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Lessons from the Cape Wrath Trail

In May 2021, regular Walkhighlands columnist David Lintern walked over 200 miles from Fort William to Cape Wrath. Here’s a few things he wished he’d known at the start.

The long walk to the Cape means different things to different people; a challenge, a pilgrimage, a journey of discovery, an escape from the norm, a test of endurance, willpower and fitness. People generally start in Fort William and finish at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, although we met a fair number who were heading in the opposite direction. Is it the toughest trail in the UK, as it’s often billed? I’ve no idea… but it’s certainly not for the faint hearted.

In total we covered around 396km (246 miles), along with 14,006 metres of ascent (or 45,951 feet in old money). If you are planning on trying yourself, it’s worth knowing there’s more ascent in the first few days than on subsequent sections. Most people seem to take between 2-3 weeks to walk the whole thing – our tally was 17 days walking and 2 resting. Not all of us finished the route, although we all came very close. On the way, we met with all weathers and more than a few health issues.

Above Glenfinnan, day 2

Finding your way

It might be helpful to know what the walk is, and isn’t. While the current iteration of the Trail has become codified in the last 10-15 years as a long-distance backpack, it’s not an official National Trail at all. The route, as laid out in the Walkhighlands guide, covers just the 2 main options from dozens of possible lines that cross the country. And because it’s not strictly defined, there are no official waymarks, flashes or signposts. We saw only a single sign – likely an equally unofficial diversion to keep smelly backpackers clear of paying customers on an estate (it was next to a well-known salmon fishing river, and to be fair we did pong a bit by that point).

If it’s not an official trail, who built the paths? There’s a historic mix: Drover’s roads were created by smallholders or crofters who needed a means of getting their cattle to market and would ‘drive’ their charges over mountain passes to towns and cities in the lowlands. Coffin roads were a means of people living in smaller settlements, often without a place of worship, transporting the dead to the nearest church or chapel. Stalkers’ tracks were and still are a means for deer hunters – both locals and visitors – to get around, as well as to transport their quarry off the hill. In the past (less so nowadays), that was commonly done by pony. It’s fascinating to try and work out which type of track you are on as you walk across the country.

A bealach or col in the Coulin ‘forest’, overlooking Torridon

The Cape Wrath Trail isn’t a walk over the mountain tops, either. In common with many of the European GR’s, it’s a walk around and through them. Most days, walkers will climb at least one bealach (a pass or col) while moving from glen to glen. Since we’re mostly hitching a ride on old ways that were used by local people to get from one community to another, they are often ‘paths of least resistance’, at least topographically.

But just as you shouldn’t expect red and blue flashes on rocks to guide you through, don’t expect a consistency of terrain either. In fact, it’s best to expect anything but consistency – you’ll meet rock, loose stone, mud, bog, peat hags, tarmac, sand, grass and everything inbetween. This is a network of ancient tracks that developed in an ad-hoc way over centuries, some of which have since vanished while others fall into disrepair, or are maintained or ‘developed’. It’s a wonderful, chaotic mess. As a result, I think that you could plot an alternate route with the same start and end points, over summits adjacent to the route and have an easier time underfoot than on the Cape Wrath Trail!

A rare high camp on the Cape Wrath Trail, in Assynt

This inconsistency applies to navigation too. While the route follows this mix of old paths for much of it’s length, there are several sections where there is no path at all, or which require a leap of faith from one to the next. Some of these sections – notably under Beinn an Aodain, and the entrance to the Fisherfield by Loch Fada, can be confusing even in clear weather. Arguably, the simpler travel on paths and tracks can lull you into a false sense of security, from which you’ll need to occasionally break free. We called these sections ‘jumps’ and paid extra attention, but we did get caught out and miss our cue on a couple of occasions, and we weren’t the only ones.

Because of these inconsistencies, and because of the unpredictability of the weather, it’s also harder to manage and predict your expected mileage. Some of our planned days zipped past on good tracks in fine weather, while others were lost in the bog, sleet and headwinds and needed to be split into two. As with all long-distance endeavours, there’s a need to be flexible as well as to stay on target and keep moving. I found working through all the options last thing at night became more essential and exhausting as time went on!

