Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Ticks and trails

Walking in the Haute Savoie

Recently, I was telling a friend how I planned to walk a path north from Chamonix towards Lake Geneva this June. It would take about 6 days and I wondered if he’d like to come along.

‘Oh, excellent,’ he replied, ‘that’s the GR5 isn’t it?’

Not exactly, I explained, as I thought we’d make it up a bit. What’s more, the mountain huts on the official trail are always busy and there’s a boring section that’s easily avoided. If we stayed a little to the west there’s a much quieter route to follow.

This suggestion didn’t go down so well. And what followed was a candid conversation, the central point of which was that I was keen to find a path less travelled, while my pal would rather follow the official way; if not, he’d probably pass.

It would be easy to dismiss my friend’s approach as overly purist. But I think to do so would risk denying that for many people walking (or cycling) named trails is part of their motivation. Aside from the ease of planning and availability of guidebooks, ‘official routes’ offer the prospect of a shared experience, as well as the satisfaction of completing a challenge that others can relate to. Indeed, my first ever long-distance walk was Wainwright’s coast-to-coast, the most popular trail in Britain.

But I do sometimes wonder if we’ve taken it too far.

There are now hundreds – yes, hundreds! - of long-distance footpaths in the UK, many of which you have to question the purpose they’re serving. How many folk, for example, have walked the 630-mile Cistercian way linking the monasteries of Wales? Do niche trails like these really justify the way markers and even notation on our maps?

The proliferation of marked tours is much the same in the Alps, where to be fair the consequences of personal route finding can be more severe – if perhaps also more rewarding. In the end, my friend and I compromised and all is set for an adventure this summer. Most importantly, we‘ve agreed to take it as it comes...

Which is good. Because I think we both realised that if the ‘tick’ or ‘trail’ becomes more important than the time together, we’d be veering off route regardless.


  1. There’s a Cistercian way linking the monasteries of Wales? We’ve walked Offa’s dike but never knew that! Interesting! (I guess I proved some point here.)

  2. A related issue is the preoccupation with 'Munro bagging' in Scotland. Some of the most interesting and rewarding, but far less popular hill walks are those where the summit comes in at just under 3000ft.
    Wishing you a wonderful time exploring the Alps this coming June, whichever route is taken.
    Cheers, Gail.

  3. Hari OM
    As a backroads traveller myself, I'm with you! Though, I guess, the established routes have their purpose for the masses. Safety in numbers. Or something... YAM xx

  4. This reminds me of my grandfather. I made him a popsicle stick letter holder once when I was a child at a camp. When I gave it to him I proudly pointed out how I had slightly changed the given design to make it more interesting. To me, at least. He shook his head and said, "That's the problem with people these days. You should always follow the instructions."
    Even then I knew this was fairly ridiculous but I think it has led to some sort of inner turmoil in me my entire life- do the "right" thing and follow the rules or do what my own heart and imagination prompt me to do?
    I try very hard to opt for the second.
    Walk your own path.

  5. I think any 630-mile trail might be a little too intense for me.

    I'd be tempted to stick to the established route, but less for "ticking" purposes than for safety. I'd be afraid if I went off-trail I'd get lost!

  6. When I tell people that I have done a few long distance walks they always ask, have you done the coast to coast. I reply, I have, but not the official one. I get a train out and walk back. They are my home made coast to coast. I like finding my own way and making it up as I go along.

  7. Aren't we all keen to find a path less travelled. It falls under the category of "explore"

  8. Oh how I wish I could still envisage trails as the one you describe.
    As for route planning, so long as you don't need to call out rescue services, please yourselves. The less travelled path has more surprises always.
    Actually, the Cistercian path would interest me, not only do you follow in the monks' footsteps you also amass a whole lot of early medieval history.

  9. How much stuff will you have to carry? Are there stores along the way to buy food, or do you carry it all in with you? I'm not at all familiar with the area, so I do wonder how you provision, where do you sleep and all of that.
    It sounds like a lot of fun, and I look forward to your trip report, if you're so inclined.

  10. Thanks for stopping by. I visit you from time to time, mostly in awe of what you do. I guess it's time to put my money where my mouth is.