The Cape Wrath Trail is considered the hardest trail in the United Kingdom because it passes through one of the wildest, most rugged and remote sections of the Scottish Highlands. Technically, the Cape Wrath Trail is more of a route than a trail, and while there are some guidebooks, maps, and GPX files you can download to obtain one of the standard routes most people take, you can hike from one end to the other any way you choose.
I’d planned to hike the Cape Wrath Trail in 2018, but personal conflicts prevented it. I decided I would try to go this year instead. But I decided to do hike it as a section hike, rather than a thru-hike, breaking the route into two halves. I have some unfinished “business” in Scotland and want to hike a few side trips along the way.
Backpacking in Scotland
I adore Scotland. I love the landscape, the light, the people, and the feeling of freedom when I walk in the mountains there. I first fell in love with Scotland in the early 1980s when lived in Edinburgh and discovered my true self, stripped bare of the cultural, materialistic, and social trappings of being an American in the United States. Living in a foreign country is a good way to see what you’re like in an entirely new context or no context, which is how it feels when you arrive.
While there are a lot of things that are special about hiking in Scotland, the thing I like best is the demands it makes on your navigation skills. You have to be skilled with map and compass (a fall-back GPS helps) to find your way over mountain passes and in the mist. While there is signage if you stick to well-known paths, hikers are allowed, by a right of way law, to camp on or cross private property in Scotland without prior permission. There’s also a lot of big empty landscape up north which makes cross-country routes of your own design possible. So if you have a hankering for hiking across vast and lonely mountainous expanses, Scotland is a remarkably accessible place to go.
When I’ve backpacked in Scotland previously, I was always on a deadline and had a fixed destination. But this time, I plan to mix things up a bit. I’ve given myself 10-12 days in-country to take the time to hike famous several ridge walks as I work myself north toward Cape Wrath. Since there is no official Cape Wrath Trail, I’m free to wander off on side trips as much as I like. I expect to complete the southern half of the Cape Wrath Trail (100 miles) on this trip, which will set me up to finish the second half at a future date.
Here are the ridge walks that are on my radar for this trip. These links will take you to WalkHighland’s detailed walk descriptions and GPX files of each. That’s a great website to visit if you plan on hiking in Scotland. Absolutely first-rate information.
- Near Shiel Bridge
- Near Torridon
I blew by these ridges on my previous trips, but this time they are the main objective, although I’m sure I’ll enjoy the cross-country walking required to link them together. There’s always a tension between “the trail” and nearby mountain summits when you hike on a long distance trail, and it’s easy to rush by mountains and viewpoints that you’ll never get a chance to visit again.
My plan is very weather dependent, as are all hikes in Scotland in May. I doubt there will be too much snow left on the west coast then and the midges don’t come out until late May and early June. There are bound to some wet and misty days and a few sunny and glorious days. The trick will be to hike the ridges when the weather is nice and walk the miles in between when it’s not. Mind you, all the scenery in the western Highlands is pretty grand, so any grey days may be quite magnificent.
This plan came together rather suddenly. I’d been corresponding with Cam Honan of The Hiking Life around New Year’s and knowing about my love of Scotland, he mentioned that he’d recently hiked the Cape Wrath Trail. I’d planned to hike the trail in 2018, but had to call it off for personal reasons, so it was unfinished business that was already rattling away in my mind. I guess Cam tipped the balance, so I booked a round trip ticket to Glasgow a few days later and started my preparations.
When planning an overseas backpacking trip, it’s very difficult to figure out what your pace will be and how far you can get along a trail in a given time frame. There are also a lot of transportation unknowns, especially in the Highlands, which are still quite remote, underpopulated, and poorly served by buses, trains, and planes. Rather than stress out about it, I figured I’d just wing it, which usually works out just as well as a detailed plan. That’s been my experience section hiking the Appalachian Trail, at least.
The Cape Wrath Trail begins in Fort William which is about 3 hours north of Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland, by bus or train. That’s easy enough to get to with two planes and a train: Boston->Dublin->Glasgow->Fort William. From Fort William, I can literally get off the train and start walking, after a shower at the train station, a stop at a grocer for food, and an outdoor shop to buy a gas canister. Fort William is the town closest to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, making it a popular outdoor recreation area.
There are two main routes that people follow when leaving Fort William, heading northeast or southwest, but the latter has a washed out bridge at a dangerous crossing that won’t be repaired by the time I arrive. So I’ll start out by walking northeast along the River Lochy and Loch Lochy before heading northwest to Shiel Bridge, Strathcarron, Torridon, and Kinlochewe, where I expect to finish. All of these small towns and villages have workable transport options to return back to Glasgow for my flight home, depending on how far I get along the route. If I run out of time, I’ll just head back to Glasgow in time for my flight home.
I’ve planned my route in ViewRanger, which is a mapping portal and phone app that all my UK friends use to navigate in the hills. I’ve also been using the Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app which I may use on the ground because it’s easier to read off bearings for use on a compass. The WalkHighlands website also has GPX files of different Cape Wrath routes and side trips that I’ve uploaded to ViewRanger. I read a few guidebooks about the Cape Wrath Trail that present different route options and poured over OS maps (the UK equivalent of USGS maps), both online and hardcopy, to plan my route. Harvey Maps has a digested strip maps (2) of the Cape Wrath Trail and while my route follows parts of it, I don’t feel particularly bound to it. I’ve purchased the OS maps for the areas that I’ll be passing through and will probably carry them or photocopies of portions of them.
Previous experience certainly does help with the planning because I know what to expect. I’ve hiked through Shiel Bridge. Strathcarron, and Torridon before on foot, so I have a pretty good idea where to go, what to see, and how to navigate across the Scottish terrain. There are some marked paths and lots of geographic handrails that make navigation easier, but you need to pay careful attention so you always know where you are. I’ll bring a Smartphone with the ViewRanger GPS app and OS Map apps as a fallback, but I’m pretty sure I’d be fine without them too. The land features in Scotland are far from subtle.
Backpacking Gear for Scotland
Scotland is wet and windy. It also has virtually no trees or cover for camping, so you need a wind worthy tent or shelter. I’ll be bringing a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dirigo 2 Tent because it’s super strong in wind and comfortable enough to sit out stormy weather. It’s basically equivalent to the MLD Duomid/Superlight Bivy combination I’ve used on previous Scotland trips, although a few ounces heavier. Having a bathtub floor will be a step up, though.
Water is abundant, but resupply points are few and far between, so I’ll probably carry up to 5 or 6 days of food after visits to local stores. I plan to bring my Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest backpack to handle the increased food volume I need to carry and because it’s effectively waterproof. It’s not the lightest weight backpack at 34 oz, but I’ve always liked its versatility and fit. Temperatures will vary by elevation, but I’ll probably bring a hoodless Feathered Friends Tanager 20. sleeping bag in order to stay comfortable.
Scotland has Lyme disease, so I’ll be wearing long pants and pre-treating my clothes with Insect Shield as prevention. The only practical way to deal with the wet is to wear mesh trail runners and wool socks, so that will be my footwear choice. I’ll also wear gaiters since I expect a fair amount of bog walking on cross-country sections of my route. A windshirt is a must and I’ll have a lightweight down hoodie and rain jacket as well.
I’ll publish a complete gear list next week.