Up hills, in lochs and under stars: Scotland's free outdoors
Scotland's countryside is some of the most beautiful in the world, and it's right on your doorstep. We've put together a guide to starting an outdoor adventure this summer – first up, how to explore the wilderness for free, from bothies to wild swimming
How's this for stating the obvious: it’s really no great shakes in Scotland to get out of your house and into somewhere beautiful, adventurous, and out-of-the-ordinary. And it can also be done really cheaply. Even for free.
Of course, that's sometimes easier said than done. There's a lot of outdoors out there, and it can be daunting to know where and how to start. So, what might a real trip look like? How about an early springtime stay in a bothy?
A Guide to Bothies. Also, what's a bothy?
Across the UK (but mostly in Scotland), there are buildings on hillsides and in glens, maintained and kept open for use by anyone. For free. Most (but not all) are maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. Most (but not all) mean a very comfortable night’s sleep and the chance of unexpected encounters and conversations with a panoply of strangers in an atmosphere that feels a million miles and a hundred years away from the day job.
Some are palatial, with unimaginable luxuries like a squat toilet; some are freezing holes with whole civilisations of mice. There’s an excellent book, The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan, which lists most of them. One thing they have in common: they are not hotels. Expect to sleep communally, cook rustically and clean up thoroughly. There’s a bothy code that you should learn by heart. The keyword is respect.
Choosing a bothy is a good place to start your planning. You can plan as much or for as long as you like, but weather in Scotland is, erm, changeable, so the night before is a good time to make decisions based on the weather forecast (don’t forget the mountain weather information service). Private cars have done away with the days when hillwalking groups clubbed together to book a charabanc, but there’s plenty that can be arrived at by train/bus and a walk in. Walk Highlands is an amazing resource with maps and descriptions of all the classic routes. If you’re walking in in the evening, don’t try and do an epic in the dark – be kind to yourself.
There are some essentials – indeed, there’s a 'ten essentials' list which serves as an endless source of debate for the niche group who are aficionados of both hillwaking and web forums. What it amounts to is that you need to stay warm and dry and fed and watered. You need to know where you are (map and compass), be able to see if it gets dark (headtorches are great), be able to stay protected if the sun comes out (it happens), start a fire, and be able to deal with an emergency.
A first aid kit and an emergency blanket are a sensible minimum. Always remember the weather can turn, and being able to whip on an extra layer and/or a waterproof will save your sanity, and sometimes even your life. Learn to love warm hats.
If you’re staying in a bothy, you’ll need a sleeping bag and mat, of which there are hundreds of options, so go and have a chat in an outdoors shop. If you want to be under the stars, tents are great, but if the weather isn’t bad then have a look at bivvy bags. These are glorified bin bags that you put your sleeping bag and mat inside. They have the advantage of being cheap, simple, small to carry and easy to set-up. You get in and go to sleep. They aren’t as warm or protected from the elements as a tent. Some people think they are a lamentable hardship. I love them.
You’ll want to eat. Sandwiches and nuts and snacks are great. If you’re cooking there are any number of stoves and pans to choose from, but a big metal mug that doubles up as a pan and a mug for tea is really neat. Even if you’re not cooking, being able to make a cup of tea in the outdoors is a simple, empowering pleasure that is difficult to describe in words.
To be honest if you live in a city you probably walk loads anyway and have sturdy shoes for pounding the pavements. Common sense is your best guide here. Going outdoors shouldn’t be like going into battle, and a pair of trainers is fine for most walks on paths outside of winter. Going up Ben Nevis in the winter in flip flops is, clearly, a dick move.
By definition, if you’re walking in the outdoors, you’ll be moving from one place to another. Knowing where you are and where you’re going to using a map and compass is an essential safety skill, which needs practice and more guidance than you should look for in a magazine. There’s loads of information online, but nothing beats doing. The best advice here is to do things with people who know how to navigate for a while, but don’t let them do the navigating. Poke your nose in so you know what they're up to.
Genuinely, there is nothing quite like a swim outdoors, and the (re)growth of wild swimming clubs attests to this. It’s bracing. I’ve never felt more completely braced than after a dip. There are also some great guides on how to do this safely (and also a wonderful book, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, which offers no practical advice but is simply wonderful nature writing). You don’t need a wetsuit – it’s always shocking getting into cold water, whether in a wetsuit or in your birthday suit. A wetsuit just lets you stay in longer.
Be safety-conscious but not scared – 90% of outdoor swimming drownings relate to young males and alcohol. Don’t do it pissed, or if you can’t actually swim. Be careful of currents (seas and rivers are inherently more complex than lochs). Don’t stay in too long or try to be ambitiously tough – at this time of year a minute in the water is a good effort. Remember to look up. Your perspective from water level is unlike anything we’re used to. Doubly so if it’s raining.
Off you go.
Scotland's outdoors on a budget: The Dos & Don'ts
Go to the Mountain Bothies Association website and look at all of the places you can lay you head for absolutely nothing in the most beautiful parts of the UK. It’s incredible.
Forget the mountain bothy code. Literally, don’t shit on your own doorstep. And don’t ever sleep on the mattresses that are in some of the bothies.
Subscribe to Ordnance Survey maps. Much cheaper than buying paper maps for every trip. For £20 you get all of their maps, which you can download onto a phone, and print out. Plus they are always up to date, so you won’t end up getting lost using a map from ten years ago which, you are absolutely sure, should show a pylon going across the middle of this bog.
Rely on just a phone for navigation. It’s not just that they sometimes fail and you’d be very unlucky, it’s that they are actually quite likely to fail when it gets cold and wet, or when you slip on your arse and crush it. Can’t beat a paper map in a plastic wallet.
Visit Mountaineering Scotland’s website. There’s loads of information on things like navigation (quite important), route planning (also important) and first aid. If you join, you also get access to cheap courses, which are excellent.
Try and digest all the info you can find in one go. People spend whole lives learning this stuff. It’s meant to be fun, not an exam.
Get some friends. Go on trips with people more knowledgeable than you. Advice, ideas, inspiration and tips are all free. Take them from people.
Forget to pay it back. As you get more confident, bring people out with you who aren’t. They will slow you down and ask you questions. That’s OK.
Buy a decent waterproof. It’s Scotland and if you want to spend money on one piece of kit then you know what it’s gotta be.
Buy loads of cheap crap from, ahem, larger outdoor superstores. This isn’t just an ethical point – you’ll end up paying twice when you realise that the bargain kit isn’t good enough for the emergency you bought it for. Genuinely, you’ve probably already got lots of things you need to be safe and comfortable outdoors (who hasn’t got a fleece?). Hold off buying kit until you decide that what you’ve already got doesn’t meet your needs.