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’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?
After the previous day’s attempt to make any kind of distance was a failure, I mentally reset myself ready for the last few days walking with a night at home; hot shower, real food, and good night’s sleep in a real bed. In the morning I returned to Clova feeling much more sparky than I had the previous day.
It turned out to be a good thing; putting myself a day behind my planned schedule for the Challenge meant I actually met up with more challengers than I would’ve otherwise. I met a few on the track from Clova up to Loch Brandy, then picked up a walking buddy having navigation difficulties to cross the hills down to Inchgrundle and the end of Loch Lee.
The well-trodden route from Clova to Tarfside is always busiest on the second Tuesday of the TGO, along with the other routes that converge into Glen Esk. It was also walking familiar very ground for me, bringing back memories of Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, walks on school trips, and camps with the Guides.
After walking much of my route on my own, meeting up with friends at various points along the route, it was a little bit of a shock to the system to be amongst so many people in Tarfside. But it also showed me that one of the real highlights of the event is the other challengers that you meet on the way as you become part of the extended TGO Challenge family.
TGO Day 10: Tarfside to Garvock viewpoint
After an excellent night in Tarfside in the company of other challengers, I was back walking on my own again for most of the day. Everyone else seemed to be heading in the direction of Edzell and Northwaterbridge, but to reach my finish point at home at the Haughs of Benholm, I had to find a more northerly route and struck out over the hills to Fettercairn.
I quickly discovered why few others took this route, after running out of hill tracks on Craigangowan and wandering into a huge bog cut with peat hags, and crossed by a deer fence. I waded, crawled, fell, and slithered for what was possibly only just a couple of kilometres, but it took me well over an hour (definitely due to walking conditions, not the hangover) to rejoin the hill tracks around Sturdy Hill.
Once back on the road, after a coffee break in Fettercairn, I pushed on as far as I could keep going for, with less than 45 km to end up at home, knowing I’d be able to take the following day to recover. But as the day wore on I got slower and slower, plodding on up the hill before grinding to a halt and stopping for the night at the Garvock viewpoint. Completely tired out, but really pleased with the effort for the day. A distance of 33km covered, and just over 10km left to go to the end of the TGO Challenge.
TGO Day 11: Garvock viewpoint to Haughs of Benholm
The final day! Just a short distance to finish my TGO Challenge, after the huge effort I put in the day before. It’s only around 10km from Garvock hill to my home at the Haughs of Benholm, and after starting fairly late, I was all done and dusted by 10am. It wasn’t the best route choice, as to avoid lots of road walking I decided to cross a few fields
My Mam put out a finishing line on the drive, and after dropping my backpack I left an order for a bacon butty and cup of tea, and went to dip my toes in the North Sea to make an official finish. Unfortunately, my arrival had coincided with the low tide, so rather than scramble over the shingle and seaweed covered rocks to reach the water’s edge, I settled for a paddle in a rock pool, and decided the sea could wait until I’d had breakfast.
Crossing the finish line at the end of the Challenge
On the way to the sea, before decinding theat the sea could come to me.
Dipping my toes in a convenient rockpool.
My 2019 TGO Challenge Stats
Total distance walked: 269km (167 miles)
Total distance walked in flipflops: 12km (7.5 miles)
Total distance crawled: 2km (1.25 miles)
Times that I cried: 3
The highest point of my route: Schiehallion summit, 1,083m (3,553′)
The highlight of my route: Finding a beautiful pool for a swim in the sunshine in a small burn on the side of Loch Etive.
Would I do this again? Absolutely!
Read the previous instalment of my 2019 TGO journal here, and find out more about the Challenge in this post.
After one too many days of fine weather and lots of walking with limited access to drinking water, little shade, and no sunblock, I was done. I’d scheduled a rest day with friends once I reached Pitlochry, so I switched it around to have a day out of the sun to recover and called for a lift.
The original inspiration for the TGO Challenge; Scotland Coast to Coast by Hamish Brown
Not a lightweight backpacker.
