I have been catching up with my writing up of two recent short backpacking trips in Scotland, which were designed to enable me to get some experience of wild camping with my newish Duomid shelter. Up to now my focus has mainly been on the hiking rather than the camping, which is why I was drawn to use existing long distance trails on both these trips.
My first four long distance trails utilised a variety of B&Bs, hostels and bunkhouses where all my needs were catered for, but the costs of these trips mounted up. Because of this I finally bought a tent for the Pennine Way in 2013 and began to use some small campsites and gardens. This experience kickstarted my journey towards wild camping.
The first trip in June was to Perthshire on part of the Cateran Trail, hiking from Blairgowrie to Kirkmichael and camping at Pitcarmick in Strathardle.
The second trip in August was to Stirlingshire and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on part of the Rob Roy Way, hiking from Drymen to Strathyre and camping at Bealach Cumhang near the Menteith Hills. For those who don’t speak Gaelic, bealach apparently means col.
On the whole, I think my ability to chose reasonable places to pitch is improving a little bit, and I have begun to establish a camp routine which works for me, although heavy rain on both hikes affected my decisions, and I could still do with shaving some weight off my pack.
I have been gradually adding day routes onto Outdooractive 👣 for some time. As long as the routes don’t seem to involve any hazards, I have made them public and free for people to download on an ad hoc basis. As I have realised how helpful good quality downloads can be, I decided to start adding GPX files for all my day routes and publishing some routes retrospectively to replace the slightly vague descriptions I had been giving on early YouTube and blog descriptions. I have also been improving and standardising the route information provided with the downloads.
There are now over 50 free, downloadable routes on Outdooractive. I am pleased to see that there has been a steady interest in downloading these routes, so I have added links to my blog posts and YouTube. I hope you will find them helpful if you are considering walks in this part of the world, and that they will work well in conjunction with the blog posts and videos.
I chose the Cateran Trail, which is divided between Perthshire & Angus, for my next backpacking trip, partly because it looks to be a fine route, but also because this area was my introduction to central Scotland some years ago.
The Cateran Trail is a 65 mile / 104km circular route which includes Strathardle as well as parts of Glen Shee and Glen Isla. The route is named after the bands of cattle thieves known as Caterans who previously brought terror to these glens.
The Strathardle section I backpacked between Blairgowrie and Kirkmichael contains all the different types of terrain which this area is known for; various types of woodland, untamed heather moorland, rolling farmland pastures, and many burns feeding into the Ericht and Ardle rivers. You can read the trip report at Pitcarmick under the camping section.
Unfortunately for me, a recent event on the trail had left it a bit muddy. If I had worn my boots and taken my gaiters, it would have improved things, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Anyway here are a few photos of the varied section between Blairgowrie and Kirkmichael, which included a camp at Pitcarmick, to give you an idea of the route.
These pictures give some indication of how lovely the trail is, but avoid the mud underfoot. At this point it began to rain heavily, so I pitched the tent quite early to dry out. Apologies if I should not have camped in this site but it was an unplanned decision brought about by the weather.
I continued my hike the following morning down the lovely, verdant country lanes into Kirkmichael for a much needed hot breakfast. There I decided to return to this trail when it has had the chance to recover, and I can focus more on the lovely countryside and less on where I am putting my feet.
In May I walked the Speyside Way as a way to remember a relative who sadly passed away this year. During the walk I made a call to rescue services for navigational advice as there was a route discrepancy between my map and the signage. It was getting late and I was stuck in a seemingly endless rocky barbed wire corridor which wasn’t indicated on my map, and wasn’t wide enough to pitch my tent in. My tired reasoning was simply that a call for advice now might prevent a call for help later. Unfortunately the people I spoke to were unable to answer my query. When I mentioned this dilemma on Twitter after my return, a few people were critical of my decision to make a call, so this is just a quick response to them.
In the 20 years since I began hiking, I have once requested a call out from Mountain Rescue following an attack of vertigo, and have sought advice (usually regarding route diversions) two or possibly three times on solo long distance walks. On each of these occasions I made a donation to the relevant team.
