9 life-affirming challenges (and how to fit them into your annual leave)

Don't have time to row an ocean or climb the Seven Summits? Here's how to cheat...


When A Walk in the Woods came out, more than one cinema-goer must have dreamed of packing in the day job, shouldering a rucksack and hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you you’ve yet to have the pleasure, it’s a feel-good film based on Bill Bryson’s memoir of the same name. Bryson (played by Robert Redford) reunites with an old friend and attempts to do just that. 


A Walk in the Woods comes out on DVD this week. For those (like us) who still haven’t got round to renouncing the day job, here’s how to do the Appalachian Trail and eight other life-affirming challenges when you haven’t got six months to spare…

1. Complete an epic trail

Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is 2,190 miles and the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. It crosses 14 states and is a five to seven-month undertaking (even if you’re fitter than Bryson). The memoir and film owe their name to its verdant forests. Each year, thousands attempt to hike all the way but only one in four make it.

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte enjoy the view in A Walk in the Woods

The short version: Drive the Appalachian Trail

Using the footpath as your guide, take two weeks and admire the views from backroads, stopping to explore some of the communities that line the route and walk small sections to key sites – Amicalola Falls in Georgia, the highest point on the trail in the Smoky Mountains or bear hotspot Shenandoah National Park.

 Radio Times Travel offer: 7-night walking holiday in Tenerife with an experienced local guide 

2. Climb the highest mountain

Sagarmatha, Chomolungma, Everest – by whichever moniker you know it, the world’s highest mountain is a serious undertaking. Requiring months of training, experienced guides, sherpas, supplementary oxygen and around £30k, there’s no way of fitting it into your holiday allowance.

The short version: Climb the highest mountain on the planet

When measured from the centre of the earth (rather than height above sea level), the highest peak is actually Chimborazo. Found in Ecuador, it stands at 20,564ft and an ascent can be fitted into a two-week trip (including time to acclimatise). Guides can be hired locally, there are mountain huts to stay in and standing on its lofty heights means a mere three-day walk.

3. Cross Europe by bike

Every year Lycra-clad cyclists tackle the water-themed Eurovelo 6. Starting in France at the Atlantic, it follows three of the largest rivers in the continent over 2,700miles, passing through nine countries, ending in Romania at the Black Sea. It takes at least 8 weeks.

The short version: Cycle three countries in just three days

For an alternative two-wheeled adventure, there’s Lake Constance. At 39 miles long and 8.5 miles across, it’s Europe’s third largest lake. Circumnavigating it involves cycling a more manageable 170 miles, crossing borders through three countries – Austria, Germany and Switzerland. With a flat, well-marked and paved cycle lane, it can take as little as three days.

4. Traverse a desert

Extreme heat by day, freezing temperatures by night, vast swathes of sand stretching beyond the horizon – the Sahara is as big as it is intimidating. Crossing its 4,000 miles by 4×4 is virtually impossible due to FCO warnings – not to mention time-consuming.

Wadi Rum desert, Jordan

The short version: Cross Wadi Rum

With its sandstone jebels (mountains), orange sand and spectacular sunsets, Jordan’s Wadi Rum offers a smaller, safer but by no means less stunning prospect. Head to the visitor centre and hire a local Bedouin guide and spend a week crossing the sands on foot, camel or by 4×4 and camping out under the stars.

 Radio Times Travel offer: 7-night walking holiday in Tenerife with an experienced local guide

5. Kayak the length of a river

Following in the wake of Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton and kayaking the 2,010-mile Amazon takes at least six weeks and could involve close encounters with alligators, anacondas and shoals of (wo)man-eating piranhas.

The short version: Paddle part of the Zambezi

Sign up for a 10-day adventure with a specialist company such as charitychallenge.com and take in a section of this African river. Starting outside Livingston, you’ll paddle along Zambia’s border as it passes Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, spotting hippos, crocodiles and elephants, before ending at dramatic Victoria Falls.

6. Row an ocean

Each winter, sailors embark on an Atlantic crossing, going from Europe to the Caribbean, travelling nearly 3,000 miles over several weeks.

The short version: Cross the channel

At only 23 miles, the slither of water that divides England and France may not look much compared to its oceanic brethren, but it’s by no means easy. With choppy waters, other boat traffic and high winds, they’ll be plenty to make this feel like a proper adventurer. Sign up with a charity challenge company such as ahoy.org.uk and they’ll devise a training plan for you and take you on this mini-expedition that you can complete in just one day.

7. Go on a pilgrimage

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrim trail starting in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France. It crosses 500 miles of northern Spanish countryside and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela after six to eight weeks.

Hindu pilgrims pay homage on Kailash

The short version: Hike the circuit of Mount Kailash

For a shorter spiritual undertaking, look to western Tibet’s peak of Kailash, home to the Hindu god Lord Shiva. Altitude and access make it one for truly dedicated pilgrims, but completing a guided circuit takes under 3 weeks and purges you of a lifetime of sins.

8. Climb the Seven Summits

Standing on the top of the highest peak in each continent is a feat that few can boast – only about 350 people have ever done it because it takes years.

The short version: Climb the Three Peaks

The UK is the perfect place to undertake a multi-summit-bagging adventure. Climb the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland – Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis. Some try to do all three in 24 hours, but take a long weekend and do a peak per day to truly enjoy standing on the rooftops of Britain.

9. A gap year in Southeast Asia

Every year thousands of school leavers head to Asia to spend a summer or even a year finding themselves.

The short version: Southeast Asia in just two weeks

You can still soak up some of the best parts of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – in just a fortnight. Local trains take you from Bangkok to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. From there, a boat can then take you to Phnom Penh, then buses go on to southern Laos. Finally, an overnight bus equipped with beds heads to Vietnam where the Reunification Express train does the last leg to Saigon.

A Walk in the Woods is available on DVD from 22nd February

Radio Times Travel offer: 7-night walking holiday in Tenerife from £1,199

We are offering a week-long trip exploring different areas of Tenerife, where you can experience amazing scenes and discover the flora and fauna of this volcanic landscape, which is dominated by Teide, Spain’s highest mountain. This is a group walking holiday and our experienced, local guide will escort the group on this adventure. Click here for more details.