7 Tips for Hiking in Scotland
Cover image: Camping in a tent in Scotland is considered "Wild Camping." All images: Sage Clegg
My feet have taken me all sorts of places in the American West, but leaving the continent was a new game for this backpacker until the summer of 2015 when my partner, Adam Drummer, and I went to Scotland for a couple of weeks of walking on their trails and ways. We returned home with a deep love for green hills, whisky, and wild camping. And a few lessons. Here they are.
Have a warm bed on your first night.
1) Have a place to land on day one. Flying across the world turned my internal clock and sense of direction upside down. One of the best things we did to re-set and give ourselves time to adjust was to book a room at a hostel for our first night. We made sure it had luggage storage so we could ditch our packs for the day. It was nice to have a destination, and even nicer to be able to explore Edinburgh without a cumbersome load.
2) Sleep. We started trying to adjust our sleep schedule a few days ahead of time. I set notifications on my phone and added a clock for Scotland time. We took some melatonin before bed and during our flight to help us sleep. Crashing out for 8 hours our first night set a good foundation for the rest of our trip.
3) Find a local substitute for a few of your normal items. Fuel, water bottles, and food were a few of our local substitutes.
Gel fuel: it was worth a shot.
Fuel: We decided to use our homemade cat food can stoves while we hiked, but we had to find fuel. We did a little research before we left and learned denatured alcohol is called Methes or bio-fuel in Scotland. I found this funny, gelled biofuel version, bought some, but it really didn't work in our stoves. Not all experiments are successful, but I had to try it- just imagine fuel that can't spill!
Water bottles: We usually use 32oz Gatorade bottles for our water, but in Scotland I bought myself a Scottish version (no high fructose corn syrup!) & used that bottle for the trip.
Food: The same but different! It was so fun wandering through the isles of Scottish groceries to find our backpacking food! We discovered delicious sweet treats like tea cakes, interesting savory dinners that were about the same as what we would get here, but with funny names, and tasty snacks in strange flavors, like chicken & rosemary chips.
4) Wild camp! The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is one of my favorite things about traveling in Scotland. Most of the land in Scotland is privately owned, but with the Outdoor Access Code, hikers are allowed to traverse most open spaces, and camping is legal almost everywhere. It’s called “wild camping” when you tent camp, especially if you are set up someplace outside of a designated campground. Finding a suitable spot to camp can be a challenge with the boggy ground, but having the freedom to plunk down without the fear of being woken up by an angry gun toting rancher was a nice change!
5) Try Haggis! And whisky.... And shortbread... And blood pudding... And tea with scones... And Tatties n Neeps... And a Full Scottish breakfast!
Eating & drinking out were highlights of our adventure. We would come in to a pub dripping and haggard from hiking, order something from the menu of strange terms, and soon be eating a warm & delicious meal.
We enjoyed learning about whisky as we wandered past distillery after distillery on the Speyside Way. The local single malts created from the barley, peat, & water we had been walking by warmed us from the inside out & gave us a deeper appreciation of the pastoral landscape we traveled through.
6) Walk a Way. John Muir Way, to mushy, vague, & sometimes treacherous routes like the Skye Trail, Scotland hosts a maze of walking opportunities. Many of the ways and routes are set up so you can stay indoors each night if you choose, and there are guide services that will shuttle your gear from one hotel or campground to the next. Most of the campgrounds we visited were affordable, had hot showers, and sometimes even laundry (it's sure nice to toss the clammy sleeping bags in for a tumble in a dryer every now and then!).
Finding maps for the Way we chose to walk was a challenge here in the states, but we were able to pick up good quality maps at local outdoor stores once we were in Scotland.
I'd recommend researching your chosen Way & buying an overview map in the Sates, then seeking out a more detailed map when you arrive in Scotland. Digital maps and GPS tracks are becoming more and more available & accurate, and it was nice to have a digital backup to help us navigate during whiteout conditions along the Skye Trail.
I was surprised to realize that the location services on my phone worked without incurring any use age fees from my cell carrier (check on this with your carrier to be sure this is your situation too).
I downloaded some base maps over wifi before leaving home, uploaded the Skye Trail track log, and could open the app to see where we were when we felt lost. Please bring paper maps too! Digital tech is a great tool, but every adventurer needs to be prepared for batteries to die, phones to get waterlogged, or screens to break.
7) Bring good rain gear! Scotland is wet. Really really wet. We had rain almost daily, the ground was like a giant muddy sponge, and the vegetation glittered with water droplets. After years of hiking in the deserts of the American West, Scotland finally washed some dust off of these two desert rats. Typically in the summer in the west we bring lightweight dri-ducks rain gear, but thankfully, we tossed in our slightly heavier 12 oz GoreTex rain shells for this trip. I wore full rain pants, while Adam wore his rain kilt (he doesn't mind wet legs as much as I do), and both of us had quick dry wind pants that became a part of our constant uniform.
For footwear, we opted for lightweight hiking shoes (I used the Oboz Emerald Peak), in hopes our shoes would dry out more quickly. On the Speyside Way, we could have done well with a B-dry shoe, as we rarely had to ford streams and found ourselves brushing through wet grass often. On the Skye Trail, water over the boot top experiences were frequent, and we were glad to have shoes that drained quickly.
Sage Clegg is an avid hiker, a wildlife biologist, and an outdoor educator who loves sharing her passion for wild places with others. To take a virtual trip to Scotland, watch Sage and Adam’s videohike of the Skye Trail on YouTube.