The Maskylene plaque at Braes of Foss commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment
A shower! Clean laundry! Ice cream! No heatstroke! It was wonderful. I treated myself to a pair of shorts and the factor 50 sunblock my pale Celtic skin needed to continue walking in the sunshine the next day, as despite not being the most lightweight of backpacker I hadn’t packed either of those things. I also found a brilliant secondhand bookshop which had something I thought might be useful for the rest of my trek. What would Hamish Brown do?
TGO Day 6: Braes of Foss to Pitlochry
The weather had continued to be absolutely glorious, dry, warm, and sunny while I took a rest day, and I looked forward to getting back out into the hills to continue my trek. Feeling fit and refreshed I was dropped off at the point I left a couple of days ago, at the end of the access road to the bayrite mine at Foss. This time laden with abundant supplies of factor 50 sunblock.
From Foss I headed up the track past the mine works to the tops of the Corbetts of Meall Tairneachan and Farragon Hill, bashing through the heather when the track ran out. The descent towards Strathtay was a little challenging, not least when I received a marketing call from my mobile phone provider on a steep section. I thanked them for their network coverage but suggested it wasn’t the best time to talk to them.
After reaching the hill track, I went around the shoulder of Beinn Eagagach, then followed the ridge of hills between Strathtummel and Strathtay. Just a little bit of bog scrambling, a lot of heather bashing, and being stalked by some deer as I went. From Clunie Woods, glad to get a bit of shade, I descended to meet the end of the Rob Roy Trail, crossed the A9 and reached Pitlochry.
TGO Day 7: Pitlochry to the Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail)
Well, it would have been unrealistic to expect the fine weather to last for the full fortnight of the challenge. Shortly after reaching my accommodation in Pitlochry, the sky turned the colour of a bruise, and the rain thundered down through the night. So I was particularly glad I was indoors overnight and didn’t have to pack up a soaking tent before I started walking in the morning.
Swirling pollen in the puddles.
The first rain for a week washing away pine pollen.
The forestry road through Pitcastle Woods
I made my way through town to the Black Spout waterfall, through the woods to Edradour Distillery. At this point my route became a little bit freestyle, crossing grazing land on the side of Tom Beithe until I entered the forest and could pick up forestry tracks. then through the forestry land to Enochdhu, climbing a few deer fences on the way. Picked up the Cateran Trail to head to the Lunch Hut bothy, where I met the first other challengers I’d seen since I’d seen the Danes taking a coffee break at Rannoch Station.
TGO Day 8: The Lunch Hut (Cateran Trail) to Glen Doll
Two things contributed to my early wake-up, the slow deflation of my air mat through the night finally reaching the point where my hip touched the tabletop I was lying on, and a sheep bleating incredibly loud and close to the bothy. I gave it a hard Paddington stare through the broken window, then had the thought this is how a horror film would start. I whispered an apology to the sheep, so as not to wake my two bothy mates.
Overnight the fog had come in thick, obscuring everything further than 50 metres from the bothy. This wasn’t good, as I’d planned to head up high from Glen Shee, following hill tracks to start with, then bashing through the heather to Mayar, before descending into Glen Doll. As I headed over An Lairig, towards Spital of Glenshee, with Emma and Simon, I started to revise my route with their suggestions.
I decided on a longer route, staying at a lower level to make solo navigation easier for much of the day. We walked together on the Cateran Trail until Runvey, then Simon and I left Emma to continue on to Kirkton of Glenisla, while we headed for Loch Beanie. There, we parted ways and I continued to ascend to the shoulder of Monamenach and down into Glen Isla.
I quickly ascended out of the glen to Mid Hill and Tarmach Cairn on hill tracks, following them in an arc to Broom Hill, before leaving them behind to descend into Glen Prosen by the Glack of Balquhader. I’d been keeping a weather eye during the trek, and it hadn’t cleared on the high ground, where the last stage of the route was going to take me.
The footpath between Glen Prosen and Glendoll known as the Kilbo Path crosses the col between the Munros of Driesh and Mayar, and was the highest point of my revised route. The mist was moving in and out while I stopped for a meal, but from my memory and according to the map, the track looked distinct, so I felt confident enough to get across into Glendoll before the light faded.
