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Going further: Planning for long distance walks

Getting your head around preparation for a big trip can be confusing. David Lintern takes it step by step…

Over the coming months, we’re all looking forward to a little more freedom to travel and more outdoor exploration, but where to start, after what might well be a year away from the hills?

A brief glance at the Long-Distance Route page on Walkhighlands is more than enough to whet the appetite, and the first and most obvious to say is not all long walks are created equal. Some require lots of logistical wrangling, others are more straightforward. Walkers on the West Highland Way will find food and accommodation along the route, and can even have their bags transferred from point to point. A continuous walk of the Glen Affric Way may be shorter but is at times more remote and means carrying at least some food, a tent and some sleeping kit.

Backpacker on the Ramsay Round in Lochaber, a 24-hour running challenge or multiday walk that stays high and remote and needs careful route, weather and water planning.

Either way, a multiday trip is a marathon, not a sprint. It can mean foul as well as fair weather, wearing wet clothes and sometimes being hungry and cold. It’ll be physically and mentally taxing in ways done-in-a-day missions are not, and let’s face it, most of us are not as fit as we’d like after a year of restricted activity. So, if you’re chomping at the bit to get out of the city and have never done a long walk before, this is not the year to bite off more than you can chew! Click on the ‘show comparison’ tab at the top of the Walkhighlands table, to see how long or tough each route is.

For those of you considering walks with Hotels, B&B’s and campsites en route, places are filling up fast with visitors. Those working in Highland hospitality that I spoke to for this piece were all delighted to be welcoming visitors back, but with international travel still restricted for the time being they are mindful of capacity, so book ahead and don’t be surprised if there is limited space, especially around public holidays. Plan your trips in quieter times and places if you can.

Planning in Stages

Just like any other large task, the way to make big walks more manageable is to break them down into smaller parts. By nature, I’m an improvisor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t plan – instead I plan around a series of fixed points, before getting into the detail of each stage.

Regardless of how challenging our chosen route is, our hierarchy of needs is the more or less the same: Food, shelter and water. Many of the more straight forward long walks on the Walkhighlands page will start and finish in a town or village, making these things easier to find, but it needn’t be a case of all or nothing. It’s fun to mix things up – a room and a shower one night, under the stars the next. This can help keep the challenges manageable and gives you something to look forward to if the weather turns.

Food

I tend to build food supply points in first and then fill in the gaps, because not starving is non-negotiable. If I’m researching a route with few or no facilities en route, anything longer than a week will still benefit from a resupply, simply because of pack weight.

Los Tres Miles is a week-long traverse of the Spanish Sierra Nevada. At camp, all food was stored outside our tents in fox-proof containers and we sometimes carried lots of water. Some (dried) food came with us from Scotland, some we purchased locally beforehand.

Are there supermarkets, pubs or restaurants on the way? If I can shop locally I do, but if options are limited then I’ll think about a food cache. Historically, Highland campsites, post offices, bunkhouses and hotels have been great about holding resupply boxes for backpackers in exchange for some passing trade, and I’m pleased to say that the tradition continues despite the difficulties faced by small businesses due to Covid. For me, that informality and generosity is one of the joys of independent (or rather, interdependent!) travel… but you will need to ring ahead and be courteous. Some will not be fully open after the pandemic, others have had their patience stretched. One hotelier I spoke to told me that at one point in 2019, she had 71 boxes stored. She regretted having to stop offering the service since. Another campsite owner told me customers had posted awnings! A small box of dried food addressed ‘care of’ or ‘post restante’ may still be fine if prearranged, but please don’t take advantage of local goodwill.

Shelter

Next up, I check the map for potential places to stop overnight to break up my journey in-between those food supply points. When camping, it’s useful to have a couple of options in mind – energy, morale and terrain dependent. There are further resources on inexpensive food, good camping practice and more at the end of this article.

The old footbridge (now replaced) over the Carnach in Knoydart, just before we turned back due to torrential rain. A local keeper donated logs and tins of Export to ease our stay at Sourlies Bothy until the weather abated.

Water

I’ve now broken up my big trip into day long sections, and need to get more granular. I consider water next, because drowning will really ruin my day. Where are the river crossings? Are there bridges or fords up or downstream, and what are the hazards? In Scotland, even the burns can become impassable in heavy weather. Water levels tend to drop quickly in Scotland but rivers in spate can still hold you up for a day or so.

With that potential hazard considered, I move on to hydration. Rivers and burns on lower level routes will benefit from filtration, or if near farmland may be best avoided altogether due to agricultural pollutants (which generally won’t be removed by a water filter). Clean freshwater on coastal or low lying riverside routes can be much harder to come by. Even on more remote, upland walks, it pays not to take ability to fill a water bottle completely for granted. In rare cases, dead livestock or wild animals can contaminate a spring or burn. I rarely treat water in the Scottish hills and personally have never had a problem, but others have suffered with bad tummies or worse, so use common sense, your sense of smell and scan upstream before deciding whether a source is clean enough to drink from.

