Feb 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm #1299049
Jim and I are planning our next big hike – five weeks in Scotland. I'm sharing our info in case it's useful to others, and in case there are Scottish Hill experts out there who can give us advice.
This post is sort of a brain dump. (I'll post specific questions on the UK/Scottish forums, where there are many local experts.)
We've been backpacking in US Wilderness areas 40 years (Amy) and 50 years (Jim), with plenty of miles of off-trail travel. Ten years ago we started also taking "town to town" hikes overseas, and have now taken 10 or 15 hikes of about five weeks each (England, Wales, France, Spain, Turkey, Australia). Five weeks on the trail is our sweet spot. This will be our first hike in Scotland — we're scared of the weather there, but so many people have told us it's spectacular that we are taking the plunge.
0) Walk the Kelvin Walkway from Glasgow to the start of the West Highlands Way
1) Walk the West Highlands Way (aka WHW) to Fort William
2) Walk some variant of the Cape Wrath Trail (aka CWT) to Cape Wrath
3) Walk the north coast east from Cape Wrath as far as we get, ideally all the way to the train station at Wick.
West Highland Way is straight-forward popular National Traill with way-marks and guidebooks. Planning is easy, navigation is easy, and there are services all along the route.
Cape Wrath Trail is not a trail per se, but a bunch of routing options. We've got the 1999 Cicerone Guide, the info from the 2013 Cicerone Guide (which will not be published in time for us). We've downloaded track info from trip reports at walkhighlands.co.uk and from capewrathtrailguide.org. We've got all the routing options from both Cicerone editions loaded in Google Earth and in the OS mapping tools in WalkHighlands.co.uk. We've ruled out some of the alternatives, chosen some stretches we intend to walk, and have a collection of alternates we will use if the weather conditions preclude our intended route. The level of planning for this route is a different league from walking a National Trail :)
North Coast routing is derived from gpx tracks and trip report from the fellow who walked the entire coast of the island (England/Wales/Scotland). Jim did the research and I can't find the website, but will update this post when I find it.
http://capewrathtrailguide.org/ (excellent site from the author of the 2013 Cicerone guidebook, complete with gpx files)
http://backpackinglight.co.uk/page116.asp (I've listened to the podcasts from several years of TGO Challenges)
We'll continue with our long-standing method — hot meals at every opportunity (pubs, cafes, B&Bs) and cold food in between. We won't carry a stove, and we won't ship parcels to points along the trail. We've found that even the tiniest shops carry our staples — cheese, bread/crackers/muffins, meat (salami, jerky, canned tuna), nuts, dry fruit, chocolate, cookies, carrots, apples, yoghurt, potato chips, granola/cereal bars. Seventy-five miles is the longest distance between shops (on the CWT between Ullapool and Kinlochbervie), and there are a couple hotels in that stretch where we'll be able to eat a sit-down meal and hopefully buy some hard-boiled eggs and other food to take along for the following days. I expect that we'll end up carrying 8-10 pounds of food per person max once or twice, but for most of the trip we'll get by carrying just 1-3 days worth of food. This no-cook and no-ship method is not the norm, but it works well for us.
We'll rough camp, we'll use bothies, we'll use B&Bs and hotels, we'll use bunk houses. We're open to all options, and each night will depend on where we are at the end of the day and what the weather is like. Historically we've spent nearly all nights on our trips wild camping. But the Scottish bothies offer a great alternative. We've heard the message loud and clear that what looks like it will be a good campite on a topo map is in fact a boggy or tussocky site impossible to use; many people have reported spending a few hours walking before finding a suitable site — it sure isn't like hiking in the Sierra or in southern Utah, or the Great South Path in Australia, where there are frequent 5-star campsites.
For the WHW we will carry a guidebook (Cicerone or Aurum Press) that contains maps. The National Trail is on clear paths and is waymarked, so the maps in the book should be adequate.
For the CWT and the North Coast, we have superimposed our route info onto the OS 1:50K maps using http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/maps/, captured those images, arranged them into wide strip maps using Adobe Illustrator, and will print them onto 11×17" DuraCopy waterproof paper. For the tougher off-trail sections we'll also print the 1:25K maps.
We'll carry an iPhone to use as a gps device. All track and waypoint info and maps will be pre-loaded so we won't need WIFI or data service. We'll recharge in shops and cafes, and a charge should last us 3-4 days. We'll be using two apps:
ViewRanger, preloaded with OS 1:50K and 1:25K maps for the whole route.
