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Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby Joelsie27 » Thu Aug 04, 2016 3:13 pm

Route description: Cape Wrath Trail

Date walked: 07/07/2016

Time taken: 15 days

Distance: 378 km

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It has now been 2 weeks since my return from the Cape Wrath Trail and I thought i'd record my adventure while its still fresh in my memory. I also have a lot of family and friends asking for more detail of the trip so I hope this does not dissapoint.

I've made the advice parts of this blog bold and italics for the skim readers wanting a few tips on the trail, the rest is for the story readers amongst you.

Why walk 230 miles across mountains/river/bog/forrest? :

I love the outdoors and I saw it a good fund raising oppertunity for a local charity that I myself am a big supporter of. I also wanted to push myself physically and mentally out my own comfort zone to see what I was really made of as this was my first time away by myself in the wilderness.

Let me start with a little back ground in the preparation for the trail:

I'm 25 years old. I could only book 2 weeks off work so had 16 days to complete a recommended 22 day trail but wanted to do it in 14 to give myself a few days to recover before I was back to work. I'd consider myself quite fit but will be honest when I say prior to walking the trail I had no real clue of what kind of level of fitness i'd need or how to prepare for such an event. I lead a very busy city life so found training hard for this however I did train hard in the gym with weights on my back on the stair master and tredmill, which I felt gave me a baseline fitness however this is no substitute for actually getting out in the hills walking with a heavy pack.

My history with outdoor activities is relatively brief. I'd call myself more of an enthusiast than an expert. I have some close friends who are well experienced in the mountains and the likes so advice from them was crucial as well as having a dad who served in the SAS who is no stranger to long distance walking with heavy weight. My dad was instrumental in both my preperation and my moral through out the trail.

Initially this trail was a planned holiday with a work collegue who has bags of experience hiking.
I therefore felt confident that so long as I keep up with him that we'd manage the trail no problem. As previously stated I'd consider myself a novice. I was therefore happy to let him map out the trail and lead the way. That was until 2 weeks prior to the trip when he had to pull out due to work commitments.

1 week prior to that I'd actually contacted the local centre manager for said local charity, the Freedom challenge trust #BUYBENAIAH campaign to ask if I could help fundraise given that I've been a big supporter of their work and as this was such a considerable trail I was sure if I set up a just giving page that I could manage to raise a few hundred for a great cause.
Fast forwarding a week to the bad news that Ivan: my safety net and for all intents and purposes my tour guide would no longer manage it, it was at this moment I had to weigh up whether or not I was ready for such a trip.
I slept on it and prayed about it before deciding that all my training, planning and preperation and excitement in the lead up would not be in vain and that I would walk it solo, in the process raise awareness and as much funds as I could for such a worthy cause. This caused some minor outrage/panic amongst my family, namely my sisters, mum and gran.

It could easily be over whelming finding yourself feeling a little out your depth reading through the below summaries of the trail as stated time and time again including in the Ian Harper book/cape guide (must purchase) that a trail of this magnatiude should only be walked by experienced hikers/mountaineers. I read and understood that and the reasons for it but at the end of the day I'd made my decision and no one was going to tell me any different. Call it naieve, stupid, ambitious but to be quite honest I had an inner confidence through out my preperation that I'd manage it fine.

On a practical level for anyone reading in preperation my advice and a lesson learned the hard way would be to post your food to Strathcarron and then again at Oykle bridge (roughly half way point and last 3rd point) and pack as light as possible. I read the same advice yet still ignored it so will stress it again- Pack minimal and post your food. My bergan was far too heavy. It was around the 25kg mark and the majority was food weight. I was aware going into this as a novice that there would be various lessons learned the hard way but was willing to roll with the punches and make it happen anyway and this was probably the hardest lesson I learned regarding my pack weight.

