What to Pack for Day Hikes in the UK

This list includes everything I take on my day hikes in the UK (in summer conditions), plus a few extras for when I’m in different situations and have different purposes for my hikes.  It’s taken me a while to get my kit together, but it’s been worth getting a few items to ensure I’m safe and warm, and can do everything I want to do.

The biggest element of planning a hike in the UK is our predictably unpredictable weather.  Just because a day starts in sunshine, there’s no guarantee that it will end that way, and if you’re hiking hills, mountains, or munros on a drizzly day, there’s every chance you might emerge through the cloud layer into dazzling sun on the tops.

 

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I’ll often go hiking solo, so I’m solely responsible for taking everything I might need. I also lead small groups and hike with friends, but still take the same amount of kit.  I want to be responsible for my own welfare, and able to help out anyone else that might be having a issue.  I might also bring a few extra items if there’s more than just me, in the hope that others will share their sweets in return.

Which pack to pack?

Backpack

You’ll need something big enough to hold everything you need, but avoid the temptation to take something overly large.  If you’re like me you’ll just keep filling it up things that aren’t really necessary and weighing yourself down.  I’d recommend something with a 20 to 25 litres capacity, like my Deuter ACT Trail backpack (24 litres).

It’s worth spending a bit of time and money to find a backpack that fits you well, as a poorly-fitted pack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can strain your back.  I like a chest strap to keep the fit close to my back, and make steep ascents and descents more comfortable.

Dry Bags

I think small compression drybags in a range of sizes and colours are some of the most useful kit you can have.  They’ll keep my things dry, organised, and easy to find.  Ziploc bags are really useful too, for keeping phones, cameras and son on protected from the elements, and for a stash of dry toilet paper*

*Never leave used toilet paper out on a trail; it spoils the place for the others that follow.  Take an additional sealing bag to put it in until you get to somewhere you can dispose of it properly.

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A selection of different coloured dry bags lets you organise kit and find things quickly.

The Essentials

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.  So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little. 

Billy Connolly

Waterproof jacket

Even on the warmest day, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket.  This is a kit list for hiking in the UK, and there’s a reason why regions like Snowdonia, the Lake District, and Lochaber are so green.  Plus, with the drop in temperature you can feel higher up, it’s always good to have an additional layer.

Waterproof trousers

If you just can’t walk without the sound of swishing, these will be your jam.  And also they’ll keep you dry in the rain, break the wind to keep you warmer, and be an excellent sit mat to keep your bum dry when you stop for sit down to eat your picnic lunch.

Waterbottle

The amount of water you should carry depends on the length of your walk, the weather conditions (remember the heatwaves of summer?), and whether you’ll have access to refills on the way.  I’d usually take around 2 litres of water for a day out, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.

In some areas you might be able to refill from streams.  I’ve been pretty happy to take untreated water from moving streams in upland areas around my part of the world in northern Scotland** (and in Norway and Iceland).  I’d filter, purify or boil water in lowland areas, and in Wales, the Lakes, and so on, as there’s likely to be more livestock in the area.

**After doing the “dead sheep check” of course.

Map and Compass / GPS

Unless I’m following a short trail in an area I’m familiar with, I’ll take navigation stuff with me.  Even then, I’ll often use the ViewRanger app on my phone to record the route I’ve followed.

Although I like technology, I am a bigger fan of using a traditional map and compass to navigate.  Being able to find your way with a compass is an essential skill for undertaking hikes in more challenging landscapes, and like all skills needs practicing.

I also like taking a map so I can look at a larger area than is displayed on a screen, letting you read the wider landscape, find interesting landmarks and scenic picnic spots, and plan any detours around eroded footpaths, broken bridges, and flooded fields.

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Some of the essential kit from my backpack for day hikes in the UK.

Safety Stuff

Phone

Disconnecting from technology on a hike lets you get closer to the wild feelings of physical activity out in a natural setting.  But a fully charged mobile phone is a useful bit of kit in case of emergency.  The emergency numbers in the UK are 999 and 112; both are equally effective.

More remote parts of the UK may only have weak or intermittent mobile coverage, or none at all, but you can register with emergencySMS, a system developed for the deaf or non-verbal, to send a text message to the police to raise a mountain rescue team.

