Hillwalking in Scotland: A Guide
Want to get up in the Munros this autumn and winter? Here's some info on how to get started...
It is amazing how many people who have been to explore around the world and yet haven't had a good old explore of what Scotland has to offer beyond the central belt. Yes, the weather can be a little hairy at times, but Scotland is rich with stunningly beautiful landscapes: the rugged mountains of Torridon, the Arctic tundra-like Cairngorm Plateau, the barren moorland of Rannoch Moor, the sprawling woodland of Perthshire and the white sandy beaches of the north-west coast. Hiking is an ideal way to get out and explore these areas, whether you're more for easy-going woodland strolls and breezy coastal walks or a more challenging mountain ridge traverse.
Apart from cracking calves, the benefits of walking and spending time outdoors in nature are well known – the fresh air, the scenery, the exercise, the calm, the bond you build with your pals as you fight your way through the elements. The fun doesn't have to stop in autumn and winter either, especially as the paths are a little quieter and the air is midge-free, and if you're lucky, the snow-topped mountains are a sight to behold. If you're thinking about getting out into the hills over the next few months, here are a few useful tips to stay safe and keep it fun.
Where To Go and How To Get There
You may have heard the phrase "Munro bagging" already, but if not, a Munro is a Scottish peak over 3000 feet (914m), and the challenge of Munro bagging is to try and top all 282 of them. There are also Corbetts (between 2500 and 3000ft) and Grahams (between 2000 and 2500ft), which are peaks that are lower in altitude but not necessarily any less challenging or dramatic.
Whether or not you want to go for the big peaks, or to start in your local hills, the Walkhighlands website is a great resource for researching hillwalks in Scotland. The walks are divided by region and for each walk there is information about the difficulty of the route, maps and photographs, and numerous walk reports by people who have done it previously. All of this gives a sense of what the hike is like, and highlights any difficult sections you might run into before you go. Of course, there are numerous other websites and books on Scottish hillwalking too, and it is worthwhile having a peruse for inspiration.
It's definitely nice to have a car for flexibility when planning a trip and so that you can head to the hills on a whim. But even for those without, there are plenty of options to get out for a hike, whether it be using public transport, joining a hill walking club or car sharing with pals. The Isle of Arran and the Trossachs are easy to access using public transport from Glasgow or Edinburgh. If you do decide to use public transport, just make sure to set off early enough to give you plenty of daylight, particularly in winter time, and remember to get off the hill in time to catch a ride home!
Even on days that start out beautifully clear and crisp, you can end up in cloud by the time you get to the mountain top. Navigating can feel challenging and perhaps a bit daunting at first, but it becomes super satisfying once you've had a bit of practice and you start finding it easier to relate what's on your map with your surroundings.
There are plenty of navigation apps (such as ViewRanger) which you can use on your phone to keep track of your location – this precludes needing a dedicated GPS. However, a phone could easily break, or run out of battery. It is important that you take two different methods of navigation – a phone or GPS, and a map and/or compass – AND know how to use them. From personal experience, we can definitely recommend keeping your map in a waterproof case so that it doesn't disintegrate in the rain. There are an abundance of navigation courses in Scotland if you need help to improve your skills and confidence. Check out the Mountaineering Scotland website for a list of courses available near you.
It's hard to write about getting into hillwalking at this time of year without going on about safety, but after a few trips, all of that will become second nature. Ultimately, it's about getting out and enjoying Scotland's beautiful landscapes and the great outdoors, and we're so lucky to have that on our doorstep. Be prepared and even the bad weather days can be great hillwalking days. Once you've got the basics down, there are loads of ways to go for trips that are that little bit more adventurous: progressing on to the bigger and more dramatic mountain tops, learning some additional mountaineering skills to take on more challenging routes and taking on the Munros in full winter conditions, trying out multiday trips with a stop at a hostel, a spot of wild camping or a night in a mountain bothy and incorporating a wild swim. Don't leave litter on the mountains. Do remember to take some tea and flapjacks.
Before You Go
Check the weather
The weather is pretty key to determining what kind of time you'll have on your hike. The Mountain Weather Information Service caters specifically for those who do outdoor activities on the mountains. There is information about visibility (aka, the chance of actually being able to see anything), wind speed, precipitation and temperature for the different broad regions of Scotland and how all these will affect walking conditions. We're fairly sure that one of the words we've seen used to describe the wind conditions is "nightmarish" – as fun as that sounds, use your common sense and don't head out on to an exposed mountain top in dangerous conditions. The Met Office also has a regional mountain forecast, and you can use their website or app to search for a specific mountain top to get a forecast for that particular location and altitude.
Check the ground conditions
At this time of year, there can be snow and ice on the mountains. Hiking the Munros and Corbetts in true winter conditions and cold weather can be an incredible experience, but it requires additional equipment and skills compared to your average mountain jaunt. For example, you would need to have an ice axe and crampons, and know how to use them. You would need to be aware of avalanche risk and be especially good at navigating in poor visibility. If you're new to this, it is probably best to stay low level in such conditions, but it is definitely worth building up the necessary experience and skills to move on to the bigger peaks.
Pack your bag
You can delve deep into the world of outdoorsy gear, but you don't have to spend a fortune, and once you've got all the bits and bobs, you'll be good to go adventuring as much as you like. The best advice is to pack light whilst also making sure to carry the following essentials:
– A waterproof jacket, trousers and walking shoes/boots
– Warm layers and spares (plus a hat and pair of gloves)
– GPS/mobile phone, map with a waterproof map case, compass
– Headtorch (as getting lost in the dark isn't much fun)
– Food and water (treat yourself to some homemade snacks and a flask of tea)
– Spare batteries for the torch and phone
– Ski goggles (if there is risk of snow and wind, these will help to protect your eyes)
– Emergency shelter (a group shelter or survival bag)
Mountain Weather Information Service have details on the weather you can expect (mwis.org.uk)
Winterhighland's webcams are handy for remotely checking ground conditions (winterhighland.info)
WalkHighlands have comprehensive guides to walking routes in Scotland (walkhighlands.co.uk)
Mountaineering Scotland have detailed safety information, and details on training (mountaineering.scot)
Also, make sure to tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back.