It’s billed as Britain’s toughest long-distance hike, but these 20 Cape Wrath Trail tips should make the 199-250-mile route somewhat easier. (Fingers crossed.)
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 1 – Take Waterproof Socks
This is all about learning from my own mistakes. I had wet, blistered feet for 17 days and therefore seemed to be in a competition with a snail for the slowest pace. Scottish rain and acidic bog has magical properties, it seems to penetrate the impenetrable. Sealskinz waterproof socks are equally as magic, being the one thing that keeps the water out. I redid part of Cape Wrath this year (2017) wearing these and had happy, dry feet. I seemed to be very much in the minority!
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 2 – Take Diving Shoes
River crossings, along with midges, will become the bane of your trip. When in spate, the rivers can flow at full force up to your thighs, hips or waist. Heaving across them in boots and gaiters will just mean one thing – sodden boots and wet feet. Not an appealing prospect for a 17-day hike. Take lightweight diving or pool shoes with a strong grip on the soles and a secure fit around your feet. They became my best friend on the trail!
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 3 – Avoid August
It’s the midges’ most ferocious month and the locals are baffled as to why anyone would choose ‘feeding frenzy’ August for their hike. I completed the trail then, and still have the battle scars to prove it. The midges drove me nuts and stopped me having breakfast on a couple of mornings with their insistent buzzing/biting. The benefit, though, is they are added protein when they kamikaze into your food, which they will do, at every opportunity. You’ve been warned…
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 4 – Carry Seven Days’ Worth of Food
Yup, seven days. Going from north to south and sticking to the west path, you’ll have no refills from Fort William to Shiel Bridge except for a little cafe at Glenfinnan – open 9.30am to 5pm July and Aug and 10am to 5pm other months, where you can buy scones, cake, Snickers and overpriced sandwiches. Going South to North, it’ll be from Shiel Bridge to Fort William. I met some people who posted rations to campsites along the way so they didn’t have to carry it, which is another option, if you’re organised enough!
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 5 – Wear a Green Midge Head Net
Midges prefer dark colours to light ones, so why they make black head nets (and more to the point, why I bought one) is a mystery. Buy a green midge head net, not one for mosquitoes as the holes are too big, and you’ll attract less of the Scottish blighters than your black-netted hiking counterparts. Green tents, on the other hand, are not immune to the midge’s advances.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 6 – Take Tent Pole Splint Repairs
It can get pretty damn windy in the Highlands and taking tent pole splint repairs can save the day. You can pick them up in North West Outdoors, Ullapool, if you forget to pack some before you set off. I’d recommend taking one for each pole you have.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 7 – Don’t Think This is a Walk in the Park
Because it’s not. There are days when it’s deadly dull, days when your body protests, days when the rain will turn you into an amphibian. It’s a challenge and people do it to test themselves. Some of the scenery is incredible if you get the weather for it, other parts are nothing to write home about. I thought the first half from Cape Wrath to Kinlochewe was the most picturesque (I walked north to south), but then again there are different routes so maybe I just picked the worst one from there south! (Or maybe my feet had just had enough.)
