Backpacking Life Lessons with Will Renwick

Record-setting long-distance backpacker Will Renwick has spent weeks at a time dealing with the unique challenges of life on the trail. Here’s what those experiences have taught him.

18th August 2023 | Words and photography by Will Renwick

My first taste of backpacking came about at 18 years old, when I set off with a friend to hike the 186-mile Offa’s Dyke Path along the border between England and Wales. It was a total and utter calamity. On the first day, Sam got food poisoning from a dodgy petrol station pasty. He also developed huge blisters within the first thirty miles and we both quickly exhausted ourselves carrying a family-sized Lidl tent (which had windows) along with some totally unnecessary items, including Nintendo Gameboys and a cricket ball.

Still, we did ultimately manage to complete our quest to walk the length of our home country. It didn’t take us long to forget just how bad we felt in those ‘why-am-I-doing-this?’ moments and to start looking back at the trip with genuine fondness. For me personally, the trip ignited a sense of wanderlust that’s never left.

Will Renwick aged 22
Will on the Wales Coast Path, aged 22

A couple of years later I walked Offa’s Dyke again but this time as part of a thousand-mile loop of the whole of Wales. Then, in the years that followed, there was a two-week journey on the Cambrian Way along Wales’ mountainous spine, various overseas thru-hikes in Italy, Spain and Scotland and, more recently, a fastpacking adventure taking in all 189 of Wales’ mountains in one three-week journey.

I’ve learnt a few things about backpacking and about myself over those thousands of miles – many of them the hard way. These range from big, profound self-realisations to simple practical discoveries and one or two hiking hacks.

I’ll start with the practical stuff.

Coast to Coast Scotland

Challenging weather on a Coast-to-Coast across Scotland

How to deal with rain

I’m quite unfortunate in the fact that while I do most of my backpacking in Wales, I actually hate walking in the rain. I’m a real fair-weather hiker. As such, I’ve come up with various ways of tolerating a soaking. First of all (and this is one thing that I discovered quite late on) I’ve found that a baseball cap is a total game-changer when it’s raining. It makes hiking under the hood of a waterproof jacket so much more comfortable, and it keeps rain from trickling off the hood’s peak and onto your face.

I’ve also come to realise that even the best waterproof jackets have certain vulnerabilities, particularly when it comes to pockets. Never leave your phone in any external pockets, as many of these aren’t fully waterproof. I remember unzipping a chest pocket after a day in the rain and, after water had gushed out in a torrent, finding my sodden phone totally ruined at the bottom of it.

On the worst days, it’s inevitable that rain will creep into your waterproof via the collar and cuffs. With this in mind, I’ll always opt for synthetic insulation when I know the conditions are going to be bad. At least then, when your mid layer gets soaked, it’ll still provide some warmth. Most down jackets will just turn into a cold soggy mess.

My golden rule when I’m camping is to make sure my sleeping bag and sleeping mat are kept bone dry throughout the day in a sealed drybag. When I’m getting soaked to the bone it’s just absolutely essential to have the reassurance that I’ll have a warm and cosy sleep at the end of the day. I can deal with rain and the prospect of camping in the rain if I have that small comfort to fall back on.

And when it rains, remember that it brings the slugs out too, so make sure your food is well stored. I remember tucking into some biscuits for my breakfast once and, as I got to the bottom of the pack, discovering a huge slug had been inside it the whole time.

Lake District
Backpacking in the Lake District

Comfort in the day and comfort at night

Another thing I’ve learnt about backpacking is that I’m set up for a good trip if I’ve hit a ‘goldilocks’ zone with my kit that ensures comfort in the day and comfort at night. That means having a pack that’s light enough to hike with all day long but then also having the kit to let me sleep well at night.

On my run taking in all of Wales’ mountain summits in 2021, I got the balance very wrong. My pack weight was wonderfully light but my ultralight kit and stripped-back approach meant the nights were cold and sleepless. Since then, I’ve promised to myself that I’ll never skimp on night-time comfort. I’m even partial to a nice lightweight pillow these days – the Nemo Fillo Elite is superb.

Eating and drinking on the trail

Food and drink comes into that too. What I have shouldn’t be too heavy in the day, but it should also give me something to look forward to and fill me up in the evening; a good reward after a hard day.

What drink do I reward myself with after a hard day then? Well, whisky usually. It doesn’t need to be anything good. If it warms the insides up a bit and helps me to get all philosophical while I take in a good view, then that’s good enough for me.

In terms of food, I’ve got a bit of a bad reputation for my culinary standards, so I don’t think I should be imparting any advice here! I’m the kind of person that could happily settle for a trail meal of plain instant mash – if I’m feeling exuberant, I’ll mix in some fried chorizo or even some of those Fridge Raiders chicken bites. One thing I’ve learnt is that Super Noodles aren’t filling enough by themselves, but they can be if you bulk them out with some porridge oats. I know, it sounds pretty horrible, but I find it surprisingly tasty and sustaining!

