If the thought of hiking across Scotland in the TGO Challenge appeals to you, here are a few lessons learned for first timers such as Americans and non-UK residents. People who walk in Scotland regularly know all this, but if you live abroad it’s hard to foresee these issues until you’ve completed your first crossing.
Bring a Wind Shirt
Scotland is very windy. While you can get by with just a rain shell, you’ll be more comfortable wearing a wind shirt. It’s worth the additional 3 or 4 oz.
Bring a 100 Weight Fleece Sweater
You are likely to experience many days of snow, sleet, freezing rain, cold rain, and hail when you hike across Scotland in May. Worn under a rain shell, a fleece sweater will prevent the cold from chilling you and will keep you warm even when wet. This is a must-have garment to bring along.
Wear Trail Runners
In addition to the numerous stream crossings and fords required to cross Scotland, ground conditions tend to be very wet in May and wearing wet leather boots is likely to lead to blisters and abject misery. Instead, your best bet is to wear a pair of trail runners without a gore-tex liner. These will dry in an hour on a warm dry day and are soft enough that they won’t cause friction blisters when wet.
Trail runners are very popular with Challengers instead of hiking boots because they drain quickly and are soft enough to help prevent blisters.
Carrying a lightweight backpack weighing 15-25 lbs, including food, fuel and water, will dramatically improve your comfort on the Challenge and increase your chances of a successful crossing. I’ve met a lot of people carrying 40+ lb loads on the Challenge and they were miserable. Do yourself a favor and cut your gear weight to the lightest weight you feel comfortable with.
Don’t bring Extra Clean Clothes
After a few days of hiking and camping out, your clothes are going to smell very bad. Consequently, many people carry an extra change of clothes with them so that they can eat in restaurants or stay in B&B’s without offending other patrons and guests. The downside to this is that you’re going to be carrying extra weight. My advice is to leave your extra clothes at home to keep your pack weight down.
Wear Dark Green, Blue, or Black Hiking Pants
Don’t be a dork and wear beige or lightly colored hiking pants. They will be quickly covered in mud particularly from the hem up to the back of your knee. Montane Terra Pants are very popular with Challengers but have an “athletic fit” that can be a little tight if you carry a few extra inches around the waist.
Wear Short Gaiters
Bring a pair of short gaiters to help keep your feet warm when they get wet and to help prevent ticks from attaching to your lower legs. Lyme disease is a growing concern in Scotland and gaiters are a useful way to protect yourself from tick bites.
Bring a Map Case
The Brits have been hiking in Scotland for a long time and carry their maps in waterproof map cases which keep them dry and easy to refer too. You’ll probably have to do some trail-less cross-country navigation during the Challenge and having your maps easily at hand is really useful to avoid getting lost.
Use Harvey Maps When Available
The most accurate and up to date maps of Scotland and England are published by Harvey Maps. In addition to having the most up-to-date set of land rover tracks and footpaths, they are also far lighter weight than the waterproof maps published by the Ordnance Survey. (The latter are so heavy that it makes sense to bring the paper OS maps and a waterproof map case to save weight.) Unfortunately Harvey Maps are not available for all areas of Scotland, so you will be forced to use a mix unless you print out your own custom map set from GPX files.
Use a Shelter with a Bathtub Floor
Camping with a floorless tarp like the MLD Trailstar or the MLD Duomid gets old quickly when the ground is covered with moss and soaking wet. If you have a shelter like this its best to buy a bathtub floor or inner nest with it that you can deploy on wet ground or when the surface is covered in grassy tussocks and mole hills. The same holds for tents but with the added caveat: it must be possible to pitch a tent with the outer fly first to avoid soaking the inner tent/nest if it is raining.
Don’t bring a Head Lamp
In May, sunrise in Scotland is at 4:30 am and sunset is at 9:30 pm. If you’re hiking 10-12 hours a day, it’s unlikely that you’ll be awake after sunset. Therefore, instead of a head torch, bring along a very small photon LED light in case you need to leave your shelter at night to answer the call of nature. This will save you another few ounces of pack weight.
Avoid Road Walking
Your route is likely to include a bit of road walking on black tarmac. This is unavoidable but you should try to minimize it because it’s tedious, boring, tires your legs, and causes blisters. Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to tell the difference between a dirt road and a paved one on Ordnance Survey maps unless you have up-to-date local knowledge of your route. As a Challenger, you can get this kind of information by posting questions on the Challenge message board. Take advantage of this resource. Your knees and feet will thank you.
Contrary to their name, bacon butties do not have butter in them. Instead they contain sliced bacon (what we call thick Canadian Style), sandwiched between two halves of a roll or toasted bread. After a few days in the wild, they make a fabulous meal.
Use a SPOT
A SPOT Satellite Messenger is a non-invasive way for you to let people know that you’re ok, or to provide rescuers with a GPS fix in an emergency. I used one on my crossing, sending an ok message each morning and evening, to let my family and Challenge Control track my progress. The Spot sends messages via satellite and doesn’t require reliable mobile network access.
