Walking in the Dolomites: A Lesson on Thru-Hiking for Novices

My walking poles tapped on the stones as I leaned into them, legs pounding up the switchback trails. Squinting in the sun, I heard my grandpa’s voice say in my head. “Go on lass, you can do it – find your pace”. It’s exactly what he’d shout to me when I was in school. Training for cross country or running past him competing at the 1,500m. I’d forgotten how it felt to find my pace. How to relax and settle into it. I’d not run alone since I was a teenager. It’s never the same when I’ve got company. It’s fun, but I can never find my rhythm. Now I was outside, alone for a while, and finally remembering. My chest rose and fell. My lungs started to burn a little. Beads of sweat were forming all over my body. I smiled. And I felt joy.

How hard could it be?

Walking hills – how hard could it be? I’ve made it sound like some kind of spiritual epiphany. It wasn’t that deep, but I did find something I didn’t realise had been lost.

Two days in and the lack of sleep, not great general fitness, cold and lack of calories took me to a place worse than hangry ever could. I didn’t think that after three days I’d have a moment of tearfully shivering under my coat whilst trying to nibble a dry cracker without throwing up.

That definitely doesn’t fit with the story I tell myself about who I am. But, there you go. We can’t be heroes of our own stories all the time. Sometime’s we feel bit shit and have a mini-breakdown – then we’re fine again.

Although I felt like a monumental failure on the day I collapsed – I stopped beating myself up about it, there wasn’t any point. Everyone can experience moments of feeling weak, and this was mine. But I learned something important from that… and that was (amongst many things) that I really needed to work on my cardio.

A view of the Dolomites mountains in Italy on a sunny day in October

Another thing that I learned on this trip is that if you’ve never done a thru-hike before, there’s a fair amount of prep that needs to happen. In theory, I knew this, but since I’d only been home for two days after a 10 day trip to Yorkshire, prepping never became more than a theory. Usually, I LOVE good prep, so the fact I didn’t have time really annoyed me!

What I also realised is that thru-hikes are incredibly rewarding. Spending so much time out in nature is invigorating and restorative. You’re relying on your own two legs and what you’re carrying in your bag to survive. Daily worries are boiled down to very simple but important things like food, warmth and walking in the right direction. It’s a great way to tap into our more primal selves and appreciate the simple pleasures that have the ability to bring us true inner joy.

If you’re on that journey with friends, you build each other up. Helping each other along if one of you is flagging. It’s a morale boost and it makes everything easier when you can laugh at yourselves and each other!

Once I’d recovered from my third-day wobble (partly due to the fact that in the evening we found a Refugio that had left a room open with 6 bunk beds – bliss!) I felt fine. The next few days were a challenge, but also a dream of walking through incredible scenery, finding hidden Refugios and simple pleasures. We spent one more night at a Refugio after a forest fire spread across our route in high winds, since our planned route wasn’t safe, but otherwise, we camped.

The Trip

Hiking in the Dolomites in Italy
Almost finished the hike, this is the second to last day – we’ve almost made it!

As a wedding present, our friend Carl, and his partner Kitty wanted to take us to Venice. Both experienced hikers, they decided to go walking for a few days in the Dolomites afterwards. We decided to go with. We could easily get the train from Venice to Belluno at the foot of the Dolomites, hike for 5 days and finish at the end of the Alta Vita 1 trail. Simple!

Jackson’s sisters decided to come along for the hike too. And so six of us embarked upon a trip we’d never forget…

So, what else have I learned about thru-hiking? I’ll share this with you now…

Invest in a quality sleeping bag, mat and tent

Good sleeping bags are expensive, but as a wise friend said, they’re only as expensive as a night at a fairly nice hotel. And that £200-£400 squidgy bag is going to keep you warm for many, many more nights than a hotel bed.  Look for something warm and light. The better you sleep, the easier it will be to hike. Even if you’re carrying a few more grams of weight. Read the reviews and buy the best bag you can afford, you should have it for the rest of your life.

