This should actually be 101.11, 101.10 on Navigation is killing me. Map reading is really hard to write about and I’m not used to working with illustrations. If you’re interested, I did the photos for the tent and stove articles, but textile is intimidating me at the moment, since it is hard for me to sit in front of machine.
Getting there is all the fun
While many professional hikers have written about through hikes, very little has been written about simply walking long distances. The Appalachian trail is gorgeous and challenging, but if you simply want to walk from Clarksville to Nashville, much more consideration is required. Walking along sidewalks and trails is easy but often you will find yourself walking along railroad tracks, highways and winding mountain roads with shoulders narrower than your pack. Beyond walking, there are a great many other ways to travel without owning a car, although depending on where you live, some may be illegal, dangerous or downright foolhardy.
Pedestrians rush in where fools fear to tread. I have had some very close vehicular encounters in my time, and all of us know somebody who has been whacked by a wayward car. Unfortunately, deciding to walk any considerable distance places you in a number of dubious situations as you come down off the trails and sidewalks and follow the same byways the less motivated use to travel.
Railroad routes cross the country in every direction and are often plainly labeled on topographical maps. Train tracks can range from abandoned turn of the century mining routes, now a simple trail of dry earth with an occasional rail or tie protruding from the ground to commuter train routes with lengthy undergrounds and inner city elevated rail. Some, obviously, are more suitable for hiking than others.
Freight and long distance passenger rails are the easiest to hike. Often they cut clean through forest, farm, town and metropolis with a clear right of way suitable for hiking and assuring few encounters with wayward motorists. When passing through urban areas, abandon the tracks, as cops will often hassle you for being on the rail’s right of way. The most difficult parts of “rail trails” is the prevalence of tunnels and bridges. I don’t do either on foot. Occasional fifteen foot rail bridges I’ll risk. But anything longer, I’ll find a foot path to the other side. This is not paranoia as much as it is about safety. If the odds are slim that you could outrun a train that came across you even without a backpack on. DO not even consider it. On all accounts, avoid tunnels. Noxious gasses and a lack of places to duck away in the event of an oncoming train make them death traps.
The elevated ten lane monster is usually only found in gigantic cities, which thankfully means a huge amount of surface streets to walk upon instead. Sometimes however, you will need to follow embankments through areas which would require a detour of a mile or more if you choose to follow surface streets. On freeways, STAY off the blacktop. Not only is it unsafe, it is also illegal and will assure you of meeting every highway patrolman, policeman or sheriff who passes you by.
Aside from poor planning of parallel pedestrian route, the biggest difficulty presented by freeways is the huge gashes they slice through your right away, occasionally necessitating a one or two mile detour to cross them. On rare occasions it is possible to cross freeways, but it is often better to go over or under them, be it through pedestrian walkways or underpasses.
Highways range from suburban three lanes with wide dirt shoulders to rural two lanes cut through hillsides with no shoulder to speak of. Often they are pleasant to walk along and have wooded embankments that allow you to almost pretend to be taking a woodland hike.
However, If the thought of traveling down a railroad tunnel gave you shivers, wait until you walk along a shoulder-less two lane highway. If you think you’re biggest fear on the roads is bears or crazy people picking you up hitching you’re wrong. Your greatest danger is a distracted cell-phone wielding soccer mom driving the girl scout troop back from the national park in her SUV at the same time you are forced onto the road by a rock slide piled on the shoulder. As the type of road or highway you are following varies, so does your proximity to automobiles who may or may not notice you on the shoulder
There are a few basic precautions when following highways. The first one I use is strapping two empty blaze-orange nylon stuff-sacks onto the top of my pack. The nylon is moderately reflective and the blaze orange is absolutely visible. After dusk I wear my headlamp, facing traffic, which has a blinking mode useful for getting motorists attention. If you don’t have a head lamp, just keep your flash light in hand and keep it moving so it doesn’t get lost in the glare of oncoming headlights. Wear your blaze and your lamp facing traffic and if possible, walk against the flow to allow you to see oncoming cars, diving for cover where applicable. Better yet, only hike during the day.
