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Planning a Cross-Country Hike

Martin Rye in Scotland

Photos Courtesy of Martin Rye

Walter Underwood left a great comment last week on my book review of the NOLs Wilderness Guide, where he was critical about the book’s lack of time control plan (TCP) examples. A TCP or Route Plan, as they are called in the UK, is a critical planning tool for the long distance walker.

In the US, many of us can get away with minimal route planning because we walk trails like the Appalachian Trail where blazes mark the way and there are shelters conveniently spaced a day apart from one another. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. When I plan an AT section hike, most of my effort is spent figuring out where I’m going to park my car and how I’m going to run a shuttle. I then look at the terrain and identify likely camping spots or shelters, based primarily around the availability of water, the kind of pace I feel comfortable hiking at and how much daylight there is in a day. Not counting food provisioning, that’s about the extent of planning I do.

Now imagine what it would be like to walk across an entire country without the aid of a blazed trail. You’d have to plan out many more things, like where to cross rivers and streams, property boundaries, bad weather bypasses, what the most scenic route is, how hard the terrain is (mud, boulder fields, desert, etc) and so on. Without a pre-blazed trail, a walk like this gets much more complicated and important to plan out.

I’m feeling this difference myself at the moment, since it’s finally come time for me to nail down the route details of my hike across Scotland next May, on the TGO Challenge. The cornerstone of that planning effort is a Time Control Plan that I’ve been finalizing for the past week, but actually started last February, 2009. I’ll be publishing a near final draft of this plan sometime this week, but I wanted to describe some of the information and considerations that have gone into it.

The event itself is 15 days long, but it’s customary  for people to finish in 14. The distance of my route will be close to 165 miles, starting on the west coast of Scotland and ending on the east. I’m planning on spending most of my nights camping in unprepared places as I find them (wild camping), but also plan to spend a few in towns at small inns to wash up and resupply.

Finding water in Scotland is not an issue, but water crossings are, and I expect that I’ll have to ford dozens of streams over the course of my walk. There are also cases where I have to go a bit out of my way to find a bridge over some of the larger waterways. This has footwear implications and will probably mean no leather boots.

My route is also heavily dictated by geography, weather, and local experience. Let me explain that last factor first. I have had some previous experience hiking in Scotland, but none solo. So my hike will be what is called a low level route, mainly staying under 600 meters in altitude. The maximum in Scotland is about 1100 meters. This means I’ll mainly be walking down river valleys and across open moors. I have planned some high peak ascents, but whether I do them or not will depend on weather conditions.

The main geographic determinants of my route are mountain ranges, mountain passes, rivers, and lakes. That’s not surprising I guess, but the extent of their influence is profound. This section of Scotland has hundreds of mountains and bodies of water in it and I have to weave my way around, over and through to safely get from one coast to the other. This means avoiding certain routes, which are too dangerous or require too much daily ascent to complete in the required time frame.

The weather is almost certain to be challenging. Temperatures will be relatively warm only dropping to the mid-twenties (F) at night, but high wind and rain are very likely, particularly on the western half of the walk where the ocean has a stronger effect on weather patterns than the east.

Thankfully, property boundaries are not an issue in Scotland. Anyone is allowed to hike across private land, although courtesy is always appreciated. This is a culture where walking and rambling is a time honored tradition!

One thing I do always plan very carefully on my hikes in the states is daylight because it dictates how far I can hike per day. I’m told that daylight in May in Scotland lasts from 3am to 10pm, making it possible to hike long days or take significant breaks. Since, I plan on hiking 12-16 miles per day, not counting rest days, I’m hoping that these long days will make it possible for me to hike my miles while taking the time to socialize with any fellow walkers I run across, climb a few unplanned peaks, or admire a view.

So those are the main variables that I’ve had to make explicit in my TGO route planing process, so far. I should be publishing a  candidate time control plan a bit later this week.

Written 2010.

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  1. I loved reading this.

    We are so conditioned to do "the trail walk" in the US. Camping away from shelters is called "stealth" and is framed as an environmental impact problem. I truly wonder where the truth lies. My guess is it is more about wandering off trail enough to "impact" private property. I am thinking AT here and its narrowness.

    I have to drive my car to get to get to pretty tame wilderness. I hesitate when I step off trail and look around to make sure no one can see my exit. I worry about lime disease (which is real enough). Sometimes I HAVE to do it and I need to get myself to the mental space to break trail. I don't want to destroy wilderness but I also want to experience enough of it to truly realize I am part of it too.

