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Hiking and Backpacking in Scotland: What to Expect and Recommended Skills

I always get nostalgic about backpacking in Scotland when I give presentations about my experiences backpacking coast-to-coast in the TGO Challenge. While it’s only been 5 months since Martin Rye and I hiked from Torridon to Montrose, it already seems like it’s been forever since I saw the magnificent Scottish mountains and landscape and sunk my feet into wet peat!

I gave this latest talk about Scotland this week to the Worcester Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club in central Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston. Like the Boston Chapter, they have an excellent monthly speaker series with many well-known speakers, including my boss Andrew Skurka, who will be giving a talk at their annual meeting about his Alaska and Yukon Expedition in a few weeks (for details).

Coping with Bad Weather

Having backpacked across Scotland twice now, I have a better appreciation for the differences between backpacking there and in the United States and the additional skills a hiker needs to master to have a good experience. While there are many factors factors that can make or break a backpacking trip, the most important ones in Scotland are being prepared for the weather and good navigation skills.

Scotland has a maritime mountain environment which is heavily influenced by weather blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean that sweeps cross-country in a west-to-east pattern. Predicting the interaction between mountains and bad weather is tricky business, because mountains can create their own local weather variations, but as a rule of thumb, non-winter weather in the west tends to be a bit more malevolent than the weather in the east, once a storm makes landfall and loses energy overland.

While the weather reports published by the Met Office are very detailed and account for local variations, Scotland is remote enough that you can’t count on having cell phone service to access them. An important skill therefore, is to stay on top of weather trends and track barometric pressure, so you can decide when it’s safe to climb a peak or walk by it, or sit in your tent for the day and wait for a storm to pass. It’s rare for United States hikers to stay hold up for a day in their shelter in bad weather, but not all that uncommon in Scotland and other parts of the UK.

Navigation

Being an excellent navigator with a map and compass is also a skill that will stand you in good stead in Scotland, where visibility can be abysmal in poor weather. There are many more dimensions to this than being good with a map and compass though, although that is also an essential skill.

For long journeys, a day or more in length, it really pays to use a UK-specific mapping tool like Mapyx Quo, Routebuddy, or grough route so you can plan out alternative routes and collaborate with others. The UK’s digital and paper maps are both excellent and far more up to date than their US counterparts. Of course, there is no substitute for local information, including information about peat bog locations which are not encoded on UK maps, so you need to develop these any way you can (forums, blogs, etc) to find out what conditions on the ground are like including washed out bridges, landslips, high water conditions, bothy locations, snow depth, and so on.

In addition to conventional navigation tools, the maps for smart phone apps are excellent in the UK, especially for ViewRanger, and are well worth bringing a smart phone along to get spot GPS position checks even if you don’t buy local cell phone service. Back roads in the UK, such as estate land rover tracks, are very dynamic, and being able to match your location to a road can mean the difference between a hot meal in the pub and another cold, wet night on the moor.

For More Information

Hiking or Backpacking in another country where you are unfamiliar with the terrain, weather, and other local peculiarities is a wonderful experience, but I can’t emphasize the importance of mastering as many different hiking-related skills as possible before your trip, if only so you get used to being a quick study when faced with a novel situation.

If you have any further questions about hiking or backpacking in Scotland, I’ll try to answer them below, or you can invite me to speak to your organization via my speaking engagement contact form (at the bottom of page). In the mean time, enjoy the fantastic scenery in the slide show above.

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11 comments

  1. Nice piece, very interesting to hear an ‘outside’ perspective and hope it encourages the experienced backpacker to explore the Scotland’s wilder bits; too many think the West Highland Way is the best Scotland has to offer, there’s a lot more and IMO it’s infinitely better.
    Personally I’ve never had to sit out bad weather in a shelter, I’ve choose shorten the day or modify the route due to poor weather. A resource you seem to have overlooked is the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk/index.php), it provides excellent 3 days forecasts for the mountain regions with specific detail on wind speed (@3000ft), cloud base, freeze level, etc. and of course there’s a free App!
    Resupply can be an issue, in common with a lot of other mountain areas. A lot of the smaller towns and villages have ‘lost’ the shop (even the Laggan Store pictured is closed), even where there is one the menu will need to be flexible. There’s nothing like local knowledge but luckily we now have the internet and user forums, Walk Highlands (http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/) is a one of the better sites/ forums for info.

  2. Great Slideshow Philip! Great info.

  3. I’d respectfully offer that the MWIS is not always all it’s cracked up to be. They have an almost impossible task that they get right some of the time. During September, I bagged five different Munros, and I’m afraid MWIS failed pretty spectacularly on all of them. But, it’s Scotland, and you’d better be ready for that!

  4. I spoke yesterday with a colleague who’s completed most of Britain’s long distance trails. It doesn’t interest me too much – too confining and too goal oriented in a country where the weather is too often not favourable for it.

    Anyway…he reported that the West Highland Way is rather uninspiring. I understand long distance routes in places like the Pyrenees where you need some sort of plan, but I don’t think it works that well for Scotland. And the TGOC is not that – it’s a DIY route which you adapt as necessary.

  5. You have got me interested . I might start a bit of research. My Scot roots keep calling me Thanks for this .

  6. Even if I never to the Challenge, I really want to hike Scotland. My nephew married a gal from across the Pond and her brother in law is a backpacker. I’m going to try to work out a major Scotland hiking expedition with him.

  7. I enjoyed that post, Philip.
    There’s a lot in your slideshow that even experienced UK backpackers should remember!

    I would, however, always take a paper map. You never know when your gadgets will run out of juice or fail.
    :-)

  8. thanks for this interesting report (as are all the other ones on the TGOC). I’m signed up, crossing my fingers now that it won’t be too badly oversubscribed…

  9. Thank you for this. Your blog is an incredible resource. I’m planning to walk the East Highland Way in late October, camping all the way. It’ll be my longest hike to date and my first international hike planned while not living in the destination country (lived in Northern Ireland for a year and did a lot of day hikes).

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