Whistle

I’ve got a whistle attached to my bag, for drawing attention to myself if I ever need to be found.  It’s a worst case scenario, but it happens in that people get lost in poor visibility, stuck on a hard to follow trail, or become injured and unable to walk.

Headtorch

This isn’t always needed, but in late autumn and winter daylight hours are short, and any delays or detours in a hike could mean returning in the dark.  I sometimes like to start hikes early and/or finish late, to watch the sun rise or set from a hill top, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.

Knife or Multitool

I take my  multitool on all my hiking trips.  It’s a Leatherman Wave and it’s so useful.

String

I always take a length of string with me (perhaps as 15 metres of green paracord was drummed into me as a kit list essential from my time in the TA).  It can replace a broken shoelace and make ] a temporary repair for all kinds of gear. On longer hikes, it’s even a useful drying line for airing out clothes.

Personal Welfare

Food

Depending on the length of your hike, think about whether you need just a few snacks or a packed lunch.  I’d usually take sandwiches or a sausage roll, some fruit, a couple of chocolate bars, and maybe a piece of cake*.  I’ll aim to take things with minimal packaging, and make sure that I take everything back home with me**.

Even on shorter hikes, I’ll stick a couple of snacks in my bag.  A pack of trail mix, maybe some chocolate, and a piece of fruit.  And haribo, always haribo.

*almost always Soreen malt loaf.  British hiking staple.

** I mean everything.  I can’t stand that people think its ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “its biodegradable”.  Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.

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Kvikk lunsj and Tunnocks caramel wafers: two of my favourite hiking snacks.  They don’t usually last for long.

Flask with hot drink

A friend and I always say that we’re packing a flask of weak lemon drink to go hiking. I now have no idea where the reference comes from, but it’s stuck indelibly in our outdoor routine.  A hot drink on a long day, especially when you’ve been out in the wind and cold, feels marvellous.  My Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle can keep drinks hot for up to 20 hours, but it’s either blueberry juice or black coffee inside.

Extra warm, dry clothes

The British weather is notoriously fickle, and it’s not unheard of to experience all four seasons in one day.  On top of that, the temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 300 metres (1000′) of height gained, so the top of Ben Nevis can be around 10°C colder than Fort William.  I’ll pack a warm hat, gloves, and a fleece or insulated jacket in a dry bag inside my daysack, and usually at least one spare pair of socks (which can double up as emergency gloves if needed).  I also add a few extra things to my kit list in autumn and winter.

Sunblock and sunglasses

The sun does shine, even in Scotland, y’ know.  Clouds aren’t as effective at blocking the sun as they might appear, and in the hills there’s often little shelter to get out of the sun.

First aid kit

My first aid kit is a work in progress, as I continually find new things that work for me.  I pack plasters and small dressings, compression bandages and a triangular bandage, ibuprofen and paracetamol; things to treat cuts and grazes, sprains and strains, and other minor injuries.  My most valuable recent addition is a special tool for removing ticks safely, something that’s been essential this summer.

Blister kit

I have had the worst blisters ever; taking part in an endurance hike a few years ago, both my heels, little toes, and the pads of my feet melted and tried to escape from my shoes.  So if I’m anticipating hard going or start to feel a hotspot, I’ll use moleskin or smooth zinc oxide tape to protect my feet.  I also take small scissors, alcohol wipes, and padded dressings.

The Extras

Some hikes may need a few extra items, such as:

Bothy bag or bivvy bag

If I’m heading out into a more remote area, then I’ll probably pack my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag as an emergency shelter to get out of the wind and rain for a short while.  If I’m taking others with me, then the Rab bothy bag I have is big enough for five of us (more if we get super cosy) to squeeze into for respite from the rain.

Sit mat

I have a perfectly bum-sized foam mat that came included with my super cute Fjällräven Kånken backpack.  Ideal for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

Stove

I love tea, but flask tea never tastes quite right*.  So I’m a huge fan of taking the time  to make a fresh brew, especially if you’ve got a lovely view to enjoy it with (an a sit mat to keep your bum dry).  I love my Jetboil.

*Possibly because of the weak lemon drink** previously in the flask?

