8 days in no man’s land - How (not) to prepare for a solo hike in the wild
In July 2014 I spent eight days in the Scottish Highlands, carrying everything I needed to eat, sleep, walk and be on my own. Well, almost. I did a fair bit of research before I left, speaking to hiking buffs, digging for inspiration and compiling a detailed list of what to take. Being out there made me understand what I needed, plus what I hadn’t thought of.
This blogpost is a ‘How (not) to prepare’ guide: everything you (don’t) want to take and why, food tips, and what to forget. I hope it helps you prepare for your trip. And I’d love to hear from you if you have other / better ideas.
First of all...
Whatever we do, we’re going to leave a foot print. Which is OK when we make it a friendly one. By not leaving behind anything that we take for instance. What we can carry in we can also carry out - including food scraps. I have little real knowledge about eco-systems so my best bet is to let nature be as much as I can let it be. That said, I do happily allow myself the pleasure of burying my toilet paper. The Scottisch Outdoor Access Code lists a couple of principles. I think they’re a great guideline for wherever you go.
The most important things I learned. Some the soft, some the hard way. Make sure that what you carry:
keeps you warm
contains enough nutrition
is as light as possible (without doing away with 1-3)
There’s a lot of information on the web about hiking food. But most of the recommended grub makes me really unhappy. I’d rather not spend multiple days sticking freeze-dried and refined instant foods and bars in my belly. And since food is pretty much the only distraction I’ll have on my trip, I want it to be the best distraction possible. I select and make my own mixes of organic and (where possible) raw ingredients.
Depending on the number of days you’re out there, food is going to be the heaviest category in your backpack. For the ten days I wanted to be able to hike without needing fresh supplies, I had 22 kgs of weight on the plane to Scotland, with empty waterbottles.
You can keep the weight down by taking foods with a high number of calories per gram, free from unnecessary and heavy packaging (so no cans baked beans in tomato sauce I’m afraid). Fresh fruit is a bad idea: it weighs a lot and tends to turn into mush.
Nuts are great (unless you’re allergic) but only if you eat them mindfully. This is what the guy at the nut shop told me: “100 grams of nuts equals a full meal. But if you don’t chew them properly, they just fall through your body, taking most of their calories and nutrients with them on the way out.” In other words: how you eat is just as important as what you eat.
Hiking trips are not the time to go on a diet. I had more than I could eat mindfully, I didn’t climb Mount Everest and I still lost weight. You won’t die from diet-sized portions, but unless your name is Buddha you’re probably not going to enjoy undernourishing yourself. Whatever you do, you’re going to burn off fat. But, as Hiking Dude says: “If you run out of food, your body consumes muscle for fuel and that results in fatigue and degrading performance.” Depending on how much you’re going to strain yourself, your body may ask for double the recommended daily calory intake (which is 2000-2500 per day).
Without turning this into nit-picky science: you want to take enough for a happy belly and keep it light enough for a happy back. Here’s a list of food items I checked out and how they add up calory-wise. I used it to help me in my selection and then switched over to common sense (and wisdom from the nut shop guy).
Below you’ll find what I made for every day I was out there (I stocked up for two days extra just in case). I packed each portion separately in a snaplock / ziplock bag so I didn’t have to think and worry about taking out too much or not enough: one bag is one meal. Zip lock bags keep your food dry and if one of them breaks or rips, it won’t be the end of your trip. I switched breakfast, lunch and dinner around depending on what I felt like eating.
Breakfast (or lunch or dinner):
140 grams of home-made granola
To cook in water or eat from the hand. Here’s an amazing recipe that’ll allow you to vary and give it your own twist. Don’t use egg-white: it won’t keep for long enough.
Variation: 140 grams of home-mixed porridge to cook in water
Mix millet flakes with raisins, dried figs and any other dried fruit to your liking. Add dried shredded coconut and ground spices like cinnamon, cardemom, turmeric (I love turmeric in sweet and savoury dishes), aniseed, etc.
Lunch (or breakfast or dinner):
100 grams of nuts with 40 grams of raisins (140 grams total)
In addition to eating your nuts mindfully, it’s a good idea to soak them in salt water and then dehydrate them. Eating raw nuts without doing this makes them harder to digest and even annoying to your intestines. if you want to know why and how to soak nuts, here’s an interesting article. (http://foodmatters.tv/articles-1/the-benefits-of-soaking-nuts-and-seeds)
How you can do this:
Soak raw nuts in salt water (about ½ teaspoon of salt per cup of nuts) for 24 hours, rinse well.