I would just like to quote a DM I received from a professional rescue person (who shall remain anonymous) regarding my call for advice:
“I think if your call prevented you from getting into danger then it was worthwhile. The Mountain Rescue teams would rather you didn’t get hurt and so would I…I’ve met lots of people who should have done what you did”
I would also like to point out that, as I have a relative who was involved in mountain rescue, I realise how valuable their service is to the outdoor community. My relative sustained a permanent injury whilst carrying out a rescue with his team, so I am fully aware of the risks teams face while providing this service. I am also aware of my personal responsibilities to use their resources sparingly, to donate as and when I am able, and to provide the best outdoor advice I can.
I have just returned from the 65 mile Speyside Way walk from Aviemore in the Scottish Cairngorms to Buckie on the Moray coast, accompanied by my new tent. My write up can be found in the trails section.
I realise that circumstances have meant that it has taken me a while to get round to wild camping my first trail. As I have explained in my camping section, it has been a gradual journey from bed and breakfasts on Hadrian’s Wall to tea in a tent on the Berwickshire Coastal Path.
I don’t often hear this dramatic trail come up in conversation on social media or blogs, perhaps because people who backpack in Scotland are understandably drawn to the magnetic Munros, the famous national parks or the beautiful highlands and islands, ignoring the beauty of parts of the east coast.
When I moved to the borders, I was struck by the beauty of the east coast between Bamburgh in Northumberland and St Abb’s Head in Berwickshire, so I am often tempted to return there to walk.
On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I was gazing out of the window, as the train runs so close to the coast between Berwick and Burnmouth that it almost knocks walkers into the sea. I noticed a couple of backpackers across the field walking along the coast path, who stopped and waved at us on the train. I got an overwhelming urge to be there waving, instead of on the train on my business errand, and so a week later I was.
Berwickshire has some of the longest and most dramatic cliffs on the British coast, which make walking this path a challenging and attractive experience which is ideal for wild camping. I’m sure I made some rookie wild camping errors, but I really enjoyed the challenge. I hope you will take a look at my trip report – Berwickshire Coastal Path
This subject has never been far from my thoughts since I started this blog, but I would preface this post by saying that I am not an expert in this area. I saw my first fox up close when out walking on the South Downs at university, and later became aware of foxes scavenging from the neighbourhood bins in south London. Like many city dwellers, at the time I was thrilled to realise that I could be living in such close proximity to wild animals.
When I moved to the borders however, it was hard to ignore the fact that there were several active local hunts, who in those days took huge packs of noisy dogs out with them, or that the hills were chequered with burnt heather patches (muirburn) to encourage the grouse population.
Although the fishing troubles me less, as a walker I soon realised that it would be valuable to know when, where and how to avoid the hunting and the shooting. I lived amongst hunters, guns, anglers, ghillies, guides, beaters, gamekeepers, hotel staff, holiday cottage rental owners, equipment suppliers and the invisible landowners who make serious amounts of money from these pursuits, for several years. Although I am not and have never been pro hunting or shooting, one point I would now make through gritted teeth to my old city self about the H words (which I still hesitate to use), is that they still provide much needed employment in some areas.
Many rural communities in this area suffer from high unemployment, rural poverty and lacklustre tourism compared to areas like the Lake District. Like it or not, hunting, shooting and fishing are therefore still a mainstay of the north Northumbrian and Scottish Borders economy, which currently provide sustainable jobs and attract tourists who need to be housed, fed, kitted out and entertained.
Without these jobs and income streams, more young people would be forced to leave this part of the countryside in search of work, and the subsidiary businesses which are presently sustained by the hunting, shooting and fishing tourists would fail or close. All this could have the effect of making it an unsustainable community which is why I have so far been hesitant to be too confrontational about it. The point I am making is simply that if people want to abolish any of these pursuits, this needs to be done in conjunction with the development of sustainable alternative employment for the people and businesses involved. Sorry to inject a bit of realism into what I realise is an emotive debate.