Always check your kit

A couple of years ago, I set off from London to attempt a two-day fastpack along the Vanguard Way down to the south coast. After a day of running, I reached a beautiful spot on the edge of a golf course where, as I started assembling my tent, I suddenly realised that I’d forgotten a crucial part of it: the poles. You can see my solution below. It wasn’t the worst of nights in the end, but it wasn’t the best either.

Vanguard Way
Forgotten tent poles on the Vanguard Way

There’ve also been times when I’ve been forced to eat cold-soaked Super Noodles (forgot my lighter) and had to eat a Firepot dehydrated meal using a bank card (forgot my spork).

What I’ve eventually come to learn is that it’s absolutely essential to do a last-minute kit check before setting off. One thing that I’ve found really useful is to pack my kit while thinking about different scenarios that I’ll encounter: have I got everything I need to prepare a meal? Have I got everything I need to pitch my tent? Have I got everything I need to sleep comfortably?

Reaching a ‘flow state’

There’s a point on a multi-day hike when my mind reaches this pure, uncluttered state and life just becomes really simple. With the noises of normal life left behind, the only things that will trouble me are hunger, the weather and any physical strain – though that gets easier as things go. I think elite athletes call this a ‘flow state’. In this state I can have incredibly clear thoughts about things; whether that’s thinking about the direction I’m going in life or just getting fully invested in subjects as simple as ‘favourite Tom Hanks films’ or whether McDonalds is better than Burger King.

Cambrian way
Will with his dog Teilo on the Cambrian Way

It takes a bit of time to get into this kind of meditative state – usually about a week for me. But when I’m there, miles fly by in the blink of an eye and stresses just float away. And when I haven’t been able to reach this mindset, I know what the cause normally is: technological noise. Whether that’s because I’ve spent too much time listening to music through headphones or scrolling through my phone in my tent at night, I’ve come to realise that these things tend to remove me from the moment. Noise stops my mind from being able to just loosen up and relax into the pace of the trail.

Having reached this state of mind a number of times now, it’s helped me recognise when my thoughts are becoming too cluttered in normal life; when they’re overloaded with so many things that I just flitter between them all. Basically, you’re trying to focus on so many things at once, that really, you’re not focussed on anything at all. There are things I now know I can do to declutter my mind or gain some perspective. Sometimes just a good long walk after work or a lunchtime run can really help me there. There’s nothing like a big, long backpacking trip though.

Mountain in Wales
A surgical procedure on a rare night in a campsite, during Will's epic run of all of Wales' mountains


I’ve picked up a bit of resilience from the trail too. One thing I’ve noticed about myself when I’m backpacking is that in my lowest, toughest moments, I know exactly how to get through these and that’s by just being pragmatic and immediately setting about solving my problem. On my journey taking in all 189 of Wales’ mountains, for instance, I remember checking over my progress at the end of a very wet day and noticing that I’d completely missed out a summit about 30 miles behind me. At such a low ebb, I could have quit there and then, but I decided that instead, I’d immediately work out my solution (which ended up being a very complex re-routing).

Taken a wrong turn 15 miles back? What’s done is done, the best thing you can do is start looking at how you can get back on route. Screwed up at work? Don’t panic, just think about how you can correct things.

Will Renwick
Will completing his fastpack of all of Wales' mountains

Being OK with being alone

When was the last time you allowed yourself to be fully alone for more than just a few hours –and I mean completely disconnected and not even able to reach someone by phone?

It was starting out backpacking that gave me my first true taste of being fully left to my own devices for an extended period, and it was a total revelation. Company is great and we all need it at times but what I’ve discovered through backpacking is that I do also enjoy spending time with myself. It’s headspace, I guess, but also having complete control of my own decision making too.

On the second day of my thousand-mile journey around Wales, I remember stepping out of a cafe on Cardiff’s high street and suddenly, as I weighed up whether to turn left or right, I felt the first real sense of self agency I’d probably ever felt in my life. I realised I could go wherever I wanted that morning and walk as far as I felt like too.

Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy hiking with my partner and with friends. But there’s nothing like setting out with an open trail ahead and only yourself to worry about. My advice? March to the beat of your own drum; it brings an amazing sense of freedom.

Canoe Camping on the Wye
Canoe camping on the River Wye

Will Renwick is an outdoors writer, long-distance runner and backpacker, originally from Cardiff. At 22, he was the first person to walk the entire perimeter of Wales. More recently, he ran all 189 of Wales’ mountains in one continuous fastpacking journey, a feat chronicled in the short film Taith Galed, currently touring across the UK.


Schreiben Sie einen Kommentar

Kommentare werden vor der Veröffentlichung genehmigt.