At the top of the path, the visibility closed in to be just a few metres in the cloud, but enough that I could pick out the deer fence along the back of Corrie Shalloch to handrail to the top of the descent on the Shank of Drumfollow, and make my way down into the valley. The path through the logged forestry was rough, but it meant I was counting down the last couple of kilometres to my camp. Finally, after 31km with over 1700m of ascent, getting on for 9pm, I was at the place I wanted to be.
TGO Day 9: Glen Doll to the Clova Hotel
Distance: 5.5 km
I rolled reluctantly out of bed and started packing the tent away slowly. My intended route for the day was another high one, climbing up from Glen Doll to White Bents and Boustie Ley, then picking up the track above Loch Brandy to head over to Tarfside. But no amount of coffee was giving me the motivation to attempt it, especially as the glowering low cloud was still obscuring the tops.
Finally ready to go, after chatting to a conservation team preparing pack horses for heading up to work on Davy’s Bourach, I set off along the road towards the Clova Hotel. I’ve walked this road a few times, and head down, powering along is the only way. I was reliving memories of my Silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition, and the oppressive clouds started to lift. It might be ok after all.
It wasn’t. About 200 metres shy of the Clova Hotel, the clouds burst and I was nearly soaked through before I could get my waterproofs on. I stepped up my pace, and through the mirk, saw a wonderful sight. John was standing in the road with a golf umbrella, having reached the end of his road trip, decided to come and check up on how I was doing.
Whisked off for a huge pancake breakfast and more coffee at Peggy Scott’s in Finavon, I checked the weather forecast. While the coast was going to be dry and sunny, the heavy rain was slowly creeping across the glens for the rest of the day, a big blue dot sitting directly over the Mounth. As I still had a day in hand to finish the challenge, I called it and decided to bail out the rest of the day and continue the following morning.
Read the next instalment of my TGO journal here, and catch up on the previous entry here.
The first part of my route for the day had been visible for most of yesterday afternoon’s walk; Laraig Gortain, between Buchaille Etive Mór and Buchaille Etive Beag, leading to the well-trodden ground of Glen Coe and the West Highland Way. It’s the first real ascent of my route, though the biggest is still a few days away when I reach Schiehallion.
I stopped at the top of the pass for a cuppa and a long last look at Loch Etive, still technically the sea on the west coast.
After two days on my own, just crossing paths with the group of Danish challengers a couple of times and occasional day hikers in Glen Etive, the WHW was almost shockingly busy with walkers. Heading the “wrong” way, it feels like pushing my way down the local high street on a busy shopping weekend. I took advantage of local facilities with a long lunch* in the sun at the revamped Kingshouse hotel to recover. It’s all very fancy, but then that’s the kind of girl I am.
*haggis nachos and a pint of coast to coast, 5/5 would recommend
Leaving again was tough, with my pace slowing through the long hot day as I trudged across Rannoch Moor. The Danes caught up and passed me by just before I reached Black Corries Lodge, planning to head up into the hills. I kept on plodding on the track until 6pm and I’d used my last ounce of willpower and my motivational soundtrack to keep moving my feet.
I find a decent looking spot to camp close to a stream, but I’m still around 6km short of my intended endpoint. It’s going to make the next day really tough, but I’m completely drained. After pitching my tent I have a little swim and attempt to wash the peat from yesterday’s bog out of my trousers, before lying in the sun and reading my book. Have I hit the wall on just day three?
TGO Day 4: Rannoch Moor to Dall
The sun is shining again as I emerge from my tent, and I feel so much brighter than I did yesterday evening. A good night’s sleep, though instead of being woken early by cuckoos, I heard the sound of deer snuffling around and a grouse croak just after daybreak. It’s the fourth day of my challenge, and I’m starting to think of my daily routine. Wake up, eat, walk, rest, eat, walk, find somewhere to sleep, eat, rest.
Walking is my life now. I don’t have to worry about the usual issues of daily life, or working with the rest of the ship’s crew, and can be totally selfish. My only task is to get from A to B, to keep moving forward.
