In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
What is the TGO Challenge?
The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.
Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best-known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados. The challengers that have taken part range in age from 18 (the lower age limit for participants) to an incredible 91 years old.
Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow. Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves. A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the full distance, which usually averages around 290km (180 miles).
Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” endpoint). Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in several summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are on hand to provide advice during the planning stage and guidance while underway.
The Challenge is non-competitive, and the camaraderie and friendships of the event have become legendary. Great friendships have been made and cemented, with the current co-ordinators meeting while taking part, and even a couple of marriages happening during the challenge!
In addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants must be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, on rugged terrain without trails in poor visibility. They must be self-reliant in remote and upland areas, follow the “leave no trace” principles of wild camping, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.
TGO Challenge Facts and Figures
In the 40 years of the TGO Challenge from 1980 to 2019:
- 3534 people have participated in the Challenge.
- 10013 crossings have been started on the west coast.
- 8851 have been completed by reaching the east coast.
- 251 people have completed 10 crossings.
- 24 have completed 20 crossings.
- And so far, one person has completed 30 crossings!
Challenge control claims taking part in the TGO Challenge is addictive. Of the total 3534 people to have participated, 3178 people have completed at least one crossing. Allowing for those participating in recent years and yet may choose to return, only around half decide that once is enough!
However, after taking part in a second Challenge there is a 65% of coming back at some point for a third, and 75% of them doing the fourth crossing. By the time a person has taken part in nine challenges, there is a 96% chance they will come back for the tenth.
My TGO Route
Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take. My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.
Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles). There will be a few ups and downs on the way too. It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.
I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden. All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).
*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.
Planning and preparation
The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.
I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (Haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on Haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find. However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all. This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.
You can read my journals from the 2019 Challenge starting here.