The walking commute continues. Well, not this week – I don’t go back to work until next week. But I’ve been trying to keep a tally on the clothing and gear that makes the trip more comfortable. When I started doing the trip, I tried googling to see what other people have done…but there’s actually not that much out there for walkers. Lots of information for people who bike to work, but the walking doesn’t seem to be as popular. I’m averaging about 40 km a week, in all kinds of weather. It’s taken me quite a while to perfect the trip (in truth, I’m still working a lot of it out as I go), but I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to somebody who is just starting to think about converting to a person-powered commute.
Somebody like me: with no hiking or camping experience, limited to no athletic abilities. A person who finds themselves at the bus stop one day, fuming that it would be faster just to walk. And who says ‘hey, why not?’
You can do it. If I can, you can. Trust me on this. A walking commute is possible. If, of course, you live close enough to work that it wouldn’t take five hours to walk.
Here’s what I’ve discovered and learned so far (often the hard way).
The benefits (or, why on earth would you want to do this):
- Save money. Not at first, because you end up buying new shoes and backpacks and whatnot and frankly all that gear is expensive. But I’ve been able to eliminate the cost of transit ($94 for a monthly pass, then down to $55 for tickets, and now $0 a month, with the exception of a book of tickets I keep on hand just in case).
- Health benefits. Not at first, because you will think you are dying when you start, what with the aching muscles, the blisters and sore feet, the ‘oh my god I am so tired.’ But over time you get stronger and feel better. I suggest easing into the walking commute – a quarter or halfway in, halfway home, then gradually increase the trip home, and then do the final push to walk all the way, both ways. I’ve read that 5K or less, round-trip, is generally considered reasonable. I’m at about 8K round-trip, and it’s doable, too. It takes me about 50-55 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes home (downhill). I was spending a little less time than that on the bus.
- Less stress. Not at first, because there’s the stress of trying to get to work on time, of crossing the roads and muttering about those idiot drivers, etc. But it’s quite lovely to have an hour just to walk and think (or not think, as is sometimes the case with me).
- Feel cool. Not at first, because you’re really just a sweaty, red-faced mess. But over time, you’ll come to recognize and get the slight half-nod from the cyclists on their commute, and as you learn more about equipment, you feel rather suave when shopping at outdoor gear stores. And it’s pretty awesome to power past traffic (I like to say ‘I beat you, car! I beat you!’ in my head as I pass them).
The Gear (or, the stuff you need to make the trip easier):
- A good backpack. I had an old backpack that didn’t have much support but ended up shelling out for a Deuter Futura 22 pack. It’s a fancy-pants backpack that has a rigid aluminum frame that curves slightly. A mesh layer (Deuter calls it the ‘aircomfort’ system) is what rests on your back; the pack is kept about two inches away to allow air to circulate. It took me a while to figure out that I needed to invest in a good quality backpack – I had a lot of shoulder and back ache until I switched over. I like the mesh back system a lot, too. It’s surprisingly cool and comfortable compared to wearing a regular backpack.
- Clothing box. I got a small zip-up clothes box in the summer, when the weather turned hot. I was walking halfway to work and then all the way home and packing shorts and a t-shirt for the trip home. A plastic bag doesn’t work as well – I got the ‘OnSight’ clothes box from Mountain Equipment Co-op. It’s soft nylon with a mesh top – not rigid, but with enough structure to keep clothes from getting too wrinkled. Now that I’m walking the entire commute, I pack my work clothes, a washcloth and deodorant. Cosmetics are in a separate bag. Changing at work means that my work clothes aren’t subjected to as much wear and tear (mostly that means that the hems of my pants don’t get dirty from the wet or the mud).
- A really good hat. I have several now. I have a breathable nylon Tilley hat (the choice of retired Banff tourists, but actually quite practical) for the summer – wide-brimmed to keep the sun off my face. I have a waxed cotton ‘outback’ hat – also not terribly fashionable, but practical – for the fall, a wool cap with a brim for cold but not frigid weather, and several wool toques (including a really nice handknit one from Beentsy!). My summer and waxed cotton hats have a chin string, which makes all teenagers roll their eyes and smirk at you, but it’s better than losing the hat in the wind. And once you get walking, you really don’t want to keep fidgeting with the hat.
- Sunglasses. Because there is a surprising amount of reflection from the pavement, even with the really good hat on.
- Snow gear. You’ve got to plan for the weather. Snowpants for winter: I have two pairs – one that is a lightweight nylon shell, and another insulated pair that I bought in Banff last September. Also a pair of those Yak Trax traction things for boots for snow and ice.
- Rain gear. A good rain poncho is awesome – umbrellas are not practical at all. The weight of a poncho in a stuff sack at the bottom of the backpack is about equal to a folding umbrella, and you can just pull it on over the backpack in the rain. Granted, you will get a number of scathing looks and sniggers. But it’s so much easier to wear a long poncho (almost to your ankles) than it is to try to hold an umbrella over an hour-long walk. If it’s windy, you have to sort of hold onto the edges of the poncho to keep everything from ballooning. I used my poncho a few times last summer and was very glad for it.