Dehydrate in the oven at 60-65 °C for 12-24 hours (yes, that long). Alternatively, use a food dehydrator (expensive) or your living room heater (they will take a couple of days to fully dry on a tea towel). I have no experience drying nuts in the sun because it’s not that warm and sunny in the Netherlands. Make sure you fully dehydrate your nuts: any moisture will cause them to grow mouldy within a week. You can choose to roast them after dehydration (lovely), but that will destroy many of the nutrients (not so lovely).
Some mix suggestions:
100 grams of Cashew, Macadamia and Pistachio (peeled:-) with 40 grams of raisins.
100 grams of Pecan, Almond, Walnut and Pumpkin Seed with 40 grams of raisins.
Dinner (or breakfast or lunch):
100-140 grams of grains, preferably porridge-style (whole grains may take too long to cook for your firewood). I had a few bags of rice (not so nutritious), millet and buckwheat (both more nutritious).
I cooked these in water and added organic marinade powders (the ones you use to make e.g. curry or tikka masala), ending with a dollop of extra virging olive oil (I had a 200 ml plastic camping bottle full of olive oil). I would never have guessed, but at the end of a day’s hiking this is five-star dinner heaven.
1 (pretty big) home-made coconut-bar. Here’s a recipe (forget the chocolate: it will melt and wreak havoc in your bag).
Some raw cacao nibs or beans (I had one little 100 gram bag of nibs for the whole trip: next time I’m taking whole beans)
1-2 dried figs
1-2 dried dates (“gold of the desert” for nomadic African tribes)
1-2 dried apricots
3-4 spirulina tablets per day. I don’t buy multi-vitamins and this seems to be the best alternative supplement. The first time I used Spirulina powder, but when that rips (and it did) it turns your bag into an Indian colour festival.
Creamed coconut. I had a bar of creamed coconut stored in a small plastic jar to cut up and melt in the hot water for in my porridge or curry. I hardly used it and didn’t really enjoy it (I think my belly had enough fat from all the other foods), but it’s a great back-up if you want one. Alternatively, you could try a vegetable milk in powder form. I couldn’t be bothered to go that far.
One herbal teabag per day.
The water in Scotland is amazing. And it’s amazing everywhere I went. I had a water filter, but the last guy with whom I hitch-hiked told me: “The water here is some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve never been sick. Just keep an eye out for cattle, and don’t take water when you’re close to where they are.” Water is one thing you’ll never be short of in the Highlands. Be sure to check up on the water quality in the area you plan to go to (more about that later).
A full body cleanse?
In addition to being really healthy and wholesome, this food will have a cleansing effect. Great for your body and great for your mind. If you tend to eat a lot of animal and/or sugary products and/or if you drink alcohol regularly, it’s good to gradually reduce your intake before you leave. You can go cold turkey, but again: it’s nice to be gentle to yourself. You may feel a little queesy the first few days as your body starts eliminating toxins it couldn’t get rid of before. But after that... mama mia, I felt light as a feather!
Catching your own food
Didn’t even cross my mind before I set out. On my way back I hitched a ride with a local who told me he sometimes sets out for a few days with nothing but simple fishing gear to provide for his meals. Thought for food.
Sturdy and adjustable: make it hang right and (not too) tight.
Waterproof or with a separate raincover. A raincover that doubles as a flightbag will reduce the risk of your bag being damaged or ripped during your flight / trip.
4 lashing straps: one to keep your sleeping mat rolled up; one to lash firewood to your backpack (wood’s in short supply in the Highlands and if you’re camping at altitude you want to have some with you); two straps to lash your tent to your backpack (or if you don’t need to, to serve as backups).
A sturdy one-person tent. It’s nice if it’s light, but strength is more important, especially in windy conditions. I bought a North Face Tadpole in 2008 and love it: relatively light, compact, easy to set up and with a very strong frame.
Protection for under your tent. Standard with some tents; not included with most: a protective undercover that prevents tears and holes in your waterproof floorlining.
2-4 extra pegs. You never know when one decides to disappear into the ground or just decides to walk off.
Sleeping mat. I have a Thermarest (also bought in 2008). Super compact, easy to inflate and with hole-and-tear-protection.
