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Backpacking in Scotland ’24 – Stopped in My Tracks

TGO Scotland 2024

My backpacking trip to Scotland this May did not go as planned. Two days into my hike, I came down with what was probably Norovirus. It kicked my ass, and it took me about a week before I began to feel myself again. Ironically, I’d just published an article about How to Avoid Norovirus on Backpacking Trips. I’m unsure when I caught it: maybe on the plane or the train to Oban, my starting point, or at the bed and breakfast I stayed at for one night before the trip. Hard to say.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the carbon fiber frame stayed holding my hip belt on my $400 Zpacks Arc Haul ultralight backpack broke, so at the time, I thought I’d have to buy another backpack in Scotland, a pricy proposition if I wanted to continue after my recovery. It then took the gear manufacturer several days to get back to me and multiple emails before they sent me replacement stays and a fix for the problem. I’m still trying to decide whether I will continue using that pack. I like it a lot, but I’m ambivalent now. Frame stays shouldn’t break, especially on such a new backpack.

I was incredulous when the carbon fiber stay on my backpack broke. I was having a BAD day.
I was incredulous when the carbon fiber stay on my backpack broke. I was having a BAD day.

But given other scheduling commitments, I decided it would be best to bail and fly home early to recover further and prepare for my next adventure, which also had a calendar deadline: completing the White Mountains 4000 Footer Grid. Bailing in Scotland was a disappointing experience, to be sure, but you have to roll with the punches. I know I’ll be back for more backpacking in Scotland, and next time, I plan to give myself a much longer time window to handle future mishaps.

Lochside campsite with my Tarptent Notch Li tent
Lochside campsite with my Tarptent Notch Li tent

The plan had been to thru-hike coast to coast, about 200 miles, in 15 days in early May, coinciding with the TGO Challenge (click for info), an annual event that’s run for the past 40 years. I’d completed this crossing twice before and planned to finish a third time. There is no set route—you plan your own—but it must be completed in the 15-day time window in which the event occurs.

Early morning reflections in the Loch.
Early morning reflections in the Loch.

But on the second night of my route, I was erupting at both ends and felt like bloody hell. Imodium had no effect at all. I was about 8 miles out of Bridge of Orchy and felt so bad that I even considered calling for aid, but ultimately, I decided to walk out on my own steam. Then, a mile from town, I heard a pop, and the carbon fiber stay on my pack snapped clean through. That, on top of my illness, was pretty demoralizing. I plodded on and hitched to the local train station when I got to a road. Wheeled transportation is a disqualifying event on the TGO Challenge, and I knew my participation was through (technically, I could have resumed from where I got in the car, but that would have been nearly a week later).

Wish I had time to climb all these peaks. Love this landscape!
Wish I had time to climb all these peaks. Love this landscape!

Within a few hours, I was in a modest hotel in Glasgow, keeping hydrated and avoiding solid food. My condition gradually improved, and as my strength returned, I took a few days to explore Glasgow. It’s a wonderful city that’s easy to walk in and has lots to do. The last time I’d been there for any length was in 1984 when I took the GSAT.

Then, I flew home early. No decision like this is easy. There were some other mitigating circumstances, such as hip and knee pain, that I’d been coping with at the time. But I’ve overcome that issue with some simple exercises, and I’m well into my next project, hiking a Long Trail side-to-side in Vermont.


  1. So sorry the illness cancelled your trip.

  2. Hey Phil, sorry to hear about the virus, I had it two years ago and it was noooo fun. Anyways, I was hiking in the Highlands and Isle of Skye in May – beautiful country. Would have been funny if I bumped into you again on the trail. ?

  3. Really sorry to read that you fell ill during your hike in Scotland. I was so looking forward to reading about your successful trip and the route you selected. Any chance you will be sharing your planned route? Tough break about the Z-Packs failure, hard to believe it just failed while simply walking definitely sounds defective. Hope things go better next year.

  4. Sorry to read this. If it’s any consolation, your posts helped me prepare for a successful challenge–my first. Thanks!

  5. After my daughter and I hiked the West Highland Way in June of 2022, I got home and promptly had a case of COVID-19. (I think I picked it up in a taxi in Glasgow while foolishly not wearing a mask, trusting a bit too much in my vaccination status.) My case was mild, but my wife caught it from me and had a more serious case, though more like a week-long bad case of influenza than anything really serious. Boy was she mad at me! (IYKYK.) But neither my nor her illness was ANYTHING like a bad GI illness like noro. Sorry to hear of your experience, Philip, but happy to hear that you recovered sufficiently to achieve Gridiot status!

  6. The silver lining is that you were able to spend time in Glasgow. We spent a day there before starting our walk of the John Muir Way. The city and its bridges are truly beautiful.

  7. Philip, so sorry to hear you had to bag the trip, but like your advice on summit fever, you did the prudent thing and are still here to talk about it vs. toughing out GI issues in a tent! I hope you get to apply your route in a future year.

    • Happy to say, I made it out of the tent every “time.”

      • Glad you and the tent survived.

        The round stay on my Zpack broke just after I finished hiking the AT a couple months ago. Fortunately, it didn’t happen while I was hiking. I ordered three replacements just so I could have more on hand at home. The pack did behave properly on the Tapeats Creek/Deer Creek loop hike I took a few weeks later in the Grand Canyon.

        I did have to bail after 25 miles (40 km) of my 125 mile (200 km) section hike on the AT because my plantar faciitis flared up big time and every single step was extremely painful. When I severely twisted that ankle and only made half the planned distance the last day, I knew the hike was over and worried about the Grand Canyon hike coming up in about three weeks.