- Some sort of lighting system. I used to wear a passive reflective strap, but it didn’t seem to be attention-grabbing. There’s plenty of ambient light on my commute, even in the dead of winter. But I’ve found that road crossings can be quite dangerous – lots of drivers not paying attention or texting. I bought Nite Ize arm bands and a Nite Ize strap for walking in the dark: one on each arm, and another on the back of my pack. They can be set to solid or flashing, and the batteries are replaceable. I also have a small pendant light for the chest strap of my backpack. It looks a bit much, but it’s much easier to catch a driver’s attention when you’re all lit up like that. And it makes me feel safer – like I’m doing as much as I can.
- Really, really good shoes. I mean, this is a given, right? But when I started the walking, I didn’t think enough about what kinds of shoes I ought to be wearing, and I ended up with plantar fasciitis in both feet. Very painful! Any money you’ve saved on transit or gas is probably gone by this point – between the good backpack and the hats and the snowpants – but you’ve still got to plunk down money on good shoes. I wear light, ventilated New Balance walking shoes in the summer and Salomon trail shoes the rest of the time (even in winter – I attach traction bands to them in the winter). SO WORTH IT.
- Walking clothes. So in addition to the backpack and the really good shoes, you have to start thinking about what you’re going to wear, keeping in mind that you should plan to change at work. I’m much warmer walking than not (yes, of course I would be – but when I first started the commute, I was shocked at just how much warmer I was). In the winter, I’ve been wearing a Goretex shell with a fleece sweater on underneath and snowpants (usually the light shell pair to cut the wind and give me an extra layer). When it’s very cold, I move up to a down coat. Underneath, I’ve been wearing tshirts and either a pair of yoga pants or sweatpants. In the summer, I go for tshirts and capris (or shorts, if it’s hot). In the spring and fall, I’ve been wearing the shell by itself. In the summer, I use a softshell athletic jacket (light fleece on the inside) or a nylon windbreaker since it’s cool enough in the morning to need something. The idea is to go with stuff that’s fairly loose and comfortable. I’m still learning about the ‘breathable’ stuff, but it’s certainly true that you get chilled much faster if damp with sweat – so cotton tshirts in the winter have not been all that good. Also a sports bra for support, though you have to change into something else at work. Go for all clothes that will not chafe. Because chafing is no fun at all.
The Route (or, plan ahead):
So again…things that seem practical but which I had to learn for myself: you have to plan the route.
- Safety: think about how far ahead you can see, whether there are blind corners or heavy bushes. Maybe that’s a woman thing, but I think it’s generally a good idea. There’s a much shorter route I could take to work but it would have me walking along a highway on a secluded path that hardly anybody walks, so I don’t do it. I keep an eye on things like graffiti or vandalism to figure out if an area is becoming undesirable.
- Hills: oh, man: plan for your hills. I’ve got a really big one to get up in the morning, and it took about a week of different approaches to figure out the easiest way up.
- Sidewalks: I try to work out routes that have the best shoveled sidewalks in winter and the fewest amount of wasps in the summer (you’ve got to watch for fruit trees for that).
- Find safe shortcuts: because it’s nice not to walk more than you have to.
- Trip length: the trip to work feels longer because of the hill on the way up; you also have to account for time to make sure you’re not late. Walking home is much easier. Because you’re going home. Of course.
- Interesting detours: watch for farmer’s markets (I have one I can detour through in the summer), nice gardens, holiday lighting displays, interesting things to look at. Because the walk gets, frankly, boring. I usually wave to parents waiting with kids at the bus stop, just because I can.
Final advice (or, the stuff that I couldn’t add to the other bullet lists):
Carry extra transit tickets (just in case), a full water bottle, a granola bar (sometimes you get really hungry) or a piece of fruit (but watch out for wasps in the summer!). Also an iPod with podcasts, music (I like high-tempo stuff to make me walk faster) and audiobooks – but be careful crossing the road and be aware of surroundings as you walk. Always plan to change clothes at work or you’ll spend the day rather soggy and whiffy. Put deodorant on before you leave and after you arrive. Put all your faith into the best, most comfortable shoes you can find, and have bandages or moleskin for blisters in your bag (I had a lot in the first few weeks of walking, but still occasionally get a sore spot).
I’ve really been enjoying the trip. It’s hard to do in the morning, but by the time I get moving, it feels worth it. There’s a feeling of self-righteous smugness that can overtake you as you walk, but I think it’s totally well-earned. I’ve also discovered that my blood pressure is lower and I’ve lost weight. I’ve met some of the people in the neighbourhoods as I go. I feel stronger and downright capable. I don’t worry about transit strikes anymore.
Also? Walking commutes are the perfect humblebrag.