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TGO Challenge Tips for Yanks and Non-Residents

The Lairig Ghru
The Lairig Ghru

Lessons Learned

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.

Lightweight Backpacking

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.

Bacon Butties

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.

Camping at Sheilin of Mark
Camping at Sheilin of Mark

Finish Fast

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.

No Roaming

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.

Church near Tarfside
Church near Tarfside

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.

Mail Drops

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.

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  1. Great tips, Phil.

    Re: the mail drops, $50 per parcel is horribly expensive. If people can carry the stuff they'd like to send ahead to the point at which they arrive in the UK then a less expensive way of doing things is to post them from there.

    It's possible to buy convenient fold out boxes in most Post Offices, and if the things are sent by Special Delivery post then they'll arrive at their destinations the day after they're posted. That's quite an expensive way to send them too (mine are generally about £6 per parcel) but it's the only way I'd trust a parcel that really *has* to get there to the Royal Mail, and it's certainly cheaper than $50 per parcel.

    The Park Hotel itself is also quite a nice place to stay at the end, and less expensive than the Links. They give a Challenge discount, and I think my twin room was about £70 this year. B&Bs are a little variable, and can be lovely or rather grotty.

  2. Can't argue with much of that Phil!

    Your route was a fairly common route for first timers, and similar to my first route. It allowed me to get a feel for moving across and through Scotland. Other NW starts easily allow you to minimize road walking. I do find that the first stretch is always the one that needs the greatest food supply, and nearly always end up carrying 5 days of food. After that I've become more careful on carrying weight/food.

    Clothes. Spot on. Most campsites have good and cheap washing machines and laundry rooms. And Montrose is not too bad, althoughthe new owners haven't got things right yet!

  3. Some great tips and advice here, even for me, a UK hillwalker.

    Something I found useful was using Google Maps to double check certain stretches of routes. On Dartmoor, at least, you get an amazing degree of zoom and clarity. I used this in conjunction with mapping software to check over a route for some added investigation.

    Sounds like you had a good time overall – well done for completing it!

  4. $50 to send a box is a bit high from the states, but part of the reason I did it was to have the experience of doing it – I'm always on the lookout for new blog content! – and it's a tried and true method of resupply on long distance hikes in the US. You are right though, that in-country posts are cheaper. I has so little time with my travel arrangements however that I couldn't be bothered and only found out when I arrived at Shiel Bridge that there is NO post office in what passes for the hamlet.

  5. Simon, I loved it. I lay in bed last night reading Scottish Hill Tracks, dreaming of my next route.

  6. Andy – that's what I figured. Next time, I will do a much more remote walk. It's funny, I look at the same maps now and see different things…you really have to do the first crossing to understand what you'll find..and the low level walk was still good advice.

  7. Andy – I didn't mean to single out the Montrose campground as horrible. I found all of the paid sites we stayed at as horrible – close to noisy roads, closely packed inhabitants, etc. especially after all of my unbelievably remote and beautiful wild camp sites. They're just not my thing.

  8. Hi Philip – great to see you got back ok and to read all your updates. I really enjoyed the time spent together!

    All good points here. Re parcel drops, to cut costs bring the parcel(s) and mail them in the UK (£3-£5 depending on contents – check Branch Finder at for locations, opening times. 1st class for first drop may be important – or, yes, even special delivery if really worried! Not checked but I think major airports may well have post offices also).

    Re fuel for gas stoves, if choosing a northerly start point, this often means a train to Inverness (en route to Torridon or Strathcarron). There are three outdoor shops near Inverness station (including one directly opposite) where you can buy gas. Otherwise, it would be possible to pick it up in Glasgow or Edinburgh, or Oban, Fort William etc. Again, Google prior to leaving would find a store, with an email or phone call to put some aside.

    Your point about travelling light is v. important. (For US readers, I used the REI Flash 50 pack and was very pleased with it – the shovel pocket being especially useful for wet tent and all manner of things.)

    IMO, Montrose campsite is fine for the last night – in fact I always think it's nice to see the 30-40 TGOC tents together. But that's just my opinion. Recently privatised, it is however way too expensive at £9.50 per night. The owners were apologetic to me and made noises about offering a deal for the Challenge next year. We will see…

    And footwear: it really is personal preference in my view on this subject. Boots plus Crocs for river crossings have their TGOC supporters. I went for lightweight Asolo boots and Crocs (until I lost one of the latter, that is!) and stayed completely dry throughout. (BTW, nice pic of that Laser Competition near Sheilin of Mark :-)

  9. Various bars in Montrose sell a special anaesthetic for use when staying on the campsite. Half a dozen pints of this and a couple of short ones usually does the trick, I find.

    I find the hum from the medicine factory next door quite soothing, actually.

    If you plan food resources carefully, I find that local shops are usually just about good enough to avoid carrying more than 3 days food or sending any ahead, which will effectively tie you to a particular route, as will pre-booking of beds.

