A few of my favourite things from the past season.
I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season. It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.
Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me. Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace. The colour green. Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins. I miss those penguins. (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).
Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls. It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.
These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape. There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.
My Antarctica love list:
Nivea Factor 50 sunblock: The Antarctic atmosphere is ozone-depleted, and intense sun rays can penetrate through more easily, even on overcast days. Harsh light is reflected back by ice, snow, and the sea. I wore this every day to protect my skin, and I love the familiar summer-smell of it.
Cébé Summit sunglasses: As with the sunblock, these were essential everyday wear for working outside, even when it was an overcast day. They have category 4 UV protection, transmitting less than 8% of visible light, so will become part of my ski kit.
Palmer’s coconut oil leave-in conditioner: Like the Nivea, it became an everyday essential to protect my hair from the wind and sun, and it smells wonderful. Sometimes a blast of it was just enough to drive out the smell of penguin guano until my next shower.
Merino beanie: This merino beanie hat from Findra is super warm but lightweight and breathable, and in my favourite colours. Perfect for an Antarctic summer, and autumn in Ushuaia. I’ll keep wearing into next season, as I’ve already had a couple of frosty mornings and snow showers this week in Scotland.
Splashmaps toob: I live right on the North Sea coast, so this is excellent for keeping the breeze off my neck on cold walks, and my hair out of my eyes as I run. The Antarctic peninsula map and gentoo penguin design is exclusive from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Rab powerstretch gloves: Super warm and stretchy gloves. For all the reasons above.
There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.
The Storied Ice by Joan N. Boothe: A fantastically readable book covering the history of the Antarctic peninsula region. My recommendation for anyone interested in learning more about the continent before their visit, or gaining a vicarious overview of exploration and discovery.
Leatherman sidekick: A pocket-sized multi-tool I’ve been using for everything from opening up generators to breaking down cardboard boxes.
Irish wheaten bread: Kit introduces us to the delight that is Irish wheaten bread with this mix from the Cookie Jar Bakery in Newcastle, Co. Down. Devoured still warm with butter donated from a cruise ship.
The Tin Can Cook by Jack Monroe: While our provisions in Antarctica were mainly tinned or dried products, this was a consequence of our privilege to be in such a unique location. For many others, tinned food is an affordable and nutritious necessity. This brilliant book by cook and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe helped us put together tasty and inventive meals.
Berocca: Fizzy multivitamins, these were essential for the days when “freshies” (fresh fruit and vegetables) hadn’t been available.
Bananagrams: A simple but addictive Scrabble-like game of assembling words. This occupied several of our evenings, and according to the Lockroy rules, abbreviations and words in Finnish, te reo Māori, and Scots are all accepted. As there was no google to check the veracity of claims, it all came down to how convincingly you could argue.
Well, who really knows what the answer to that question will be? I’m back home in Aberdeenshire, and finding myself at the end of a contract at a terrible time to find any work, let alone in the travel and outdoor sector. However, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, and time to process the experience, which I think is all anyone can ask for right now.
Here’s to a bit of time enjoying the great indoors. Stay safe, and thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to, and how you’ve been dealing with time spent in isolation or lockdown. Let me know in the comments below.
A travel repair kit has the things you need to deal with whatever the road throws at you.
A repair kit is an essential for extended trips into wild and remote areas. A good repair kit will help you take the results of everyday wear and tear in your stride, like a small rip in your trousers, and can make you feel more confident handling the unexpected disasters, like a broken backpack or wind-shredded tent.
Carrying a few simple tools and materials will let you carry out necessary repairs in the field, and could make the difference between completing your adventure and turning back early due to gear failure. Or enjoying your weekend citybreak without stress.
Below is a list of the things I pack in my repair kit, to give ideas of what you might think about taking yourself. Many of the things in my kit were already lying around in the junk drawer at home, though there’s a few things worth buying specifically, as it can be a challenge to keep things lightweight for travel.
