets, and they require references and work contracts that I don’t have, because I just do short contracts and because I’ve been walking a dusty path for many months. This is where life gets less and less glamorous. While I’ve found myself in generous friends’ spare rooms, I’ve also gone from hostel to hostel, sometimes moving every few days, because living in a dorm is probably one of the cheaper options in this city. I lug a backpack around and make regular trips to my storage unit. I don’t always have a ‘home’ here, and if I’m not working I sometimes spend my days roaming outside. Sometimes I go from coffee shop to book shop, job hunting and trying to find things to do without spending too much cash. Interestingly though, living on the trail has taught me the skill to get comfortable and make a home for myself wherever I am, even if it’s in a dorm with twenty strangers around me. So I’m usually happy enough, even if the situation is really not ideal.
Something I actually quite like about being homeless is the constant change. It’s a little reminder of the trail, maybe. It feels like a tiny bit of freedom. A regular change of scenery, a different commute to work. Different neighbourhoods to explore every time I move somewhere else, and every time I change to a different workplace. It keeps life interesting.
Post Trail Adjustments
To start off on the least serious note: my immediate life post-trail entails a lot of eating for quite a few weeks, and not wanting to move. To be honest, it took six months after hiking Te Araroa until I finally felt my energy levels had fully returned. It also took about the same amount of time to heal the ankle sprain that happened a week before finishing the trail. After completing the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m still occasionally bothered by my shin splints, and I should probably walk a little less, so they can heal before the next hike. Which is surprisingly difficult when you’re so used to just walking everywhere.
Regarding my mental health, I’m probably lucky: I don’t suffer from post-trail depression. But I do understand why it’s an issue. I think a lot of people spend most of their lives pursuing a certain type of life, going along with societal and family expectations. When they make the decision to hike a long trail, they’re leaving all of that behind them. Instead, they chase a life nobody really understands, or approves of. On trail, they’re thrown into a new world. When you’re hiking, you’re just a little bit outside of society, but you’ve got your own world, you’ve got your own purpose. Thru-hikers live this life where for the first time, they’re free from expectations, from themselves and others, and once they’re back in civilisation, they long for the simplicity of the trail again. That sole purpose of walking the length of a country. They can’t help but long for that freedom again.
I miss the trail but I don’t dream about it. I’m not in pain for not being there. But then, I’ve never missed things much in my life, I adjust quickly. I also don’t have people around me who push me into a certain shape or form or life. My parents don’t ask me to get married or have children, and I don’t feel a pressure to live my life in any other way. So I love the trail, but it’s not my only escape.
One thing I have found difficult is coming back to a city such as London, where so much importance is based on status and money. I noticed it the most when I returned from hiking Te Araroa, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around this consumerism, and this endless circle of working long days just to spend your earnings on a load of crap. I experienced a huge disconnect. So many hours at work and what do people do with the few precious moments they have to themselves? They buy things they don’t need, have expensive dinners, and I watched it from a distance and it all just felt so utterly useless to me. Whether people make lots of money or small amounts of money, they spend it on Nobu dinners or paper bags filled with cheap Primark clothes. I just wondered, where are the mountains? Why do people live like this? It took me longer than usual to settle back in.
When you’re out for a long hike you learn that you don’t actually need anything but those few items in your pack, and you just can’t help but take that concept back to civilisation. For me, minimalism was both a cause and a result of hiking. In order to go away for all this time I wanted to downsize. I wanted to sell a lot of my belongings so I could make a little money, and I wanted to have less items left to put in storage. When I got back from my first hikes, my reasoning for downsizing had changed: I simply didn’t want all that excess stuff anymore. Every time I’m back in London I get rid of more things.
When I returned from New Zealand I read Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering and I used her technique to dispose of a lot of things. I threw away so many clothes, and all the books I thought I would never part with. I just figured, why pay for years of storage and go through painful removals when I might never read these books ever again? And if one day I really want these items on my shelf again, I can just buy them. I scanned in a lot of paperwork and took pictures of postcards I didn’t really want to bin. Anything that was worth something was sold on eBay or taken to the charity shop. It felt like a weight was lifted off me.
I used to love buying clothes and shoes but now I don’t care if I walk around town in my trailrunners, looking ridiculous. I stick to a small collection of clean clothes that I need for work. I own a mug that makes me happy. I have a wooden bowl for my food. I eat healthy and cook when I have a kitchen. I don’t dream of opulence, although I’d love a house with a vegetable garden. Okay, and a barista-style coffee machine.
After finishing the PCT I found myself unsure of my future plans for the first time. Previously I’ve always come back from hikes knowing exactly where I was going next. This time, I’m still not a 100% sure. I was thinking of hiking the Continental Divide Trail, but I spent most of January not working, causing issues for the early May start date. My shins are still acting up now and again and it worries me to take on such a long trail. But it’s on the list. And so is the Appalachian Trail (southbound), mostly just because it’d be the last long-long distance trail in the US for me. I’m also interested in the shorter Arizona Trail, the Hayduke and the Colorado Trail.
Then there’s a lot of hiking to be done outside of the US. The Baekdudaegan Trail which runs along the spine of South Korea. The Tokai Nature Trail in Japan, or a traverse through the Japan Alps. I also feel like I should do some hiking in Europe, which I’ve never done – somewhere in the Alps or Pyrenees.
Probably first on the list is walking the length of Norway. Norge På Langs is the idea of walking or skiing from Lindesnes in the south to the North Cape, but there’s no set route. Most people follow the E1 long distance trail for most of it, which meanders in and out of Norway and Sweden, making the trail some 2700 km / 1700 mi long. I’ve planned a route that takes me around a lot of the fjords and it’s currently 3850 km / 2400 mi. It’s long. And considering the slow terrain it’s quite possibly a bit too long for the weather window. So I’m still figuring this one out.
There’s also a future not relating to the trail. I have a long-cherished dream of buying a little place for myself. I’ve decided to start saving up for that too, alongside saving for hikes. I started a private pension and an ISA because I’m in my mid-late thirties and I can’t put these things off much longer, or they might turn into issues further down the line.
So that’s my personal life beyond the trail. An example of what life can look like when you devote it to hiking long distance trails. I bet some people will be more settled than me, and some will be less. It all depends on where you are and what industry you work in as well. Ultimately though, my life is a lot more exciting than it was when I was settled, renting my own studio flat with a little garden and a full-time job. I make memories, I challenge myself. Being on a trail is both beautiful and gruesome, but the freedom, bundled with purpose, teaches you things in life that nothing else truly can.