    I only ever did this once and I felt a certain loss of freedom by it, so I've never done it again.

  10. Hi, Earlylite.

    Good to hear you made it. Come back for a High Level crossing because you will get more stunning wild pitches and yomp less tarmac.

    I am going to very slightly dispute your remarks on navigation. As an experienced hiker (old fart), I have yet to acquire a mobile phone or GPS. Also, 450+ Munro ascents have put me in hill fog many times but I rarely reach for the compass despite always carrying one.

    Scottish maps have photogrametric contours which show the shape of the land accurately. (In NZ, the photogrametric contour lines are often of the tree canopy.) Reading contours is the number one technique for navigating the Highlands. With 1:50,000 maps, this should be consistently accurate to within 100 metres. With a 1:25,000 map you could get to 10 metres of your real location (and are expected to on leadership courses).

    The things kids can do with their phones fascinate me (have you seen the bowling game on the iPod Touch?) and a phone with GPS, mapping and MacJournal is tempting. Having to check in four times would probably force a purchase but the job will prevent Challenging for a few years yet so I will be sticking with paper maps for now.

    Congratulations on your crossing. Best wishes,


  11. I have to agree with John on map and compass. GPS for folks to walk in the glens on tracks seems pointless. But a 100m out on a 1:50 000 map on a summit looking for a ridge of to find the way down can put you in all sorts problems. So a GPS comes in handy high up in the mist. Then so does an altimeter on a watch (my main back up tool) The king of the fens Mr Sloman I do recall found his GPS rather handy up in the mist this year. He aint bad at navigation (mind you he got disorientated on Cross Fell :)) So take a GPS as you never know. I like the advice. I would not post clean shoes. Wash them at the end and the bog comes out. Trail shoes dry quick as do muddy trousers when washed in a sink and dried on a radiator in the B&B. One more point peat bogs are a great British tradition and all visitors to the UK need to experience them.

  12. Hey John – I am a map person too. I did find myself reaching for my compass at times, but agree that being able to match topo contours between map and ground is key to hiking in Scotland (once you know where you are to begin with.)

  13. Graham – you found me! Really enjoyed our walk together as well. That first day over Lochnagar and through Glen Muick was one of the standout highlights of my crossing.

  14. Mike – you can understand my angst then when I arrived at the North Water Bridge Campground and the strongest thing that had at the shop was milk! Needless to say, I broke camp first the next morning before 6am and headed to the fleshpots of Montrose for anesthesia.

  15. Glad your trip went Philip.

    Really enjoyed reading about it and viewing the great photos, excellent stuff.

  16. nice account Phil,

    I never send food parcels, I just wait for someone to send TOO MUCH FOOD in lots of parcels, when they have a panic attack that they can't eat or carry it all !!!… I help them out, as a pure favour, and offer to buy it off them of course.

    If you aren't too fussy about what you eat you can always get food from "spar" shops in villages or even a petrol station (gas station)..although they don't sell gas ???? like the bacon butties heh?)

    Lilo (Pete Varley

  17. I quickly figured that out and ended up eating a lot of McVitts ginger cake on the challenge. Keeps great.

  18. I feel I should clear up any bacon butty confusion:

    An ‘okay’ bacon butty may not have butter.
    An excellent bacon butty will be slathered in thick butter and perhaps either tomato ketchup of HP Sauce, according to taste. (Google “HP Sauce” – It’ a British thing)

    The bacon & sauce flavoured butter should run down your chin into your beard, to be consumed later, reminding you of your excellent bacon butty.

  19. Do bring a head torch if you’re planning on going later in the year – I was in Skye last week and dawn was at 7 and sundown was at 5:30. Don’t know what it’s like in the US as I’m a Brit but days get really short here in the winter months and only really start lengthening up around april. If you want to get about in the twilight or dark and don’t want to break your neck on a tussock or rock, wear a head torch. I actually packed a 2M string of fairy lights for my tent – it was so much lighter than carrying a lantern, and it was nice to have the warm light glow rather than the harsh white LED lights.

    if you’re wanting food, the supermarkets you’ll most likely find in the cities are Asda, Sainsburys, Tesco, Morrisons, Co-op. Most smaller towns will have Co-ops and Spars attached to petrol stations where they’ll have small selections. Get yourself to butchers and bakers for better quality food though if you want to eat something other than dehydrated pasta. Fish and Chips in scotland is great. you cant beat Co-Op’s haggis slices and a can of baked beans, black pudding and some potato scones for breakfast! If you go to a restaurant, cullen skink is wonderful and arbroath smokies are the best. Bacon butties aren’t really a scottish thing – they’re more of a UK thing. The deep fried mars bar thing is really something they do for the tourists – the scots have a reputation for some reason for deep frying everything which is totally not the case – traditional scottish food is very hearty and delicious. Get yourself some Bridies and Scotch pies from the bakers though – yum.

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