Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?

More than once in recent weeks I’ve found myself lying awake at night, my mind refusing to take a break from thinking, planning, worrying.

How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?

Because I’ve committed to doing this thing.

I really have. I’ve cleared my entire schedule for 2016 to create a long-distance hiking route across Armenia and Georgia – or, at least, to get the ball rolling on it. I’ve turned down talks and events, postponed all my other projects, and put making a living on hold to do something more worthwhile (again).

How to begin?

That part is obvious. I will make the journey myself. This is the grassroots way of thinking and it’s how I tend to work. I will start by going out and finding the route.

The top-down approach would be different. It would involve creating an organisational framework, mapping out a long-term strategy, recruiting a team of specialists, raising a ton of cash – and only then thinking about the actual dirt beneath my feet.

There’s definitely a place for that. Indeed, there are other people doing that right now. But it’s not me.

Getting to know the geography of the South Caucasus intimately, as I suspect I will do this year, is a big investment of time and energy. Exploring is what I love, and so making it my full-time job for a while is hardly a burden. Done thoughtfully, it will pay dividends many time over in the coming years, in terms of familiarity with the terrain, local connections, and – perhaps most urgently of all – mapping data.

Because we do take access to the outdoors for granted in the UK. Even from a job in central London, we can escape to nature with a quick train journey or bike ride in any direction and be sleeping on a hilltop that night; back at work at 9am; nobody any the wiser for our microadventure. For longer jaunts we have a vast network of public footpaths and regional & national parks, and every inch of land has been charted many times over, both digitally and on paper.

Moreover, we no longer question that any of this is possible. The Kinder mass trespass of 1932 ignited the movement towards open access to the British countryside. Who still out walking remembers that?

In Armenia, the precise opposite is true. The best topographical maps – crucial in a place so mountainous – remain the Cold War-era maps made by the Soviet military. The most useful of these sets, at a scale of 1:50,000, remains unavailable to the public. While OpenStreetMap looks respectably detailed in places, much of the data for the remote regions seems to have been traced from old satellite imagery and never verified on the ground. Publicly-available aerial photography, as seen on Google Earth, is dated and in many places too low in resolution to be useful.

It’s not just a dearth of data, though. It’s also that there is no culture of outdoor pursuits – at least as we know it – let alone nature protection and conservancy. Social anthropologists will point out that this is because since the Soviet collapse, Armenia and its neighbours have been concerned only with survival. This is true. But it is also true that the days of the survival economy are coming to an end. The middle class is growing, minds are broadening, and space is opening up for new concerns.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ‘classic’ hikes in Armenia; short day-hikes which will take you to one of a handful of remote monasteries and of which tour agencies have been selling guided versions for years. But it is a closed loop, unchanging, a source of regular revenue to a small and protective industry which has no interest in open access or a growth in independent outdoor pursuits.

Seek out the outdoor enthusiasts who do live here and you will get a glimpse of what’s possible. The South Caucasus is, after all, dominated by two mountain ranges – the Greater and Lesser Caucasus – whose area is comparable to the Alps and the Pyrenees combined, and whose elevation, biodiversity and richness of cultural heritage exceeds them both. The climate is favourable; long summers, flowing rivers. The welcome is warm, the food fantastic, and the flights ever more affordable. What better place for outdoor adventures?

Yet the Caucasus remains hidden and largely untouched; the fragile-looking geopolitical situation putting off foreigners who would otherwise visit, and the lack of basic access to the outdoors frustrating those, like me, who are already here (although not so hidden that Lonely Planet don’t have a guidebook for the region).

So 2016’s big expedition – to make a deep exploration of the trails of the Lesser Caucasus – will be partly about revealing the potential of this part of the world as a place to explore, and partly about laying long-term foundations for access to the outdoors. This has already begun in Georgia, whose reformed government, together with a strong grassroots movement, has already put the country on the map for hiking, mountain-biking and ski touring among early adopters. In Armenia, though, it will be something entirely unprecedented.

There’s now a core ‘team’ of three of us here in Yerevan, with a growing circle of collaborators. In the few days since I arrived in Armenia we’ve set up a HQ at the Impact Hub – a newly founded co-working community focused on social enterprise and innovation, and a rare place in Armenia where I genuinely find myself among like-minded people.

The shape of the project has been developing rapidly over the winter months, too. Our early work was about identifying existing off-road trails to scout. Before long, we were looking at a web of lines on a map consisting of roughly 5,000 kilometres of potential trail; clearly an impossible task to explore on foot in a single summer. The project was already outgrowing itself.

We realised that an off-road vehicle of some description would be needed, which would cost money to buy and to run. We had plenty of willing volunteers, but they would also cost money to feed and transport. And we’d need equipment to gather data and turn it into accurate maps – as well as learning all the skills to pull all of this off. It quickly became obvious that we’d need to find funding to work on the project effectively.

It turns out there’s a lot more generosity and willingness on the part of donors when a social cause is genuinely at the heart of a project, as opposed to a personal adventure, and I’m happy to say we’ve found a very appropriate backer for this year’s explorations – on which more soon.

In the meantime, however, questions continue to keep me awake at night.

How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?

The social media landscape has changed. The old formulas don’t work. Will people still be interested?