Sleeping bag. Compact is mildly important; warmth is essential. If your bag contains goose down it’s extra important to keep it dry: goose down loses its isolation power when wet and has a hard time drying. Several people have told me it's a bad idea to carry a goose down sleeping bag but I kept mine dry without any problems.
Headlamp with spare batteries. I have a relatively simple one and it’s been serving me perfectly since 2008.
Good maps. Ordnance Survey makes great maps of the British Isles, I’m not familiar with good maps for other countries. Scale 1 : 50.000 is good enough (1 : 20.000 is too nit-picky for me). I'd also take an "overview" map of (part of) the country you're walking in, so you can reference your hiking area to the bigger picture. Not a necessity, but I like being able to do that.
Waterproof map carrier. I like Ortlieb, A4 size.
Compass. I have no experience with superdeluxe electric gizmo wizardry: just a simple compass. You can take GPS material with you, but that takes out all of the fun for me. I like going analogue.
Two pens. One to mark where you are and have been; one for when you lose the other (my second pen was in my diary).
Satellite phone. I didn’t have one on my trip and realized a couple of days into my walk that “if something happens to me now, I’m a goner.” In my humble opinion, that would have been a shame. Next time I’m taking one.
I prefer natural materials. I don’t like sticking polyester on my body all the time. Besides, polyester thermal undies gave me a fungal infection. What’s listed below is all you need; you’ll be wearing part of it.
Waterproof hiking shoes that you’ve walked in. Fresh from the factory is likely to cause blisters. Mine were not waterproof and I had cold and wet feet for pretty much the whole trip. Uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. I like being able to move my feet as freely as possible so I avoid ‘feet-fortresses’ and go for flexible shoes.
Simple rain pants.
Wind-stopper jacket. Light-weight, thin, waterproof and with a hoody. What you wear under your jacket is for warmth.
1 pair of (normal) trousers. I don’t have a difficult pair of hiking trousers and my hemp jeans were perfect. Unless you prefer being able to zip them off into shorts.
Sweater. Cotton is better than wool (cotton dries faster). Preferably in a light colour (dark attracts insects).
T-Shirt. Longsleeve (in case of insects) and optionally another shirt (long or short sleeved). I had both. Again: light colours.
Woolen cap. For the cold days and nights.
Thermal longsleeve (under)shirt. For the cold days and for in your sleeping bag.
Thermal undies with long legs. Also for the cold days and for in your sleeping bag.
Regular undies. You can consider taking a second pair: I had just one that I washed in the streams.
Tropics bucket hat. Protection from the sun and to keep the head net away from your skin.
Sunglasses? I don't take them. I prefer using my bucket hat for protection.
Headnet. I know, it looks ridiculous. But especially in Scotland you’ll be a happy carrier (and I won’t tell anyone). I didn’t have one the first time around and I lived to be sorry.
Good, thick gloves - even in Summer. I had double tour-skiing gloves in Scotland, in July, and they were a life saver most days.
Three pairs of socks. Two pairs for walking (let one pair dry while wearing the other). One pair (warm) for in your tent and/or during the evenings when you’ve finished walking.
Extra pair of shoelaces.
Mini-towel. One that dries quickly and weighs nothing.
Bottle(s) for water. I was carrying two Dopper bottles. One 500 ml size made from non-toxic plastic and a 750 ml metal one. I prefer these over regular plastic bottles. I think my body does too. Depending on where you go, one bottle might be enough, but it’s nice to have something extra when you camp in a “dry” spot or in case you lose one.
Water filter? As I wrote: not necessary in Scotland and Ireland. The water there is amazing. You may want to carry one if you’re going elsewhere, but places that require water to be filtered are probably not the nicest to go hiking.
Billy. Or whatever you’d like to call it. You can make it as simple or as high-tech as you like. I borrowed a small, simple billy with a separate grip. I recommend keeping and using a lid: it helps warm your food on a small fire. For me, Billy is both cooking pan and eating plate.
Mug for tea. This is optional: I use Billy.
To make a fire. Keep below items in a ZipLock bag to keep them dry.
Organic fire starters (like these). They burn cleanly and don’t leave a mess. You can probably get expensive ones in an outdoor shop: I just buy barbecue fire starters at the organic supermarket.
Properly filled lighter. If you have a Zippo, great. I don’t have one and don’t intend getting one.
Several boxes of matches. For if your lighter fails.
Fork, spoon, knife. Depending on the food you’re taking. I only used my spoon.
