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Hiking the Cape Wrath Trail

CapeWrathRoute

The Cape Wrath Trail is considered the hardest hiking route in the United Kingdom. Located in Scotland, it runs from Fort William, through the Highlands and Western Scotland, to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, the northwestern-most point of Scotland. Approximately 230 miles in length, most people take 2-3 weeks to backpack the trip.

Technically, the Cape Wrath Trail is not a trail at all, but a route, meaning that you can walk from one end to the other any way you like. This gives hikers a fair amount of leeway where they hike and the mountains and side trips they take in along the way. There are many famous mountains along the west coast of Scotland, well worth climbing, if the weather cooperates and you like mountain views.

Navigating across Trackless Terrain in Scotland
Navigating across trackless terrain in Scotland

While there are guidebooks available and even maps where people hike, the Cape Wrath Trail is unmarked and unblazed, requiring good navigation skills to complete. More often than not, people walk some of the way on old drover’s roads called Hill Tracks, estate roads, and old paths, although there are times when you will hike cross-country over miles of grass tussocks, heather, and bog. Previous Scottish hillwalking experience is definitely an asset and a high degree of self sufficiency is required.

Why would one ever want to hike a route like this? It’s in Scotland for one, which is simply a magical place to backpack. Mountainous, wild, and remote, you can travel for days without seeing a soul. Planning your own cross country route is also a fun, if time-consuming process, and adds to the pleasure of journey. Finally, hiking the Cape Wrath Trail gives you the opportunity to navigate a wild route for hundreds of miles without worrying about private property boundaries and other hassles. Walkers can hike where they want in Scotland, one of the few countries in the world that has right-of-way laws for that purpose. The freedom to roam…that’s freedom.

Mountains near Torridon on the West Coast of Scotland
Mountains near Torridon on the West Coast of Scotland

But the Cape Wrath Trail is challenging for all the reasons that make backpacking in Scotland challenging:

  • Being on the west coast, you’re more likely to encounter the wet weather that blows cross country from west to east.
  • There are no trees, so little cover, and you’ll often need to camp at night in high wind.
  • Massive peat bogs, the Scottish equivalent of quicksand, require careful footwork to cross.
  • Resupply points are scarce, so you’ll want to carry plenty of food and fuel.
  • The ground is very wet and your feet will be wet most of the time.
  • You need to be constantly vigilant about where you are, so you don’t get lost.
Water is plentiful for wild camping.
Water is plentiful for wild camping.

Thankfully, there are no bears or wild animal to worry about, although bloodsucking midges are a hazard depending on the time of year, and Lyme disease carrying ticks are on the rise.

While you’ll probably wild camp out most of the time, there are streams and lochs everywhere and water is never is short supply.

There are also outbuildings called Mountain Bothies that dot the countryside, often donated by farms and estates, for walkers to shelter in. They usually have a stove or fireplace inside. I have friends who carry lumps of coal on their backpacking trips when they plan a stay, since there’s so little firewood available nearby. Still these plain buildings provide welcome shelter in poor weather and make a nice spot to get out of the wind and rain for lunch when you pass by during the day.

Coire Fionnaraich Bothie
Coire Fionnaraich Bothie

If you’re not from Scotland, your biggest challenge is likely to be understanding the thick Scottish accent and unfamiliar vocabulary used by locals in local shops and pubs. People tend to polite and welcoming in rural Scotland and as long as you mind your manners, you can expect warm hospitality.

The best time to hike the Cape Wrath Trail is mid-May to early June before the midges come out (, for this piece of advice).  If you’ve never backpacked in Scotland, hiking from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland in the Annual TGO Challenge is good preparation for planning and hiking a Cape Wrath route of your own. I completed the Challenge in 2010 solo, and again in 2013 with friend Martin Rye, and plan to hike the Cape Wrath Trail by myself in 2018.

For more information about the Cape Wrath Trail, here are a few good links and references:

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13 comments

  1. Pretty cool.

    HJ

  2. Taking your Tenkara gear? Highland streams and anglers gave use silk and soft hackle spiders.

    • Most definitely. Tied a bunch of starling feathers this year and really like their fly action in the water. Also have a standing invitation to visit the Lake District down south after my hike for more fly fishing. Going to savor this trip!

  3. Looks like an incredible place. I love areas above treeline. It gives me a better feel for the majesty of the mountains.

    I’ve got a standing offer to backpack across the Pond and I need to accept it and do it. Id hoped to get to Europe this summer for a convention but those plans fell through. Anyway, I’m not recovered enough to handle a trip like that yet. The convention theme is “Don’t Give Up!” and I don’t plan on doing so.

  4. Wow! I’m looking forward to a detailed trip report with lots of photos! Please?

  5. Reminds me of the hiking scenes in “Trainspotting”

  6. What memories this brings back! Fifty years ago doing the original “Chisholm Trail” which Clan Chisholm clansmen during prohibition ran whisky across Scotland on a mountain top trail from the Five Sisters of Kintail on the west coast to Dingwall on the east coast. There is nothing remotely like the West Highlands of this wonderful country. I wonder is it still law that one can fish for wild brown trout without let or hinderance? If so a tenkara rod in your kit would be a must; grilled wild brown trout from over a heather root fire is gourmet heaven.

  7. Rob McWilliams

    Great piece, Philip. Hiked this “trail” a few years back. I’d recommend buying the 8 or so Ordnance Survey maps needed for the route, and mailing them home as you are done with them (you will find a few post offices along the route). Scots accents are thickest in the cities. Highlanders are quite comprehensible, and many people running village shops, pubs etc up there are incomers anyway. You will find the occassional wood to camp in, and don’t miss Shenavall bothy. Long may this remain a “route” and not a trail like the West Highland Way!

  8. Agness of aTukTuk

    This is a great trail. I would love to hike it one day. Thanks to your post, I’m adding it to my bucket list, Philip!

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