And today I do, finishing the distance I should have done yesterday, following the electric lines across the moor, then pushing on along the road from Rannoch Station (powered by a couple of coffees and a huge wedge of cake from the Station tearoom) and down the south side of Loch Rannoch to get to a good point for the following morning. It was a long slog on the road, especially in the sun, and it was a relief to find a shady spot to pitch my tent by the end of the day.
TGO Day 5: Dall to Braes of Foss
Ascent: 1065m, Schiehallion
I’d been a bit concerned about adding many Munros into my TGO route, especially at the beginning. Just a month ago, felt like I was getting out of breath on the short, steep hills of the Devon coast. But it felt like a bit of a cop-out to come north and not climb at least one proper mountain. After looking at maps to plan my route, I settled on crossing Schiehallion, almost right in the centre of Scotland.
It’s one that I hadn’t walked up before, and has a fascinating story, whether you’re a fan of the wee folk or a bit of a geography geek. I think I’d put myself into the latter category.
Not many people walk up from the west. A farm track leads up to the base of the ridge, with that famous pyramid view rising above you, then it’s a steep ascent through the heather to the start of the boulder field. Not a breeze to stir the warm air. One false summit, then the top comes into view. Almost there. And suddenly so many people.
The view from the top is outstanding and fills up my heart. I can pick out my route all the way back to Glencoe. I walked all that way. I did that.
And now I’m here on a mountain top. Exactly where I should be.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here, or catch-up with the previous one here.
I arrived in Oban late on Friday afternoon, having shared the drive up from Dartmouth, via Leighton Buzzard and Biddulph, with John. While I was preparing to cross Scotland on foot, carrying everything I needed on my back, he’d decided to take the opportunity to plan a Highland road trip, crossing my route several times. I took advantage of his plans, so rather than post resupply packages to hostels and B&Bs on my route, I packed them into the car, and we’d meet up along the way.
Knowing I’d be seeing a friendly face now and again was reassuring, but my sense of apprehension was huge. I picked up a few last snacks and rearranged things in my pack, again, and mulled over what was to come. Will I be cold? What if I get lost? Have I brought enough? Have I brought too much? Can I actually do this?
I’d already had to change my plans, switching my start from Lochailort to Oban, and extending a couple of days distance to make sure I could fit the Challenge into my leave from a new job. My fitness levels also played heavily on my mind. For the past six weeks, I’d been living onboard Irene, a traditional sailing ship, and unable to walk any farther than the length of the deck. I’d had one afternoon off to walk from Brixham to Dartmouth on the south-west coast path; was that enough to prepare? (No) Am I good enough? (Well, we’ll see)
Now all I had to do was walk the 270km to reach the east coast. Easy, huh?
TGO Day 1: Oban to Loch Etive (Inverawe Country Park)
After a bit of last-minute reorganisation (read: faffing about ) I finally signed the register at the youth hostel around 10am; one of the last names on the list left unchecked. Most of the Oban departures had left the previous day, so I’d be following their tracks out of town. If I could find my way out of town, as that depended on picking up a footpath somewhere behind a house near the top of the hill.
I crossed the road to make my official start from the beach, with my toes dipping in the water. Yesterday’s glorious sunset was a sign of things to come, warm sun and clear blue skies remained as I climbed the hill to McCaig’s tower, picked up the footpath and headed for the golf course. My nerves from earlier in the morning soon dissipated, and I was feeling confident as I headed away from the coast.
The hardest part of the day’s navigation was following the right road in town to make sure I found the footpath over the hill. For the rest of the day, I followed the minor road through Glen Lonan to Taynuilt, headed through the village, then crossed over a suspension bridge to Inverawe Country Park. From here I picked up the track alongside Loch Etive and found a suitable spot to pitch my tent and listen to the birds. I watch the sun go down, thankful for the absence of midges.
It felt like a great first day. No problems with my feet, through my hips and shoulders were not yet used to the weight of my pack, and I could feel the start of a bruise on my left hip.
