The Cape Wrath Trail: An Introduction / by Joe McCarthy

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The Cape Wrath Trail is a real gem; the diamond in the rough. It is widely regarded as the toughest and most remote of the UK's long distance trails. From Fort William you will navigate 370km of rugged, beautiful mountain country to reach the UK mainlands most northwesterly point of Cape Wrath. There are no signs to follow, no nightly stays in B&Bs with a pub dinner. The complete lack of an established route and few amenities requires self sufficiency; with full camping gear and multiple days of food needing to be carried between resupply points. It was this lack of services and facilities that I found so alluring as I began to plan for this hike. I don't like a long walk to be constantly interrupted by towns and roads as I feel this disrupts the rhythm of the walk and makes it harder to connect with nature. The Cape Wrath Trail definitely ticked all the boxes; this is one for the wilderness junkies!

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What is it?
The Cape Wrath Trail is a 370km thru-hike from Fort William to Cape Wrath. The trail, which links old drovers and funeral routes passes through the most remote regions of western and north-western Scotland. You will travel through the highlands of Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland; each one distinctly varied geologically from the last.

How long will it take?
This depends on a couple of factors including your route choice and the weather/ground conditions that you encounter. The trail took me 15 days in total (plus a rest day in Kinlochewe) which was partly due to having very settled weather over the 2 weeks. Most guidebooks recommend 16-21 days and its a good idea to give yourself a couple of days more than you think you'll need in case of injury, fatigue or natural hazards.

When should I go?
The months of April, May and June are usually the most popular for the Cape Wrath Trail. I did mine in late April/early May and was very lucky to find the bogs and rivers low, allowing for quick passage through what could have been extremely difficult terrain in poor weather. Sparse vegetation cover on the hills also made for minimal effort on off path sections; with little heather bashing. The lack of midges at this time of year was a big moral boost and I finished most days on the trail with my sanity in tact thanks to this. I could enjoy the views from camp without being swarmed by a thousand nasty beasties! September and October are also options for walking the trail but see less daylight hours for walking and usually more midges than the late Spring months. July and August are only an option if you want to be swarmed by midges continuously. Between November and March expect little daylight, lots of snow and ice and fewer facilities open than in the high season.

What route should I do?
The start of the trail presents you with 2 options for the first week of walking. The Great Glen variant offers much easier walking on a waymarked trail with less time spent in the hills. The other option: The Knoydart variant is much tougher, with no amenities, much rougher terrain and a completely unmarked trail. This is the section that I walked as I was yearning to spend time in the boonies of Scotland! Once out of Knoydart the choice of route is not so varied; but you can decide to make certain sections more or less difficult depending on how your feeling; an aspect of the trail that I found very engaging.

 The 370km route: starting from Fort William and ending at Cape Wrath.

The 370km route: starting from Fort William and ending at Cape Wrath.

How do I prepare myself?
The days can be long, the ground rough and the weather hostile. And then theres the aspect of walking solo for many days at a time with little to no human contact. It is quite often that you will have no phone signal and the resupply points are few; meaning heavier packs. It is important to prepare yourself mentally and physically for such an endeavour so practice self sufficiency and increase your fitness day to day. If you have no experience of long distance or mountain walking it would be wise to cut your teeth on one of the less remote trails on offer such as the Great Glen Way or West Highland Way.

The logistics of planning such a long walk can seem overwhelming and to get you going I would recommend purchasing the Cape Wrath Trail Harvey Maps and Cicerone guide. The Harvey maps  are preferable to OS maps for this particular walk; the main reason being that the primary route (as well as alternatives) is detailed, along with amenities and the differences in track quality that you will encounter. The maps are extremely lightweight, waterproof and only 2 are needed for the whole trail. Whilst the maps will allow you to visualise and navigate on the trail, the Cicerone guide will break down each section; giving details of logistics and potential hazards along the way.

What are the hazards?
Due to the lack of an established trail and its remoteness the Cape Wrath presents certain difficulties that other trails in the UK do not. Of course, what makes the dangers more real is the fact that you will quite often be more than a days walk from a road and usually many days away from a town or resupply point. Hazards to bear in mind are:

  • River crossings - After heavy rainfall many rivers can become impassable. Don't be afraid to wait.
  • Snow & Ice - Not usually an issue in the Spring/Summer months but be prepared for some snow and ice on those higher up northern and western facing aspects. The highest point of the trail: Bealach Coire Mhalagain (700m) had a thick bank of snow that I easily skirted without winter equipment.
  • Weather changes - The weather of North-West Scotland is unpredictable at best, hostile at worst. Your choice of clothing and equipment should reflect this. A map and compass is essential to navigate across pathless, featureless terrain should the weather turn.
  • Insects (ticks and midges) - Midges are an annoyance, ticks are slightly more concerning. Know how to recognise, remove and treat embedded ticks and tick bites. I checked over my body each evening as ticks like to make their home in the dark, warm areas of your body (its preferable to catch them in the less dark regions before so). I was lucky to find only 2 ticks (both on my feet).
  • Remoteness of terrain - You will have to be self sufficient for many days at a time. That means carrying your own kit and food - plan accordingly. It is also worth bearing in mind the psychological aspect of being far from civilisation so prepare for little to no human contact.
  • Military bombardment range - The last kilometres to the light house are made all the more exciting with the crossing of an active military bombardment range. The MOD firing times are displayed and updated here.
 Streap, Gleann Cuirnean.

Streap, Gleann Cuirnean.

 Beinn Eighe, Torridon.

Beinn Eighe, Torridon.

What equipment should I take?
You will need to be equipped for the conditions at hand. That could be anything (even in the summer months) so expect rain, snow, sleet, hail, sun, cold easterly winds or wet, humid westerly ones. Ideally you want clothing that will keep you warm when wet and wick any moisture away from your body. Merino wool or synthetics (polyester, nylon, rayon) are good for baselayers and synthetic or down insulations are very effective at keeping you warm at camp. A full set of waterproofs is a must.

I decided from very early on that weight would be key to successfully walking this trail, and most importantly enjoying it while i did so! Get those kitchen scales out and scrutinise every item in your pack. The luxuries can stay at home. For those of you interested in a full breakdown of my kit and its performance I have made a very geeky spreadsheet that you can view here. This kitlist with item weights included was inspired by outdoors writer Alex Roddie; whose blog and kitlist were instrumental in my preparation for this walk. 

What food is good for long distance hiking?
I like to take a combination of lightweight, dried foods and also some luxury foods (such as cheese, chorizo, sweets). Here is a typical day of food on the trail, usually totalling around 3500-4000 calories.

  • Breakfast - Granola, Muesli or Porridge with dried milk. Chocolate Digestives or Hob Nobs. Black coffee with sugar.
  • Snacks - Dried fruit and nuts. Chocolate Bars. Peanut M&Ms.
  • Quick release sugar - Haribo/Jelly Sweets. Dates
  • Lunch - Oatcakes with cheese & chorizo.
  • Dinner - Cup a soup. Powdered Mash or Noodles with cheese and chorizo. Hot chocolate with powdered milk. Biscuits. Herbal Tea before bed.
 Wildcamping, Kintail.

Wildcamping, Kintail.

 Sunset from Barrisdale Bothy, Knoydart.

Sunset from Barrisdale Bothy, Knoydart.

Why do it?
Walking a long distance trail is a beautiful thing. You can become fully immersed in the time, the place, the now as you enter a life with a more simple and satisfying rhythm. The end goal is something concrete and clear to aim for, but the route to it is anything but; as the walk changes with the course of the natural world. Here you act according to the weather, the landscape and most importantly your gut. It is a release from the daily commitments of suburban and digital life, where we are encouraged to run at a hundred miles per hour in a frantic search for success and happiness. I have found hiking to be a brilliant release over the years and the lessons learnt from it are still applicable once back in civilisation. Take it slow, be brave and embrace the journey! The Cape Wrath Trail will help you along the way.

 The final miles. Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath on the horizon.

The final miles. Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath on the horizon.