Day 1. 07/07/16

In terms of travel I live in Aberdeen and my dad drove us from Aberdeen to Inverness, parked the car up where we hopped on a bus from the station South to Fort William. It was just shy of £10 and took 1 hour 45 mins. There was no need to book in advance as the buses leave regualry. We arrived in Fort William around 15.30 and got the 16.15 jetty, the Camusnagaul jetty point was a 10 min walk from the bus station and it cost £1.50 and took 10 mins to arrive at Camusnagaul which marked the start point of the trail.

My dad by this point had decided to walk me in the first few days, upon the mention of the trail I knew he'd be keen to join me at some point and although for me I wanted this to be a solo challange I couldn't deny the old boy an adventure up the hills for a few days as it would be an adventure and memory that would stick with us. I also knew it would probably give him peace of mind..regardless of being 25 I suppose they still always see you as a child.

We walked between 10-12 miles from the ferry in from 16.30 to 21.30, funnily enough walking South, away from Cape Wrath. We set up camp a few miles into Cona Glen on quite a scenic spot by the river. It was raining heavy so by set up camp I mean both of us throwing up my 1 man terra nova lazer tent and jumping in with the plan of jumping back out when the rain stopped to cook dinner. It didnt stop and we went hungry and slept for 3 hours before realising the river was beginning to breach and tent was beginning to flood. We jumped out at 1.30am, honoured no ceremony throwing the tent and sleeping bags into our bags and started walking in the dead of night. It was brutal. I was tired, hungry and cold. I was also shaking off swollen glands and a flu and having never previously had any knee issues, was nursing shooting pains up and down the left side of my left knee.

I hope this detail helps you realise that this trail is not a merry jaunt up the hills. You are in Scotland and the weather is a very real and very serious factor to consider. It makes simple things difficult, the terrain soft and unsteady underfoot and river crossings dangerous. So take a good rain jacket, sturdy walking poles and as for injuries, I prepared as best I could, rested well in the few days prior. Regardless of good preperation often there are factors that come in to play that are out-with our control and for that my advice is to adapt and overcome. No one said it would be easy.

Day 1 quickly merged into day 2 and we made it up past Glenfinnan Viaduct to the Glenpean bothy by 12pm that day (cracking wee bothy with electricity) and what a relief it was to get our wet clothes off and get some much needed food, light the fire to dry out the clothes then sleep.
By this point I was in substantial pain with my knee so we made the decision to take a rest day early and stay in the bothy an extra night. It felt too early on to make such a decision but we'd planned on taking the following day off anyway so opted to rest on the Saturday instead. Although this contradicted my feelings to press on and get the milage done I have no doubts it was the correct decision and may have been the difference in making it to the Cape and not having to stop.

Another crucial practical piece of advice I'd like to give that my dad stressed to me in the lead up was not to go off fast and try and cover any big milage as I would burn out early. Instead he told me to fight that desire to keep going and rest up well as anyone who has walked at any considerable level would echo -you get fit through doing the walking while you are away. I covered 40 miles in the first 4 days and was feeling restless but by that point my body was used to the weight, the terrain and the demands and it was the moring of day 5 outside A'chul bothy on the edge of Glen Dessary forrest that me and my dad parted ways that I started to speed up the pace.

Day 5: 11/07/16

I walked from the edge of Glen Dessary forrest at A'chul bothy past Sourlies bothy, up through Knoydart and up the saddle through to Barrisdale. It was a hard days walk. I was soaked to the skin. I also, dispite considering myself agile and well balanced, could not stay on my feet. No matter how many times I tried when I lost my footing for a split second my pack just done enough to pull me over. The ground constantly gave way from under me leaving me in a heap more times than I care to remember.

