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TGO Challenge: Route Planning Tips for Backpacking Across Scotland

The TGO Challenge is an annual backpacking event that lasts for 15 days and involves backpacking coast to coast across Scotland, a distance of 180-200 miles. It’s been held for 40 years and is organized by The Great Outdoors Magazine which is a UK publication popular with hardcore hikers and backpackers across the pond. Thanks to the Internet and social media, the Challenge has become increasingly popular among non-UK residents and an increasing number of Americans and Canadians participate each year.

Philip's 2010 TGO Challenge Coast-to-Coast Route
Philip’s 2010 TGO Challenge Coast-to-Coast Route

The “challenge” of this trip is to get from one coast to another in 15 days. While most participants do finish, they have been pre-screened and vetted to make sure they have the necessary experience and skills for backpacking off-trail and across mountainous terrain. You must apply to participate since the number of participants is capped. If you’re accepted, you have to define and document your coast-to-coast route in excruciating detail and submit it for review to ensure it’s safe and achievable. The review process is staffed by local experts who often make valuable suggestions about good places to camp, river crossings, foul weather bypasses, and other hazardous conditions.

The rest of this article provides an overview of how to plan your route with pointers to useful tools, information sources, Facebook groups, maps, and websites. Planning a route of this magnitude was a much more challenging project and time-consuming process just five years ago, but the new planning tools and information sources available online have made it much easier to collate and organize. You still have to decide where to go, what to see, and how to do it safely, but getting the information required to make those decisions is easier than ever. There’s almost too much of it available.

Beginning and Endings

All challengers must begin their journey at one of 14 start points on the west coast of Scotland and sign out to start their journey. This is necessary because, for safety reasons, “Challenge Control” in Montrose keeps track of participants as they make their way cross country. This is very hands-off and requires that you text or call Challenge Control several times during your trip with your current location. You can finish anywhere on the east coast between Fraserburgh and Arbroath, but you must get to Montrose by 5:00 pm on the last day of the event for your crossing to count.

TGO Challenge - Torridon Sign Out Sheet
TGO Challenge – Torridon Sign Out Sheet

How do you decide where to start and end? While some of the start points are extremely scenic, they can be devilishly hard to get to by rail, bus, or boat because they are so remote. Some start points are also more popular than others, which can be good or bad, depending on how social you want to be. Where you start will also significantly influence the route you take during the first week, since the geography tends to funnel participants together in week two, which is usually much more social.

Maps, Planning Tools, and GPS Apps

OS Maps is the UK’s national mapping agency (like the USGS) and they sell paper and waterproof maps (but don’t currently ship to the US), and maps online. They also have a mobile app and online planning tools. While you may be tempted to carry paper versions of all of the OS maps you need for your route, be forewarned that they are big, bulky, and heavy. The waterproof versions of these maps are also laminated and not printed on waterproof paper, which makes them even heavier than the paper ones. You’ll probably be better off planning your route using an online tool that uses OS Maps and printing that out instead if you want to reduce the weight and bulk that you need to carry.

OS Maps Web-Based Planning Interface
OS Maps Web-Based Planning Interface

OS Maps has a simple but effective online planning tool that I like to use in conjunction with their mobile phone app in the field in conjunction with a compass, but there are others available as well including Outdoor Active and Anquet’s OMN3 which licenses the digital maps created by OS Maps as well as others. (I don’t recommend Anquet because the software is quite dated and clunky to use.) All of these tools have import and export capabilities so you can transfer routes between them interchangeably.

OS Maps Mobile App

Grid References

When you fill out your Route Sheet, you’ll need to use OS Grid References to indicate locations on the map instead of Lat/Lon Coordinates. These divide the UK into a series of squares and then further subdivide these into smaller and smaller quadrants to generate an Ordnance Survey Grid Reference based on the metric system. It’s quite similar to UTM coordinates used in the US. The only difference is that everyone uses them in the UK.

OS Grids

Most online planning tools provide these coordinates with a click of your mouse, which is another reason they’re so convenient to use.

Route Planning Decisions

Scotland has a right-of-way law that permits anyone to walk across private property without prior permission, with the exception of certain properties owned by the Royal Family. This opens up the option for wild and remote cross-country routes, which is one of the main attractions of the TGO Challenge and hiking in Scotland.

2024 TGO Challenge Route Sheet
2024 TGO Challenge Route Sheet

When planning your route, you’ll want to decide whether you want to go high and climb a lot of mountains or stay low and stick to the valleys and lochs. Both are enjoyable and most people do a little of both. If you do plan a high route, you’ll also have to plan out FWA’s for it, which stands for “foul weather alternates”, which is the low-level detour you’ll take when the weather is poor. These must be specified on the route sheet you submit to the Challenge route vetters. An example route sheet is shown above.

Crossing Loch Ness by ferry

You’ll also want to decide whether you want to hike cross country or stick to well-defined paths, dirt Land Rover tracks, or paved roads. You’re not allowed to use any wheeled transport on the challenge although you can ride the ferry across Loch Ness if your route requires a crossing.

Some rivers require bridge crossings, so you may find yourself detouring to them for a crossing. Being spring, some of the bridges marked out on your map may no longer exist if they’ve been destroyed by spring flooding. You can usually find this out by asking locals about current conditions on the TGO Facebook Group, which I suggest you join.

Finally, you’ll want to figure out where you can resupply during your trip, including whether you plan to camp out or stay in B&Bs, hostels, mountain bothies, or some combination during your trip.

