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…






Day 3: where the wow-ing starts

The first two days on the trail have been pleasantly scenic but today we keep saying ‘wow’ as we walk along and look around us.

It’s a day of many firsts, in fact: first fall in the boggy terrain (me, though that’s just a technicality since Jeff’s leg disappeared up to the knee); first proper ascent – a steep, rocky climb up to the Mam na Selig pass at 500m. And first taste of wildness in the starkly beautiful Glen Loyne, which – as if it wasn’t impressive enough – adorns itself with a gigantic rainbow for our arrival.


Glen Loyne was once part of the native Caledonian Forest that covered 6000 square miles of the Scottish Highlands – only one per cent of it remains, including some of the ancient, gnarled trees that stand on this barren hillside against a backdrop of triangular peaks.


We breathe ‘wow,’ and find a stream to sit beside where we brew coffee and eat our snacks surrounded by nothing but wilderness.


Then there’s another first: a river crossing. The CWT is riddled with them, and with Scotland’s heavy rainfall, they can throw a big spanner in the works. (We read about one guy who had to camp for five days waiting for a river he needed to cross to abate so he could get back from the Cape.)

The River Loyne is fairly wide and fast flowing, but only calf deep where we’ve met it. Jeff just sloshes right across, Morris under his arm, but I’m a bit more hesitant, using my virgin walking poles to test water depth, strength of current and slipperiness of rocks.

On the other side, more rocky, boggy terrain unfolds – and another lung-busting climb back up to 400m. But this one emerges on to a 4 x 4 track, which, we know from the map, is going to meet the road after 6km – next to The Cluanie Inn!


I’m not sure if it’s the excellent surface underfoot or the prospect of a toasty pub serving hot meals, but we seem to pick up the pace quite markedly. Jeff even thinks he can smell pub food, despite the fact that we’re still more than a mile away. I start worrying that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment: it might be shut for the season; it might have closed down; it might have stopped serving food – or be fully booked…

Thankfully it is none of the above, and soon we are clinking glasses and tucking into hearty meals, only slightly self-conscious about our unwashed and bedraggled appearance. It’s dark when we come out, which makes pitching the tent a bit tricky – but we’re too full of beer and sticky toffee pudding to let it bother us.









Hunger, midges and the ‘vicar walk’

There are two ways to start the Cape Wrath Trail: you can catch a ferry from Fort William across to the immediately wild and remote Ardgour peninsula, or you can ease yourself in by following the Great Glen Way (a 79-mile national trail) for a couple of days, which travels along the Caledonian Canal (ie. pancake flat!) before encountering more challenging terrain. The two routes converge a few days’ north.

After much consideration during the planning stage (will people think we’re lightweights? Will we miss some of the best bits?), we opted for the Great Glen route, and just hours into day one, we are glad we did. Simply carrying 15-20kg for the best part of a working day is enough of a challenge for two inexperienced hikers.



We have to keep adjusting our rucksacks: cinching in the waist a bit more, loosening or tightening the chest strap… and we sometimes find we don’t know what to do with our hands. We catch each other doing the ‘vicar walk,’ with hands clasped at chest height. And then there’s the dance of the waterproofs: stopping to fish out our jackets and step into our trousers as the first few spots of rain appear and then becoming unbearably hot not 15 minutes later when it’s stopped and the sky has brightened.

While Morris seems to have no problem coping with seven-hour walkies,  me and Jeff are ready to call it a day when we reach the banks of the imaginatively named Loch Lochy, where the guidebook assures us we’ll find a good wild camping spot. We’ve covered 14-15 miles. We pitch our two-man tent just off the trail, crawl inside to wait out a sudden shower and fall sound asleep. It’s not even 5pm.

Luckily, there’s just enough light left to cook dinner by when we wake up, and time to wash up and refill our water bottles from a nearby stream, which we can hear tumbling down the hillside all night.

I wake up on day 2 feeling stiff – and ravenous. We have porridge with dried fruit and nuts and get packed up, which, despite our best intentions, takes ages again.



