DistanceHiker Who? A bit about the human behind the scenes

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“Projects like these, where you step into the unknown is always a leap of faith. I suppose it’s an adventure of sort, but with less mud”

Hey. If we have not already met, I’m Matthew. Im 32 years old, and live in Nottinghamshire with my partner of 8 years and my 2 boys, aged 2, and 5. I’m a very private individual so this type of post is a challenge for me to write and probably should be reserved for the ‘About’ section. Yet DistanceHiker.com, and its associated mediums (Podcast, Facebook Group, Website, and Instagram) are steadily growing in popularity and I would like to put a face to the person behind it all (me!). Save a few posts about my personal experience of walking, this will likely be one of the very few posts where I indulge in my own life and experence.

I always feel that I would like to be more ‘out there’. You know, better at sharing, taking good selfies, and pictures of my dinner for a curated Instagram feed – to show off a little, but honestly, I’m more comfortable, and happier the less I share. I like to think I’m quite self-aware, and when I do share my own glossy Instagram shots it always comes from a place of insecurity. I now try to deal with that internally, rather than projecting it outwardly. That being said, I believe many people share without feeling this, but that’s my experience of being ‘social’.

So for me to write this article, is a revelation. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and it’s a refreshing chance to write about myself for once.

While I sit writing in a warm summer’s garden, post-sunset, I am dwelling on a number of things. One of which is whether I should have gone for a run this evening, or if sitting on my patio with a beer in hand is an acceptable use of my time.

I’m also wondering if what I’m doing is going to work out as I plan. Starting this new project (Distance Hiker) in the wake of a failed travel business is daunting especially as I am preparing to do it for free for as many years as it takes.

Projects like these, where you step into the unknown is always a leap of faith. I suppose it’s an adventure of sort, but with less mud.

I’m nobody special. I don’t think any of us are. We all suck, but somehow manage to muddle along, and occasionally we do a string of awesome things which hide the suck for a while. I don’t mean this negatively, but my intention here is to level the playing field. It’s ok to suck.

I work a regular 9-5 in a job which is just ok. I have dreams of doing my own thing, setting my own schedule and being my own boss. My perseverance will get me there one day

I fell into long distance hiking by accident, and I cannot claim to be an expert on it by any means, actually I’m quite the amateur. However I am quite good at utilizing the scattered choice of information out there and condensing it on my own website. I’m also not afraid to borrow the voices of experts to provide my my audience with some great content which I alone could not create as I am certainly not an expert. Merely an enthusiast, who has blindly followed an idea thought up in a moment and now in the position of being an admin to a wonderful group of like minded kind individuals. The imposter syndrome creeps up on me daily, but I remind myself that if I were to find a time in my life where I was an expert in long distance hiking, thus worthy of this project, I would never start.

My experience within the outdoor industry (a broad term) goes back about 12 years now. Twelve years isn’t a long time, but it feels long enough and actually, I’m proud to write that I regret very little, at least on a good day. I just often wish things would work a bit quicker!

I spent many days when I was younger being dragged up hills, moorlands, fells, and dales. My family have always been keen walkers and climbers and I am proud of this heritage. I must find the image of my Great Grandfather half way up the Matterhorn. I lost interest somewhere between 12 and 18 years old when computer games and skateboarding suddenly became more favourable. Shooting bad-guys on Doom, and hacking away at the Saga Megadrive sure was fun. However I soon found solitude in the hills again when I discovered rock climbing as a young adult.

I was hooked, and rock climbing quickly became an obsession to rule all obsessions. Through its nature, it led to a rekindled and entirely democratic experience of hillwalking – free from the ‘your coming whether you like it or not’ prescriptions we give our kids.

There was no turning back.

The trouble is, I’m an all in kind of person. My enjoyment of something was always borderline obsessive – all consuming, almost addictive. Thank goodness I have never found comfort in the bottle.

I didn’t just want to climb and walk. No, I wanted to do it as a career. Little did I know I would be stepping into one of the worst paid industries. After all, we do it for the love, don’t we? (Love doesn’t pay the bills I’m afraid!).

My first foray into an outdoor career came in the form of cleaning loos in an activity centre in the south of France. Not the start I imagined, but it was a start. It was great being in the outdoors for 4 months, however cleaning loos however was not something I felt I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Once this experience had ended, I decided in all my infinite wisdom of youth that an Outdoor Leadership degree would be a good idea. This was certainly the top trump of Mickey Mouse degrees.

It was a poor choice of degree if I’m honest. I’m certain no job offers have come flying my way because of it, and I don’t expect they ever will. However it did give me a lot of time to get out and enjoy the countryside, since I strategically selected this course due to its location – Buxton, in the Peak District.

Three years of endless walking, camping, and climbing trips lay ahead of me. I also somehow managed to pass my degree too.

I even found time in the summer to take part in an expedition with an international development charity that takes groups of young people into remote areas in deprived third world communities to shake them up a bit – the Western youngsters, not the third world communities.