Camping Stove Fuel
Make sure you have cooking gas or fuel for your entire hike. This can be challenging if you are coming from outside the country and have a tight travel schedule because it is illegal to send flammable substances in the Royal Mail and the airlines forbid them as well. It also means that you have to physically buy your own gas from an outfitter in-country because it can’t be shipped to your start point in the mail. This can make getting canister-based isobutane a challenge to acquire without building more travel time into your schedule. Note also, that there are different types of canister stove attachments in the US and the UK, screw-on vs. bayonet style, so make sure that you source a compatible gas source.
One alternative is to bring a heavier international stove which will burn any type of fuel. Don’t bother bringing a wood burning stove because there is little wood in Scotland and what little there is – is soaking wet.
Yet another option is to use an efficient alcohol (meths) stove like the Caldera Cone or an esbit tablet stove. On hindsight, I should have probably used an alcohol stove for my first Challenge hike since meths is easy to obtain at any hardware or farm supply store.
The final few days of hiking to the east coast are a let down after hiking through the Cairngorms. The terrain quickly turns into farm land and requires road walking through more urbanized areas to reach the sea. Your best bet is to pack this stretch of walking into one or two very high mileage days to maximize the time you can spend in the mountains to the west.
Mountain Rescue and Extra Medical Insurance
Mountain rescue services are free in the UK, unlike parts of the US where you have to reimburse authorities if you are an idiot or have an unexpected accident requiring evacuation. Regardless, having a little extra medical and emergency transportation insurance is a worthwhile investment if you want to be flown out of country. A $50,000 add-on rider can be purchased with an annual SPOT subscription and is well worth the extra fee.
Become a Compass Expert
If you hike the Challenge you should be very adept with a compass. Hiking cross-country, even when bounded by major geographical features or roads, is a lot different from hiking a well blazed trail. You need to be able to find north confidently and read a map well enough to navigate around dangers like peat bogs (think quicksand.)
Bring a GPS
A GPS or cell phone with a GPS and mapping software can be very useful on The Challenge, particularly when the mist comes down or you can’t make out any visible landmarks. Personally, I used mine in a very minimal way to get a position fix when I wanted to check where I was in tandem with a map and compass. Alternatively you can load it with the way points for your route or load it with electronic versions of the your maps and leave the paper copies at home.
Check your Maps
If you live abroad, have the OS maps for your route sent to your home address well before you hike starts. When they arrive, make sure you have the correct ones to walk your route end-to-end. This must sound obvious, but I it didn’t do it and found I was missing an important map.
This occurred because I ordered my maps using the OS numbers printed on the Scottish Hill Tracks map that corresponded to the areas I’d be walking through thinking that they matched the OS map number in use today. They don’t. Luckily I was able to find a copy of OS map 44 at a local news agent, but the lesson learned is that you shouldn’t assume that the OS numbers referred to across planning sources, including online mapping programs, are in complete synch with the OS maps in print.
Double check before you leave home.
Metric vs. Imperial
When you refer to an Ordnance Survey map in the UK, all of the distances on it are given using a metric scale based on kilometers. Distances printed on road signs however, are listed in miles.
Having a mobile phone in Scotland is an incredible convenience since phone boxes has almost ceased to exist in the UK. However, coverage in the highlands can be very spotty and the different networks don’t share bandwidth via roaming contracts, so you shouldn’t count on coverage outside of your existing network.
Don’t Carry Too Much Food
Depending on your route, it is possible to resupply every few days in towns, and in hindsight, I probably carried too much food between resupply points on my first crossing, except for a stretch where I didn’t carry nearly enough!
However, it can be difficult to judge what a viable resupply point is on Ordnance Survey Maps without local knowledge. Your best bet is to confirm that a shop exists at a location before you arrive by asking other Challengers on the Challenge message board.
Grocery Stores Close at Mid-day
It’s common for the local grocery store to close during lunch time in small Scottish towns. If you need to resupply, your best bet is to arrive in town early in the day or mid-afternoon to avoid waiting around in town for the store to re-open.
Deer and Sheep Ticks
Lyme disease has spread to Scotland and is transmitted to humans from deer and sheep tick bites. The best way to prevent against infection is to wear long pants for walking and check yourself daily.
Sending yourself a mail drop from the US to a Post Office in Scotland can be a very effective means of resupplying yourself. At the cost of $50/package, it can be expensive, but I found it surprisingly reliable. See this post for directions on how to send a package to the UK for pickup via General Delivery.
Post Offices Close Early
Post offices in small towns often close early in the middle of the week. If you’re planning on picking up a resupply package make sure you call ahead to find out the post office’s hours so that you can get your package when you need it.
Lodging in Montrose
The public campground in Montrose is horrible and you’ll be far more comfortable spending the night in a B&B. If you can afford 94 pounds per night, the Best Western Links Hotel, located next door to Challenge Control at the Park Hotel, has a great location, is quiet, provides a huge breakfast, and has a free public internet terminal in the lobby.
Send an extra pair of Shoes to Montrose
If you’ve worn trail shoes on The Challenge, they will smell like bong water by the time you arrive in Montrose. To avoid public humiliation, you cannot wear these in public or on buses, trains or planes. Either buy a new pair of shoes in Montrose, or send a pair to the Park Hotel care of Challenge Control, that you can wear for your journey home.
Written: May 2010.
Revised: May 2015.