Outdoor recreation has boomed in popularity since the global coronavirus pandemic began, following the closings of gyms and the fatigue of staying home. From cycling to paddling to fishing, sales of equipment soared and participation increased, but few sports experienced as big a jump as hiking. That’s because you don’t need much gear or special skills, you basically have to know how to walk, have a few essentials and the right clothing, and that’s it, at least for day hiking (as opposed to backpacking with overnight camping). I wrote a recent feature here at Forbes on getting into hiking and all the required essentials and recommended extras.
Hopefully, long after the pandemic is history, the newfound popularity of hiking will still be here with us, as it’s fun and a great fitness activity. But it is also a great reason to travel, and just like people go on ski or golf trips, those who love hiking go on hiking vacations, seeking out the world’s most beautiful routes. These are the kind of Bucket List trips you might want to start thinking about and researching now, but for the most part, you probably won’t be going until the world of travel returns to some sense of normalcy. When it does, be ready!
At one end of the hiking spectrum are day hikes where you leave in the morning and come back in the afternoon, carrying what you need in between. The opposite is long-distance travels, such as the Appalachian Trial or Pacific Crest Trail, showcased in the star powered movies A Walk In the Woods and Wild respectively. Those who complete these carry all their own gear, camping and cooking nightly – for many months.
In between these are multi-day trips, those typically requiring from a few days to two weeks to complete. While most can be done self-supported by knowledgeable backpackers, almost all of the famous one, from Peru’s Inca Trail to the various routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro, are typically done in guided fashion, often with your extra gear, food and accommodations transported for you, so it is essentially a series of day hikes. Some even feature full-service hotels along the way with no camping at all. These are the kinds of trips that make great vacations for most people, because you don’t need to have the expertise, physical conditioning and gear to carry it all and do everything on your own. In addition, many of these routes have so much pressure on advance reservations that you can’t realistically book it yourself, at least not less than a year in advance. Plus, some of us just like hot showers and beds. It is also a lot harder to get lost with a guide!
Thanks to the rising popularity of hiking and active travel, some famous routes, especially the Inca Trail, Kilimanjaro and New Zealand’s Milford Track have become so in demand that permits are required far in advance, booking is hard and the trails themselves are crowded, which takes some of the pleasure of experiencing nature out of the equation. Frankly, despite all its fame, the summit push on Kilimanjaro is much more of a forced march in line than a hike. I prefer routes where you can enjoy the compelling scenery and hiking experience without the feeling of a bumper to bumper urban commute, and these are five of the best such options in the world.
Tour de Mont Blanc, Switzerland, France & Italy: I have personally done this one and it is awesome! Unlike many such hikes, there are optional legs, allowing for trips from 8 to 12 days (the longest version of the route is 112 miles), you get every type of quintessential alpine scenery imaginable, from mountain ridges to green hillsides to glaciers, and it passes through wonderful ski towns like Chamonix and Courmayeur. You can sleep in hotels, eat great food – fondue, raclette and such – even stop for gelato along the way, while enjoying day after day of spectacular landscapes. The TMB route has been around for a long time but has become much more popular in recent years, thanks in part to an annual ultra-marathon trail running race that draws world class athletes from around the world. The circular route is a circumnavigation of the highest mountain in the Alps, crosses the borders of three countries, and most typically begins and ends in Chamonix, France, just over an hour from the Geneva airport. It is as turnkey and straightforward as it is wonderful, and I could not recommend it more highly. A number of well-known tour operators, including REI Adventures, Mountain Travel Sobek, Wilderness Travel and Alpenwild offer the trip.
Wales Coastal Path, United Kingdom: This one gets a lot less press than the many older and more established treks across Scotland and Ireland, but is notable because when completed in 2012, Wales became the first country on earth to offer a hiking path the entire length of its national coastline, 870 miles, border to border. Doing the whole thing in one shot is a 3 to 4 month endeavor, so most people pick one of the eight themed segments and go for about a week, enjoying ruins, medieval castles, fishing villages and stunning cliff walks, all while traveling through millennia of history. But the real beauty of this special walk is that it keeps passing through towns full of charming bed and breakfasts, pubs and restaurants, so a cold pint and hot plate of fish and chips is never far away.
Several companies offer support services and will book your lodging and move your luggage, reducing it to a series of day hikes where you are never far from civilization and can eat all your meals in restaurants if you want. The government has gone to great lengths to make this trip accessible, including free downloadable GPS files for every section, and companies like Celtic Trails Walking Holidays offer trips for each segment, from 6 to 14 days (or for the whole thing). The official WCP site has a wealth of detail, including a list of the companies offering luggage transfers and guide support.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia: If you’ve seen amazing, epic hiking photos online and thought “I have to go see that,” there’s a decent chance you were looking at this spot near the Southern tip of South America. Unlike the other hikes on this list, the top multi-day options are not a circuit, but rather a series of day hikes based out of one of several excellent all-inclusive adventure lodges in the area, which allow you to mix hikes with other excursions like mountain biking or horseback rides (there are certainly long hiking circuits of note in the region, but all require extensive backcountry savvy). The classic of the bunch is the day hike on the longer W Trek route to view the Three Towers, the park’s iconic rock formations, followed by the hike to Glacier Grey. The best lodges here offer as many as 40 different daily outings with expert local guides, and the top three companies – all of which I have traveled with and absolutely recommend – are Explora, Tierra and Awasi.
Grand Canyon Rim to Rim: This is the shortest multi-day hike at only two days (of hiking) but it traverses the most famous geological feature in the U.S., and both days are long, and as they cannot be broken into segments, challenging in a way that invites fit and avid trekkers. The classic route is 14-miles on the descent and 10-miles on the return and the way to do it in style is with an overnight (at least one!) at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, the only lodging below the rim and a classic National Park Service lodge, with both cabins and dorms. This is the easiest of these trips trip to do solo (though Phantom Ranch reservations are tricky) or you can go with a respected outfitter like OARS.
Overland Track, Tasmania, Australia: Australia has many famous multi-day hiking routes, but if you Google the subject, just about every list will rank this one on the island of Tasmania number one. The main options include a 40-mile route that typically takes 6 days or 55-miles and 7 to 9 days. Either way, it runs through the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and offers everything from waterfalls to glaciers to the nation’s deepest lake. It’s possible to do it self-supported by booking shelters through Australia’s Parks & Wildlife Service, but guided operators make it easier, especially the highly regarded Tasmania Walking Company, whose Cradle Mountain Huts tour uses the trail’s only private lodging, in ecofriendly huts with showers and beds, every night.