Route Sharing Sites

There are many ways to research mountains to climb and places to visit along your route. But the most expedient way I’ve found to sort through the hundreds of options available is to reference a website and expert community called WalkHighlands.

The WalkHighlands Website
The WalkHighlands Website

They publish GPX files and detailed route descriptions of dozens of classic walks that you can download and read about. You can use these to piece together a much longer route and rest assured that you’ve hit the highlights in the regions you decide to hike through.

Walkhighlands publishes many detailed walking routes and maps.
Walkhighlands publishes many detailed walking routes and maps.

Traditional Gatherings

Inebriated Challengers in the Braemar Hotel Bar

There are a few places where Challengers gather to socialize as they get closer to the east coast. These include:

  • Tarfside, southeast of Braemar, which a small village with a convent that serves food and has a social hall/pub that’s opened for the Challenge. Dozens of challengers meet there and pitch their tents on the village green for the night.
  • North Water Bridge which is a campground just west of Montrose, with showers and washing machines.

For dates and other details, inquire on the TGO Facebook page.

The Joy of Planning

While participating in the TGO Challenge is a marvelous scenic and social experience, many Challengers find enormous pleasure in planning their routes during the winter months. I certainly count myself in their number. While this route planning guide is not meant to be exhaustive, it should give you enough information to get started. If you have additional questions, leave a comment below.

For more information about the TGO Challenge, visit the event website. 

About the Author

Philip Werner completed the TGO Challenge in 2010 and 2013. He hopes to complete his third coast-to-coast TGO Challenge hike across Scotland in 2024.

Updated 2024.

19 comments

  1. As an avid following of your blog and living over the pond I look forward to your successful TGO challenge and details of what kit you used.
    Bob

    • Super helpful post – I’m a TGO first-timer in 2024 so this is all really useful. Thank you.

      • Hope to meet you this year (2024),. I just spent the past two days planning out my challenge route, resupplies, and the occasional shower and still not quite done yet. The TGO website has a lot of great info on it and the videos for filling in your route sheet are great. So is the FB group. I know it can be overwhelming to plan but ask for help if you get stuck. The Challenge is family. You’ll get help.

  2. What a wonderful introduction to this event Philip.
    Hope to meet again in May.

    Willem

    • You’re coming! I can’t wait to see you again – I’ll be in Tarfside and NWB the last 2 nights if I don’t run into you sooner. I decided it would be fun to be very social on the last leg. Of course, I haven’t turned in my route sheet yet….where were you planning to finish?

      • Jeff de Graffenried

        Hey Phillip,

        Thanks for the information. As a first time TGOCer I found your post interesting and helpful. I am planning on be at Tarfside on the way to Montrose. Maybe I will see you there. Which way are you going to Montrose from Tarfside? I look forward to running into you somewhere along the way from Oban. Take care.

      • Mark “ Mad Max” Witcher. Tehachapi Ca.

        Hello Philip, great info. on TGOC! I always enjoy Section Hiker when it lands in my in-box. 2024 will be my first crossing. I’m about 50% done with my planning for a Dornie start on May 10th. Hope to cross paths with you along the way or possibly at Montrose, I owe you a pint or a wee dram as thanks for all the great tips and ideas I’ve gleaned from your newsletters over the years! Blue Skies and Happy Trails!

  3. Hi Philip,

    That’s a very good explanation of what’s involved.

    Not only will we meet again ( Torridon 2013 ) but we will be sharing the same route/same days
    for the first 2 days of the TGOC in 2024.

    It will be great to meet up with you and hopefully others from across the pond.

  4. Hi Philip
    The photo under the section above titled ‘Traditional Gatherings’ features the wonderful Alan Sloman, a massive Challenge enthusiast and legend who completed over 25 Challenges. I was fortunate to be part of his ‘team’ on 3 of these. Very sadly, Alan, passed away from cancer this Summer, just a few months after his last Challenge attempt. He is much missed by his many friends and will be remembered by many as a great source of advice about routes as well as the author of one of the best written, and amusing, blog posts about his trips across Scotland.

  5. Hi Philip – Your various posts on the TGO Challenge have inspired a good friend of mine and I to apply for the 2025 challenge. I am curious to know if you think there might be enough interest and/or you might be willing to host a Zoom Q&A??

    • Hard to say. Why don’t you read the information on the TGO website and join the TGO facebook group first. I suspect that will answer a lot of your questions, but feel free to send me an email if you have more. If it makes sense, I’d be happy to get on a zoom and tell you more but the TGO organizers have really done a bang up job at describing the nitty gritty and you may find many of your questions already answered there.

  6. Another possible mapping tool is CalTopo. A lot of the features are US centric, but it will still do contours and MapBuilder overlays on topo or satellite maps globally. The app is good as well as the web version, and it can export/import in a variety of formats. It has plenty of mapping tools. It’s what we use for search and rescue.

  7. Just out of curiosity, what are your starting and end points for this year’s Challenge? I’m guessing that you will finish at Montrose or nearby. This year I will have to live vicariously through you, looking forward to reading more on the Challenge.

    Thanks.

  8. Hi Philip, is the screenshot of the route via Lochnagar the one you are planning to follow this year? If it is, I see it bypasses Corrie Fee National Nature Reserve (the bird symbol in Glendoll Forest). It’ll only be 20min detour to visit the reserve, but it’s well worth it.

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