**Was it Dwayne Dibley that had it?

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Perfect time for a cuppa.

Trekking poles

Hikers are often split about whether or not to use poles, but I have a shady knee from an old injury and find that they’re quite useful for descents, reducing the impact on my knee and giving me some additional stability.  (I’ll also use them as Nordic poles for long-distance running and trekking).

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Trekking poles have many benefits, including helping take the impact off knees, ankles and feet.

Camera and tripod

Photos, or it didn’t happen.

Do you hike regularly in the UK?  Is there anything you think I’ve missed? 
Let me know what you can’t hike without in the comments below.
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Why I use trekking poles, and you should give them a go

I’ve used trekking poles for long hikes for years, and will wax lyrical about them whenever I’m asked.  And often even if I’m not.  During training walks for a Three Peaks challenge back in 2007 I found that going downhill was aggravating an old knee injury.  After asking around for advice and reading a few articles, I borrowed a set of poles to try them out on steep descents and found they helped my knee, and helped to keep off fatigue.  So I bought myself a pair with some birthday money.

And then I started using them for trail running, especially for ultra distances, and for multi-day backpacking trips, to help with balance under a heavy pack* and take some of the strain off my back. I’ve even been considering using them to pitch a tarp for an overnight bivvy.

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My kit for a multi-day backpacking trip.

*Lightweight backpacking?  Hahaha. Not me.  With half a kilo of peanut butter, a pair of binoculars and an actual HARDBACK book about birds, and my collection of shiny pebbles gathered on the way, I’m a lost cause to the lightweight movement.

The benefits of walking with poles

Reduced strain on joints: Trekking poles introduce other muscles to your movement by sharing the load more evenly across the whole body, reducing stress on ankles, knees and legs, particularly on descents.  This is especially true with a heavy pack on your back.  This is an important benefit, not just for people with existing issues, but also as a preventative measure for other hikers.

Improved endurance: Trekking poles can help on both descents and ascents, but also help you to push on for longer without fatigue.  They emphasise the natural marching rhythm of your walk, and help to push you forwards with a spring in your step, even on flat, easy-going terrain.

Help on ascents and uneven ground: On uphill stretches, poles help to spread the load to all your limbs to propel you upwards.  They also help make sure you stay upright when the going gets muddy or slippery underfoot, and aid balance on uneven trails, especially at the end of the day when you’re more likely to make a misstep.

Reduced swelling in extremities:  Do you get sausage fingers when you’re hiking?  I do, especially when it’s warm out.  Keeping my hands raised by holding my backpack straps helps a little, but it’s not a natural movement.  Trekking poles engage the arms, and keep blood pumping, to prevent the worst swelling.

Improved posture:  Using trekking poles helps to keep you upright as you walk or run, especially on ascents, keeping your back straight and preventing slouching.  This has the benefit of helping you breathe all the way from your diaphragm, and staving off fatigue that little bit longer.

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My Leki poles are now an essential part of my hiking kit.

Are there any disadvantages?

Well, yes.  Walking with poles isn’t ideal for everyone, and there’s a few things to consider before you make the decision.

Greater energy expenditure: Using trekking poles burns more calories by working your upper body in addition to the workout your legs get from your hike.  Research suggests its as much as 20% over your hiking baseline level.  More calories burnt means that more will inevitably need to be consumed (unless you’re working out to lose weight).  On longer hikes, especially multi-day trips, that means having to carry more food with you to compensate.

Whole body workout: As trekking poles work more than just your lower body, you might find that you have unexpected aches and niggles in your arms, shoulders and back, until you become used to the technique involved.

Risk of injuries: Injuries are likely to be the result of improper fit or technique, so it is important to ensure that you adjust your poles correctly for your height and activity.  If the trail requires any scrambling, it is usually better to pack away poles to leave your hands free when you need them.

Trail damage: All walking causes wear and erosion to trails, plus with the scratches on the rock and small holes in the mud from trekking poles, the cumulative impact of all visitors over the years can result in significant degradation to the route.  Be sure to stick to the trail in sensitive areas, and be considerate about where to place your poles to minimise damage.

