The Ups and Downs of Walking with Friends

by Cass Jenks

Three friends ramble together along a gravel path through nature.I watched my companion wash his socks in the sink.

He was beyond prepared. While I had forgotten simple things, like my toothpaste and the charger for my camera, he carried a bottle of laundry detergent and had researched and purchased socks made of a quick-cleaning, quick-drying technical fabric. I saw the investment pay off each time they emerged, bright colours restored, from the murky water.

Every walker will know the sheepishness that drying wet kit inside can bring. Over a week into this trip, he was well past that. Soon there were socks on the radiators and lining the plastic arms of our desk chair, and he even fastened two to the room’s soap dish with a reusable zip tie.

The atmosphere turned tropical; the windows fogged up. My co-walker emptied the sink, rinsed it, refilled it, added the detergent, and started on his base layers.

The one constant in a point-to-point trip

As Nicky Jaquiery wrote when discussing the strengths of the point-to-point walking holiday, one of the main draws is arriving somewhere new each night — exploring changing landscapes and discovering something different every day.

Our fellow walkers, of course, travel with us while that backdrop shifts non-stop. Our relationships with them set the tone of our walk just as much as the trail itself.

A group of walkers talk as they wander along an easy walking trail.Perhaps we will be mutually awe-struck in the face of such natural beauty; triumphant as we overcome distances previously deemed unapproachable; in good humour as we crack jokes and make wild observations; or, most likely, a mix of all three that’s unique to our group or pair.

What’s certain is that, regardless of how well you know them in your usual common setting, you’re going to learn something new about your companions while you’re out there on your holiday. It’s virtually unavoidable.

For days or weeks, you’re together all the time

This has endless knock-on effects. You may well become completely familiar with your fellow walker’s taste in sandwiches, pubs, English breakfasts and tearooms. You’ll definitely learn all about their worst blisters.

You may also find that, without time spent alone to let the mind wander privately, it may do so while in company.

I witnessed this just after we climbed a raised bank beside the trail at one point, originally to pass a bottle of water between us and snack on dried banana. No sooner had we parked our bums, however, than we were captivated by the view. A clear sky presided over greenery that stirred in the wind, the wildflowers alive with bees and butterflies. The sunlight transformed a stream into a coursing ribbon of quicksilver, its voice just a whisper from the bottom of the valley.

He sighted through his camera’s viewfinder and took a few shots, then rested it in his lap. Silence and stillness overtook us for a few moments more. Then he turned and asked me, thoughtfully, “So, Papa Smurf. He’s the dad of all the smurfs?”

Spending so much time together, it seems, doesn’t always put you on exactly the same wavelength, but it does provide little windows into someone else’s head.

A walk can be physically difficult

Huffing and puffing in front of friends while trying to climb a hill or scramble over rocks isn’t a particularly dignified state to be in. Unless a big dollop of good humour is applied, it’s a sure time for tempers to fray.

Needle someone gently about their fitness at a moment like this and you could well learn their patience is predicated on a good supply of oxygen and flat ground beneath their feet. Equally, you’ll prove to them that you’re not quite as supportive as you once seemed.

And then there’s rain

Let’s not forget the effects of the weather. On our second-to-last day, the rain hadn’t the decency to bucket it down. That, at least, would have been so over-the-top that we could have found humour and pride in pushing on through it, sloshing across the puddles and looking for a rainbow.

Friends walking together struggle across a flooded bit of rocky path.
The mizzle comes down on a pair of walkers celebrating another stage of their West Highland Way walk.

No, instead the rain was so fine that it was practically a mist. It plastered our waterproofs to us and soon had us intensely cold, right down to the core of our bones. We had managed rock scrambles and survived a day when lunch had been lost from a loose flap in my backpack. We’d put up with real mist and real rain and we’d found ways to enjoy it. But this foul weather beat us outright.

In a tiny hamlet, we hunkered in a bus shelter as the better part of an hour ticked by. Both of us were not-so-secretly waiting for the bus. I had never seen him like this. His drive had always been boundless, his good temper unfaltering even when I was wound up and crabby. Yet here he was, brought as low as me, cold, tired and wanting to stop.

Somehow, together, we convinced ourselves to press on and up over the next hill – and found the sun was shining. That was the greatest reward by far at the time. Retrospectively, though, I discovered our ability to overcome a mental block together — I know now that we’re each able, if reluctant when wet — to motivate one another.

You’re sharing an experience; an experience is shaping you

The walk itself adds things to people. Out on the trails, there are roles to be filled that you might not experience elsewhere. Perhaps you’ll have witnessed some of these on your walks. A few personalities tend to repeat themselves:

There’s the navigator, forging ahead with the map, guidebook and compass.

The photographer stops and starts and suffers a powerful compulsion to climb things to get the perfect vantage point.

A man in full walking kit with a map on hand adopts the navigator persona.

The ever-moving enjoys the exercise, and thinks you should too.

The historian, meanwhile, has seen a field just like this on Time Team, and is moderately certain they recognise the pattern on those cornices back in that village gift shop.

The jollier-along remains a bright, cajoling character throughout, whose motivational quips could potentially have an underlying vein of self-interest: you’ll all be walking at his or her pace soon enough.

As you’ll know, once your group has established itself and your walk is in full swing, in-jokes and new stories are par for the course. What surprised me was the way we dwell on different incidents when it comes to the retelling. (I favour tales of unusual B&B owners and animals; he prefers to talk about river crossings and uphill scrambles.)

Friends as flavour

Is it politically correct to compare a human being to seasoning? Regardless, a rudimentary comparison can be made: the twists and turns of the trail, the whims of the weather and the warmth of the accommodations provide the meat of the journey, but the people you take along with you decide the quirks of its flavour.

I advise you take the very best people along with you on your walking holiday. Once you begin, you may well discover they’re even better than you knew.

Walker friends

Cass J, writer at Contours Holidays, rides a mountain bike down a hill.

Cass Jenks

Marketing and Strategy Consultant

Resident writer, editor and Google-wrangler at Contours Holidays, Cass spends each weekend on the trails, walking the dog or plummeting downhill along Wales’ best mountain biking tracks.

Read more blogs by Cass Jenks

Originally published 07/08/15

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