Though it’s heavier and bulkier than a pocket knife, the additional features on a good multi-tool are invaluable. The pliers can grip everything from hot pot lids to stitching needles or a bathplug stuck in the hole. The screw drivers can tighten up locks on trekking poles or open up a generator for a service. The knife can be used for cutting anything from ropes to the foil of food pouches. And the bottle opener speaks for itself. While much beefier multi-tools are available, my Leatherman Sidekick has all the essentials, and I love it.
As I wear glasses, I also take a set of tiny jeweller’s screwdrivers to tighten up loose legs if necessary. Possibly the only good things ever to come from a Christmas cracker.
With endless potential uses, duct tape (or duck tape, if you prefer) is worth its weight in gold. It can patch a groundsheet, keep the sole attached to your boot, and hold together a suitcase that had a run-in with the baggage carousel. I’ve even used it on my feet to prevent blisters on my heels during an endurance hike. Rather than pack the entire roll, wrap a few metres around something else in your kit to save weight; I’ve put it around a lighter, but you could use a water bottle or trekking pole.
A small tube of quick-setting cyanoacrylate adhesive is excellent for repairing broken hard items. Most recently, I used it to fix my hairbrush after it pulled apart in a particularly tough tangle (yes, I do brush my hair… sometimes). If you’re really hardcore, it can even be used to close wounds in an emergency.
Also known as zip ties, these strong, lightweight and inexpensive items can save the day. Use them for everything from heavy-duty repairs on a busted backpack or boot, replacing a guy line attachment on your tent, to creating a waterproof colour coding system for managing waste on expeditions.
A few metres of this strong utility cordage will do for everything from replacing bootlaces, zipper pulls and drawstrings, to lashing gear to your pack and providing an additional guy line for your tent in a storm.
Used to melt the ends of cords and twine, and light stoves, campfires, and candles. Who known when you’ll need mood lighting?
Spinnaker repair tape
This self-adhesive ripstop nylon tape was originally intended for repairing lightweight nylon sails, and can be used patch a variety of synthetic fabrics. It will stop feathers falling out of a favourite down jacket, and cover that hole in your sleeping bag from creeping too close to the campfire (true story).
On a camping trip, I’ll also take a selection of the spare nylon patches that come when you buy most outdoor gear and some liquid sealant, as spinnaker tape doesn’t always stick to some treated nylon surfaces.
Though tapes and adhesive patches can go a long way, a small sewing kit adds extra versatility. I pack a selection of needles and thread that will handle replacing buttons and repairing seams on clothing, to stitching a blown out sail or broken backpack. A sailmaker’s palm helps with the heavy duty work, and safety pins hold things in place for bigger tears. I store the sharp stuff in an old vitamin bottle, so I don’t stab my fingers rummaging for what I need.
I also have a little bit of wool in case I need to darn any of my woollen clothing, and whipping twine to finish the end of ropes. Once a bosun, always a bosun.
Part of my sailing repair kit, I use colourful electrical tape to hold the end of lines until there’s time for a proper finish, and for marking items as mine. It can cover rough edges and splinters that might snag your skin, and also do it’s intended job of covering exposed electrical wires on a charger or appliance.
Something else from my sailing kit, this is thin steel wire used to secure fastenings on a ship. It can be used in a similar way to cable ties, fastening things together where cord might rub away, even making heavy duty stitches in items under serious stress. Heating the end of the wire also lets you melt neat holes in plastic and rubber for stitching.
A permanent marker is always useful.
This Peli torch was a gift from a friend at the start of my ocean sailing career, and it is rated intrinsically safe for working in hazardous environments. It’s in the repair kit as we both believe that you can never have enough torches, plus it’s nicely pocket sized. I also take spare batteries that fit this and my headtorch.
Everything packs into a compact bag with a zip closure. It used to be a make-up bag that came as part of a gift set. I find it much better than a hard case or tupperware box for cramming into a corner of a kit bag.