Gaia GPS, preloaded with satellite imagery, OpenCycleMap maps, and 1950s OS maps. Current OS maps are very expensive and not available from Gaia. The 1950s OS maps are out of copyright, and therefore available at no charge. Obviously they aren't as useful as the current maps.
We've used Gaia GPS for long walks in Turkey, Spain and Australia and it has worked very well for us. We haven't used ViewRanger yet, but I've been using it as I prep our route information and so far it seems AOK.
We'll use a LifeProof case for the phone. This is a 30 gram waterproof case that has the same form factor as a normal iPhone case. I've had it for only on week and haven't used it in the rain yet, but I'm pleased with it's form and weight. In addition we'll carry an Aloksak and a few pint size freezer ziplocks.
And the iPhone is attached to my pants, so I won't drop or lose it.
Packs: ULA Ohm2 (Jim), and either ULA Circuit or GG Mariposa (Amy)
Sleeping: REI QuarterDome, NeoAir pads with pad couplers, home-made double down quilt. Cuben ground cloth which will double as a mini tarp for use during the day. (total weight = 128 oz = 8 pounds). Some day we'll switch to lighter tent, but we're pretty darn happy with the Quarter Dome.
Amy's Trail Clothes:(Jim's will be similar)
Montrail AT Plus trail runners (I've used this model for several years)
REI Desert Gaiters
Darn Tough 3/4 mesh socks (3 pairs)
Pants – either Arcteryx Palisade or Cloudveil Spinner zip-off softshell pants
Sunday Afternoons Sport Hat (wide brim, but fits under a raincoat hood)
Marmot Chinook hooded windshirt (the old lighter model, sadly no longer available)
Montbell Thermawrap vest
Marmot Essence raincoat
GoLite rain pants (I remove the elastic band from the waist to save a half oz and associated bulk)
OR Flurry mitts with TerraNova Extremeties TuffBags waterproof overmitts
Amy's dry clothes for evening
2nd merino hoody (may use during day if necessary)
Icebreaker 150 long johns (may use during day if necessary)
mid-weight wool socks that always stay dry
Smartwool cuffed beanie (to double up with hoody since our quilt doesn't wrap over our heads)
BPL Thoroughfare windpants
Crocs Cleo model (lighter and more compact than most models, gives my feet a chance to air and dry)
Nunatak Skaha down pullover.
Ditties and Other Gear
Waterproof stuff sacks (Zpacks cuben fiber and/or trash compactor bags and/or Sea to Summit UltraSil.)
2x micro towels
2x soda bottles
Black Diamond z-poles (Amy only, Jim doesn't use poles)
GoLite Umbrella (Jim only, Amy can't use one due to hiking poles)
2x Reading Glasses, 2x Sunglasses
Camera (in addition to iPhone, better quality images and doesn't drain the iPhone battery)
Food kit (2 spoons, lexan knife, can opener)
Maps, route notes, pencil
1x Petzl e-lite
Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, dental floss, earplugs, tiny liquid soap, tiny bug juice, pocket pack Kleenex, matches, whistle, chapstick with Leukotape wrapped around it, 1 oz sunscreen, deodorant, Body Glide, Clotrimizole anti-fungal foot ointment (deodorant, Body Glide and Clotrimzole repackaged into tiny pill containers).
Maybe Aqua Mira (but most scottish hikers don't treat water)
iPhone charging cable. Possibly a small 1-2 oz external recharge battery.
First Aid and Repair kit.
Total pack weight (not including binocs and base clothing we always wear) is currently at 13.9 pounds per person. Biggest weight savings we're considering would be 1 pound of bird book, and switching to a 2.5 pound (vs 4 pound) tent. I don't think we'll change tents for this trip, as we are not inclined to experiment with new tent given Scottish weather. But we might sacrifice the bird book and just use bird apps on the iPhone.
We're both comfortable tackling the off-trail sections. We're both comfortable being on the trail for five weeks and the lifestyle issues that entails (all day every day hiking, many days without hot water or hot food, finding a campsite at the end of a day with no predetermined destination). We've hiked in wet boggy terrain, and although it's not particularly pleasant I think we know what to expect.