When traveling mountainous cutbacks, you will often encounter narrow shoulders with little or no place to walk. When you must walk around blind curves, stay on the inside. While it limits your visibility it puts centrifugal force on your side, along with every driver’s fear of doing a rail slide with their passenger door.
At a certain hour of dusk and dawn, the sun will be blazing into your eyes no matter how low you drape your hat as it rises or sinks below the horizon. During this period, motorists are blinded by the glare on their windshields making any sharing of the road ill advised, stay on sidewalks.
For a place which is supposedly designed to be residential, some suburban areas are distinctly anti pedestrian. Usually it seems to be the more affluent areas where fences and shrubs push right to the roadside, forcing you into traffic to bypass them and the meticulously coiffed lawns they protect. Usually it is not for any extensive distance, but the intermittent weaving in and out of traffic can make every mile seem like two.
More imposing than affluent suburbs are gated communities, multi-acre compounds walled off from the rest of civilization. Their castle walls can have the same effect as freeways in breaking up your path. Fortunately, the communities’ gates are often easy to get through or over and the communities are rarely overdeveloped, leaving lots of woodland for you to QUIETLY walk through. While it is trespassing, I have seldom been stopped. If I encounter a resident out watering his lawn, I simply say Hello and smile. They usually say hello and smile back. I have only been stopped by security guards and often they are cool enough to drive me off the property in the direction I’m heading. Their only job is keeping you off the property, if your friendly and make it easy, they’re usually alright. Tell them you’d be happy to leave, if they would just let you leave out the other gate. Jerks may make you walk and the ultra frustrated control freak will drive you back to the main gate, but I’ve never heard of them calling the police.
Other than the occasional three or four hundred mile stretch of wheat fields assaulting your eyes, rural routes are often the easiest to hike, the easiest to find hidden nooks to camp in and also the most common road you’ll encounter. Often your only problem on rural routes will be local police who are simply looking out for their neighbors and if you seem alright, they will let you go unmolested and maybe warning you of local rules. I have been offered rides by police, but always politely decline, for fear that they will then arrest me for hitchhiking. I have never been driven to the county line by a sheriff, that stuff only happens in movies.
I follow a lot of trails. Nothing beats being away from cars altogether. Park trails are nice, maintained and well marked but non-park trails can be a little bit sketchier. Trails that appear in bold in a map from the 80s might be nearly invisible scars now. Trails washout, erode and are constantly overgrown.
And sometimes they lead you right smack into trouble. I’ve heard more stories of guys getting shotguns pulled on them for accidentally discovering somebody’s marijuana crop than for camping on a cornfield. If possible, obey no trespassing signs. If you must, walk lightly and stay very focused on your surroundings. Surprising a bunch of paranoid stoned guys with shotguns is not a good idea. You should have the general goal that you will see somebody before they see you. Once you spot somebody, size them up. Your best bet is to make yourself known. If they are unfriendly, claim to have not seen any no trespassing signs, then ask them how to get back to good trails. I’ve never encountered anything shady, but I do know there are places out there where people don’t want you to see what they’re doing.
In some places it is possible to walk from town to town using animal trails. While it is never the fastest route, it often is the one that exposes you to the most unsullied wilderness and it is on animal trails where I have discovered the most magical places in all my travels. If you are not carrying a map and compass or do not know how to use them proficiently, I would recommend against animal trails. They weave wildly, disappear suddenly and can often require ample dexterity to traverse. It is easy to get lost and you should consider the fact that you might be the last person for a few months or even years to walk along the trails you find, especially in non-developed areas. Also, do not use animal trails in national parks. Due to the high traffic in parks, foot prints on animal trails can lead to the creation of new human trails, destroying habitat and disturbing the lairs and nests of the animals who made the trail. Yes, I know how to walk on the trails without leaving footprints and NO, I still do not walk on animal trails by developed land.
*Traveling without Walking:
There are a number of skills that are seldom written about because anyone who knows anything about them knows that trying to learn them from a book will get you killed. Just as I declined to discuss foraging earlier, I will not discuss freights here because honestly, I don’t know enough about it to write about it without getting you killed. I will instead refer you to the book “Hopping Freight Trains in America” by Duffy Littlejohn. Follow his advice on finding a mentor before you follow his advice on catching a hot rail.