I’ll add other items for different activities, types of travel, or destination: a camping trip might need patches and glue for tents and sleeping mats, and a service kit for a stove; bikepacking necessitates a puncture repair kit and some basic bike maintenance tools.
I hope this gives you ideas for creating your own travel repair kit. If you think I’ve missed anything, or there’s something you just can’t travel without, let me know in the comments below.
I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with theUK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.
The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research. I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.
At the end of September I headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts. You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.
Working remotely gave me the chance to take a few weeks up in Scotland, and catch up with friends and family in October. I had a couple of days in Newtonmore, for a reunion with TGO Challengers and some walks around the central Cairngorms, before heading over to the Aberdeenshire coast. Between researching and writing, I’ve also been for walks along the coast, on Deeside and through the Angus Glens. I also squeezed in a weekend break in Dundee with my sister and cousin.
Autumn is my favourite time of year, and when I think Scotland looks at its best. Trees put on a show with golden, copper and scarlet leaves, against the dark pines and yellow bracken. On a damp day in Abernethy, red pine needles on the forest floor glow and blaeberry leaves sparkle, fungi tucked underneath like pale wax candles. By the pewter sea streaked with white, I watched lapwings wheeling over the shore and eider ducks riding the swell. Every morning, as the sun rose later and later, started with the sound of skeins of wintering geese overhead.
I was very excited to spot a goshawk perching on a fence post not far from home; an identification that was made so much easier as a buzzard (the usual occupant of local fences) was sat a few posts down on the opposite side of the road. It was heartening to see, as raptors have been persecuted badly in the region in the recent past.
This season’s update was written a little earlier than it’s been posted here, as November sees me travelling south. I’ll fly from London to Buenos Aires, then onward to Ushuaia, where I’ll join a cruise ship for a lift into Port Lockroy. All things going well, which means with fine weather and good sea ice conditions, our team will be settled on the island by the middle of the month, with the Penguin Post Office open for business.
My Autumn love list
Books:The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of observing emperor penguins and recovering the first eggs for scientific study on the Terra Nova expedition. The team faced temperatures of -40C (-40F) and day-round darkness, returning to their base at Cape Evans barely alive. Cherry’s two colleagues, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, would later perish on the return from the pole on Scott’s ill-fated expedition.
Films:Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the people working in Antarctica by Werner Herzog. Though he states this isn’t a film about “fluffy penguins”, there’s an especially heart-wrenching moment with an Adelie penguin, which friends who have seen it made sure to remind me of. They also made sure that I’d seen The Thing.
They’re the kind of friends you need.
Clothing: My current favourite thing is a grey merino wool sweater, lightweight enough for layering or wearing alone on warmer autumn days. It will be a useful midlayer to take to Antarctica with me.
I’ve been issued with several items of branded kit by UKAHT supplied by Rab, including the microlight Alpine down jacket. I’ve tested it out in the bracing wind blowing off the North Sea around my folk’s house, and on frosty morning walks in the Cairngorms. I’m quite confident that it will serve me well down south.
Equipment: While I was home my dad gave me a solid fuel handwarmer that he used to take out fishing, which used to belong to my granda. It’s going straight into my kit bag to come with me to Antarctica.
And after a couple of weeks of consideration, I also picked up new sunglasses, a pair of Cebe Summits. The category 4 level UV protection will be essential with light reflecting off snow and water in Antarctica, though it makes them too dark for use at the moment.
Food: As I’ve been back home in Aberdeenshire for a few weeks, I’ve been stuffing myself with butteries for breakfast. Also known as rowies if you’re from the city rather than the shire, these are flattened, crusty bread rolls traditionally made for fisherman to take to sea. Ideally, they should be served warm, spread with butter and jam on the flat side. Rhubarb and ginger jam is my favourite.
Thanks for following along with my journey on These Vagabond Shoes.