The big unknown is the weather. We have plenty of experience hiking when the temps are at or below freezing (autumn mornings in the Sierra or winter mornings in Coe or Big Sur) and we know how to dress for that. In Wales we had 14 days of rain and wind (fortunately followed by 3 weeks with NO rain!), so we've had the experience of walking in the rain, in wet shoes through wet boggy ground, day after day. But in Wales the temps were mild, so we could hike in shorts and a merino zip-t plus rain coat and pants and stay very comfortable. And we've had a few trips that had a day at a time of cold and wet weather. But we've never taken a hike where it was cold and wet day after day. Reading trip reports, and having listened to all of the "TGO Challenge" episodes from "The Outdoors Station", I can see that we might be lucky and have as much sun as rain, or we might be unlucky and have consecutive days of windy coldy wet weather with no sunny interludes. We keep our fingers crossed – prepare for the worst and hope for the best.Feb 9, 2013 at 1:30 pm #1952617
Amy, did I miss what time of year you're planning to do the walk?Feb 9, 2013 at 2:05 pm #1952629
spring, before the midges :)Feb 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm #1952639
"spring, before the midges :)"
A buddy and I rode our bikes through Scotland a number of years ago for three weeks. Wonderful trip, but boy do I remember the midges. We'd ride through swarms of them. Those areas became known as high protein zones….Feb 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm #1952643
@stephen-mLocale: Way up North
Sounds like an amazing trip, I must presume its April you are going?
outdoorsmagic.com is a good resource for info on Scotland.
StephenFeb 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm #1952655
We'll be there in April and May. We don't have much tolerance for bugs and hope that it's not an unusually warm spring leading to an unusually early hatch.Feb 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm #1952663
@stephen-mLocale: Way up North
April and May will be great, I am back for two weeks in May (renting a cottage near Pitlochry).Feb 10, 2013 at 12:15 am #1952785
@germantouristLocale: in my tent
I am already looking forward to your trip report! Your reports are always fantastic and have already been a great source of inspiration for me.
I have hiked through the whole of Scotland myself as a part of my John O'Groats to Land's End hike in 2011. You'll find the trip report here on my blog:
I personally did not enjoy Scotland very much: The pathless terrain was very difficult to hike in. Although incredibly beautiful, the scenery did not outweigh the difficulties of hiking for me. But a lot depends on your expectations and you know much better than I did back then what to expect.
Here is some input for your trip:
The West Highland Way is one of the most popular trails in Europe, especially for Germans. Going North to South I met up to 100 hikers per day in summer!!!! There will be less people in spring, but still don't expect solitude. For Scottish standards the WHW is not even very scenic. It parallels a busy motorway and you'll hear traffic noise most of the way.
Bothies are a great invention. They are usually very scenic and I enjoyed them tremendously. Unfortunately, out of fear of vandalism they are generally not marked on the maps.
A great tool for planning your trip and printing out maps is grough.co.uk. For an almost nominal fee you can use the fantastic OS maps on your computer, create your own waypoints and tracks and print out maps. If you want paper maps as a backup for your smartphone GPS that would be a very convenient and cheap way to get them. i planned my whole 2 months JoGLE trip with them.
Enjoy your trip!
German Tourist aka ChristineFeb 10, 2013 at 12:26 am #1952786
I have no personal experience of this, but in light of German Tourist's thoughts on the WHW this might be worth considering: http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/615/title/not-the-west-highland-wayFeb 10, 2013 at 1:08 am #1952793
@edhyattLocale: The North
Sounds great – the weather is unpredictable, but Spring can be a very settled time….then again you might get rain, snow, sun….on the same day….can be windy.
I've done a few multi-day backpacks in Scotland:
…as you can see I post on Scottish Hills – a fine resource for question asking.
Personally I would not touch the WHW with a bargepole….each to their own. Instead I'd head into Assynt, Fisherfield Forest (no trees ;-), Knoydart, Torridon, or the Mamores and/or Grey Corries. Then there are the islands….
I've a lot of trip-planning resources to hand if you'd like any help.
Off-trail is OK, but slow – I reckon to travel at 1-2mph in pathless areas. You're never too far from civilisation/shelter of some sort though…
I've not had a hard look at your gear list – but an Altimeter you might not need or a Spot (but then you might use that a la your HRP trip) for tracking with friends I guess.
Five weeks in Scotland – what fun :-)Feb 10, 2013 at 1:15 am #1952794
@mikefaedundeeLocale: Under a bush in Scotland
This site gives some info on bothies. There are lots of other bothies that aren't managed by the MBA.