One of these moments happened by the side of a waterfall. I bent my walking pole trying to keep my ballance after the gassy knoll gave way from under me and yet again the weight on my bag pulled me over. All of a sudden I found myself slipping off down a very steep bank to a sharp 5/6meter waterfall in full flow. The fall probably wouldn't have killed me but would have certainly been a skull crusher and/or back breaker and with the flow i'd have no fighting chance trying to swim to safety. By the grace of God I managed to cling to a few clumps of grass before I dropped over the edge and from there pulled my way back up onto the 'path'. I lay there shaking in an ungraceful heap for a while.
Even when you think you know where you're placing your feet, you don't. My walking pole just done enough to slow my fall and were worth their weight in gold during some hard river crossings in spate.

The rest of the day was cautious and by the time I got to the top of the saddle looking over down into Barrisdale I couldnt wait to get down and set up camp. Que going over on my ankle on the same side as my aching knee and doing quite extensive ligaminet damage. Yet again the ground underfoot was just bog and full of holes underneath, I stepped down onto what looked like a sturdy enough turf of grass and the ground moved away from under me, all my weight was on my left ankle and I went over pretty badly. It was excruciating and impeded the rest of my walk right up to the Cape lighthouse. It did however take the emphasis off my sore knee- every cloud has a silver lining.

I don't want to bore you with a day by day blog here but from here on in I got what i wanted. I pushed myself mentally and physically beyond where I'd previously been. I didn't find it enjoyable. Instead I really found it quite challenging and hard, isolating and cold. I found myself in some sticky situations and again have to take no credit and say its purely by the grace of God that I escaped unscathed and in tact. I had 2 beautiful days of sun, the rest of the time it poured and howled with wind. I even camped out on top of a hill by Inchnadamph in a thunder and lightening storm, both exciting and terrifying.

Practically again in terms of footwear and leg wear I'd packed my Salomon speed cross 3's for general dry wear in the bothies and camping up at night with the idea of if I had any problems with my Meindl boots then I'd still be able to walk with a good set of fell runners.
This actually proved to be the case as I found my ankle less sore with the flex in the trainers at the sole it relieved a bit of pressure from my ankle that It couldn't in my boots so when my bag lightened around day 10 I changed into my Salomon's and threw my boots in my bag (another wet 5kg) If I could go back I'd have done the whole trail in my fell runners as your feet end up soaked regardless of good boots and gaiters. I consider my boots and gaiters to be top of the range yet they still ended up soaked through near enough every day between deep bog, paths that ended up more small streams and constant heavy river crossings there was just no hope to try and stay dry.
My trousers were constantly soaked also and took ages to dry under my gaiters so at the same time as changing into my trainers I opted for my shorts. They dried twice as fast and I just felt a lot more agile in my trainers and was able to walk faster and more comfortably.
Suppose its down to personal preference but if I was to redo the trail i'd recommend the whole thing in shorts and fell runners. People may think thats nuts with the weather and boots give ankle protection but evidently that wasn't my experience. My trainers also dried out far quicker than my boots and I felt generally lighter and comfier in shorts and my Salomon's.

The following few days were a bit of a blur and I walked long hours on the last 3 days up to Sandwood bay I was a bit of a zombie and could feel my body beginning to break down from the pressure I was putting myself under. My feet were unrecognisable despite constantly washing them in the rivers and treating them best I could. My knee was still giving me some bother, my ankle was swollen out pretty badly, I had a strain up my Achilles as well by this point, I think as a result of trying to compensate walking with a sore ankle. I absolutely stank and I just wanted home to get a kiss my niece and nephew. I lost concentration on my way down to Sandwood bay from the turn off at London shops and gave myself a hard time. I fell into deep bog past my waist, lost my map in it and by that point was getting eaten alive by migies and horse flies as I'd ran out of Smidge and my other bottle of skin so soft done absolutely nothing for me. Apparently they've changed the formula in the last year and its not so potent to migies, so buy Smidge.

I camped up in the bothie an hours walk from Sandwood bay and left that hour down to Sandwood bay then onto the Cape for the friday morning the 22nd.
It made for a short 22km day but was quite monotonous with constant rolling hills of bog. Also that walk down from the bothie following the river out to Sandwood bay was horrible and not to be under estimated as there was some seriously deep bog so try and stick to the path as much as you can I imagine I made life difficult for myself winging it down there as I was mapless.

