Hiking the Rheinsteig
When I was in my twenties a friend and I hiked the famous GR-20 trail in Corsica. This was one of the more adventurous things I did in my life, and I wanted to do another physically and mentally challenging hike.
First of all, the reason why I put this idea off for a longer time was, that it's harder to make these things happen when you are working full time and have a family. You find lame excuses and end up staying at home. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for adventures around home, and I'm quoting Alastair Humphreys and his concept of microadventures
- You do not need to fly to the other side of the planet to undertake an expedition. You do not need to be an elite athlete, expertly trained or rich to have an adventure.
- Adventure is only a state of mind.
- Adventure is all around us, at all times. Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.
I realized that I could still pull this off if I applied some constraints
- Instead of hiking in a remote country, I stay close to home
- Instead of being away for several weeks, I create a series of 9-to-5 microadventures
So I decided to hike the Rheinsteig, a 320 km long trail that starts in my hometown Bonn. After each stage I would return to Bonn, and return to the trail whenever I was ready for the next stage.
In theory, the Rheinsteig is suitable for section hiking, as the trail is very accessible with public transport. It often runs through towns with access to the railway or at least buses, and then there's always the option to do some hitchhiking.
The first stage
So I wanted to test this concept, I took a day off in March and instead of walking to the office, I started walking towards the Siebengebirge (seven hills).
The fact that I only needed to pack for a single day allowed very light packing. For supplies I only needed to bring enough water, some bread, veggies and fruit. I didn't need to pack clothes for all kinds of weather, and no tent or sleeping bag.
My bag was super-light and I managed to walk 35 km, all the way to Bad Honnef. While the Siebengebirge does not have any mountains, it still has loads of steep ups and downs that slow you down, so I was amazed I could walk that far in a single day. And I was able to return to Bonn by train in just 30 minutes.
Hiking the Rheinsteig
The Rheinsteig is a fairly easy trail. The few portions where mild climbing is needed are all properly secured, and are unproblematic unless it's raining. It's also nearly impossible to get lost, as the trail is thouroughly marked (image taken from Wikipedia):
The first stages in the Siebengebirge are really impressive, as is the stage between Rheinbrohl and Leutesdorf. The segments around Bad Hönningen, Neuwied and later on in the Rheingau are nothing to write home about, but the real beauty of the Rheinsteig is between Koblenz and Rüdesheim. They have the most beautiful views and challenging ascents and declines.
I failed to take a lot of photos, as I wanted to be in the moment and not use my phone more than necessary. However, here's a snapshot of Niederlahnstein, just before the famous Ruppertsklamm:
And another one of the Rhine near Assmannshausen:
I was averaging about 25 km per day. The shortest hike was a mere 2.5 hours from Rheinbrohl to Leutesdorf on a Sunday afternoon, the longest hike was over two consecutive days - 65 km from Braubach to Kaub. Both days were really hot and it was physically challenging, and it felt nice to have the conveniences of civilization in the evening.
I realized that I always needed around 15 km to get into the zone and switch my head off. I guess that's when the first symptoms of getting tired appear. This is when hiking is most rewarding and liberating. I think stages with 20+ km are not a sustainable pace for me over more than a couple of days, but for single day hikes the extra distance is where the adventure takes place.
So I made the last stage extremely challenging, a 37 km walk on a super hot day (Pfingstmontag), with an arduous ascent to the Eberbach abbey (not an official Rheinsteig segment, with apparently no public transport and no luck hitchhiking) and a nasty reroute near the end. Getting to the last marker of the trail was extremely rewarding.
Doing this kind of section hiking is a different experience than through hiking (walking a trail without interruptions). The upsides are that you can pack light, move fast, and walk long distances. But you also need to walk longer to get into the zone. When doing through hiking, you can stay in the zone and experience flow for a longer period.
It is still a very rewarding experience, and I feel the sensation of accomplishment, although it's not been a single attempt, but many small ones. In fact, I have already started to walk the Rheinburgenweg, the trail that's running on the other side of the Rhine from Rolandseck to Bingen.
I finished the trail in 13 stages. I would never have found two or three consecutive weeks to pull that off. In the end, I feel it's always better to have a microadventure (or a series of them) than dreaming about the big adventure - an adventure that might never happen.
Update: Here's a KML file of the whole trail.