Other uses for your trekking poles

  • A useful extra pole for a tent or a tarp shelter (or a substitute if one breaks).
  • A mono-pod for photography (like a tripod, it helps provide stability for your camera).
  • Testing the depth of snow, or water, or bogs.  For crossing streams, trekking poles help you keep your balance, probe depths, and test the stability of stones.
  • An emergency splint in a worst case scenario.
  • Pointing at distant wildlife or birds as you try to convince people there really is something there (my favourite use!).
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Trekking poles help provide additional stability on uneven ground.

How to set up your trekking poles correctly

Most manufacturers of trekking poles will give guidelines as to the right length for your height.  As a general rule, they should be set at a length which allows your hand to lightly grip the handle  while your elbow is bent at a right angle and your forearm parallel to the ground.  Roughly, this corresponds with the height of the hip belt on your backpack.

Some people find that the poles should be adjusted for the terrain, reduced for ascending and lengthened for a downhill walk.  However, you may find that  your hands will move up and down as you need, so look for poles with long handle grips, and play around with what feels good for you as you go.

The wrist straps let you to walk with a more relaxed style.  The key is to not take a tight grip on the handle, but to let your wrist rest on the strap as you push down to propel yourself forward.  As you stride, the poles become an extension to the movement of your wrist, transferring the momentum from your arms and the rest of your body.

Always remember that your legs are stronger than your arms  Don’t put too much of your weight onto the poles, as you might be risking injury.

What to look for when buying poles

Trekking poles are available across a wide range of budgets, from as little as £10 to as much as £200.  I found buying the best I could afford, and not skimping on the budget, meant I had a really great bit of kit that has lasted and lasted.

The most important factors to consider when choosing what’s right for you, and within your budget, are durability and comfort (especially the handles).  The more lightweight the poles, the more expensive they will be, due to the materials used in their construction, such as carbon fibre or titanium, or cork handles.

Some poles fold into three parts, others have a telescopic system for packing away, and some are a fixed length.  If you’re going to be packing the poles into your bag, consider the length that they fold down.  Telescoping poles are adjustable, through not as lightweight as collapsible poles.

Some poles have a built-in shock absorber system, designed to give additional protection to your joints.  It will add weight to the poles, and add to the cost, and may not have that much of an impact on performance.

Travelling with trekking poles

If you’re planning on using public transport to get around between hikes, or to travel overseas with them, be sure to look for poles that can be folded or shortened.  If you can pack them into a travelling bag or on the outside of a rucksack, they are much easier to travel with.

When it comes to flying, it’s unlikely trekking poles will be permitted luggage in the cabin.  It’s worth making sure the poles fit inside your bags, and also checking with individual airlines for their policy.

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On the beach outside my parents’ house at the end of my coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland.  Waiting for the tide to come in and bring the water closer.

Looking after your trekking poles

Like with the rest of your kit, its important to ensure your trekking poles are clean and dry before packing them away after use.  Telescopic poles are best stored unlocked.

Do you walk with trekking poles?  What tips can you share with me?

What I loved this Spring

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcome regularly, with a one off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave.  The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands.  In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable.  I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions.  It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on the Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it.  You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter.  As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.

My spring love list:

  • Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day.  But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid.  And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid.  I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
  • Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants.  My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet.  I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately,  so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
  • However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles.  They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents.  Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
  • Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.

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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene.  We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking.  I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too.  I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.

Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles.  I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about.  And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go, and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

The West Highland Way (WHW)

  • Start: Milngavie
  • Finish: Fort William
  • Length: 154 km (96 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate (Devil’s Staircase is hard)

The first, and far away most famous, long distance trail in Scotland, the WHW stretches from Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, to Fort William, dubbed Scotland’s outdoor adventure capital, 154km (96 miles) to the north.

The route crosses the rolling Campsie Fells into Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, following the bonnie banks of the loch into the increasingly craggy highlands.  It crosses the starkly beautiful Rannoch Moor into atmospheric Glencoe, before climbing to the highest point of the trail, the Devil’s Staircase, and onward to finish at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British and Irish Isles.

The route is well waymarked, and has plenty of opportunities for re-supply stops, tearooms, and pubs on the way, with Kingshouse the most popular.  Hiking is easy going for the main part, and largely avoids the high ground; Ben Lomond and Ben Lui, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Black Mount and the Mamores can be added to the route, and it can finish with the summit of Ben Nevis (1334 metres), if your legs feel up to it.

