Planning the Cambrian Way – Part 1: The Approach

How do you go about planning such a long walk ?  Leaving aside the doing the walk itself, which is a formidable enough challenge in its own right, the thought of also having to turn a blank sheet of paper into a fully formed plan for the walk would definitely scare some people off. For many walks, the process can be made a little less frightening through the wealth of resources available on the internet and in bookshops – the popular walks such as the Pennine Way, Coast to Coast and West Highland Way, to name just 3, all have various books and websites devoted to them and there are numerous accounts of individual walkers’ attempts to read too. For popular walks such as these, you can even leave the planning to someone else – there are companies out there that will organise your accommodation, transport your baggage between overnight stops, and return you to the start point at the end of the walk.  What you get with this approach is the benefit of the wisdom of people who have walked it before and those companies’ experience of what works and what doesn’t in terms of daily distances.

But you don’t really get this to the same degree for the Cambrian Way. Yes, there’s a book and a website, and I’ve even found guided walk/baggage transfer companies with it listed, but the choice isn’t there. A simple google search brings up a fairly sparse set of results, and even when you investigate them you are still left with a sense that this isn’t a popular walk and that you will be, to a certain extent, forging your own path. But actually, this is a good thing: or at least I think so. The whole point of a walk like this is that it is challenging and remote and a real test of one’s hillwalking character, and somehow it wouldn’t seem quite as attractive if planning it was also too easy. In any case, unlike many long distance walks, the route isn’t prescribed and the walker is free to use their initiative, within an overall constraint of passing through a series of specified checkpoints. More about these later.

There is another reason why I’m up for the planning challenge: this is what I do for a living. I’ve spent most of my career working on projects and most of that has been in planning, managing and executing them. So if I can’t plan a project like this, then there’s something very wrong with me. And moreover, I actually enjoy the planning part of the hillwalking process, especially as it enables me to stay in touch, on one level, with the outdoors at those times I’m cooped up indoors due to weather or work commitments.

Now I know from conversations I’ve had with people, that many would find the task of planning this walk too daunting, so I’m going to attempt to take readers through the planning process with me, sharing all of the challenges and changes of decisions as the plan evolves. This isn’t meant to be a guide to how to plan a long distance walk, but more showing that with a bit of rational thought and an understanding of your own approach to walking, the problem can be broken down into less daunting chunks and solved that way. So let’s start.

What the Plan Looks Like

Simply put, my plan will include the following:

  • A breakdown of the route into planned daily stages, complete with distances, ascent/descent figures and estimates for how long each will take.
  • Booked accommodation for nights where this is needed.
  • A shortlist of accommodation options for nights where I’m going to book as I go or just trust to on the day availability.
  • Some completed research into my wild camp location options.
  • Booked travel to the start and, if applicable, back from the end.
  • Details of local travel close to the walk, just in case it is needed.
  • A plan for re-supply with food etc.
  • Confirmed dates for the trip.
  • A gear strategy and gear list.
  • An extract of the relevant hills and mountains from the Database of British and Irish Hills.
  • Back-up plans in case of foul weather, injury, navigational issues, failure of accommodation plans etc.
  • An idea of what it’s going to cost, how much money I need to take with me, and where I can get more on the walk.

Of course I could simply pack my rucksack and just head off, making it up as I go, like this guy. But that’s not really me, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. A plan gives control and a yardstick against which to measure progress and the extent of any problems you encounter. Experience has also shown me that the more things you preempt up front, the more certainty you add to the process, and hence the greater the chance of achieving the goal. Let me put it another way, I’m definitely having a plan.

Doesn’t all this work give me a very rigid plan that then breaks as soon as one link in the chain fails ? Actually no, what this planning process gives me is an intimate understanding of where I have flexibility in the plan, what my options are in case of issues along the way, and means that I go on the walk armed with enough information to make decisions on the ground if necessary. But by having a very definite plan written down, it does mean that I can understand the impact of any changes that I make on the hoof. It also means that I don’t make dangerous assumptions – for instance if I’m relying on there being a shop in a particular hamlet. All of this is really about being able to start on the walk with enough confidence that I’m able to deal with the circumstances I might encounter along the way.

The Planning Process

When I’m planning a long distance walk, I tend to follow the following process:

  1. I read through the guidebook and accounts of those that have done it, and walk through the route on the map to get a general sense of the character of the walk, where the obvious accommodation points are, and noting especially the parts that may prove challenging. Often I’ll have done much of this first step just to get to the point of deciding to do the walk. For the Cambrian Way I have Tony Drake’s book and website, the blog post linked above and the journals of George Tod as my main sources of information. I also already have Anquet 1:25k OS maps covering the whole route as a wide strip, together with 1:50k OS covering the whole country, a selection of Harvey’s and OS paper maps for bits of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, John Gillham’s 4 Pictorial Guides to the Mountains of Snowdonia (these are equivalent to Wainwright’s books, but for Snowdonia), and the Nuttalls book for Wales.
  2. If necessary because the walk is through an area I don’t know that well, then I may repeat the first step in more detail, walking through the route on the map and making notes about the places on the way and getting a feel for the natural staging points along the route. This step also includes investigating the transport links to and from the route at the start, end and key points along the way. If the walk will be somewhere I know well like the Lake District, I won’t need to do any of this, except to confirm specific details I’m sketchy on or to get up to date bus timetables.
  3. I now have loads of raw data on the route itself, the potential overnight stopping points, the transport facilities, and a sense of the bits that are likely to be trickiest to plan. Sometimes, at this point there are one or two aspects that dictate particular timings or the need to stop overnight in particular places. (Prime examples occur almost annually when planning the SWCP walk – for instance in 2011 the plan had to be built around river crossings and ferry times, and in one case because my Dad didn’t want to wade the River Erme at low tide, we were faced with an 8 mile inland detour to the nearest bridge. This was solved by breaking overnight at the bridging point to take the sting out of the extra distance. The whole plan was then built around this constraint). This data allows me to make some decisions and identify the constraints that the plan has to fit within. This reduces the number of variables and helps highlight the key planning issues to solve and their priority. At this point I know to within 1 day how long the walk will be, have approximate overnight stops worked out, and am able to make a rough estimate of costs.
  4. I then work my way along the route making any accommodation bookings necessary in order. I do them in sequence in case I run into availability problems and have to re-plan a bit of the route – since this could then knock-on to the rest of the walk and change subsequent overnight stops. On a walk of this length I probably wouldn’t book all of the accommodation in the latter stages until I am on the walk. Whilst I am refining the day by day schedule, I also bear in mind alternatives for iffy weather, and whether there are escape options if needed. At some point during this process, I feel sufficiently confident to book the train tickets, but I usually wait until I have sorted the critical accommodation bookings first. It’s at this stage that I turn all of my scattered notes and booking information into a written trip plan. This plan includes space for me to make notes whilst on the trip.
  5. As the trip draws near, I turn my attention to the finer detail – things such as gear, checking where shops and cash machines are. From this I usually get an idea of how much food I need to carry at various stages, and how much money I will need. If relevant, I also collect a list of the hills and mountains in the area I’m going to be walking so that I can tick off any “bags” on the route. I keep plugging away at any loose ends right up to the start of the trip, using a checklist I’ve built up over the years. I update my plan, print it out into an A5 booklet, and enter key details of travel and accommodation arrangements into Google Calendar. I also write out emergency contact details to leave at home. As I’m paranoid about turning up at an overnight stop and having the proprietor deny any knowledge of my booking, I usually print out any relevant confirmations too. I take my A5 booklet with me on the trip and make notes as I go to help me plan future walks.

So that’s the approach I take, and in the next post I’ll go into some of the early planning thoughts for this particular walk.

5 thoughts on “Planning the Cambrian Way – Part 1: The Approach

  1. I am the exact opposite.I quite like the unknown. Fair enough you have to get maps book the transport to the start food sorted etc. As you going in April out of season shouldn’t be problem for accommodation only weather can be iffy.I started the Brecon way 2 years ago only had 5 or 6 days planed to camp.But had two days of continues rain at the start.On the first night we stopped at the first pub we came to landlord very accommodating saw how be bedraggled we where and said we could camp there for free as long as we had a few beers and food there not a problem.Not an official campsite. Still bad weather the next day,we found a bunkhouse for the night great little place the other two alternatives where continuing on in appalling weather or camp at the pub again.
    All i am trying to say is that you can be too rigid sometimes and miss some good opportunities. and end up paying for accommadation that is not needed.I also carry a light weight bivi should the need arrive
    Not saying that your way is wrong we are all different
    Great post though its good to see how you plan.
    Cheers

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  2. Andy, what probably doesn’t come through in the post is the likely shape of the plan that I’ll end up with for this trip, which will be quite a flexible one. The length of the trip makes precise planning of the latter stages very difficult and because of uncertain timings not worth booking in advance. I also use the term accommodation in the post to encompass everything from a luxury B&B all the way down to a wild camp. I’m actually going to aim to camp 60-80% of the trip (none of which needs booking in advance), and only aim for more luxurious accommodation every 3-5 nights. For the majority of the time I’ll be making up my overnight arrangements as I go, but armed with some knowledge of what my options are if camping out feels a bit iffy or I just want a proper bed for the night. Any advance detailed overnight planning and booking is really only going to be around my re-supply points every few days, and only then for the first half of the walk, as timings get increasingly unreliable after that.

    Every solo backpacking trip I’ve done this year has been adapted whilst on the walk due to progress or weather conditions. But by arming myself with the knowledge of what’s out there it’s been easy to make those decisions as I go. Essentially I’m looking to take my planning with me on the trip to finish it as I go. So actually far from being a rigid plan, I’m actually building in the ability to be spontaneous and to react to circumstances. The other purpose to planning in detail is to make sure that the daily distances I’m looking at are realistic, as I know from hard experience how being unrealistic on this can completely shaft a trip.

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