        The plantar faciitis bothered me greatly until a week before the GC hike and suddenly went away and it hasn’t been noticeable since. Of course, I have a doctor’s visit coming up later this month to deal with it.

        I tried some socks designed for PF but they didn’t seem to help. What helped the most was an ankle brace that fit into the shoe. I still don’t know why it quickly went away after torturing me for a month.

  8. Phil sorry to hear about your bail out. Been through that myself only with a helicopter rescue. Glad You are fine and back at it. Silver linings are hard to find sometimes but the best is always yet to come. Heard about those stays which is what keeps me from getting one. Big fan of atom packs MO It now sports a ula hip belt which works much better. It does not ride smashed against my back so a little bit of ventilation. Probably do not sweat as much as most people though. Thanks for all the great articles

  9. Oh, no, sorry you had to bail, especially seeing how nice the weather actually was! Glad you made it home ok.

  10. So sorry to hear that. I came down with norovirus not long after I arrived in Montrose and was in a poor state. I counted myself very lucky that had finished walking and had en suite facilities. Hope to see you back on the Challenge soon.

  11. Noticed a mention of hip and knee issues and “exercises” that you did to overcome problems. Have you posted about these exercises? Aging and still trying to keep moving. Thanks

    • I haven’t yet. Lots of people have asked. I should get to it soon. I had been suffering from inner knee pain and some outer hip pain. Both were related to weak gluteal medius muscles. Band exercises fixed it.

  12. I’m a new reader, but that doesn’t stop me from commiserating. Bummer, well that doesn’t exactly cover it. Hope you can recoup, recover, and tackle it another day. I doubt I’d trust carbon fiber stays going forward.

  13. Sorry to hear that. I hope you are fully recovered.
    I’ve heard reports of Norovirus on the West Highland way but that was on the Loch Lomond stretch and nowhere near where you were. However, there have been a lot of disturbing trip reports from all over Scotland showing used toilet paper scattered about on well frequented paths and near water sources. It seems with the post epidemic explosion of people going to the hills, there is a lack of education of how to safeguard the water sources and how to poop.
    I used to drink straight from Scottish mountain burns with no effect. Now I always filter and always use hand sanitiser on transport etc. It seems a bit paranoid but I got laid up with a bad dose on the GR34 in France. Luckily ir was on the last day. Now I even watch out for public water points. Nothing worse than chugging immodium in a tent.

  14. I also have a Z-pack and while hiking the AT, the stay broke twice. Z-pack replaced it without any issue which leads me to believe that this must happen frequently.

    • I asked the support person who contacted me if this happened frequently and they said they’d only dealt with it a few times, but now you have me wondering how prevalent it is.

  15. Sorry to here about your illness. Phil.

    I know it’s no consolation but there have been 160(and counting) cases of e-coli in the UK since May.
    It may have been this rather than Noro.

    There’s a suspicion they are linked to store-bought ready made sandwiches. In fact, several supermarkets and shops have withdrawn/recalled products.The infection resulted in approx 25% of sufferers being hospitalised. Fortunately, you weren’t one of them.

    This might also explain the wide geographical ditribution of cases amongst Challengers.

    Hope you continue to recover.

  16. Sorry to hear of your misfortune and that others were sick too. I have a NY trip planned and was contemplating wearing a mask. You helped me decide to wear one. I’m on a wait list to go to Banff National Park in Calgary, Canada in August but I think I signed up too late so the only “hiking” I’ll be doing Is in the Times Square area going to the Broadway shows. I’ll be shocked if I don’t catch something. Anyway, at least you’ve got some beautiful photos. Those stays sound flimsy. Can you find something sturdier to replace them, like maybe from a hardware store?

    • I still wear a mask on planes, busses, and trains. But that wouldn’t have prevented Noro, which is passed by contact (dirty hands and dishes).

      • I recently ordered sanitizing hand wipes through my medicare advantage plan, but you can buy them anywhere, to take on my trip with me. I keep the liquid pump in my car but lately I’ve been forgetting to use It. I’m gonna have to put a post-it note in my car to remind myself. Thanks for telling me about your mask wearing. Now I won’t feel like the only one. You’re not going to believe this but 10 minutes After I sent you my comment I got a call saying 1 spot opened up for the Banff trip. Now I don’t know what to do. I want to decline about as much as you wanted to go home early. I have until Wednesday to decide.

  17. Philip, Very sorry to hear about your crappy illness and unfortunate withdrawal from the Challenge.
    It’s true what they say though, if you’ve done two (almost three) crossings, you’ll be back again.

  18. Why does hand sanitizer not kill norovirus?

    In fact, ABHS cannot kill Norovirus because the alcohol, regardless of percentage, cannot penetrate the capsid, the protein shell of the virus particle that surrounds its nucleic acid.

    Maybe one reason hikers/backpackers are experiencing an outbreak of norovirus is alcohol based hand sanitizer, which is the primary way we clean our hands, will not kill it. Bleach will kill noro but who carries bleach? Washing hands with soap and water is a good defense but that’s hard to do on the trail. Question…could a person add bleach to hand wipes or hand sanitizer? I know you have to be careful what bleach is mixed with.
    I’ve had norovirus several times that put me in the ER with dehydration. It is HORRIBLE!!! Don’t ever want to get it on the trail!!!

  19. A tough story. Glad you’re ok! As a materials engineer, I’d say the use of externally facing, unprotected carbon stays is a poor design decision. Irrespective of the internal stay construction, surface damage to carbon composites such as abrasion or scratches can create a crack that can travel through the composite under surprisingly low loads. Exposed stays, low down on a back pack, will sooner or later be scratched/nicked/gouged. Carbon stays can be a good design choice, if surrounded by fabric. Time for your money back.

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