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The Commando Memorial between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy commemorates the elite Allied forces trained in the area during WWII. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Great Glen Way (GGW)

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Inverness
  • Length: 117 km (73 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Tracing the major geological faultline that cleaves Scotland in two, the GGW links the highland towns of Fort William and Inverness, largely following  a string of lochs linked by the Caledonian Canal.

The faultline divides the Grampian Mountains to the south from the Northwestern Highlands, some of the oldest rocks in the world.  Starting in Fort William, the route passes Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive flight of locks built by engineer Thomas Telford linking the Canal to Loch Linnhe and the sea. It follows the lengths of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness* on forestry roads, before passing the pretty Isles of Ness and finishing in Inverness city centre.

The route is well waymarked, and the hiking is straightforward throughout, though it gets steep in the forests over Loch Ness.  Between Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit there is a high level alternate route, which has spectacular views over Loch Ness and along the rest of the Great Glen.  It can connect with the West Highland Way in Fort William.

*Bring some monster spotting binoculars, and you might be rewarded with sightings of anything from red squirrels to red deer, ospreys and even otters.

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The picturesque harbour in the village of Portpatrick on the Rhinns of Galloway. Photo Credit: RobinD_UK Flickr on cc

Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)

  • Start: Portpatrick
  • Finish: Cockburnspath
  • Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 14 days +
  • Difficulty: hard

The longest of Scotland’s great trails, and the original coast to coast walk, this trail starts in the pretty village of Portpatrick on the west coast, and finishes on the North Sea coast in Cockburnspath.

The route follows forestry trails through the Galloway Forest Park, famed for its dark skies, and into the open moorland and rugged hills of the Southern Uplands.  It passes through the highest settlements of Scotland, the border towns and villages of Sanquar, Wanlockhead, Beattock and Traquair in the Tweedsmuir Hills, and into the Lammermuir Hills before descending to the coast.

The route is waymarked, but involves long moorland crossings which can be tricky to navigate in poor visibility.  Stages between resupply points can be long, and facilities are far apart, so this is better suited to more experienced backpackers.

For real hardcore hikers, the Southern Upland Way is part of the E2 European long distance trail which runs for 4850km (3010 miles) between Galway on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Nice, on the Mediterranean.

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Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey.  A Scottish country dance tune was composed in its honour; appropriately its a strathspey.  Photo Credit: Junnn Flickr on cc

Speyside Way

  • Start: Aviemore
  • Finish: Buckie
  • Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

This route traces the course of the mighty River Spey from Cairngorms National Park to Spey Bay, where the river meets the sea.  Most descriptions of the Speyside Way describe the route sea to source, ending in the heart of the mountains, but I think there’s something in going with the flow of the river.

Historically, the river was used to transport timber from the pine forests around Aviemore and Abernethy to the shipbuilding industry based around the village of Garmouth, once a rival to the major British port of Hull.  But for most the main draw for this trail is the famous whiskies**, the most well-known worldwide, that originate on the banks of the Spey.

Highlights of the route include Abernethy National Nature Reserve, where bogs, lochans, and pine forest are a haven for native wildlife, the impressive Craigellachie Bridge, built by Thomas Telford, and the Moray Firth Wildlife Centre, one of the best shore-based dolphin watching opportunities in the world.

**Try sampling Aberlour, Balvenie, Craigellachie, Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Knockando, Macallan, Speyside, Tamnavoulin, and you’ll forget that the alphabet has other letters too.

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Traigh Seilebost is just one of the stunning sandy beaches on the west coast of Harris. Photo Credit: isleofharris365 Flickr on cc

Hebrides Way

  • Start: Vatersay
  • Finish: Stornoway, Lewis
  • Length: approximately 252km (156 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 12 days +
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

The newest long distance trail in Scotland, this route connects 10 spectacularly beautiful islands in the Hebridean archipelago, from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north, with two ferry crossings and six interisland causeways, on the wild fringes of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gaelic culture of the islands is framed by the distinctive landscapes; stunning silver beaches and flower filled machair, wild moors and mountains, remote crofts and tiny fishing villages, places where both recent history and ancient archaeology lie close to the surface.  Look out for wildlife as spectacular as your surroundings, like minke whales, white-tailed sea eagles, and some of the most scarce birds in Britain, like the elusive corncrake.