There’s a fascinating documentary in here somewhere, but I can’t see what it will look like. What should I be filming right now?

I know – I know – that the hiking potential of the Caucasus is awesome. But what if it’s too hard, too remote?

What if the obstacles are too great?

What if, on the first day of this expedition, we drive to some remote place we’ve found on a map and discover that everything is impossible and the entire project is dead in the water?

What if nobody ever walks the trail?

What if the way I’m approaching this is all wrong?

Am I really the right person do this?

These, I believe, are natural questions and concerns, for there are unknowns inherent in any good adventure. And ultimately it’s because I care – it’s because I really want to do this – that I find myself laying awake at night thinking about it all.

At some point, though…

I would really like to get some sleep.

No doubt you’ll find me answering the above questions on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook this summer, as well as on this blog. The trail project will soon be getting its own website, too. Watch this space.


15 responses to “How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?”

  1. Squash those doubts. This is a great project. You are the right person. Of course people will walk it. And trails should be open and accessible to everyone – a top down approach is hardly in keeping with that ethos – so your approach is spot on.

    You’re going to inspire a lot of people with this project, and the legacy will be there for many, many generations in the form of everyone who ever follows in your footsteps along this trail.

    None of that will stop you lying awake at night though. Perhaps develop a drinking habit?

    1. Great idea. I’ve always wanted one of those!

  2. Tom. I don’t know if this will help. But here is a Wiki of New Jersey’s BATONA TRAIL(a trail I frequent) which goes from Ong’s Hat(in Pemberton) to Bass River State Park. Hope it helps.

    1. Cheers Bryan – the more perspectives the better at this point!

  3. Enjoyed this. I’m sure many of these questions were rhetorical and the answer largely as Martin puts it above.

    One thought to add to the mix, is whether the conception of the route solely as a long distance “hiking” route is definitive. There’s a good and growing number of self-supported cyclists / bike packers for whom a route of his scale would be very attractive.

    Clearly there are challenges around erosion / impact, although given the relative remoteness, perhaps significant impact other than helping to maintain a somewhat cleared trip may be unlikely. I’m not sure.

    It would enlarge your potential pool of users, though. And most who were adventurous enough to attempt it would probably be well used to leave no trace philosophy.

    I don’t know the route you are contemplating, or the geography, so this is purely a thought in the abstract, not the particular, for what it’s worth.

    1. This is a good point, and my personal wish is that the route would also be bikepackable. I’d invite anyone who wishes to give it a try to do so – perhaps there will be a couple of places where a detour was needed for the bikers, and it would be good to know about it in advance. Long term I’d love to dedicate a portion of whatever resources we create to addressing the wants and needs of bikepackers. Aside from anything else, I’d love to do it myself 🙂

      1. Drop me a line when you do!

  4. Everything that I wanted to say has been said by Martin Holland.
    You are the perfect person for this Tom,, your passion and drive far out-weigh any ‘natural’ doubts that keep you awake at night..I appreciate the complexities of what you have undertaken. It is massive in scale but the tiny pieces,, one by one will all come together to create the big picture..
    Have a fabulous summer of exploration.

    ‘We will be known forever by the tracks we leave’…American Indian proverb

    1. Thanks Sally 🙂

  5. Keep watching Field of Dreams…

    Like yourself I’ve looked at maps and imagined little lines, and had those fears of whether it will work out. And then the experience of actually walking on one of those imagined little lines – no better feeling. I’m sure this will be the same, just on a slightly bigger scale 🙂 There’s always a way through.

    Great project. Would love to do some walking there soon…

  6. Hi, just done exactly that, first with my partner, Di Taylor, then with friends from Jordan who finally made it possible to complete the 650km Jordan Trail, jordantrail.org good luck, you will have fun!

  7. Hi Tom, just realised we were in touch not long ago about the Karun River, and surprise, surprise, Di and I were walking briefly with your friend Leon McCarron and Sean Conway on the Jordan Trail in the mountains south of Petra!

  8. Never been to Caucasian area, yet this place is high on my bike touring and hiking list. Can’t wait for the many great outcomes of this project!
    My only small remark would be this: keep it real 😉 Don’t design the trail that is dedicated to the top athletes, but think about general approach, or – i would say – make it possible to walk it by my father (he is 60, yet hiking monster). Ive been hiking in many countries and general impression is that long hiking trails are designed to satisfy only marathon-fit people.

    1. Absolutely – we want it to be challenging, but not too challenging! There’ll also be village-to-village options in the region, more Camino-style.

  9. You may have the “show-and-tell” circuit figured out, but let me share one of my favorites. In Madison WI is an annual Canoecopeia event, 3 days of trade show booths focused on canoeing, kayaking and other motorless water sports (maybe your Iran film and work would be appropriate…with peeks into the Transcaucasian Trail). The trade show is parallel to an intense schedule of great speakers. It will be held March 10-12 next year, and they’re probably starting to collect proposals for next years speakers. Here is a link to a list of previous speakers to get a feel for what’s there: http://www.canoecopia.com/canoecopia/speakersPrevious.asp.

    Minneapolis MN also has a similar event. Unfortunately, I’ve never been, so don’t know the exact name.

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