TGO Day 2: Loch Etive, near Glennoe, to Glen Etive, near Dalness
Distance: 25km (distance walked in flip flops: 7km)
I woke in the early dawn to the sound of a cuckoo calling in the tree above my tent, and found a skin of frost around the vent by my head. Time check, almost 5am. I pulled a pair of gloves on, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and tried for another couple of hours sleep. The little bit of smugness at the lack of midges disappears quickly when I discover several ticks in my tent. I shook everything out and hung my tent over the tree vacated by the cuckoo while I checked my body.
After breakfast and a coffee, the sun was high enough to melt the frost on the tent, and I packed quickly to get on the way. The first couple of hours were easy-going, following the track along the east side of the loch until it disappeared somewhere between a beach and a bog. I crossed paths with a group of Danish challengers, though they forked off into Glen Kinglass not long afterwards. The day got hotter as I slogged on through the tussock alongside Loch Etive, so when I found a river with a deep pool I stopped for a lunchtime swim. It’s such a beautiful spot, I find it hard to leave.
A long trudge to the head of the loch faded out into a slog through the bog around Kinlochetive, at times falling thigh-deep in the wet earth, sapping all my physical and mental energy. I try to skirt around the edge of the bog, thinking that it would be drier underfoot the higher up the slope I went. That’s physics, right? So wrong.
By the time that I reached the road in Glen Etive I was pretty much done, and felt close to crying, but still had five and a half kilometres to go before my planned overnight campsite. The Laraig Gartain, the pass between Buchaille Etive Mor and Buchaille Etive Beag, had been taunting me from the moment I hauled myself out of the bog. It just hadn’t been getting any closer however far I’d walked towards it. It loomed over the whole afternoon.
A coffee break and a chat with day hikers in the carpark at the head of the loch perked me up, and I kicked off my wet boots to finish the day walking along the road to Dalness my flipflops. I pitched my tent with a Skyfall view and treated myself to the fanciest of the meal pouches I’d packed for this stage of the Challenge, before retreating to my sleeping bag for the night.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here.
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 also 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.
The West Highland Way (WHW)
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.
Great Glen Way (GGW)
Start: Fort William
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.
Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)
Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
Average time to complete: 14 days +
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 Sanquhar, 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.
Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
Average time to complete: 6 days
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.
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.
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.
Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
Average time to complete: 5 days
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.
Rob Roy Way
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.
Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
Length: approximately 128km (80 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.
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 an 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
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.
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. You must be familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.
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 hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings several 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 correctly.
It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, taking account of reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remember 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?
In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
What is the TGO Challenge?
The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.
Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best-known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados. The challengers that have taken part range in age from 18 (the lower age limit for participants) to an incredible 91 years old.
Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow. Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves. A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the full distance, which usually averages around 290km (180 miles).
Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” endpoint). Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in several summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are on hand to provide advice during the planning stage and guidance while underway.
The Challenge is non-competitive, and the camaraderie and friendships of the event have become legendary. Great friendships have been made and cemented, with the current co-ordinators meeting while taking part, and even a couple of marriages happening during the challenge!
In addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants must be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, on rugged terrain without trails in poor visibility. They must be self-reliant in remote and upland areas, follow the “leave no trace” principles of wild camping, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.
TGO Challenge Facts and Figures
In the 40 years of the TGO Challenge from 1980 to 2019:
3534 people have participated in the Challenge.
10013 crossings have been started on the west coast.
8851 have been completed by reaching the east coast.
251 people have completed 10 crossings.
24 have completed 20 crossings.
And so far, one person has completed 30 crossings!
Challenge control claims taking part in the TGO Challenge is addictive. Of the total 3534 people to have participated, 3178 people have completed at least one crossing. Allowing for those participating in recent years and yet may choose to return, only around half decide that once is enough!
However, after taking part in a second Challenge there is a 65% of coming back at some point for a third, and 75% of them doing the fourth crossing. By the time a person has taken part in nine challenges, there is a 96% chance they will come back for the tenth.
My TGO Route
Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take. My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.
Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles). There will be a few ups and downs on the way too. It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.
I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden. All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).
*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.
Planning and preparation
The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.
I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (Haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on Haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find. However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all. This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.
You can read my journals from the 2019 Challenge starting here.