Go Take a Hike

viewpointI guess it’s not uncommon for those of us who live on this side of the Pond to occasionally borrow words from our transatlantic cousins, a trend that appears to have grown considerably since the Second World War when many American military troops were stationed in the UK.

And more recently we adopted the word ‘backpacking’ from the US, a term that describes the activity of walking for a period of time, usually several days or weeks or even months, whilst carrying everything you need to survive carried in a pack on your back.

I seem to recall the word first began to appear in the UK in the late sixties and particularly in the early seventies when the term was embraced by a bunch of Southern England walkers-cum-campers as the name of their new club. The Backpackers Club was born in 1972.

Within a very short space of time the word was being used widely in the outdoor equipment trade and I recall thinking that backpacking had well and truly arrived when Graham Tiso hoisted a new sign above his shop in Leith – Graham Tiso, Mountaineering and Backpacking Equipment. It couldn’t have had a better endorsement.

Sadly the word has been hijacked by the gap-year crowd who ‘backpack’ to exotic locations like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia rather than Fort William, Keswick of Llanberis, and despite the populist use of the word by the international media I’m delighted the Backpackers Club is still going strong and indeed, I’m still President of it after some 20 years or so. My good buddy Chris Townsend is Vice-President.

Backpacking across Iceland’s landscapes

There is another Americanism I would personally like to see in wider use when referring to that most fundamental of human motion that readers of this website enjoy. I’ve never been comfortable, and I haven’t the slightest notion why, in telling people I’m going ‘walking’ at the weekend.

For me a ‘walking holiday’, for some obscure reason, conjures up images of guys with a pipe and corduroy breeches held up by thick braces, wandering along a country road with their ‘bergan’ filled with dainty cucumber sandwiches and a flask of hot, sweet tea.

‘Walking’ is simply our basic mode of travel but the word ‘hiking’ appears to have more of a recreational feel to it. You don’t ‘hike’ down to the local shop to buy the morning paper. You walk down, or amble down, or here is Scotland you might take a wee ‘dander doon’ to the newsagent. Hiking has more of a point to it, it feels like a word that describes a rough, even tough, journey and conjures up images of sweat and toil.

For the past number of years I’ve felt much more comfortable telling those who ask that I’m going hiking at the weekend. I’m aware that not everyone is comfortable with the word, and it certainly has resonances of walking down the side of the route trying to thumb a lift from passing motorists, but for me it has a beefier, more earthy feel to it than walking or, God forbid, rambling.

Hiking? Scotland’s hills

I’ve never liked that term. Indeed when I became depute editor of Climber & Rambler magazine just over 30 years ago the editor, the late Walt Unsworth, was determined to drop the latter element in the title. We were producing what was fundamentally a climbing and mountaineering magazine, and The Great Outdoors had just been launched (40 years ago exactly) to cater for the ramblers and the err, walkers.

Uncle Walt always felt Climber & Rambler sounded as though it should have been a rose-growers magazine!

So we dropped the word Rambler but that didn’t please everyone, particularly our advertising department. The ads people began a long campaign to add another word to the title, to widen the selling scope from just climbing, and so Climber & Hillwalker was born, another title that many of us felt uncomfortable with. It was clumsy and when the company eventually sold the magazine to another publisher the Hillwalker element was immediately dumped.

I have a suspicion that Climber & Hiker might have worked better…

Of course you might argue that the Ramblers Association, as it was, was very successful but I can tell you there have been frequent moves by members to change the name – but what too? The Walkers Association just doesn’t sound right so eventually an expensive marketing company was given the task of coming up with a new and modern name. Their solution was, believe it or not, The Ramblers.

I wish I made my money as easily as that.

However, there was a point to it. For much of its existence the Ramblers Association was seen as a very successful campaigning organisation that fought for, amongst other things, rights of way and better access to the countryside.

As a campaigning group the Ramblers struck fear into the hearts of many politicians and were regarded at the highest levels of political power as a formidable opponent. From a marketing point of view, the words, The Ramblers, were too good to lose, however embarrassed many of their members may have been (particularly the younger members) at describing themselves as ‘a rambler.’


I’m happy to describe myself as a hiker and backpacker, or even a hillwalker. When I’m in the North of England I’m relatively happy to be regarded as a fellwalker, although that term appears nowadays to be particularly resonant of auld Wainwright, but for me the word ‘hiking’ defines the collective activities that I enjoy – backpacking, hillwalking, trekking, coastal walking or simply going to the woods for a stroll.

Wikipedia sums it up pretty well: “Hiking is a preferred term, in Canada and the United States, for a long, vigorous walk, usually on trails (footpaths) in the countryside, while the word walking is used for shorter, particularly urban walks.” Mmm, couldn’t have put it better myself so I’m off hiking this weekend. Maybe see you on the trail…

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