As one of these youngsters, I was delighted to take part. It was here I had my first experience of long distance hiking. I cannot remember the name of this trek, but it was 190km through Nicaragua and involved climbing up two volcanoes, picking scorpions from my clothes in the morning, generally stinking like death, and nearly dying in a riptide. Tinned pork and beans, porridge, and pot noodles were my diet, with the occasional watermelon on the route. We walked 20-30km daily with packs weighing up to 25kg, especially if you were the one carrying the group water. All of this in blistering 30C+ heat. I was hooked. 

It was life-changing, shifted my trajectory, and was my first long distance hiking experience. 

After university, and a brief period running the logistics for another activity company, I enrolled with the same charity as a member of staff, doing the same thing as before, but in India. I eagerly packed my bags to become a ‘Trek Leader’. 

Again, I was thrown back into the world of long distance hiking. Albeit this time, with a significantly more comfortable, yet no less enjoyable experience in Kerala.

When I returned to home soil and touched down to reality I needed to find work, and to my delight, a role was available with a tour operator who was selling self-guided long distance walks. From here, I learned a lot about a niche industry I seldom knew existed weeks earlier.

I suddenly found myself a salesperson, convincing Americans, Canadians, and Australians of the benefits of long distance hikes. Honestly, I had never heard of these trails and was simply reading from the website and looking on Google maps as I spoke with them. However, I found it interesting, and loved speaking with hosts, and suppliers along the route, and spent a lot of my time working there trawling through maps and guidebooks. 

Eventually, I left this role and joined a well-known outdoor apparel company. Here I had two children with my partner and moved into our first joint home in Nottinghamshire. 

It was also while working within this company that I decided to try and start something for myself. I always had this nagging feeling that I didn’t want to spend my life planning the fun things around a measly 20 days of annual leave, asking for permission to have a day off, or negotiating pay rises.

So I started my business. BookMyTrail.com with a plan of making a walking holiday company for solo hikers.

It took 6 months to make my first sale.

That felt like a lifetime, but I had done it. I had started my journey towards owning a business.

I blew the first year’s income on a combination of bad money management and poor investments which I believed would help the business. I didn’t do much better in the 2nd year, but I loved every moment of having my own business.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work running a business around a full time job, but I felt hopeful, and eventually I got better and better at it.

Autumn 2019 was when I really put my all into it. I knew I had a few months of quiet ahead of me since I was in the off-season and tasked myself to do things I knew would allow the business to blow up in 2020 when the bookings started coming in.

Finally, 2020 came around. My head was in the game, my systems and processes were lined up and ready to go. Customers started inquiring and booking my walking holidays quicker than ever before. I had done it, I felt comfortable with my systems, my workflow was tidy, I was all over my accounts and I knew exactly who I was serving. I felt like Alan bloody Sugar.

Then COVID-19 emerged in China 😷

My customers cancelled, needed refunding. Id spent a lot of the deposits on operations but managed to make negotiations to ease the burden.

The enquiries I had dried up. All that remained was a website, and empty pockets. Years of hard work gone in a flash. I was devastated. For a while I was in self doubt, hoping the pandemic would blow over, and people would return but after some weeks it became obvious to me that this wasn’t going to be over soon.

It didn’t take me long to pick myself up and carry on. I applied the strategy I’d taken before and made substantial improvements to my site and readying myself the post COVID boom. I even started a Facebook group to raise a long distance hiking community to build community around the business (Yes, this was the original intention, sorry!).

But come January 2021 I had to close it all. The insurance liability was too great to run with no upfront cashflow, and I couldn’t take on the risk. Not without putting my families financial wellbeing on the line.

My business had to close its doors for good. There was no other option.

I am now at peace with this, having realised that I had stopped loving the business and that I wanted to more than just run a business. I wanted to make something that actually has a positive impact. It felt a bit cliche, but I couldn’t ignore the niggle that I needed to build Distance Hiker.

And that leads me where I am now. Running UK Long Distance Hiker, making the Distance Hiker Podcast, talking about long distance hiking, with long distance hikers, and trying to build a media company to make long distance hiking for all.

Do I regret a thing? Yes, I have a few regrets here and there. But I believe with conviction in what I am doing. I believe that this thing I am building will one day pay the bills, and also the bills of others working for me in a positive and empowering way.

I love moderating UK Long Distance Hiking, creating podcasts, and writing articles like this. But more than anything I love building a brand that isn’t about me. It’s not about my experience or telling you my perspective on the world, or what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s none of these things. Distance Hiker is all of you. It’s sharing stories and moments from the trail and breaking down barriers to make hiking accessible for all. Learning how to make this happen is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

Thats me. A fairly inexperience long distance hiker, very keen outdoorsman, very proud family guy, amateur skateboarder, and “entrepreneur” who wants to improve your life through access to nature.

Thanks for reading.

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