Hitching is one of those things that I never originally intended to do. My first hitched ride was during the first of many attempts to walk from Clarksville to Nashville. An older man, recognizing me as a soldier because of my pack and haircut pulled over and asked where I was headed. He about laughed his head off when I said Nashville, but he drove me all the way. I never actually hitchhiked on the 24, but never failed to catch a ride, simply due to the fact that I was a soldier near an Army base, and people would stop and ask if I needed help when they saw me walking down the road. Prior to this, I thought hitchhiking was a thing of the past, relegated to Kerouac novels and impossible due to the fearful nature of our times. Trust me, Hitching still works.
Hitching is simple. Stay on the pedestrian right of way, 30 feet ahead of the “no pedestrians” sign, making sure there is a safe place for rides to pull to a shoulder. Don’t stick your thumb out, instead make a sign. Have large letters proclaiming your destination, and look clean. If you have a razor, shave before trying to catch a ride. Smile, but don’t be a goon. If a cop tells you to move, move. Often the worst you will get is a lecture.
Truck stops are the best place to catch rides if you are cool and discrete. Truck drivers are plagued by loneliness and a rider can often make the task of staying awake much less daunting. As drivers fuel up ask where they are headed and if they could give you a ride. If they are friendly and not going in the right direction ask them if they can do a call out for you on their radio to see if anybody is heading your way. I’ve heard it works, but have never bother to ask, since there are usually so many drivers to ask. I often find early evening the best time to hitch rides as the number of trucks doing over-nighters will raise your chances.
Another safer way to catch rides is through ride sharing services. Many community centers offer ride share bulletin boards and the number of online sites is countless. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in one of the areas where it is popular, craigslist.org is a great place to find rides. If you are able to follow a flexible schedule and aren’t freaked out by strangers this can be a great way to not only get to a new place, but also offer you the opportunity to start making new friends the moment you arrive there.
Often the best rides are not hitched, but simply offered. For a while, I carried a white pack cover to be more visible on the road sides. When passing through dry regions, I would write the words, “Got Water?” in duct tape on the cover. I rarely had two cars pass before somebody would offer a ride. They usually freaked out when I said “no thanks, got any water though?” Which is an excellent way to decline if you get the creeps from the driver.
Do not get in the car if you feel any apprehension. You’ve got eons of intuition built into you; trust it. Even if you have no apprehension, there are a few things to do anyways.
As you approach the vehicle, give it a once over, checking all windows into the vehicle (especially back seats) for anything suspicious, such as blankets that could be covering a hidden second passenger.
Take a mental inventory of the car, noticing any dents, the color, year and make. Notice where the car is from by looking at the plates and take notice of the plate number, repeating it once or twice in your head.
Before you get in the vehicle, make eye contact with the driver and talk to them. Asking where they are headed is a great first question. Look for any suspicious ticks or signs of intoxication. A friend of mine once had a ride offered from a guy who was clearly drunk. My friend pointed this out to the man, and offered to drive instead. The man happily agreed, and allowed him to dive an extra hundred miles towards his destination to give him change to sober up a bit. Never get in the car with a drunk driver, be it hitchhiking or cruising with friends.
No matter how careful you are, things can get sketchy. I carry a small container of pepper spray in my right hand coat pocket. This way if something goes down, it’s safely on the other side of the driver where it can’t be grabbed. Do not carry a knife for protection. Knives are among the most useful tools but rank as the most foolish weapon and most people who pull knives for protection wind up loosing them and getting injured by them instead. If you get frightened by your ride, tell them firmly that you would like to be dropped off at the next off ramp. If you are truly freaked out, it might be better to wait until you come to a fairly populated area before asking.
I have described a number of worse case scenarios in this section. Truth be told, the road is a kind place for most of my experiences and the only reason to go all horror show is to encourage safety. Even if you are a fully competent daredevil (I consider myself one), you must accept the fact that not everyone else is and act accordingly. So go take a walk.