Although I would never hunt or shoot personally, I gradually realised that my existence in the borders was dependent on a successful local economy. I do eat meat now, and I began to value the fact that I was surrounded by a ready supply of fresh, traceable fish and meat from farmers, although their livelihood was seriously compromised by the foot and mouth epidemic. It was all a far cry from the the meat section of the London supermarkets. So with my city morals and the last vestiges of my vegetarianism increasingly under strain, I eventually even partook of the spoils on occasions, which probably makes me every sort of hypocrite in the eyes of some readers.
All that said, I have gradually become aware during my walking of the damage which is done to the countryside in the name of grouse shooting in particular. My personal objections are concerned with the effects on the ecosystem of native plants, wildlife and birds. There are many ghost villages, industrial remains and abandoned buildings in Northumberland and the Borders to remind us that communities have come and gone since the Iron Age, so I would be sad to see this area emptied out and unable to regenerate without relying on the hunting, shooting and fishing economy.
In my humble opinion, the area needs sustainable jobs, and to attract different kinds of tourists such as walkers, cyclists, climbers, riders and nature lovers who will represent a different spectrum of opinion in environmental and outdoor debates. So, if you haven’t already sampled the borders countryside please do so, as I hope this site has shown that it doesn’t all look like the photo above.
Note: The lack of appropriate pictures in this post is due to the fact that I normally avoid areas where hunting or shooting are taking place. I have only once got close to a hunt complete with a pack of dogs, and once to a small shoot, and I got clear of both as quickly as possible, without lingering to take photos.
‘Those who decry peak bagging as mere list ticking fail to understand the commitment challenge and pleasure involved. Collecting summits means collecting experiences.’ Chris Townsend.
Drawing from more than forty years’ experience as an outdoorsman, and probably the world’s best known long distance walker who also writes, Chris Townsend describes the landscapes and wildlife, the walkers and climbers, and the authors who have influenced him in his latest lucid and fascinating book. Writing from his home in the heart of the Cairngorms he discusses the vital importance of wild places to our civilisation.
Critical acclaim for Chris Townsend: ‘This is what Chris’ books do. They shake you out of lethargy and install in you that love of the natural world that keeps us all going.’ Andy Howell, Outdoors Blog. ‘In the Scottish outdoor world names occasionally shine like the stars and very quickly fade into the night. Chris Townsend has remained a shining light for well over 35 years, a passionate and inspiring advocate for the wild corners of our land, an enthusiast who literally walks the walk.’ Cameron McNeish. ‘I first met Chris Townsend about thirty years ago cross country ski-ing in the Cairngorms. He is someone who practices what he preaches. Since his becoming a JMT Trustee I have much appreciated his insights and knowledge and he is a great voice for our cause.’ Peter Pearson, Chair of the John Muir Trust. ‘Chris Townsend is the all-around world champion hiking memoirist, guide, photographer, blogger, and techie.’ Ron Strickland, founder of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
About Chris Townsend Chris Townsend writes regularly for TGO Magazine and has written 22 books on the outdoors, including the award winning The Backpacker’s Handbook; Scotland in Cicerone’s World Mountain Ranges series; Crossing Arizona; the story of an 800 mile walk along the Arizona Trail; Walking the Yukon, the story of 1000 mile walk through the Yukon Territory; The Munros and Tops, the story of his continuous round and A Year In The Life of The Cairngorms, a photographic study. His recent publications with Sandstone Press feature two long-distance walks he undertook in the USA, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams (2012) and Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles (2014).
Sometimes in life we have to make the most of where we are, and the time and the resources available to us, and these dictate our adventures more than our daydreams and long term plans. So a couple of days in Edinburgh is to me the equivalent of an expedition to the Matterhorn in terms of the escapism it affords at the moment. As I spent a while living in London, I have learned to appreciate urban walking and green spaces, and how much they can add to the quality of life in a large city.
A recent trip to Edinburgh became an adventure as I decided on the train to finally climb up the crags to Arthur’s Seat, and experience this familiar city from a new angle.
The views across Edinburgh and out onto the Firth of Forth just get better and better as you go, so don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. This walk is written up in Edinburgh Exploits
Because of a fall at the end of 2012, this year got off to a slow start. My convalescent winter was spent reading about other people’s adventures, which inspired me to plan some of my own. The injury knocked my confidence, and dented confidence sometimes takes longer to recover from than broken bones.
I first ventured out into the country again on a group trip to Kirkby Stephen in February. I discovered how out of condition I was when I couldn’t complete the first 15 mile walk. I did manage a shorter walk the following day.
A few weeks later in March of 2013, I planned a week of some of my favourite Northumberland walks from a base in Rothbury in order to boost my fitness and my morale. Kirkby Stephen had taught me that I needed to take things at a more comfortable pace at first. Although it was still quite wintery on the hilltops, it was really good to get out again and revisit north Northumberland.
As some of you will know, my big plan for 2013 was to walk the Pennine Way to raise funds for Crisis UK, so I knew I had to get back into condition. With advice from some people about my camping kit, I began my attempt to transform myself from a slackpacker to a self supporting backpacker.
I made plans to do two hikes in the spring; the 65 mile St Cuthbert’s Way during the wintery April, followed by the 75 mile Cumbria Way during May. I never stop learning when I hike, and these hikes were no exception. I was able to experiment with new kit, footwear, and different kinds of accommodation. The strange weather of the 2013 spring presented challenges on both walks, with 25cm of snow in places across the Scottish borders, and hail showers on the Cumbria Way.
When the time came for me to set off on the Pennine Way in June, I was apprehensive about my achy tendons, and about camping in my new tent. I had consulted a podiatrist who gave me some exercises designed to prevent tendon injury, and sought some advice about camping, but I was still nervous when I arrived at Edale in June.
With hindsight, I can honestly say that all the kit and exercise preparation and all the advice I sought turned out to be valuable. I saw quite a few people on the Pennine Way during the summer heatwave with problems such as sunburn, heat exhaustion, heavy packs and injury, which luckily didn’t affect me during my hike.
I completed the hike in 20 days but allowed a few negative comments at the end to get under my skin, which wasn’t helpful. My advice is to avoid negative people as they will drag you down. Some of the “areas for improvement” which emerged on the Pennine Way were my wild-camping and my mountain skills so the remainder of 2013 has been spent trying to address these issues.
I was lucky enough to team up with 4 other wild-campers on social media for my first wild camp in the Peak District. After the Pennine Way, it was relaxing not to have a schedule to adhere to, and to have the logistics planned by somebody else. Many people have made the point that we are generally much safer in the hills than we are in most cities, so I have no excuses left to stop me getting out there to wild camp in 2014.
I had planned to try and fit two more short trails in to the end of the year, but responsibilities at home have put these on hold. I did manage half of the Northumberland coast path which I hope to finish at some stage.
I can’t write about this year without mentioning some of the people in it, as well as the hikes. As my ambitions to do longer trails have grown, I have realised that the best people to turn to for advice are people who have done them. It was therefore a huge pleasure to meet trail walkers Sarah, Alasdair, Colin and Chris and to chat about many aspects of their experience on some of the worlds great trails. In October I was invited to the Lake District by the National Trust to meet Tanya Oliver of Fix the Fells to see some of the vital path maintenance they do to tackle problems caused by erosion and poor drainage on the upland fell paths.
In November I took myself to the Kendal Mountain Festival to meet some more mountaineers. Over the weekend I met some friendly people, enjoyed some good craic, and saw some great talks and films, so I look forward to returning in the future. Watching films about mountains in the snow finally persuaded me that I need to improve my winter skills if I am going to complete any longer trails. Thus the year ended with me playing with my first ice axe and crampons at a Winter Skills lecture and booking myself onto a course.
At the end of 2013, many of the assumptions I had about hiking have disappeared, and I find myself planning to improve my mountain skills in the coming year. Thanks for reading and I hope all your plans for next year come to fruition. All I can say about 2013 really is who knew!