The most challenging part of the trail follows waymarks on an undefined path across the open moorland of the North Harris Hills, and could be tricky in poor visibility, but on the whole hiking is easy going and suitable for beginners.  It’s worth making some extra time to spend on the islands alongside completing the hike.

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Dunaverty Bay at the southern tip of Kintyre may have been where St Columba first arrived in Scotland. Photo Credit: Photographic View Scotland Flickr on cc

Kintyre Way

  • Start: Tarbert
  • Finish: Machrihanish
  • Length: approximately 161km (100 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Zigzagging back and forth across the Kintyre Peninsula, this trail starts in the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert in the north, and winds its way to the windswept beach at Machrihanish, which lies closer to Belfast than to Glasgow.

Although Kintyre is part of the mainland, the sea is never far away on this trail, and it has stunning island views of Jura, Arran, Islay, Gigha, and even Rathlin Island.  You’re sure to hear the legend of Somerled (Somhairle), the Gaelic Viking King of the Isles, that claimed the land as his own by portaging his ships across the narrow isthmus between the sea lochs at Tarbert.

The trail is well waymarked for most of its length, with easy going walking, though the last section of the trail beyond Campbeltown has steep ascents and descents, tricky navigation, and boggy conditions underfoot.

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The Cateran Trail connects villages and glens on old drove roads and trails used by cattle rustlers. Photo Credit: luckypenguin Flickr on cc

Cateran Trail

  • Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
  • Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 5 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

Not as well known as some of the other Great Trails, this is a circular route through the wild upland glens of Angus and Perthshire, taking in Strathardle, Glen Shee and Glen Isla, once lawless bandit country.  There is no official start/finish point, but the pretty towns of Blairgowrie and Alyth have good access to the trail, and it is usually walked in a clockwise direction.

The route follows ancient drove roads used to take cattle to the market towns of Alyth and Blairgowrie, and by the Caterans, 16th and 17th century cattle raiders, who give their name to the trail.

The trail is well waymarked, and the moorland hiking at a moderate level.  There are several small settlements on the route, with pubs, cafes and resupply stops.  A link route between Kirkmichael (Strathardle) and Cray (Glen Shee) gives the option of a shorter two day circuit.  The route is waymarked but undefined, and both parts of the trail can be rough and very muddy.

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Loch Tay is was the location of as many as 18 crannogs, artificial islands inhabited from the Bronze Age.  A reconstruction lies on the southern shore of the loch.  Photo Credit: Douglas Hamilton ( days well spent ) Flickr on cc

Rob Roy Way

  • Start: Drymen
  • Finish: Pitlochry
  • Length: 128km (80miles), alternative route via Amulree 155km
  • Average time to complete: 6 days (alternative route 7 days)
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Another route inspired by rogues and reivers, the Rob Roy Way links Drymen, on the edge of Loch Lomond (and the WHW), and Pitlochry.  Taking in the rolling hills of the Trossachs, through forests and into Breadalbane, passing lochs and waterfalls, and on into Strathtay.

The route visits the pretty highland towns of Callender, Killin, and Aberfeldy, and Balquidder, the site of Rob Roy’s family home.  A Jacobite who fought alongside Bonnie Dundee, he, and the rest of Clan McGregor, were outlawed and compelled to renounce their name and allegiance or be hunted out with hounds and killed.

The route follows tracks, minor roads, cycle trails, and footpaths, with a fair amount of ascent and descent.  The alternative route via Amulree is much quieter, and avoids an 8km section on minor roads on the south of Loch Tay.  Both options have spectacular views across to Ben Lawers and Schiehallion on a fine day.

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Trotternish Ridge and the Quiraing are formed from a series of landslips, creating an awesome landscape. Photo Credit: Bill Higham Flickr on cc

Skye Trail

  • Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
  • Finish: Broadford
  • Length: approximately 128km ( miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: very hard

Starting from the most northerly point of the island, Rubha Hunish, the route ascends steeply under the Quiraing to the Trotternish Ridge.  The ridge traverse is very long and exposed, but is one of the most outstanding ridge walks anywhere in the world.