We’ve devised a routine that involves two-hourly stops. The morning and afternoon stops are shorter than the lunch break but we still take off our packs, sit down and dig into the snacks. Our haul includes Pepperami, Babybel cheese, salted peanuts (protein and sodium) along with mini Soreen loaves, oatcakes and Haribo Tang-Fastics (carbs). All of them become utterly delicious in our perpetually-hungry state – but are strictly rationed, as we have to carry enough food with us to last five days, which is when we’ll next encounter a shop.

It’s only just after our morning break on day 2 when we come across a moored boat on the canal called the Eagle Barge. ‘Tea, coffee, sandwiches, soup, cakes’ reads the signboard on the towpath, and – oh joy! – a little sign hangs in the window saying ‘open.’ We don’t even debate whether or not we should stop – we make a beeline for one of the tables on deck and soon we’re drinking mugs of coffee and eating doorstep sandwiches.

Up to this point, we’ve still been following the reassuring blue waymarkers for the Great Glen Way but the unexpected feast gives us enough energy to press on past Invergarry, where the CWT veers off and where we’d thought we’d be making camp.


We climb up a good track through a forest of spindly pine trees – and emerge into much more open, less peopled surroundings. Farewell, flat, gravelly trail! Hello, small, slightly boggy, undulating path. My bag – not to mention my legs – are feeling heavy by early evening and with the light fading, we search anxiously for a non-marshy spot in the long grass beside Loch Garry. Finally, we find a place to pitch beside a slightly eerie burned-out ruin of a house. As soon as we stop and start unloading our gear, we find ourselves in a cloud of midges and have to put up the tent and cook dinner wearing our midge hoods. We look like bank robbers. But after nine hours and around 20 miles of walking, we’re far too tired to contemplate a life of crime and have an(other) early night.

And we’re off! The Cape Wrath Trail begins

We leave Edinburgh for Fort William (the start of the Cape Wrath Trail, from now on referred to as the CWT) on September 12th, after what seems like weeks of planning and waiting for the adventure to start. I’ve been eating with abandon the last few days – telling myself it won’t matter because I’ll be burning so much energy on the trail, so I’m actually looking forward to the discipline of rations!


The last leg of the train journey west is spectacular – a panorama of lochs, rivers, forests and hills rushes by (well, trundles by – it’s not a very fast train) the window. Morris, as you can see, is transfixed.


It’s 4.15pm when we arrive in Fort William, and by 4.19pm it’s raining heavily. We were heading for the campsite, but we retreat to a pub for dinner and a drink instead, in the hope of avoiding having to put the tent up in pouring rain on our first night. It works! By the time we pitch the tent, it’s nearly dusk and we go straight to bed in preparation for the big day.

It takes an astonishing 90 minutes to ‘break camp’ the following morning. I’d imagined it would be a simple matter of whipping up a quick bowl of porridge and tea, taking down and packing up the tent and getting going but I discover there are considerably more tasks to do: deflate the inflatable pillows, roll up the sleep mats, squeeze the sleeping bags back in their stuff sacks, feed Morris, prepare accessible snacks/lunch for the day, fill up water bottles, wash up the breakfast things and finally, repack the rucksacks in the right order.


It’s a slightly embarrassing 9.30 by the time we take our first steps on the CWT. But it’s a relief to be on the move, on foot, on the trail and heading north. I take the photograph below of Jeff, because I suspect it’s a sight I’m going to see a lot of over the coming weeks!


Dress rehearsal

On the drive north, we stop in the Lake District for a practice long hike and overnight camp to test all our kit and get used to the weight of our packs. The plan is to pitch the tent, walk a circular route from Great Langdale and then return to cook a dehydrated meal on the stove and bed down on our foam mats. Even though we’ll have the van parked close by, we’ll forbid ourselves from accessing it for luxuries like towels and pillows, since that won’t be an option once we’re on the Cape Wrath Trail.

‘Even if it’s pouring rain, we’ll stick to the plan, right?’ says Jeff, adding that we might well face such conditions when it comes to the real thing. ‘Definitely,’ I reply earnestly, praying it will stay dry.