There are dozens of possible route variations. One of our best days walking was spent away from the guidebook route

All the gear…

…but no idea? This is most definitely a walk where your equipment needs to be tried and true, not ‘new and improved’ and definitely not ‘tried and tired’! Because you are walking for 2-3 weeks through variable weather and rough terrain, often without phone reception and miles from help, you’ll need freshly proofed waterproofs and everything in great working order. Among our more serious mistakes: Using an old, leaky shelter, not packing enough sun cream and changing footwear at the last minute before starting the walk.

You will need a means of crossing rivers safely and with comfortable feet. One of our team wore waterproof boots and took no walking poles, and struggled on the crossings – conversely, he was the only one without sore feet the rest of the time!

The walk passes by many ruined settlements, like this one on Loch Hourn

At least some of this should be common sense, but it’s easy to forget just how different and taxing a longer walk can be as compared to a weekender. And there are some nuances I missed in preparation, too; I packed too much insulation and omitted the midge repellent, both mistakes on a glen-to-bealach walk which mostly avoids the cooler, breezier mountain tops.

My kit advice would be – don’t listen to my advice, or anyone else’s. Go with what you know works for you, make sure you know exactly how it performs and that it still has plenty of life in it. Long walks are hard on your body, and on your gear, and you need both to go the distance.

The trail links historic paths that connected settlements throughout the Highlands

An army marches on its stomach… and good first aid.

Food turned out to be easier than expected, despite us choosing the more remote route variants and not diverting into Ullapool for a resupply. We sent advanced food boxes to Morvich and Inchnadamph, but could have easily resupplied at Kinlochewe, which has a useful petrol station shop with small café under new management, as well as good restaurants and an improved range at the established local store. Kintail Crafts at Morvich is a great pitstop, but perhaps more for snacks, gifts and beers than main meals. There’s also a Spar and the London Stores at Kinlochbervie, as well as the excellent Old School restaurant en route. We all lost weight, but we didn’t go hungry.

Those I spoke to who survived on foil wrapped expedition type meals found themselves sorely lacking in variety after two weeks, while those of us who made up their own concoctions from the dried food isle in the supermarket spent less and weren’t bored at mealtimes.

Keeping ourselves well fed wasn’t difficult, but keeping ourselves fit enough to make decent progress was. Again, this is down to the variability of conditions on the trail – both terrain and the weather – and this is what makes the Cape Wrath Trail markedly different to most walking on the European continent. Consistent wet, cold weather makes it so much harder to stay on top of personal admin, and without washing clothes and cleaning feet, chaffing and blisters are only a matter of time. On a weekend trip, none of this matters. Over 2-3 weeks, looking after yourself becomes really important. We took an expanded first aid kit between us which included wound dressings and anti-inflammatories, and were glad of it.

And talking of the army…

There’s no escaping the fact that the long walk from Fort William ends on an exposed and remote peninsula where public access is controlled and patrolled by the military. Essentially, Cape Wrath is used for aerial target practice – not something even a bomber 3-layer waterproof will protect you from. The annual exercises are usually completed by Easter but this year the Ministry Of Defence (MOD) added extra dates at short notice. Up to date information from official sources proved very hard to come by and the local community seem to be kept similarly in the dark. It was deeply frustrating to have got that far…

As a result, some chose to finish at Sandwood Bay, around 7 miles short of the trail terminus at Cape Wrath lighthouse. Some we met had started at the Cape and walked south, partly to avoid being caught out. Still others chose to try for the lighthouse, outside the firing times listed on the MOD website, but with the red flags that denote ‘live firing, keep out’ still flying on the moorland approach.

View from camp after reaching Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of mainland Scotland

A deep dive into Scotland

I hadn’t planned to walk the Cape Wrath Trail until about a month before I joined my friends. I was run down before I began, planned poorly and suffered on the way as a result. But ultimately, these endeavours aren’t really about our personal trials and tribulations, successes and failures – all those things fall away in the end. What’s left is a complex, compact kernel of experiences that changes how we see the world. A long walk broadens horizons. A long walk enlightens.

The Cape Wrath Trail can’t help but deepen your understanding and affection for Scotland’s landscape, wildlife, history and culture. And connecting the Highlands glen by glen, it’s impossible not to ask: Who made all these paths? Why so many empty ruins now, and who lived here then? The long walk to the Cape is relentless, hard and very beautiful, and it’s a walk you should try at least once, if you are able.

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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.