I always have a 100wgt fleece at that time of year. Fleece is a great fabric in cold/wet conditions. For the upper body, i would have a light merino base, a 100wgt fleece and windshirt. Wear whatever combo is needed at the time.Feb 10, 2013 at 5:50 am #1952808
Some random thoughts:
May is definitely the best time for camping in Scotland, before the midges come out. April often has nice spells, but it can be stormy too – strong winds plus rain or snow. Be prepared for any weather in April, this is the time that people can get caught out. Be prepared to sit out a storm for a day or two in a bothy/bunkhouse/hostel.
Good wild camp sites are hard to predict, I look for a bend in a river/stream where the contours are well spaced. Often it will be tussocky, but sometimes you get lucky and find some nice short grass.
I too would not bother with the WHW – not particularly scenic plus traffic noise in places. Have you considered the Scottish National Trail? This is a new route/trail that doesn't even have a website yet, but there is a book: "Scotland End to End". The nothern half is pretty much the CWT, but the southern half follows the WHW for only a few miles.Feb 10, 2013 at 10:30 am #1952896
Thanks to all who've chimed in. A few notes:
Stephen – thanks for the tip on outdoorsmagic.com, I hadn't looked at that site yet.
Christine (aka German Tourist) – likewise I've enjoyed reading about your hikes. I just read your "John O'Groats to Land's End: Conclusion" post. I think my summary thought is this — you and I are lucky that we have enough time to take lots of trips to lots of places in order to find out what suits us. There's just no way to know until you go. In addition to hiking trips, Jim and I also take birding trips overseas, and we felt about birding in Thailand the way you felt about hiking in the UK — never need to go again; several times we nearly aborted the trip, as we had day after day that was worse than neutral for us. Everybody else I know has loved travel in Thailand, and we had no way to know in advance that it wouldn't suit us. We've already hiked for about 24 weeks total in England and Wales, so we have a sense for some of the things you mentioned. I think my only specific comment on your post is that I can't imagine hiking anywhere in the UK without 1:50 Ordnance Survey maps (even in settled farmed regions), and I woudn't go off trail in Scotland without 1:25 OS maps. With regards to Scotland, we'll find out when we get there, but my guess is that we'll be OK with the navigation and boggy ground challenges; however we have zero tolerance for biting bugs, so if the midges hatch early we'll probably get on a train and head down to Devon/Cornwall and just re-hike the Southwest Coast Path instead :)
Christine – Thanks for the tip about grough.co.uk. We already used the OS mapping tools at walkhighlands.co.uk to plan our trip and prepare our printed maps, but if I'd known about Grough earlier we might have used that one instead. Both sites provide the OS maps, and I'm not sure which has better features.
Christine and William and Ed and Stuart – about the West Highland Way. We already have the Cicerone "Not the West Highland Way" book — great minds think alike :) We have been inclined to hike that 5 days of our trip with the WHW crowd, as we'll have plenty of solitude time further north. We've come to appreciate the diversity of different phases of a hike having different characteristics, including a few days with crowds of hikers. But the advice that it has road noise and is not particularly scenic is useful and makes us rethink using some of the "Not the West Highland Way" routing.
Regarding the "Scottish National Trail", we did buy the book recently, and are intrigued by the route — maybe we'll return in future years to do the whole thing; the CWT has enough routing choices that we could hike it again without repeating much. FWIW, I'm quite disappointed in the Scotland End to End coffee table book — too much flowery text about the author's personal experiences and not enough of the kind of information that long distance hikers need, like a table that lists services (grocery stores, post offices, etc) and distance between them. I'm looking forward to seeing the next phase of that project — hopefully a website that publishes gpx data and nitty-gritty take-this-hike details.
Ed – "you might not need or a Spot". We didn't carry one until a couple years ago. I had a conversation with a retired former head of the North Wales Search and Rescue Team, talking about Jim who was hiking on the Cambrian Way while I stayed at this fellow's B&B recovering from knee injury. The fellow said to me "With today's technology, it's a selfish act to be out in the Snowdonia Mountains without a way to communicate – Jim may not care if he dies out there, but if he doesn't show up the SAR team members will risk their lives looking for him." That perspective changed it for us, and now we carry a SPOT. The chances we'll ever need to initiate an urgent rescue are minuscule. But the chances of needing to communicate "We're fine even though we have not completed our trip on schedule" (avoiding a SAR activity altogether), or "We can't self-extract and need help, but we're safe and 2-4 day response time is fine" (initiating the Rescue part of SAR but without needing the Search part and without a sense of urgency). I know that in Scotland we'll never be more than a few miles from a road, and there are two of us so one could go for help; none-the-less I'm just more comfortable having it along. A satellite phone would do the trick, but too expensive for us. And, as you mentioned, the extra benefit of carrying the SPOT is the vicarious pleasure I share with my friends.