We wake up to rain. In fact, we are woken by rain; it smatters loudly on the outer of the tent and it’s only my desperate need for a wee that drives me from the tent. Once outside, I realise it sounds worse than it is; tents have a way of magnifying the sound of falling rain. I don my waterproofs and get the stove on for tea and porridge while Morris peers suspiciously out of the tent flap. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ he thinks. ‘Not long ago, I lived in a warm and comfortable house with an interesting garden. Then it was a tent the size of a garden shed. Now I’d be better off in a kennel.’

Packing up takes ages. On Shane’s recommendation, everything lives in its designated dry bag, each with a specific place in the rucksack, based on when it needs to be accessed in the pitching/unpitching process. It’s a sensible system but it’ll take time to get used to.

It’s still raining when we finally shoulder our packs and set off. The route begins with a stiff climb up a narrow, flint bracken-bordered path, mist drifts around the hilltops. Within minutes, I’m too hot but I can’t face the rigmarole of stopping, taking off the pack and removing a layer, so I soldier on, sweat trickling down my sports bra and doubt trickling into my mind about this whole long-distance walking lark.

We eat our lunch under a tree to keep the worst of the rain off, silently considering just how dismal the Cape Wrath Trail could be if it rained all the time.

But by the time we get back to the campsite, our moods have brightened a little. We’ve done over nine undulating miles wearing our packs and intended clothing and footwear in non-stop rain and we’re not broken. We pitch the tent and unload our dry bags. Thanks to Shane’s tip, our sleeping bags now reside permanently inside waterproof bivvy bags in our rucksacks. So no matter what the day throws at us, no matter how drenched we are when we climb in the tent, we’ll always have a warm and dry place to retreat to. And that is how we end our dress rehearsal, hands thawing around enamel mugs of instant hot chocolate.



Hillwalking for dummies

A friend of ours, Shane, is a qualified mountain leader. On hearing about our Cape Wrath Trail plans, he offered to give us some tips on hillwalking and wild camping. Even better, he invited us to his woodland for a practice run.

It was invaluable: we learned  how to lay and light a fire, how to choose where to pitch the tent and how to pack our rucksacks in a way that allows everything to be accessible in the right order and remain dry. Even though we only needed enough supplies for a single night in the woods, it was enough to reveal that my rucksack, a trusty but admittedly ancient Lowe Alpine 45L affair, was unlikely to be big enough for everything we’d need to take with us for a 3-4 week trip that offered few opportunities for re-stocking.

Thanks to Shane, we also learned how to register our mobile phones with the Emergency SMS service, which is advisable if you’re hiking in remote areas.

All starting to feel quite real now! The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook is my new bedtime reading…


Planning a Highland fling

In my job at Runner’s World, I frequently interviewed people who had achieved incredible feats within running. Aleks Kashefi ran the length of Europe from above the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Spain. Wayne Russell ran around the entire coastline of Britain. Rob Pope followed in Forrest Gump’s fictitious footsteps, crossing America and then turning around and running back again. We considered a running feat of our own but with Morris (that’s him below) in tow, we decided that a long-distance walk would be more achievable.


With a love for Scotland, our search started there and after dismissing the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way as too brief, we happened upon the Cape Wrath Trail, a 230-mile trek from Fort William to the most northwesterly tip of Scotland (and the British Isles). It’s considered to be the toughest long-distance trail in Britain. Some reasons why:

  1. It isn’t an ‘official’ national trail and is therefore not waymarked.
  2. Much of it is extremely remote, with few options for accommodation other than wild camping or mountain bothies.
  3. It requires good navigation skills.
  4. It crosses trackless, rough and boggy terrain and features many river crossings.
  5. Travelling through the far north west of Scotland, the weather is unpredictable and often wild.

The guidebook warns that this is not a trail to be taken on without extensive hillwalking experience and knowledge of the area. What could possibly go wrong for two southern-dwelling softies with zero walking experience but a few decades’ worth of running fitness? We decided to find out…