The first night in the Dolomites was absolutely freezing. After hours on trains and travelling up twisty turny mountain roads to the start point, we were knackered. Carl unfurled the tent we were borrowing (the first time we’d seen it) and it was TINY. Teeny, tiny. You know those coffin shaped tents meant for one person? This was one of those. It was impossible to get in or out unless you were sliding on your stomach.

Jackson then discovered his sleeping bag (also borrowed from Carl) was as substantial as a family size crisp packet. After erecting the minuscule tent tubelet, we eventually managed to squeeze ourselves in (albeit with overlapping shoulders) and shuffle horizontally into our sleeping bags.

This was Jackson’s night because he soon realised there was ALSO a hole in his sleeping mat.

Even though my mat was fine, I hadn’t chosen a warm enough sleeping bag. Although I could have survived in up to -6 Celsius according to the bag, at -2 degrees, I was way too cold to sleep – even wearing my base layers, clothes, hat, scarf AND coat.

Which sleeping bag is best?

From doing research online and chatting to people, Alpkit seems to make some of the best value high-performance sleeping bags. They’re also a UK company, so you’re shopping locally.

Since the trip, I’ve upgraded my sleeping bag from this one to this one by Alpkit but I probably still wouldn’t take it anywhere lower than -2 degrees without a liner. Remember, sleeping bag comfort ratings are only a guide so if you’re a cold sleeper like me you might need it to be up to 10 degrees warmer than the official rating for sleep to be achievable (even wearing clothes).

The sleeping mat I took was the Thermarest NeoAir XLite and it was amazing. Super light and warm (although the outer cover sounds a little “crinkly” when you move around at night).

Which tent is best?

I haven’t tried enough tents to know which the best one is – but I do know you need to look for one that’s light, easy to put up and waterproof (ideally, four seasons – unless you’re only using it in summer). Jackson’s sister has since taken the Hubba Hubba NX tent to Patagonia with her after poring over reviews on backpacking tents after this trip and has only good things to say about it – so, maybe worth a try!

After this walk, my preference is a tent that you can sit up in, has enough room for two people (one being a very tall man) and one you don’t have to slide out of on your stomach!

Plan your meals

Sitting on a rock eating breakfast in the sun on the morning of my birthday!

I eat frequently and I eat a lot. When I’m doing any physical activity I need to eat even more. I hadn’t fully considered this. Spending just one hour in a rush at the supermarket before the trip was a mistake. It meant we didn’t pick up the type of food or calories we needed to keep our (or my) energy level up for the walk. The demands of walking up inclines for up to 8 hours per day carrying backpacks meant my body was craving calories it wasn’t getting.

This is what I’ll be implementing food wise for any future thru-hikes:

A warm breakfast and dinner

Having a hot breakfast makes a big difference to energy levels and lifts morale, especially if it’s been a cold night or morning. Cereal bars just don’t cut it. Warm porridge with chocolate and dried fruit mixed in and beans with chorizo and oatcakes are both now go-to’s. You can easily find individual sachets at the supermarket. Beans are heavier, even in a sachet, but just like with sleep – the better you’ve eaten, the easier it is to carry a few extra grams.

Even if you’ve had a hard days walk, make the extra effort to eat a hot meal before bed. The calories will help to keep you warm throughout the night. Hot food is also much easier to digest. Your body works harder to digest raw foods, and it needs all the energy it can to keep you warm.

If you want hot food, you need something to cook it on. We brought a variety of different stoves for the trip but all-round, the Trangia was the best one.  It packs nicely together, is sturdy, easy to use and has a pleasant “old school camping” vibe about it. It took a little while to heat up compared to the Jet Boil (which is amazingly quick but limited as you can only use it to boil water) but was easy to find fuel for unlike the compact gas stove we had with us. It’s also great value.

From what I researched after coming back, for seriously light worldwide backpacking in any terrain or weather the XGK-EX by MSR seemed like a great option if you want to go all out. Otherwise, I’d definitely recommend a Trangia.

Lots of high-energy snacks

Things like protein bars, dried fruit, Kendal mint cake, nuts (almonds and walnuts) travel well and help give you a boost when you’re flagging between meals.