In particular, long high ridges can be dry and exposed places to be, so I take extra care to note where I might top up my bottles, making sure not to reach camp without the ability to rehydrate. Sometimes, mapping at 1:25:000 can be useful to get into this level of detail. It’s worth knowing that in Highland Scotland these ridges often run West-East and drain into North facing coires, and that the prevailing wind tends to come from the North and East in winter, and the South and West in summer. These are only rules of thumb and are not infallible, but they can help guide you in your search for shelter and water at the end of big days high in the hills.

Camping high on the ‘5 sisters’ ridge in Kintail as the moon rose, Andy dropped steeply north off the ridge and collected water before returning for a very exposed and windy camp.

Lastly, I look for escape routes – places where I can quit the walk more easily if I absolutely need to. This may be a spur off a hill to a road, a glen junction or passing through a village. I’ll sometimes note camps, significant water crossings and escape routes directly onto my printed paper maps. Once again, the Walkhighlands comparison table gives a handy summary of which routes are connected with public transport, which can also be useful if ‘section-hiking’ a long route over several months or years.

It’d be remiss not to mention weather planning. We’re lucky in that most of us can tune in to regular weather forecasts via smartphones. EE currently provides the most comprehensive cover in the Highlands, but it will struggle in many glens. Plan ahead and carry a small notebook if you need to jot down what’s expected over the coming days as a memory aid. It’s worth taking extended periods of rain and drought seriously and work to the reality on the ground, not our fantasy of a perfect trip. The very best journeys often involve adaption to new circumstances.

Reaching Braeriach on a coast to coast packrafting and 4,000 footer challenge. We bailed shortly after, managing 7 of the 9 highest mountains in Scotland (and Britain).

Building in Slack

Imagine your long walk is a thin cotton thread. If 1 or 2 unexpected things happen, the thread will accommodate the extra tension, but if one thing leads to another, as they often do in the mountains, the thread will break. Now replace the thread with a rubber band…

The longer or more challenging your walk is, the more flexible you need to be, if only because the law of averages means there’s more chance of something breaking or the weather changing. So, it pays to build some slack into your approach. Slack was invented by 60’s west coast hippies as part of a satirical religion, but we can repurpose it for big trips to think about optimising outputs versus inputs – maximum benefit for minimum effort.

In equipping for a longer journey, a working principle of ‘redundancy’ can be useful. Perhaps your chances of breaking or losing a lighter may be relatively low, but the consequences are high – if you can’t heat water, you can’t rehydrate food and can’t eat. For a tiny weight penalty, you could carry a spare – or perhaps a firesteel. I also carry a torso length strip of CFC foam to protect my air mat from sharp ground (or as a means of thermal protection if the mat were to deflate permanently), a couple of spare tent pegs, a small mix of hats and gloves for different conditions and a tiny, spare emergency torch. I always carry lightweight, foldable plastic bottles in case I need to transport water for a dry camp, but for a longer walk I also add a few more items to my first aid kit, including a sewing needle and Tyvek tape.

A 2 month crossing of the Pyrenees via the ‘Haute Route’ required several resupplies of both food and equipment. Footwear and sleeping mats failed and were replaced, winter tools were bought in for the sections needed and sent home again. I didn’t book a train ticket home until I reached the finish.

Some items can perform double duty – dental floss cleans teeth as well as stitches a tear in a sleeve or a loose shoe seam, a large safety pin or 2 can close a broken tent door as well as peg wet socks to a pack to dry. These ‘just in case’ interventions cost only a few grams extra on my back but give me flexibility, or can keep me on track when I might otherwise bail on a trip I’m heavily invested in. It might also apply to the odd ‘luxury’ item – for early spring and late autumn trips I may take insulated camp socks. Better sleep and a touch more comfort without adding kilos to my pack means I stay motivated for more days, or for more challenging weather or terrain.

And slack also applies to time. Rushing to finish a big walk means there’s more room for human error to creep in and less time to enjoy the journey. If possible, build in an extra day or so on the way. I sometimes pack an emergency meal or two over a longer stage of a route, with this in mind. After a week in the hills, I might end up eating it anyway. As I’ve mentioned, I’m an improviser at heart, so I try to balance planning and structure (food/shelter/water) with looseness (slack) and keep a spirit of adventure at heart too. Just what IS over the horizon?! I really don’t want to know everything…

I can’t leave without mentioning the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The SOAC is a set of principles which run through all my preparations and help me make higher quality, lower impact decisions when I’m out. Basically, it’s just a guide to being a good neighbour – towards the environment we’re in, the people who live there, as well as to each other. If it’s new to you or need a refresher there’s no shame in admitting that, and loads more information about keeping Scotland special here.

Enjoy un-lockdown!

Further reading and resources:

Scotland’s Long Distance Walking routes

Grub’s up! Camp food made easy

Wild Camping 101 – choosing a site, geting comfy, staying clean

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.