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 8 – Pack a Water Bladder AND a Bottle
There’s nothing better than fresh mountain water and there’s certainly no shortage of it. Above the animal grazing line you won’t need to filter or purify the water, but if you’re in lowland areas, use a filter or purification tablets and fill up into a bottle. That way you won’t contaminate your water bladder for future use if there is any giardia or nasty bacteria floating around.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 9 – Have a Low Route or Back-Up Plan
The scenery can be spectacular even when it’s veiled in mist. The downside, of course, is that mist means drizzle or rain up here. And of course, with an abundance of streams en route, the trail can become impassable in certain areas. Everyone I met for the first four days had bailed somewhere along the route by hitching or cutting their trip short. I must admit, not completing it hadn’t occurred to me, but with gales that had lifted tents from campsites and continual rain only four days before we set off, it was easy to see why. One loch crossing on the high route to Benmore Lodge had four strapping lads linking arms and wading through water up to their waists. We sensibly did the route to Inchnadamph instead.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 10 – Be Prepared to Wait Out the Rain
I don’t want this hike to sound like a washout, but it is in the wettest area of the UK. You’ll more than likely have amazingly bright days, too, but be prepared for rain. And possibly in bucketfuls. The streams and rivers can rise a couple of inches within just a few hours of heavy rain, so be prepared to wait out the bad weather in a bothy for day or two, until the water levels have subsided.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 11 – Ask Locals about High Water Conditions
They know the area and what to expect on higher routes. There’s an Estate Office in Archfary where you might be able to pop in and enquire about the river conditions up to Rhiconich (walking south to north). One group of hikers were told very honestly that unless they fancied swimming, they should walk along the road to Rhiconich. And we heeded the same advice going in the opposite direction.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 12 – Take Tiger Balm
Midge bites, they’ll drive you crazy. Smother them in white tiger balm and hey presto, you’ll have some relief from scratching like a flea-ridden dog. Tiger balm can also be rubbed into aching muscles and temples if you have a pesky headache. Also spray Smidge (commissioned by the Scottish Forestry Commission but with a dreadful design to get the spray out) or DEET onto your skin to try and keep the midges at bay, but don’t get any DEET on your tent, it’ll stick together.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 13 – Use Harvey Maps
Rather than lugging a compendium of OS maps, go with the two waterproof Harvey Maps North and South. Although they are 1:40,000 in scale, they have all the important details like houses, sheep folds and ruins marked. That was all I had (no GPS) and I was fine. BUT and this is a big but, look ahead at the route. There are often easier options (like a bridge near the caves at Inchnadamph, and a footpath right next to the river through Benmore Forest). I wonder whether Harvey Maps has made it deliberately difficult in parts to keep up the arduous name this route has.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 14 – Take Cash
You can draw money out at ATMs in Ullapool and pay by card in any pubs and some shops, but for most of the hike, you’ll need cash.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 15 – Pack One Gas Canister and Refuel on the Trip
You can buy additional gas canisters at London stores in Rhiconich; Ullapool (there are two hiking shops so you can get most things inc. tent repair splints); the shop at Kinlochewe (9am-5.30pm) and the garage/campsite shop at Shiel Bridge (closes at 6pm). I only used one 230g canister and a bit of a smaller one.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 16 – Take Sugar Rations
It’s a gruelling hike in parts, and that teamed with torrential rain can really dampen your spirits. A packet of jelly sweets which you can devour/savour (delete as appropriate) will make the world of difference to your energy and mood. Kendal mint cake, which is 98 percent sugar, also works a treat!
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 17 – Book into the Inchnadamph Lodge hostel
If you need to dry out as I did (my boots let me down and I half expected to develop trench foot) then you’ll be dreaming about the dry room at Inchnadamph Lodge. It had gained legendary status by the time we arrived there, with every hiker we passed raving about it. And for good reason. Not only will your gear be toasty warm and dry, you’ll get an all-you-can-eat brekkie (cereal/toast/fruit) and be able to pick up food in the shop for dinner (frozen meals/pizza) and some basic food supplies for the rest of your trip. BUT it isn’t always open during term time as geology students book the whole place out to study the nearby Lewisian gneiss. Phone in advance if possible.
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 18 – Use Gaiters
Bog, bog and more bog. There’s a whole load of bog trotting to be done on the 199-mile hike so invest in gaiters to keep the splodge out of your boots.
Cape Wrath Tip 19 – Get Minibus Times
If you’re walking from Cape Wrath to Fort William, as I did, then you’ll need to get yourself up to Durness to start the hike. Hop over to Ullapool and get an afternoon bus at about 16.00-17.00-ish to Durness or go direct from Inverness to Durness at 10.00 or 17.00 (route 805 for the latter time)
Cape Wrath Trail Tip 20 – Don’t Camp on the Lawn at Kinloch Hourn
It’s marked as a campsite on the maps so naturally the smooth area of grass was where three sets of hikers (us included) had pitched. A few hours later a shrieking woman appeared demanding that everyone get off her lawn. She charges people to wild camp beyond her garden where there are absolutely no facilities and no flat land, so clearly, the flat area looks like the ‘campsite’. It’s not. We didn’t move, the midges were attacking everyone, but had they not have been, she would have made sure everyone relocated. Perhaps she has put a sign up directing people where to go by now…
- The full 17-day Cape Wrath Trail North to South Itinerary
- Essentials for Long Distance Hiking
- A Tale of Hitching and Hiking
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, camping as she goes. For updates and more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.