The trials of the trail

When we told friends, family and colleagues we were doing a long-distance walk, some asked questions about the logistics of life on the trail. How would we charge our phones? How would we wash? Wouldn’t we be freezing in a tent? Where would we get water? What about going to the toilet?

As far as this last question is concerned, we’ve brought a genteelly named ‘cat shovel’ with us, which we stow along with a ziplock bag containing loo roll and hand sanitiser.

Usage recommendations are printed on it: Ensure you are 70 paces from any trail, habitation or water source. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep. Leave no trace.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever need to use it: my bowels seemingly having decided to shut up shop rather than be subjected to digging holes like a cat. But day four dawns with that cannot-be-ignored urgency and I make a beeline to the nearby marshy hillocks, casting nervous glances and clutching the shovel and bag, to perform my debut. Digging the hole in peaty soil proves to be quite a physical task but, job done (if you’ll excuse the pun), it’s quite satisfying to bury the evidence.

As to those other questions: We have a clever LED lantern, which also serves as a charger, providing 3-4 phone charges as well as lighting up our evenings in the tent. (Not that we’ve needed our phones for anything other than taking photos, mind you – we said goodbye to both wifi and mobile reception when we walked out of Fort William.)

We get water from flowing streams, springs and waterfalls along the way. It’s coming off the mountains, so it’s very unlikely to be contaminated by humans or livestock. If we’re at all dubious, we walk on – and if we’ve no choice, we put it water-purifying tablets.

As far as washing ourselves goes, we have a pack of giant wet wipes. My hair goes under a hat. We aren’t carrying washing gear or towels – they’re too heavy. We quite possibly stink, but we can always blame it on Morris.

Keeping warm in the tent? We go to bed wearing hats, socks and numerous layers – and Morris kindly divides his time evenly between our two sleeping bags, acting as a furry, occasionally growl-emitting hot-water bottle.

I’m feeling unusually cold and stiff on this particular morning, having woken up in the night to find that my self-inflating sleeping mat had punctured and I was, in effect, lying on the floor. It’s remarkable how much insulation you get from a thin pocket of air. I try not to think about the many nights ahead before we reach Ullapool, our first town and re-stocking point.

On the plus side, the day is unfolding unseasonably warm and sunny. After breakfast (and OK, I admit, coffee at the Cluanie Inn) we set off along the blissfully easy tarmac road for a mile or so before picking up a track that climbs north, gradually levelling out and becoming rougher and wetter until it’s half path, half muddy stream. Water seeps over the tops of my boots with every squelching step.


Eventually we emerge from the steep-sided valley and a view of peaks and plateaus opens out against a cobalt-blue sky, a river snaking along the glen’s wide expanse.


It’s a river we’ll have to cross to keep on the trail, but the landmark that denotes the recommended crossing place is still not much more than a speck on the horizon. This is Alltbeithe, the most remote hostel in the UK. Eight miles from any road, you can only reach it on foot or by bike. It’s completely offline with no heating (but a mean woodburning stove, as we later discover), limited electricity, derived from wind turbine and solar panels, and no refuse collection, meaning you have to take your rubbish away with you. We hadn’t planned to stay there, as it would cut the day’s mileage short – but the prospect of a proper mattress rather than a punctured foam mat, coupled with the unexpectedly tough afternoon of walking are enough to motivate us to enquire. Jeff goes in and, a moment later, comes out beaming – yes! They have space for us, and yes, Morris can come in (but has to stay in our room).


Half an hour later we are in a tiny room with bunkbeds, enjoying cups of tea and homemade scones, courtesy of hostel warden Hanne, while our clothes and shoes dry beside the woodburner. Bliss! Hanne tells us another couple went by two days ago on the Cape Wrath Trail – it’s the first we’ve heard of anyone else on the trail and it’s strangely comforting.

The next morning, we’re woken early by a pair of keen Munro baggers in the next room (Munros are mountains in Scotland over 3000ft/914m), evidently anxious to get onto the tops while the weather is clear. We make our porridge and, to Jeff’s embarrassment, I ransack the ‘Free Food’ box in the kitchen to bolster our supplies.

We walk out into sunshine and follow a clear path through Fiongleann, passing the bothy where we’d originally intended to stay (bothies are basic mountain huts for the use of hikers, mountain bikers etc) and climbing, again, before meeting a steep, slippery descent on which I become best friends with my walking poles.

Setting off from Alltbeithe
Camban Bothy

We reach Morvich mid-afternoon, marking a milestone on our journey; it’s where the two alternative routes of the CWT converge. Jeff says he feels as if we’ve passed our apprenticeship – proved ourselves worthy of the trail: I know what he means, but for me, there’s another challenge to overcome before I can breathe easy. It looms tomorrow…






Author: Sam Murphy

Journalist, author, running coach and educator

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