Mike – "For the upper body, i would have a light merino base, a 100wgt fleece and windshirt. Wear whatever combo is needed at the time." Good advice. My standard kit is the same merino base and windshirt as you use, but I carry a Montbell Thermawrap vest instead of a fleece. I may take your advice and replace my Montbell vest with a fleece instead if that's a better bet for wet cold weather.Feb 10, 2013 at 11:20 am #1952913
@mikefaedundeeLocale: Under a bush in Scotland
I would only use that combo for actual hiking. Fleece is easy to wring dry if it gets saturated. For camp use at that time of year, i would also carry either a Montbell Thermawrap or Down Jacket. I too have a Skaha Down Pullover, but personally, i would find it overkill for that time of year. Of course, everyone is different in their perception of cold.Feb 10, 2013 at 6:41 pm #1953034
I just had a thought, based on the comments about the West Highland Way.
We've been planning to start in Glasgow, walk north to to Cape Wrath and then east along the coast, as far as we can get, hopefully to Wick. For our other 4-6 week trail hikes we allocate 18 miles per day, and have always finished early, averaging 19-20 miles per day. For this trip, we have allocated 18 mpd for the WHW and North Coast, and 15 miles per day for the CWT. Our fallback, should we lose too much time due to bad weather or slow going on the off-trail parts of CWT, is that we wouldn't make it as far as Wick.
But maybe we should reverse the direction and start in Wick. That way, if we don't have enough time to complete the walk, then the part we cut out is the WHW. And if we have fantastic weather and reach Fort WIlliam with time to spare, then we could take the "Not the West Highland Way" routing instead of the standard WHW.
Question for you folks who know Scotland — are the prevailing winds out of the west, so that walking from Wick to Cape Wrath is just a dumb idea? Or from the south, so that walking the CWT southbound is a dumb idea? Any advice?
We like the idea of walking the North Coast for two reasons. One is that we've never met a coastal walk we didn't love (SWCP in England, Pembrokeshire Coast, Brittany Coast, Great South Coast Walk from Sydney to Mallacoota, and local walks like San Francisco to Monterey or circumambulation of the Point Reyes peninsula. There's something about being near the sea that suits us. And second reason is that it's not a standard popular hiking route. So maybe if we are not able to complete the whole trip we would be better to miss the WHW instead of missing the North Coast. Happy to hear opinions.Feb 11, 2013 at 5:37 am #1953125
The weather here is usually dominated by low pressure systems that come in off the Atlantic. Usually they track directly over or to the north, so the wind veers from SW to NW as the low passes over.
There is a minor road that runs parallel to the north coast, so if you stick to your original plan and run out of time before you get to Thurso, it will still be possible to bail out and get transport back to civilisation. There are beautiful sandy beaches on the north and north-west coasts, deserted apart from a few hard-core surfers (you won't be needing your swim suit :-)Feb 11, 2013 at 10:39 am #1953213
Our route planning is a work in progress, but it's far enough along to share. Might be useful to anybody else planning to hike the CWT, or to any Scottish highland experts with time on their hands who might want to poke at it.
For the CWT parts, lines are color coded. Red lines are the Cicerone 2013 version primary route. Green lines are usually the Cicerone 2013 Alternate routes. Yellow lines are things we've added, and could be alternate route descriptions from old or new Cicerone, or lines we created from OS maps or tracks visible in Google Earth or tracks derived from trip reports. The track segments are usually labelled OC or NC – meaning Old Cicerone or New Cicerone. The color coding may not always be correct – we aren't really using it anymore and it's an artifact from when we were trying to reconcile the four sets of data we had — OC Primary, OC Alternates, NC Primary, and NC Alternates. Note that this file only includes the track segments from OC and NC that we might take, it doesn't show all options from the two books.
For reference, here's a link to the Old Cicerone Primary Route: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/15393086/BPL/Old-Cicerone-Primary-CWT-Route.kmz
Next up – I'll probably add some of the tracks from Not the West Highland Way.
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