I reached the lighthouse for 11.30am and actually met a cracking guy named Klass from Belgium at 7am at Sandwood and we walked it in together. We spoke of the trail, the previous 2 weeks, shared experiences and as brief as the time was formed a real bond. He hadn't actually met anyone else on the trail prior to the first day. He told me of how he goes away every year around the world and was well experienced and versed having walked the Andies, the Rockies, the Alps, the Hymalayas, Patagonia and various others yet he still maintained that was the hardest 16 days of his walking, namely down to the weather, terrain and remoteness which gave me a sense of pride I suppose that it had been my first proper long distance walk. We shared in some of the purest joy I think I've ever felt and even purer relief seeing the lighthouse appear over the rolling hills. We'd made it.

I never made the 14 days given that I started on the Thursday 07/07/16 at 16.30 and finished on the Friday morning 22/07/16 at 11.30. I made that almost 15 full days. 2 of those days were rest days so it was actually only 13 days in total walking.

Get up early to the lighthouse and you'll be able to jump on one of the tour busses across to the ferry port then ferry over to Durness, the nearest town with a bus service. The mini bus was £7 and ferry was £4.50 and from there my dad picked me up and drove myself and Klass back to Inverness where Klass got on a bus to Glasgow- the holy land!

I met some really sound people along the way, amongst them was a mountain guide who I'm sure gave me some life saving advice during my river crossings and I think a total of 8 others. 1 of which was Scottish, the rest were French, Israeli, Swiss, Danish and English. I think it was quite a unique experience so you automatically feel a bond with anyone else on the trail regardless of who they are or their background and for me it was one of they trips you don't actually enjoy doing at the time but when you look back, the longer the time goes the more you forget the difficulties, dare I say it even the rain, and kind of romanticise the experience in your mind.

The achievement out weighed the pain ten fold and probably the most noteworthy part of the trail I've yet to speak about was the scenery. It was unlike anything I've seen and I didn't want to bombard my Facebook and Instagram with constant photos. It'll probably sound quite cliche but I wanted to actually live in they moments and not live they moments behind my phone and take it all in for what it was, the most beautiful, uncontaminated scenes and views of my country which I believe is one of the most beautiful on earth. I found real release in having my phone for the most part turned off in my bag for they two weeks off the grid. I did stop for the odd photo and check of my gps and at Strathcarron check in with my ever panicking Gran as well as my dad.

Through out they 15 days my dad was fundimental in my progress. Even through (other than the first few days) he wasn't on the trail with me I knew he could relate to everything I was experiencing, probably ten fold. He lightened up some hard days and met me 3/4 times bringing food and his usual terrible banter which put a smile on my face at times I was a bit worse for wear. He checked in any time he could and spent the two weeks basically mapping out my trail from home and going through it all with me, talking me through a lot of practical needs, struggles, injuries, giving me advice and motivation and praying with me and for me through out my time away so in a lot of respects I feel he was an unsung hero which kind of always has been his role in my life. He never wants credit or to be recognised for any of it and is happy to blend in to the back ground but he was and is invaluable to me.

I also had a lot of close friends and family sending messages, sponsoring me and praying for me to return in 1 piece! Haha, in the end I'd managed to raise £1578 and counting which was overwhelming and was the real icing on the cake.

In summary of the trail:

In some ways it often felt like a contradiction that I spent most days nursing injuries tired physically and of the weather, often frustrated and hungry and mentally shattered from it all yet also on the other hand totally rejuvnated and feeling absolute release from busy city living, my phone, work, my responsibilities and life in general. I spent every day drinking water from the purest source, breathing in uncontaminated air, looking at some of the most stunning scenery I'll probably ever see and having real quality time to pray and clear my mind and have a break away from my busy lifestyle and came back more grateful for all the little things that you realise you totally take for granted.