After following the cliffs from Storr, the route goes via Portree and Glen Sligachan to Elgol and Torrin, finishing in Broadford. It passes the locations of several clearance villages, tumbledown reminders that these quiet glens were once home to hundreds of people, and around the spectacular Cuillin mountains.

The trail is unofficial, unmarked, and arduous, and many sections lack a distinct path.  It requires excellent navigation skills, and involves challenging burn crossings that are not possible when in spate.  The route includes a long ridge traverse and clifftop walking not suited to those without a head for heights.

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Cape Wrath, or Am Parbh, is the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and much of the area is used for military training.  Photo Credit: tomdebruycker Flickr on cc

Cape Wrath Trail

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Cape Wrath
  • Length: Between 320 and 370km (200 and 230 miles)
  • Average time to complete:
  • Difficulty: very hard

The Cape Wrath Trail is a epic route, leading from Fort William, through some of the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland, to the northwesternmost tip of mainland Britain.

Potential highlights of the route include crossing the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, the Falls of Glomachand and Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfalls in the UK), Fisherfield Forest, the caves around Inchnadamph, and the spectacular beaches at Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay.

With no official route, and several potential options taking you through Knoydart, Torridon, and Assynt, it isn’t waymarked and many sections don’t have a defined path.  It is suitable for backpackers with excellent navigation skills, the ability to be self-sufficient, and wild camping experience.

Things to know before attempting a long distance hike in Scotland

  • Weather

The Big Yin*** once said that “there are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter”.  But even the notoriously changeable weather can’t spoil the hauntingly beautiful landscapes you’ll walk through.  Be sure you’re adequately prepared; check long-range forecasts and monitor the weather during your hike, pack sufficient warm layers and waterproof jacket and trousers, and know your route well enough to identify wet weather alternatives and bail-out points.

***That’s Billy Connolly if you didn’t know.  Or Sir William Connolly CBE, if we’re going to be formal.  Which he famously isn’t.

  • Wild Camping

There will be a range of different options for accommodation on most of the trails listed above, from bunkhouses and bothies to boutique hotels and guesthouses.  But for staying as close to the trail as possible and maximising time outdoors, you might choose to wild camp (I usually do).

Wild camping is permitted in Scotland, with the notable exception of the east side of Loch Lomond (on the WHW) during summer months.  It is important you are familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.

  • Wildlife

We don’t have some of the large wildlife of our neighbours in northern Scandinavia or central Europe to worry about, and you should try to avoid causing any disturbance to habitats or creatures as you follow the trails or camp.

Scottish midges have a fearsome reputation, and it’s well deserved.  May and September are usually the best months for avoiding the wee beasties but still getting the best of the weather.  Otherwise pack a repellent, especially for dawn and dusk, and just after rain showers.

  • Winter

Winter hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings a number of additional hazards to the hikes.  Some of the trails above will be inaccessible to all but the most experienced backpackers.  It is important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.

It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remembering that sometimes the best decision you make is to postpone the hike for another day.

Have you tried hiking any of these trails?  Have you got any tips?
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Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in a coast-to-coast trek across Scotland.  The TGO Challenge takes participants from across the globe through what can be some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual self-supported hiking event across the highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east.  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.

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Where the idea began; a little bit of inspiration I picked up in a second-hand bookshop on the way.

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 a unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves.  A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the distance, which is 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” end point).  Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in a number of summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are able to provide advice.

The Challenge is non-competitive, but in addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants also have to be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, self-reliant in remote and upland areas, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.

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”.

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My planned finish point on the east coast of Scotland.

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.

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Route planning on ViewRanger.

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.

Armchair Travel: 5 Travel Podcasts

This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.

I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives.  Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath.  (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom).  I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.

*Fold corners over?  You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.

So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.

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  • From Our Own Correspondent.

Longform journalism podcast from the BBC that blends travel reportage, political analysis, and stories that lie behind recent headlines.  I love listening to this on Radio 4 as part of my Saturday mornings when I’m home, for the content, but also for the lessons in how to present an engaging piece of writing.  Listen live to BBC Radio 4, or follow here.

