This Dales Way walk Claudia, Judy and I have just completed was organized for us by a British company called Contours. There are a number of companies, most headquartered in the UK, that specialize in what’s called “self-guided walking” trips. You choose a route to walk from their website or catalog. The company provides you with hiking directions and maps, makes lodging reservations for you along the way, and – most important – moves your luggage every day, so you only have to walk with a daypack.
Most of these walks are in Europe, because the villages are so close together you can walk from one to another in a day. In the US, things are just so spread out that you can’t walk point to point to an inn or B&B. (There is a tiny bit of self-guided walking in New England, but even then the companies often want you to have a car.)
I love walking through the countryside. Here in England, you tramp right through the pastures, so you get pretty close to cows and sheep – and, let’s face it, a lot of sheep shit. You get to know a small area very well, walking usually somewhere between 8 and 14 miles a day.
Self-guided means just that; there’s no guide. You’re on your own to get yourself across country. You do need to know how to read a map and at least distinguish north from south with a compass. (I have a GPS receiver and don’t use it, but many walkers swear by them.)
On a self-guided walk, you hike only with your friends – or even alone. I’ve done a number of walks in England, France and Italy by myself, and I’ve walked with friends in those countries plus Slovenia, Portugal and Spain. You choose the day you want to start your walk; you’re not joining a group assembled by the tour packager. (By the way, for you bikers, many of the companies also offer self-guided biking trips.)
You can also choose to add rest days into your walks. I like to spend an extra day in any particularly interesting towns. Here on the Dales Way, we stayed two days in Ilkley, a beautiful Victorian-era town on the River Wharfe, and in the village of Grassington, and also in Sedbergh, a small town that boasts more bookstores per capita than anyplace else in Britain.
Hearty breakfasts are always included with your accommodations. My preference is to eat as early as possible and hit the trails soon after. We usually stop for lunch around one o’clock, feasting on local cheeses, meats and fruit bought in the towns. Sometime in early or mid-afternoon, we arrive at our destination for the night, grab a shower and sometimes a nap, walk around the village, have a nice dinner and get to bed early. Generally you’re on your own for meals other than breakfast.
One advantage of self-guided walking is that it’s much less expensive than a guided hike. (Lots of companies who provide self-guided hikes also do them as organized groups, so you can compare prices.) But it’s not the cost-savings that first attracted me to this kind of trip. I like being able to leave in the morning when I choose, walk at my own pace (slow), and take a break when I’m ready.
I also relish the independence of having to rely on yourself to get where you’re going. You’re not likely to run into serious trouble on a self-guided walk; usually the worst thing that happens is you make a wrong turn and walk an extra mile or two. With friends, you can walk part of the way together, or go at your own pace. (Judy, for instance, is a very fast walker, so she shoots ahead, then waits for me and Claudia to catch up at the turns.) The companies also supply with a phone number to call if you do need serious help.
On a self-guided walk, you know precisely where you are on the earth’s surface; in fact, you can usually point your finger on the map right to the pasture you’re in or the back road you’re on. When I’ve walked with guides, they knew where we were, but we hikers didn’t have wayfinding responsibilities. I once talked with some people doing the same walk I was, but with a guide. “Are we in the North York Moors yet?” a woman asked me. I not only knew we were in the moors, but I could tell her precisely which moor I’d just passed, and which was ahead. I knew the name of the nearest brook and where that single-lane road below us went. When I used to walk with guides, I didn’t miss knowing those details, but now I love learning the terrain close up.
I’ll be talking more later about the differences between self-guided walking companies I’ve used, but if you want to start dreaming, here are some places to click: