Cape Wrath Trail Planning #1

As I write this there are only 8 weeks until I begin my Cape Wrath Trail walk; one of the toughest long distance paths in the UK. It runs for about 230 miles, from Fort William to the most northwesterly tip of the county and the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Along the way it passes through some incredibly wild and remote Scottish scenery, following access tracks, old drovers roads and stalkers paths. It traverses the iconic highland regions of Knoydart, Kintail, Wester Ross, Assynt and Sutherland. At times there are no paths at all and the route cuts across open heather moorland, rough hillsides and beside meandering burns.

Walking through Kintail in March 2016

I’m not able to do the whole walk, but I’ll be doing the first 120 miles or so, from Fort William to Kinlochewe with @PilgrimChris, who has been trying to walk this route for the past five years. I can only spare 8 days walking, so once my allocation of annual leave expires and I head home, Chris will be continuing to the end on his own – a state of affairs I imagine by that time will be quite appealing (I’m not the easiest walking companion).

This walk will be something completely new to me, in more ways than one.

  • Ignoring travel at each end, we’re expecting to walk for 8 days, which will be the longest route I’ve done without using B&B accommodation. The north west highlands of Scotland are sparsely populated and what few beds there are along the route are too far apart to rely on them exclusively, so we’re backpacking the trail, just as everyone else doing the route will.
  • I’ll probably be carrying the heaviest pack since my early days of backpacking more than 10 years ago. My kit is much lighter now and there’s less of it, but I’ll be carrying five days of food from the start, so even with a fairly low base-weight I’ll be topping out at 15kg as we leave Fort William.
  • I’ve walked in some fairly remote locations, but never for so long, or quite as far from civilisation as some stretches of the walk will be. I’ve walked the length of Skye, but you’re never far from a road there and although I hiked through Kintail and Glen Affric it was only for three days.

This means there are a lot of ‘unknowns’ for me and I’m not comfortable with uncertainty, so I have to employ tools to mitigate these feelings. I know I can’t control the environment, the weather, or the ‘unknowns’, but I can use techniques to reduce their impact on me. The key to a calmer state of mind, for me, is planning. So, taking a leaf from Mark Watney’s book, I intend to “plan the shit out of this”.

Mark Watney – The Martian

This post is about the basic stuff; primarily transport to get to and from the walk and planning the route itself. I hope to follow this post with a couple of others that go into more detail on two specific planning tools I’ve used. The next post will concentrate on a spreadsheet I use to create a route plan and then I’ll shine the spotlight on my kit list spreadsheet and food planner.

The Basics

The basics will be different for most people, but for me it’s about knowing how I’m getting home and what route I’ll be using along the trail. If I can’t rely on public transport exclusively and have to use my car for part of the journey, my personal preference is to walk towards my car. I try and get all the fannying about on buses and trains out of the way at the start so when I get to the end I can collapse into my lovely comfortable personal bubble and let it waft me home.

The fact that this walk would have two different end points, one for me and one for Chris, actually turned out not to be a huge problem. I will leave my car at my exit point, in the little car park in Kinlochewe, where I will meet Chris. He will then drive us both to Durness, the closest village to Cape Wrath and he’ll park his car there. When he finishes his walk he can catch a mini-bus from the lighthouse to the ferry which will take him across the Kyle of Durness and a short-ish walk to his car.

The Kyle of Durness, separates Cape Wrath from Durness

We’ll spend a night in Durness and the following morning we catch a bus to Lairg. From there it’s a train to Inverness and then another bus to Fort William. That’s about 8 hours of travelling summed up in a dozen words. The time gaps between arrival and departure of those legs are small enough to cause me a fair amount of anxiety, but as long as we catch the first bus, there are fall-back options available to us. From Fort William we need to catch a small ferry to get us across the loch to the Ardnamurchan peninsula where the walk begins.

The Cape Wrath Trail is not a definitive route, it’s certainly not waymarked and in places it can use three or four different routes between points. It also has two very different options for the first 50 miles or so. The route you use depends on the source of your information and/or personal preference. Common sources of route information can be found at:

As I was essentially piggy-backing on Chris’s walk I asked him which route he was using from the start (Glenfinnan or Great Glen – he chose the former) and I downloaded as many route variations as I could. These were all loaded into Memory Map and combined into a single map. Where the routes used the same track between points there was no decision to make, but where different routes used different glens or passes I researched which route would be preferable. That may have been down to facilities, terrain, camping spots, underfoot conditions, river crossings and so on.

Cape Wrath Trail route in blue, with various waypoints added

Over the course of about 3-4 weeks I massaged a preferred route from all the variations. Onto this I added waypoints for various different items of interest; shops, cafes, pubs, B&Bs, bothies, bunkhouses, campsites and anything else that may be of use to us. I read Iain Harper’s great guide book and created Memory Map waypoints for any item he identified as potentially troublesome; river crossings, bogs, pathless terrain and useful things like possible wild camp spots.

I also found an incredibly useful series of YouTube videos from a guy who walked the route in the summer of 2018 (Hounds of Howgate Cape Wrath Trail – I cannot rate this highly enough!). He covered the route in great detail and his vlog is engaging and humorous at the same time. I created more waypoints for some of the things he highlighted, including his camp spots and a couple of route variations he used.

Belt & Braces

Regular readers will know how I feel about map and compass. I only started walking a few years ago and as a technophile I immediately looked at hi-tech alternatives to paper maps and that arcane device, the compass. I have never used or owned a compass and I don’t plan on starting for this walk. I do however want to be safe, so I’ll be using the latest in, what is for me, a long line of smartphone-based mapping tools. I’ve used many apps in the past, but for the last 2 years I’ve exclusively been using ViewRanger. This uses OS mapping, stored on the phone so there’s no requirement for a phone signal and the app can be used on up to 5 devices.

I will be taking two different smartphones, a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and a Galaxy S9+, both of which will be loaded with the OS 1:25k scale maps for the Trail (the whole of the UK in fact) and the route we’ve selected to walk. The Note 4 is my primary navigation device. It will be permanently in flight mode and does nothing else except record my track and identify where we are at any time. It has a removable battery so I can carry two or three spares and even when it’s recording a GPX track all day it will last two days on a full charge. It has an Aquapac waterproof case to protect it from the elements. I’ll be using a PAYG EE SIM card for this phone for the duration of the walk, adding to the O2 SIM in my S9+ and the “3” SIM Chris will be using – the more networks the better I think.

ViewRanger OS 1:25k scale maps on my Samsung Galaxy Note 4

If something does go wrong with the Note 4, I have the S9+ as a navigational backup. The same maps and the same route are stored on this phone. Although it doesn’t have a removable battery, I will be carrying a 13,000 mAh battery pack that will provide up to 3 full charges for it. However, I expect the S9+ to be in flight mode nearly all the time and with a prudent power saving mode applied it should last 2-3 days on a charge, even allowing for playing music or an audiobook in my tent in the evening.

UPDATE: A conversation on Twitter got me thinking about the mapping app. I have redundancy built into my devices, but not into the app I use for navigation. If anything were to happen to prevent ViewRanger from working, I’d be a bit stuffed. I can’t re-install VR without a very good mobile data signal and although the maps are on an SD Card on the phone, they would need a data signal to be activated again. So, I’ve blown the dust off my old mapping app MMTracker and installed that onto my Note 4. I have the installable APK file for the app and the old MM maps that it uses, both backed up on the SD Card. I should be able to survive anything but an EMP burst now!

Hopefully that gives you a feel for the sort of planning that’s gone in to this walk to try and allay my natural personality flaws. I’ll try and post the next couple of planning articles over the course of next week, time permitting.

lonewalker

Long distance walker, trig-pointer, peak-bagger, guide book author & fair-weather cyclist, with a love of Skye, the Pennine Way, malt whisky, & Man City.

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7 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    It’s really not that hard. Full Laggan Bridge to Durness write-up on my blog. Good luck with the weather 😉 It was brilliant for me.

  2. Have a good time, Stuart. Like you, I/we have to have a plan to start out with. Sometimes the plan will completely change once you’re under way, but that doesn’t matter, there just has to be something in place to set off with in my head!
    We keep talking about doing this with the dogs – which would be quite a challenge with the amount of dog food needed – and I shall follow your experiences with great interest.

    • lonewalker says:

      Thanks Christine, as you say the plan is just the plan and rarely survives intact, but it needs to be there. Have a look at the Hounds of Howgate link in the post, John took his Collie (Moss) on the walk and although your dogs are much bigger, his vlog may help.

  3. canukwalker says:

    Seems like things are shaping up for what should be a terrific (if challenging) walk. Looks like I will miss you in Fort William by about 5 days (as I will still be on the WHW). FYI I now carry 2 smartphones (Samsung S4 and S7) — both loaded with full ViewRanger OS 1:25K maps, the former with a removable battery for everyday navigation and the latter as backup and as a smartphone phone. As I will be walking alone I will bring along my inReach SE, which lasts for days even when sending co-ordinates every 30 minutes. Looking forward to further updates.

    • lonewalker says:

      Thanks Tim and good luck in Scotland! I was recording all my GPX tracks on a dedicated ‘black box’ recorder, but figured if I was going to carry the weight I may as well use something with a screen that can be used for navigation too.

  4. Jools says:

    Best of luck with your Trail, looking forward to seeing more of your planning. I do hope you manage to get that pack weight down a little though. I walked the CWT last year as part of my longer walk and thoroughly enjoyed it, absolutely cracking hiking. Certainly the best wild camps I have ever had too. Shame you aren’t going beyond Kinlochewe. I am sure once you have finished your section you will be itching to get back up there to finish off

    • lonewalker says:

      Thanks Jools, I’m hoping to be able to go back next year and complete it solo. That would extend my wilderness backpacking experience nicely. I reckon I could lose about 1kg quite easily, but I’d be sacrificing some comforts that I think I’d regret leaving behind. I know from previous trips that it can be a difficult compromise.

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