  • 80 Days.

Presented by three self-proclaimed “history and geography geeks”, the 80 Days podcast is dedicated to discovering lesser-known countries and territories around the world, through their history, politics, landscapes, and culture, including places like Rapa Nui, Sápmi, Birobidzhan**, and the Kuril Islands.  Dive in to the podcast here.

**Yeah, me neither.

  • Travel Tales Beyond the Brochure.

The Barefoot Backpacker dives into a different theme in each episode, talking about concepts like why bucket lists can be a bad idea, reverse culture shock, or travelling in your home town, as well as offbeat destinations like Vanuatu. Follow the conversations here.

  • She Explores.

A podcast bringing forth voices of women doing things outdoors, from exploration and adventure, working in outdoor industries, arts and music, to environmental awareness and activism.  It has a strong North American influence, but reaches out to cover women around the world.  Find it here.

  • Curiously Polar.

Presented by an experienced polar tour leader and a nature photographer, this podcast covers the colder corners of the globe.  Topics have somewhat of a science and exploration focus, ranging from the Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen, the history of the whaling industry, how to walk in snowshoes, marine mammal sex, and where exactly Santa Claus lives. Find it here.

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Birds do it, bees do it, but just how do fin whales do it?  Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

You can find all these podcasts through their own websites or via various playing platforms like itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Which travel podcasts do you follow?
Leave me your recommendations in the comments below.

 

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How to care for your hiking boots

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YAs a ranger I practically live in outdoor gear, and everything I own gets pretty heavily used and abused through my usual working day. Like my hiking boots, which I wear most days (if it’s not hiking boots, I must be in either wellies or sandals. Roll on summertime!). But I do like to get the best out of my stuff, so that means I also take a bit of time to care for and maintain my gear to make sure it lasts well and keeps performing at the standard I expect it to.

These are my top tips for caring for hiking boots, and ensuring happy feet when you head out hiking:

 

Keep them fresh. Take out your insoles when you take off your boots. Most good quality boots have removable insoles for easy cleaning (and so you can replace with custom orthotics), and these can become warm, sweaty sponges swarming with bacteria. Eventually they’ll start to smell and it can also degrade the materials of the boot. Let them dry out overnight next to your boots between uses, and they’ll be good to go.

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Keep them clean. Mud can ruin the outer material of your boots if it stays on for too long. If the mud has dried, I knock off as much as I can before washing my boots, including digging out muck from the cleats on the sole. I rinse off as much as I can under a tap or hose, and have an old dish scrubbing brush to get the last of the mud off.

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Dry carefully. It can be tempting to just drop your boots by the radiator or in front of the fire, but too much direct heat can crack leather and even melt the sole. Instead, let them dry in a warm and airy place, like a drying room, airing cupboard, or even outside in the sun.  Leaving the fire free for you to lounge around in front of.

Deal with soggy boots. Sometimes you just get completely saturated, whether its from ridiculously heavy rain or wading through a bog (or both. Hello, Glen Quoich!), and they’ll need to be dealt with before you store your boots. Take out the insoles, and rinse out the inside, giving stubborn dirt a light scrub.   Give your insoles a good scrub with soap, working it into the material with your fingers, and rinse well. Stuff the boots with newspaper, and leave to dry in a well-ventilated area. You might need to replace the paper several times. Sprinkling a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda into each nearly-dry boot will kill the stink before it starts.

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Keep them waterproofed. Repeated immersion in mud and water starts to ruin the waterproofing on your boots, whether they’re leather or synthetic, so you’ll need to reapply a waterproof treatment occasionally. Nikwax Fabric and Leather Proof is my usual choice, as I can treat my leather boots and synthetic trail running shoes with the same product. It doesn’t need much, just a thin layer will do the trick.  I’ll also use dubbin or wax on my leather boots regularly to keep the outers supple and comfortable for walking in.

Avoid seawater. Getting your boots wet at the beach can start metal grommets and hooks rusting, and saltwater isn’t great for the condition of leather either. Rinse your boots in freshwater as soon as you can, and dry them as described above. Giving the metalwork an occasional spray of WD40 will also help if you visit the shore regularly.

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Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.