Check out your route on a map (even if you’re not the one planning)

Hiking in the Dolomites a view of the mountains
Tentatively picking our way through loose rocks

For some reason, I imagined we’d be passing through quaint Italian villages in the day and stocking up on warm food and snacks. Not so. Turns out this was totally imagined by my Googling images of the Dolomites.

Even if you’re not planning the trip yourself, not being totally ignorant about the route will help you feel prepared. You won’t be taken surprise by a day of steep inclines or end up wishing you’d brought sunnies/a cap/suncream for that long day of mountain walking. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me, however, I would have discovered my earlier Googling fueled mistake.

Prepare your body

For a thru-hike, you’ll be able to walk more miles per day if you prep your body. You’ll have more energy and it could hugely improve your experience.

I don’t go to the gym and haven’t done any proper raise-your-heart-rate exercise in yonks. This meant that even though my legs are strong, up-hill climbs were a struggle because I felt so out of breath. The altitude coupled with lack of food and sleep compounded this.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the hike. It’s just that I felt disappointed in myself and my lack of ability. By the last couple of days, I felt much better. Partly due to having a few good nights sleeps and several hot meals. But also because my body was being conditioned by the walk. Since getting back I’ve made a concerted effort to improve my cardio fitness!

“Shakedown” any extra guff

Hiking in the Dolomites, two women in October on a sunny day

It’s hard to work out what you don’t need to take unless you’ve done what’s known in the thru-hiking world as a “shakedown”. This involves taking absolutely everything that you don’t think is 100% necessary out of your backpack. Then, repeat this process again (and again).

It turns out I wish I’d packed a larger tent, a warmer, heavier sleeping bag and more food rather than taken less stuff. But this is why doing a test run is a good idea.

Packing list

My packing list (not including food):

  • Tent poles for a one-man North Face tent
  • A technical waterproof outer jacket
  • Primaloft jacket
  • Walking boots
  • iPhone
  • Sleeping bag
  • Inflatable sleeping mat
  • Collapsable light trekking poles x 2
  • Merino underwear x 2
  • Cotton underwear x 1
  • Socks x 4
  • Thick insulated socks x 1
  • Sports bra x 1
  • Merino vest x 1
  • Merino long sleeve base layer x 1
  • Long sleeve T-shirt x 1
  • Short sleeve T-shirt x 1
  • Compression running leggings x 1
  • Cotton leggings x 1
  • Merino base leggings x 1
  • Travel size suncream
  • Travel size facewash
  • Travel size face moisturiser
  • Travel size moisturiser
  • 1/2 bag of wet wipes

Some more images of the trip mainly courtesy of other trip goers (I always forget to take photos) – in order – I think!

Panorama of the Dolomites on the Alta Vita 1 trail
This was the first day of the trail after a few hours of walking, mostly uphill – we stopped at the lake to wash our hands and collect some water – which we decided not to drink in the end, waiting for a fresh spring to appear (which it did – in the shape of  a waterfall)!
Dolomites mountains
Carl, walking ahead on the second day – chalky loose rocks and boulders were everywhere so you had to be fairly careful not to slip.
The third day of the trail, walking through grassy, wooded areas for most of the day – finally the temperature had risen a little.
The path to the closed Refugio where we took shelter one evening in a room that was left open and furnished with 6 bunk beds and thick wool blankets
A view of a sunset over the mountains in the Italian Dolomites
A beautiful sunset we witnessed over the mountains on the evening of my birthday. Incredible views, even though we’d run out of water and a brave trip in the dark to find some only resulted in one bottle between 6 of us.
Outside a refugio in the Dolomites in Italy
Just before we set off from the Refugio where we’d stopped for drinks, only to come back after discovering a fire had started in the mountains!
Just as we decided to head back to the Refugio. This fire spread across the sky in high winds in under 10 minutes.
Carl showing off a whittled spoon, courtesy of a fallen Dolomite twig. Happily, after escaping what would have been certain doom in the forest fire, we spent a night in a nice warm Refugio – eating lots of delicious food and enjoying some drinks and card games.
The fourth day of walking, after finding some ruins of an old army post up in the mountains
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