Header image for The Body on a Long Walk

Hello Ridgeliners

Few things feel better than a body twenty days into a good long walk. When structured well, the activation of all the muscles feels like booting up lost life — light and sound and texture and touch. Like you had previously been operating at some minor percentage. But here, now: Fullness. Swim in that river. Let the fish nibble your noggin‘. Chomp a freshly picked persimmon. Say hello to every living thing. The quadriceps and gastrocnemii wait like eager dogs, ready to snap at any mountain you might throw to them.

I’m always amazed — standing with a pack strapped tightly to my waist — how lithe and light and capable the body becomes when you feed it well and sleep well and push it just a little, day after day, how it rises to meet the challenges and then demands more. I suppose this is how we made it as far as we did, how these cursed and incredible genes of ours spread around the world. But it’s all so easy to forget — strapped to a chair for years and decades on end — how hungry and attuned our bodies are for motion.

I’m just back from twenty-six days of walking some 300+km of the Kii Peninsula. I was with my buddy John for part of it and then was leading another group for another part. No solo time. The time with John was both time with a good friend I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic and also a final bout of research for my next book.

The time with the group was a walk-n-talk with Kevin Kelly and, as always, was about forming new friendships and extended conversations regarding the world, how to make it better (climate, technology, ethics), and how to be a more self-aware and forcefully good individual actor (stripped of narcissism and ego) within the mess of it all. How, as it were, to overcome the curse of these scarcity-bound caveperson genes while holding in hand tools (both mechanical and social) of cosmic scale and impact and abundance.

But today I just want to make note of the body. Man, I feel good. (I mean, I am also psychologically and emotional burnt out, used up — in a long-satisfied-sigh, all encompassing, undeniably done kind of way.) I always forget how full the long walks feel. Day after day of using the body well. Simple as can be. Here are some tips:

  • Wear the lightest shoes possible. I have shifted to wide-toebox trail running shoes instead of anything resembling hiking boots for most of my walks. Unless you’re carrying a huge load, and unless you’re going over extremely rocky / rough terrain, you’ll do much better with the lighter shoe. I wore ultra marathon running shoes last year during my Tiny Barber walks and they were fabulous. Most shoe companies now seem to be doing light-uppers with solid Vibram soles. Forget Gortex outside of snow walking / wet winter walks; it’s kinda useless, makes the shoes heavier, less breathable, and more expensive.
  • Just to reemphasize: Wear shoes with a wide toebox. Almost all foot-related injuries / hot spots / blisters seem to come from cramped toes. I look at some of the footwear folks shove their tootsies into and cringe. Get a fat toebox and your feet will love you. It’s always better for your shoes to be “too big” than too small. In part because your feet will expand greatly over the course of a day of walking, and also because it’s easier to cinch a loose shoe more tightly than stretch one that’s too-small. Most everyone has spent the majority of their lives with cramped feet within too-small shoes.
  • Staying on the topic of feet: Get good insoles. I wasn’t a believer, and then I started using Superfeet’s green insoles (which are not insignificant in cost, sometimes almost as much as the shoe itself, at least here in Japan) and found foot pain and knee pain to disappear. (I have relatively flat feet and the arched greens seem to turn these meat slabs into a more physiologically useful shape.)
  • Minimize load. On this group walk, I ended up cobbling together a luggage forwarding service (there are services on the Nakahechi portion of Kumano Kodō but not Ise-ji or other routes) which meant our packs were all less than 4kg or so with water. This has a huge impact on foot health. (Do you see the obsession? Happy feet = infinite walking.) The most difficult part of my long-long-long solo walks is that I don’t use luggage forwarding, and a 12kg pack can really mess with your feet — mainly by creating excess friction on the edges of your toes and heel.
  • Which is why I: Carry good tape. Most foot (and some knee/hip) issues can be mitigated through strategic use of kinesio tape. I use it to tape up heels and toes on the bigger walks with heavier packs, and always carry strips to dole out as needed on the trail. Works much better than moleskin tape in my experience. I tell everyone on day one: the second you feel a hot spot or something uncomfortable, tell me and we’ll tape it. You can’t fix a too-small shoe but you can at least guard the foot from excessive friction.
  • Shift all pack weight to your hips. Even with just 4kg, moving the weight off your shoulders (and thereby your lower back) is transformative. If you don’t have a pack with a good waist strap, get one. And cinch it tight. (Almost uncomfortably so; you’ll acclimate fast.) It should sit right above the hip bones. The pack should suddenly “float” on the shoulders. I was always self-conscious of my notable glutes — medius and maximus. Now I recognize them as a super power. A genetic configuration that has allowed all this walking and more. With a pack well balanced on my ass I can walk for years. Carry it all. Conversely, with a heavy pack on the shoulders it’s like self-waterboarding, nearly unendurable. (Bleeding shoulders (really) and tortured lower back.)
  • Sleep well. Don’t skimp on the sleep. Clock seven hours at least. Turn in early. Close down dinner when needed. And if folks want to linger on their own, they can. But you? You are like a torpedo headed to bed.

I love many things about these group walks, but I’ll never not be delighted seeing people get stronger, and walk more than they imagined possible. Many folks arrive with trepidation, not sure they will be able to hang. I don’t pull punches on these walks because I know slow, steady pacing is possible for almost anyone if you mitigate feet and pack-weight issues. We clocked a solid twenty-kilometers on average and everyone not only kept up but Exceeded Expectations. By day three or four folks were vocalizing their enchantment at seeing their bodies change and meet the challenge. On the last day we did 16km through the mountains with 1,000+ meters of elevation gain. No taxis were called. Everyone made it without injury. The glee was palpable. It’s funny — age has little to do with it. The best walkers I’ve seen have been in their 60s and 70s, with few sports or other injuries. A well-cared for body is capable of near indefinite, simple locomotion. Again, this is what got us here.

Few things feel better than the body twenty days into a good long walk. It’s a shame more people don’t get to experience it. If you get the chance, go for it. You’re probably in better shape than you think.

More soon,
— C


Not subscribed to Ridgeline?
(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)