Pocket knife. I have an Opinel. The first time I also carried a Swiss army knife but I had no use for all that multi-functionality. I didn’t even use my Opinel, but I like having a good knife with me just in case I get attacked by a Grouse (a Grouse is a small bird).
Care and safety
First aid. Standard travel kits are expensive and they don’t pack what I need. I only know this since doing a first aid course. I compile my own kit with the first aid knowledge I now have. While you’re at it, you might want to look up information on treating blisters.
Against ticks. The most important thing upon discovering a tick is to stay calm and remove the tick calmly. It takes a while before a tick has fully lodged its mouth in your skin, and only then can it excrete its saliva. If you remove a tick sloppily or in a hurry you’re only increasing the chances that it’ll get stressed and leave some saliva behind to thank you.
A tick card. Much easier and more effective than a tick tweezer.
Tea trea oil to disinfect. I like it better than alcohol and it’s at least as effective.
Against insects. I recommend something natural like citronella. Smearing DEET on my body for a week is no party. Smidge is the best anti-midge agent in Scotland - or so they say. In my case it hardly did a thing. Plus, it smells horrendously chemical. Some people told me Avon Skin So Soft is the only thing that really repels midges. And makes your skin so soft. I opt for clothing and headnet to provide me with protection.
Toiletries. Just the bear necessities:
Toothbrush and biodegradable tooth paste.
One roll of biodegradable, unbleached and unperfumed toilet paper in a snaplock or zip-lock bag.
Forget deodorant, soap, gel, creams, shaving gear and nail polish. It’s unnecessary weight and only introduces nastiness into nature. I loved not having any of them and to wash myself in fresh water.
Sun lotion. OK, so this is a luxury I’m granting myself. Again, try to get something as natural as possible: you’re doing your body and nature a favour.
Whistle. Works better than screaming for help.
Flashlight, small. To sign with.
Little shovel. To bury your poop and paper. Here’s a nice blogpost on pooping responsibly and cleanly.
Dry sacks! Absolutely essential, to store and keep your clothes and sleeping bag dry. Come storm, your backpack will not be waterproof. No matter how tight you fit your rain cover, if it rains long enough, water will get in. Not taking dry sacks, getting wet and not having any dry things to change into, could lead to hypothermia, which is the thing you don't want happening to you.
You can let people know where you’re planning to go and arrange a “latest time” at which you’re going to contact them to let them know you’re OK. It might also be good to get in touch with local search and rescue teams before you set off.
Information to carry for when people come and rescue you:
Phone numbers of your dearest at home.
Your blood type and any information on ilnesses, medication, allergies, etc.
Your health- and travel insurance details, including (emergency) phone numbers.
Travel / health insurance that includes search and rescue
I don’t know about the situation in other countries; this is how it is for us Dutchies:
Most (complementary) health insurance policies don’t reimburse search and rescue operations. And such operations are screamingly expensive.
Dutch travel insurance policies reimburse search and rescue as a standard, but the height, scope and conditions of coverage vary greatly.
Some insurance companies don’t reimburse accidents related to activities like rafting and climbing. Hiking doesn’t typically fall under ‘dangerous sports’, but it’s better to check and be safe than sorry.
Another thing to consider is whether your health insurance covers (necessary) medical costs in foreign countries. If it doesn’t, you may want to look for a travel insurance that does.
Finally: I like the idea of being helped by a club that does so with love and attention. It’s more important to me than those couple of Euros (literally) I could save on a cheaper insurance.
I enjoyed having this with me. In Scotland I also carried a book but reading there felt more like fleeing than enjoying.
I borrowed almost everything I didn’t have myself, right down to Billy. You can make trips like these as cheap or expensive as you want. Food-wise I spent around €140 for ten days plus two days backup, all of it organic and high-quality.
Where to camp in the wild?
As with pretty much everything, camping tends to be subjected to a plethora of laws. Many European countries prohibit camping in the wild. Not that this need to put you off, but it’s good to find out how ‘risky’ it is. I decided to cancel my group trip to Slovenia when I discovered that wild camping there without getting heavily fined is just about impossible. I found three lists with good information on where you can (easily) camp in the wild:
Want to read more?
Here’s the blogpost about my trip in 2014.
Want to join me for a week?
It'll be just us, our backpacks, tents, food, map and compass. Far away from time and close to our own natural rhythm. You can find information here (it’s in Dutch: if you can't translate it understandably, feel free to get in touch).
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