  2. Hi Phil,

    Do you plan on any rest days?

    Do you think these three hikes are significantly different?

    – 12 miles per day for 14 straight days with no rest days

    – 14 miles per day for 12 days with 2 rest days

    – 16+ miles per day for 10 days with 4 rest days

    Have you thought about how you are going to ramp up your training?

    I am thinking you might want to walk xx miles everyday with your pack weight in order to acclimate your body to the cumulative stress since it puts a different stress on your body compared to "weekend epic hikes" with 5 days to recover.

    Google "Training Program for running a 5k race" for examples of a training regimen.

    Good luck,


  3. I think the issue with the AT is the concentration of use – over 4 million people hike part of it per year. It is sadly overrun.

  4. Tom – I will probably do no special training to hike this. 15 miles a day/3,000 feet of ascent is well within my window of comfort for a stroll and I will be going very light on this walk, carrying no more than 16-18 lbs including food/water. Of course, I'll be hiking all winter with a 30lb pound and wearing another 12 lbs of gear! There will be one rest day possible too. Got to finish the plan, now!

  5. You're probably well experienced in these conditions, but I thought I'd pass on what I know about walking in the wet.

    I've found that gortex socks work very nicely for stream crossings and generally wet terrain.

    Feet air out well enough overnight so that constantly wet feet are not an issue.

    The gortex socks seem to be sturdy enough to handle that kind of walk.

    Hope this helps.

    Marty Cooperman

  6. Marty – thanks. I'm leaning in that direction. I've experimented with the seal skins waterproof socks but they are too thick. I've used gore-tex socks before under a neoprene bootie but I need to figure out how to layer with them (wool over or liner under) to avoid issues. It doesn't help that I need two different sizes of Innov-8 shoes for my right and left feet!

  7. My experience has been more favorable with gortex socks than with sealskinz. The sealskinz seem to hold water in their outer layer making them heavier when wet and colder as it evaporates. That aside from the thickness issue.

    I bought gortex socks larger than my normal shoe size and so can put a modest thickness sock underneath – e.g. Smartwool Adrenaline, thicker than liner socks.

    If only you could find someone else with the same different sized shoes!

  8. What a great trip you´ve got ahead of you. I´m headed down to start in Patagonia with my girlfriend and we´re planning to walk from Southern Chile(Puerto Montt) into Argentina following a well known series of lakes. Most of the information is down there and so I was packing and repacking last night to figure out how to fit patagonia clothes with the ones for later up in ecuador. Merrell makes a great line of shoes for hiking that aren´t as heavy as boots but amazing for drying out. We´ll see how they hold up. All the best!

  9. Very interesting assessment of the differences between walking a trail and going 'off piste'. Just a tiny bit of advice – do double check that your 'resupply' stop is a village with a shop! There are quite a few substantial (on the map) places with no facilities! Although sometimes there is a good pub which serves food, this is not always the case.

    Good luck with your Challenge. I'm still waiting to get a place for my 3rd go at it.

  10. Very good advice. I've been doing more detailed planning to make sure there is food at all of my stops…and re-routed a bit to make sure: Fort Augustus, Kingussie, Braemar.

  11. I am planning on hiking the "Kerry Way" Trail in Ireland next October so I am glad you brought this subject up..You desertation made me take another hard look at my plans from a different perspective…

    I have also found out a couple of things about these hikes, is that there is a difference in mileage between a "Guided Hike" and a "Self Guided hike" in more ways than Costs, and that is in the amount of Distance covered…

    If I hike the "Kerry Way" by myself and plan on sleeping along the way in the "wilds" and only buying supplies at the villeges along the way, I will have hiked about 140 miles… But,,If I take the "Guided hike", with an Irish Guide who takes us to a local "Inn" each night via a Bus, the entire length will be much shorter,,say 96 miles or about 44 miles shorter!

    If anyone is interested in the "Kerry Way" there is an excellent book written by Sandra Bardwell which is also your Waterproof field Guide to take with you entitled of course "The Kerry Way"…

  12. Do you have any advice for planning a fund-raiser walk across country with Jr. High and Sr. High students? I am a pastor and my kids want to raise money for building an orphanage in Africa by walking from Houstin to Atlanta…

  13. I want to start walking from Bradenton Fl to Marion Va. How do I find the best walking route.

    • Get a map and figure it out.Look of hiking trails, state and federal parks and forests that have trails and link them together with road walks if need be. Traveling across private property without permission is not recommended.

  14. hey my name is James and I’m planning to walk to cross America this year any advice or gear i should take with me

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