I’m about to disappear off the virtual world for a few months, to live at the end of the real world in Antarctica. While I won’t be able to keep you up to date with my adventures in real-time, there are a few things I’ve scheduled on Twitter and Facebook. and in the blog to fill in the time until I return. Looking forward to seeing you on the other side (with an unbelievable number of penguin pictures)!
Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based. After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship. After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.
Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed. As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call. I was successful at the interview. I got the job! Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job. More about that below.
Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way. We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for a paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets. Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.
Back in Oban, we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out. This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage. On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.
At the end of June, I had what felt like my first proper holiday in a very long time. I spent five days on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and was blessed with the best weather conditions. A spot of rain on the first afternoon, just enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out while I caught up on sleep after leaving the ship. Then beautiful sunshine and light winds to cycle around from one end of the island roads to the other, and stopping off at spots around the island to hike, swim, birdwatch and beachcomb.
At the end of my leave, I returned to Irene in Swansea, to move her round to Cornwall for the final months of the season. We stopped off at Lundy on the way, anchoring overnight beneath the cliffs. A 1am wake-up call to move anchor at the turn of tide turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of the voyage, as thousands of Manx shearwaters swirled through the air around us, through the rigging, and called out from their burrows. A stowaway bird emerged from the hawsepipe the following morning, and I helped her back to the sea.
We finished our voyage in Newlyn, which became our base for the next month for voyages to the Isles of Scilly and Brittany, and very quickly one of my favourite places. As a working fishing port, life here lacks the softness and sanitation of nearby coastal villages. You wouldn’t be wrong to describe the place as rough or gritty, especially after a night out to the Swordfish pub, once considered one of the toughest in the UK, but the richness of the stories I found was compelling.
I’d been looking forward to visiting the Isles of Scilly all summer, however weather conditions were not in our favour. One drizzly grey voyage, and another blown out by an Atlantic storm. However, the Brittany trip was fantastic, with a few days exploring around Tréguier and Ile de Bréhat, and a wonderful wildlife-filled channel crossing, with common dolphins accompanying the ship from sunrise onward. The only disappointment was that we arrived back to Newlyn on the very same day a humpback whale was filmed lunge feeding just a couple of miles away, and we missed it. Check out the awesome photos on the Lone Kayaker’s blog, including one of Irene passing St Michael’s Mount.
On my next leave, I caught up with the rest of the team for my new job for a couple of days in London to get to know each other better, and for the chance to bombard Lucy, returning for a second season, with hundreds of questions about what to expect.
Back on Irene, we relocated the ship to Falmouth, using it as a base to explore the coast from The Lizard and Start Point, visiting Salcombe, Fowey, and Mevagissey, as well as a favourite anchorage in the Helford River. With big winds forecast on a couple of days, we also explored the upper reaches of the Fal above Trelissick Gardens. At the very end of August, we dropped in by the Classic Sail Festival at Charleston Harbour, deep in Poldark country. So many beautiful boats that I want to sail on.
Lowestoft drifter Gleaner arriving at Charleston Harbour
Lugger Greyhound, the fastest of the UK classic sailing fleet
Greyhound meeting topsail schooner Anny of Charleston
The new job!
So, it’s going to be very different this winter. I’m extremely excited to share the news that I’ll be heading to Antarctica, to spend the southern summer season working in the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. I’ll be part of the team helping to run the Post Office and greet visitors to the island, and have the responsibility to monitor the resident penguin population through the season. I’m beyond overjoyed about it all, though a bit daunted at the prospect of four months on a small island in a remote setting.
My summer love list:
Books: It’s been difficult to find time to read through the summer, but long train journeys to meet the ship in Swansea and Newlyn were perfect. I read Empire Antarctic: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, taking screeds of notes. I also discovered the fabulous Beerwolf pub/bookshop in Falmouth, and succumbed to temptation, buying a couple of copies of Granta Magazine.