I felt really blessed, humbled and grateful for all the things Gods blessed me with in my own life and I felt I learned a lot about myself. I discovered the real truth behind 2 Corinthians 10.36 : the body follows the mind. You discover who you really are and how you respond under pressure where you see yourself and your true character in they ugly and hard moments. I took a lot from they experiences and truly believe they build strength of character. It was not easy but I would recommend it to anyone else with a screw loose looking for Adventure.

Feel free to message me with any feed back and/or questions and all the best to those planning the trail! I'm excited for you! Peace out, Joel x
Last edited by Joelsie27 on Mon Aug 08, 2016 8:52 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Joelsie27 » Fri Aug 05, 2016 9:21 am

Last edited by Joelsie27 on Fri Aug 05, 2016 9:33 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby Sgurr » Sun Aug 07, 2016 2:09 pm

Did you stay in the bothy just north of Sandwood bay (Strathcaileach)? We were in the Strahan bothy just to the south on the nights of 28th and 29th and can vouch for the poor weather and the swamped terrain. Good for you for continuing despite your injuries in the awful weather we have been having. I can't contemplate carrying such a huge amount of food, thought the guys who joined us on the second day staggered in with a banquet. My packets of Smash and Cup a Soup were bad enough
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Re: Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby the gangrel » Fri Aug 12, 2016 2:01 pm

Brilliant effort! Well done!
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Re: Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby lochlaggan » Sat Aug 13, 2016 8:00 pm

:clap: :clap: :clap: :clap:

Great report and it proved very useful for my Cape Wrath trail adventure this September/October. I wasn't sure about leaving my boots and going for trail shoes but after reading your report two pairs of trail shoes sound like the solution.

Nice one

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Postby jrothsc1 » Tue Nov 22, 2016 11:53 pm

What was your level of navigational experience before attempting this? I am looking to hike part of this trail next year, but I am still acquiring navigational skills. Not sure if this is out of my skill range, so any input would be appreciated!
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Postby willsdad » Thu Nov 24, 2016 12:47 pm

jrothsc1 wrote:What was your level of navigational experience before attempting this? I am looking to hike part of this trail next year, but I am still acquiring navigational skills. Not sure if this is out of my skill range, so any input would be appreciated!

Depends what part you are doing?
I used a Garmin which made life a lot easier. Although I'm ex army and pretty confident with my navigational skills.
There is a few places where trails branch of in similar directions but only 1 is the right one. Map and compass - you may end up retracing your steps a few times. GPS - right first time.

For example - climbing out of Kinloch Hourn - I camped with a German couple but set off 5 mins before them. Once at the top, I stood and watched them as they were heading off in the wrong direction after taking the wrong branch. Luckily they noticed me and cut across. (I won't mention that he was also following a GPS....)

At the end of the day though, you are heading north (or south). All routes in that general direction are correct providing you choose your terrain wisely :wink:
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Re: Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby yalluri » Sun Jan 20, 2019 4:12 pm


great report on your walk.

Was hoping to do the trail this coming April and within the same time frame as yourself (2 weeks).
I have a few questions would appreciate your advice : -

From what I hear the ferry wont be working in April so will have to terminate the walk at Kinlochbervie? is this correct?

Also I'm a keen photographer so on my walks I'm allways clicking away so will no doubt slow me down. If I run out of time to finish the walk do I have options to get off the trail and head back home?

Most of the walks I've done so far were tea house style walks so unsure on how much and what type of food I'd need to carry. I'm guessing figuring out the weight to calorie ratio is an art form.

thanks in advance.
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Re: Cape Wrath Trail for novices

Postby walkingpoles » Mon Jan 21, 2019 8:59 pm

You will have faster answers when starting a thread in the general discussions subforum than resurrecting a 2 year old walk report for general questions.
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