It was 2pm on my second day on the 100 mile South Downs Way (SDW) and everything hurt. My knees felt like they might give out. My backpack was starting to bruise my hips. My left foot gave me a shock of pain every time I placed it on the ground. I also had not seen anyone else for over three hours so there were no distractions from my suffering. Looking at my map, I calculated that I was only 9 miles into my second 20-mile day which meant that I was not going to make my destination in the daylight. It was at this moment I decided to quit.
My Original South Downs Way Plan vs What I Actually Did
Day 1: Winchester to East Meon – 20 miles / As planned
Day 2: East Meon to Cocking – 20 miles / East Meon to Harting Down (NT) – 14 miles
Day 3: Cocking to Amberley – 12 miles / Littleton Farm to Amberley – 6 miles
Day 4: Amberley to Bramber – 12 miles / As planned
Day 5: Bramber to Kingston-near-Lewes – 20 miles / As planned
Day 6: Kingston-near-Lewes to Seaford- 18 miles / As planned
Day 7: Seaford to Eastbourne – 12 miles / As planned
Day 8: Littleton Farm to Harting Down (NT) – 12 miles
= 114 miles / 182km
Skipping a section
A few things can quickly be learned from the summary of mileage above. First, I walked a whole 14 extra miles off trail to find accommodation. Secondly (and probably more importantly), something went a little wrong on my second day. The addition of a ‘day 8’ has probably given the game away already, but for those of you in the dark, it basically means that I skipped a section. Though I did go back and complete that portion later, it’s still a little devastating to me now that I did not manage to walk the South Downs Way in one go. On the up side, I do know exactly what went wrong and will undoubtedly learn from the experience.
A challenging second day on the South Downs Way
It had been a long and tiring morning; I had been up and down the highest point of the whole trail (Butser Hill), lost the trail after crossing the A3, trundled up another few hills in Queen Elizabeth Park and then followed miles and miles of endless hedgerows. Not seeing even a single soul for a substantial part of the day was draining too, especially since I was in some discomfort.
Despite feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, I knew I was only a 45-minute drive from home. The biggest fear I had was that by continuing on I would damage my knees further and then not be able to do any more of the South Downs Way. That would be far more disappointing than not being able to finish the one day, especially as I had non-refundable accommodation booked for several nights.
My parents agreed to pick me up at the road crossing not too far ahead. If I had continued past this, there would have been no easy access to the road until I reached my destination. As it later turned out, the town of Cocking was in fact only 6 miles away, rather than the 11 I had calculated. Either way, it was too far for me at that time and I’m glad I didn’t continue. It rained heavily the night I went home, the only substantial rain during the whole week. It was almost like I had planned it.
Problem no.1: The wrong backpack
This section would have always been as long and lonely but it wouldn’t have been so tiring if I’d haven’t made the mistakes I did. The biggest problem was the backpack I was wearing. I had used it for multi-day hikes before but not on a solo trip. Usually, my full backpack would weigh around or less than 22lbs total if I was hiking with someone else. On my own, it was 30lb. The backpack in question is of an exceptionally lightweight design which doesn’t provide a whole lot of hip support. It is also too long for me. Simply put, the backpack was not built for what I was carrying in it. This was the main cause of my hip and knee problems.
The most frustrating thing about the backpack situation was that I had another backpack. A backpack with an incredibly supportive hip belt and a harness that fitted me a lot better. I have no idea why I didn’t bring it. Returning to the trail on day 3, I used this backpack to the end. It felt like I was carrying a load about 15lbs lighter. I also revised what I was carrying, and dropped a few pounds of weight.
Problem no. 2: 40 miles in 2 days
I had planned to do the SDW in seven days rather than the recommended eight. Attempting to walk 4o miles in the first two days alone (40% of the total on-trail distance) was ambitious, I knew that even when setting out. My reasoning for a seven-day hike was based on a number of different factors including where campgrounds were located (they are few and far between on the trail), not wanting to book accommodation on a weekend as well as the availability and realistic expectations of my mother who was walking with me for days 3 and 4 (who did awesome, by the way).
Before the South Downs Way, the most I had ever hiked in one day was about 15 miles, over challenging terrain and with much elevation gain. So I figured I’d be OK with 20 miles on rolling British countryside. I learned not to underestimate the SDW. It’s not difficult by any means but there are many, many hills especially in the first third at the Winchester end. Every time the trail meets a road, it goes down a hill to cross it and straight back up again. And again. And again. 34 miles in 34 hours with an ill-suited backpack? No wonder I wasn’t doing well.
Problem no.3: A rock and a hard place
This will likely make any regular hikers laugh. Until the SDW, I had never been victim to a blister on a hike. Due to this, I actually had no idea I even had one until I took my socks off that first evening. I was experiencing irritation but had no clue of the cause. The blister in question was placed conveniently on the ball of my left foot which meant that every time I took a step on my second day, there was a sharp pain. Short term, it was annoying. After 14 miles, it was soul destroying.
Wearing well-fitting shoes and socks I had worn plenty of times for hiking before with no issues, I theorised that it must be the condition of the path. I had (wrongly) assumed that most of the trail was going to be grassland and exposed chalk being that the SDW itself is basically a chalk ridge. I was partly right, but there is also a lot of rocks. Fist-sized jagged rocks make up most of the trail for the first few days and this really killed the bottom of my feet. On day 3 I changed up my footwear to something with a more aggressively lugged sole and I was fine thereafter. I only got blisters elsewhere!
Have you ever done a thru-hike? What did you learn from your experience? Have you ever had to give up on a hike?
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