TV Show: When I’m off the ship I can catch up on watching films and TV that I don’t usually get the chance to see. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has me so excited. I absolutely adored the film when I was young. And, inspired by my time in Cornwall this summer, I’ve got really into Poldark. For the traditional sailing ships, not the shirtless scything, honestly.
Clothing: I’ve been living in shorts and flipflops for the past three months. I don’t think I’ll ever manage to wear proper shoes again…
Equipment: I think my most used bit of kit through the summer has been a heavy duty drybag with a shoulder strap that I discovered in the magic middle aisle of Aldi. It’s been perfect for getting back and forward to the ship in the dingy while we’re on a mooring buoy or anchorage.
Food: Have you ever found a restaurant so good that you go back again the following night to finish off the menu? The Sound Pantry in Newlyn is one of those places. The most delicious home-made Portuguese food for dinner two nights in a row, plus a morning visit to pick up pasteis de nata for our coffee break.
Treats: I spent an afternoon in the galley with our ship’s chef Alex and learned how to make the most fantastic baklava. So good.
All the best food from The Sound Pantry in Newlyn, especially bacalhau a bras, lulas con nata, arroz de marisco…
In scenes deleted from Poldark, lunchtime pasties from Aunt May’s arrive on board in Newlyn despite a 5 metre tidal range.
My first attempt at making baklava, when I remembered to take a picture of it.
These next few weeks are going to be an exciting time, as I prepare for spending the next few months living in Antarctica and working at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.
I’ve also got a few hiking trips planned, including the Great Corset Caper, where I’ll join with a bunch of awesome women to take on Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, wearing period costume. I have to admit, I’m very nervous about it, particularly the corset.
Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. You can keep up to date with my adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And look out for plenty of penguin facts to fill the time while I’m out of contact down south.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
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 the dazzling sun on the tops.
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 an 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?
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 with 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.
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.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.
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.
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.
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, in a couple of refillable bottles, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.
In some areas you may 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 practising.
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.
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.
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 trail that’s hard to follow, or become injured and unable to walk.
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 sunrise or set from a hilltop, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.
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.
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 it’s ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “it’s biodegradable”. Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.
Flask with a 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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?
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).
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.
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers. And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.
The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set. The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world. The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).
But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland. With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge. Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.
And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness. So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting. Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.
Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond. Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.
The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre. Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.
This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.
Base: Glasgow or Stirling
Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking. Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition. (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)
The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below. As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.
Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long-distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.
Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest
Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family. Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th-century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.
The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods. The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.
This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time. And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.
Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen
Base: Stromness, Orkney
Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep-sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles. In particular, the iconic sea stack is known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960s, and it continues to attract climbers today.
From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick. A well-defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas). Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.
On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen. Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch. As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wildflowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK. And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.
This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness. Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.
Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)
Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flatlands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape. Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.
This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach. But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular. To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suilven and Cùl Mòr.
Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground. The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.
The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)
Base: Glasgow or Stirling
Route length: 11km (7 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains. The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.
At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours. Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.
The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle. After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top. This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.
However, on a clear day, the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps. Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.
Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.
Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty. On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.
The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth. A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.
The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions. An alternative hike would be to follow the low-level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.
Ring of Steall, Mamores
Base: Fort William
Route length: 16km (10 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
Difficulty: very hard
Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′). With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.
Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead. A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.
The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls. Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach. All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.
The ridge is exposed but has spectacular panoramic views of some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis. Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.
Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard. Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.
My tips for day hikes in Scotland
Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there are a few things that you should bear in mind.
Plan your route ahead of the walk. Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect. ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day. Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
Pack plenty of water. It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility. And GPS is not infallible.
If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.
Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business. Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there are many additional hazards you might encounter. It’s 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 spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.
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.
*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 your 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.
Are there any disadvantages?
Well, yes. Walking with poles isn’t ideal for everyone, and there are 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 monopod 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!).
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 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, though 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.
Looking after your trekking poles
Like with the rest of your kit, it’s 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?