It runs over 240 miles across the boggy, boulder-strewn wilderness of northwest Scotland – with no signposts and often without any paths whatsoever. It is easily Britain’s toughest long-distance hiking trail, taking 15 to 20 days to complete. And yet even those in adventure-seeking circles have rarely heard of the Cape Wrath Trail.
Cape Wrath, the remote headland and antithesis of its kitschy counterpart John o’ Groats (Britain’s most north-easterly point), cannot be accessed by road – but only by seasonal ferry and by this very hike. Novelist and travel writer Luke Waterson took on the challenge of walking it. Here are the things he thinks you need to know if you are to acquaint yourself with the UK’s most elusive walk...
1. You walk for weeks
The hike’s start point, Fort William, the town below Ben Nevis, is famous enough. But the trail rapidly throws you into the great unknown, ushering you up along Scotland’s far-flung northwest coastline. Expect to see some of the country’s highest cliffs tumbling into a foaming ocean, with nothing but sea between the cape and the north pole.
Eventually, after about 2 ½ weeks and almost no indications of civilisation whatsoever, you wind up on the north-westerly point of the British mainland, Cape Wrath. “Wrath” means turning point in old Norse – once the Vikings got round it, they could turn their boats for home.
2. You need kit
The remoteness of this route requires some serious planning for. You’ll need more equipment than on most other hiking routes in Europe and, conversely, feel a greater need to cut back on weight. Essentials include a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Accommodation across the trail is too limited to rely upon nightly. Cooking gear is also a wise idea – otherwise you’ll only get a hot meal every couple of days.
3. You need compass skills
Compass skills are a must if you’re taking on Cape Wrath. Not only is the trail unmarked, there are also no paths on many stretches. Yes, that means ploughing through bog, across moor, over mountains, often with precious few points of orientation save what your compass is telling you. The consequences of getting lost are way more significant on this trail than on any other in the UK: you’re frequently more than a day’s hike away from help and mobile reception is sparse.
4. The wildernesses is legendary
The Cape Wrath Trail was designed to thrill – and makes a point of avoiding roads. Even so, such knowledge doesn’t prepare you for quite how hauntingly wild it gets. The route rambles over such remote regions as Knoydart – a hiking playground with the legendary refuelling stop of Inverie, on the UK’s only road not to be connected to any other road, and Assynt – boasting arguably the world’s loveliest and most unspoilt mountainscapes.
5. The midge will be the bane of your days
Red deer, golden eagles, seals, a myriad frog species, shaggy highland cows – all can be glimpsed on this wildlife-rich route. However, the creature certain to take centre stage of your day is the midge. This little biting insect is a real bugbear – feasting on your flesh from the moment you set down your pack. Tent pitching becomes a nightmare. Don’t forget to pack insect repellent and a midge net for your face, the place where it is most aggravating to have the wee things mustering.
6. You will be alone
Of the handful of settlements that the path bypasses only five could be called anything more than hamlets. There are entire days of nothingness between the nearest two dwellings. Mobile phone signals and recharging points are somewhere between sporadic and non-existent. Relish the remoteness; it is one of the seductive aspects of this trail. But respect it, too, and make provisions accordingly. Come prepared to survive in the wild overnight. Notify relevant parties as to your route. And bringing a GPS always helps…
7. Soggy feet are guaranteed
The Cape Wrath Trail doesn’t exceed 750 metres of elevation at any point – but you’re not in for an easy ride. Climbing 250 metres when you’re pushing through waist deep bogs is as difficult as climbing five times that height on terra firma. With the bogs and a number of wide and fast-flowing rivers you WILL get wet feet.
Blistering from wet feet is one of the key reasons why so many hikers abandon the trail. Once reconciled to sodden shoes, the choice is yours: waterproof garters to keep out the worst of the wet, quick-dry hiking shoes, or just grinning and bearing it…
8. It’s a unique adventure
The Cape Wrath Trail is actually not one path but an entire system of them. Almost every stage has at least two, if not three, possibilities. More than almost any other hike, you really have the chance to make the Cape Wrath Trail your own. All the better for trading tales...
9. You will bag bothies
One of the most unique aspects of the Cape Wrath Trail is how it relies upon Scotland’s bothy network for overnight stops. Beyond the range of most day hikes but the only non-canvas digs around on much of this trail, bothies are mostly old crofts in out-of-the-way locales revamped to serve as basic wilderness shelters.
They come in a variety of shapes and forms: deer stalking huts in the forest, lonely farmsteads on the open moor or fisherman’s cottages on the seashore. More than the bed or the fireplace, what walkers often appreciate most in a bothy is the protection it affords from the midges. This rather singular form of accommodation is more plentiful on the route than in any other part of the country: between a fifth and a sixth of the UK’s bothies are here for the bagging.
10. It’s the destination for a new ultra run
Above: The map Luke used from his Cape Wrath Trail guide.
As if hiking this route wasn’t challenge enough, as of May 2016, a bunch of the world’s most hard-core athletes are going to start running along it. The Cape Wrath Ultra, set to cement this corner of Britain on the extreme sports circuit, will debut as the UK’s first multi-stage ultra run. It’s being rated by some as at least as tough as the Sahara-based Marathon des Sables (which is usually regarded as the world’s toughest foot race) – it’s almost 100 miles longer, for starters…
Luke Waterson specialises in writing about outdoor adventure across Europe and Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @lukeandhiswords.