Words by Hal Keelin

Over the Summer I and a good friend decided to walk straight out of our back gardens in nearby Lewes, head for the South Downs way and keep on walking, with Winchester firmly in our sites. 80 miles in 5 days.  A few pub lunches, pints, and weary legs later we made it, here’s a handy guide for whoever’s fortunate enough to take on the challenge.

What: A fairly challenging hike across the south of England, from Eastbourne in the South East to Winchester in the West

Length: 100 Miles (or start from Lewes and make it just that tiny bit more manageable at 80 miles)

When: Late Spring, Summer, early autumn

Why: For the Challenge, for the humble brag, and to escape the city! 

What You Need:

1x Good, reliable, equally determined friend: Possibly the single most important thing to consider for this trip is to think about who your companion is. Will you get on for 5 days walking in a row? Are they as enthusiastic to cover this amount of mileage? Do they know how challenging it will be? What’s their experience?

I was fortunate to have a very close friend who pitched the idea of walking The South Downs Way to me. I Knew we would be a great duo; we are both relaxed people but equally determined to complete the challenge after being cooped up, playing too many hours of Fifa and Football Manager during Lockdown. The difficulty of the trip took us by surprise, but we had each other at our low points and in the end managed the challenge fairly comfortably. He knew when I needed to eat my flapjack to improve my spirits, I knew when to tell him to stop scanning for marauding deer in the forest, that kind of thing.

Water – At least 3 Litres each. And go in summer, or at least early Autumn. English weather is unpredictable at best and depressingly predictable at worst. Unpredictably a mix of rain and sun in summer, and predictably rainy the rest of the year! This walk takes most people between 4 and 7 days, so in order to avoid rain and a thoroughly miserable trip, don’t go later in the year than October or earlier than March.

1 x Lightweight tent, tarp or bivvy bag: The best and cheapest, most student friendly way to do this trip is to travel light and carry your own shelter. There are campsites and a few Youth hostels along the way, but these really aren’t needed every night. *Disclaimer*Always camp sustainably and with responsibility, keep yourselves out of the way, never light fires, and pitch up at last light and pack away at dawn to be out on the road at dawn.

1x lightweight sleeping mat : You don’t want to be forgetting this. You want to be comfortable on this journey and ensure maximum hours of shuteye after walking 15 miles a day. You’re going to be tired and the last thing you want is the hard chalk of the south downs pressing into your spine!

Head Torch: One of things I always forget but so handy when I don’t. Extremely useful for finding your tent after a few hours in the pub beforehand, or toothbrush in the dark!

Blister plaster (Compede) To our shock we both had pretty severe blisters after the first day and we soon ran out of our only pack of plasters by the second day. Compede is brilliant and might just be the difference between allowing you to walk those extra few miles a day and not being able to carry on.

Book: If you go walking with a friend for a few days in a row without speaking to anyone else, the chances are no matter how close you are, you are going to run out of things to say. Although we spent most of the time laughing and chatting along the way, we were both glad to snuggle up in our bags and read if only for a few minutes before bed.

Lightweight stove, Lighter: Essential for cooking as you go, and great in the morning for a much-needed coffee on the hilltop.

The Right Gas (for stove) The most annoying and difficult part of this whole journey was ensuring we had the right gas for my mini camping stove. This mistake put us back about two days! If your stove has a screw top, make sure the gas is also a screw top and you don’t attempt carving your stove into an incompatible gas cannister like I did by accident.

Instant Coffee: Just take it

Hiking Boots, Trail Runners: We met some lovely fools in a pub on this journey who were only wearing flimsy trainers. They had just started and one of them confessed they didn’t think they could make it in the gear they had while the rest of them were expecting to make it to Eastbourne in a few weeks. They were obviously on a different trip to us, while we wanted to balance the challenge of walking it in a great time by having as much fun on the way as possible, they were strolling it and stopping off pretty much everywhere. If you want to complete the walk in a good time, be kind to your feet and make sure they are properly supported.  

Charging cable/ Portable Chargers: Quite important if you want to stay in touch with friends and family and make sure you have the possibility of an emergency GPS/google maps check. Although it’s quite hard to get lost on The South Downs Way as it is near faultlessly marked out at every twist and follows an obvious ridgeline most of the way.

3 days’ supply clothes minimum: Make sure that pack is as light as possible. If you are unsure over whether to take something I’d say as rule don’t take it.

Sun hat and sun cream: If in summer, it gets hot up there walking all day, stay hydrated and keep the sun off your neck.

Essential clothing – lightweight Waterproof trousers, shorts, (if summer), lightweight jacket, base thermal layers (for cold nights), 3 pairs of walking socks minimum, s

Image Credit: Hal Keelin

What’s Not necessary?

·   Travel Pillow: Of course it’s up to you but I’d say use a jacket or a t-shirt as pillow instead, you’ll be too tired to think about a pillow, it’s an unnecessary expense when you want to cover this much ground.

·   Loads of food: Food is perhaps the trickiest aspect in hiking to get right. But I’d advise think about how long you are away for, where are the nearest towns where you can pick up supplies and what foodstuffs are you willing to carry a whole day in your backpack. Fortunately, the South Downs way does pass beside and through a lot of very small towns and villages, most of which have a shop. We took spaghetti and a jar of pesto for the two of us, a few some dry camping meals for emergencies, mango slices and a ridiculous amount of trail bars that lasted not nearly long enough.

·   Side Note – We quickly realized that it would be far more fun and rewarding to stop off for a pub lunch most days as there were some fantastic ones along the way and so many villages beside the ridge. Just consider how steep the ascent is down to the village doing this, it may seem ok on the way down but after a few drinks and a full pub meal that climb back up to the trail is going to be painful…·  

A fake wallet – I’ve seen it suggested by some hiking blogs that it is necessary to take a fake wallet to catch out potential muggings that can be detrimental to a trip. There is no chance of this happening on the South Downs Way. You are looked at as a stinking hiker with no valuables rather than as a “tourist with money”. The only danger on The South Downs Way is getting spotted by an unhappy farmer in your tent.  If you don’t want to chance this or don’t fancy going to bed and waking with the light every morning, this is easily solved by staying in campsites or youth hostels along the way.

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How to walk The South Downs Way: 80 miles From Lewes to Winchester in 5 days

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