Challenge coordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden discuss the intricacies of route-plotting.

First published in the April 2018 issue of The Great Outdoors.

In early November every year, hundreds of backpackers get the very good news that they have successfully got through the draw for a place on the next TGO Challenge walk across Scotland. Picture the scene – euphoric for a while, you read through the Event Details document, and then download the Route Sheet, which stares back at you blankly. It is empty but for various headings such as ‘Route Description’ and ‘Ascent’ and ‘Distance’. There is also a column under which you must indicate where you will be each night, which conjures up all sorts of possibilities – wild camping, bothying or a night with a shower and somebody cooking you breakfast. There are decisions to be made.

Filling in the Route Sheet is an integral part of the Challenge, because every participant or group of participants plans their own unique crossing. But it can be a daunting prospect, and a challenge in itself – not just for first-time Challengers but for multi-timers too. It is, however, an absorbing exercise – looking at maps and taking a virtual stravaig through glens and along high ridges while you decide which way to go.

We always advise people to have a good look at a large map of Scotland and the Challenge area and take note of where everything is, before deciding where to start and beginning to plan. There are 14 starting places on the western seaboard, all with different characters, some easier to get to than others, from a town like Oban to tiny settlements such as Glenelg. The southernmost place is Portavadie and the most northern is Torridon, each offering different experiences and opening up a large area from the Cowal peninsula in the south to the Moray coastline along the northern Challenge boundary.

There is plenty of choice, but you do need to make a decision, as there are deadlines for the submission of routes. Each route is initially sent in to the coordinators, who then allocate it to one (or a pair) of the team of route-vetters. These are experienced hill-goersandChallengerswhocheckthe feasibility of each route and offer advice and information which cannot always be gleaned from a map, so that participants get the most out of their crossing and enjoy it.

“Most people enjoy the prospect of a wild camp, somewhere they simply couldn’t get to on a day walk, and this is very much a part of the event”

Some Challengers opt for a walk through the glens, others go for the hill tops and some for a combination of both – it is entirely up to each individual Challenger, pair, three- or foursome (no groups are larger than four) to decide for themselves what sort of Challenge they want. All hill routes require a Foul Weather Alternative, which may end up being used as a Feeling Weary Alternative.

Then the fun begins. Many a winter’s evening is spent poring over maps and measuring distances. It is a mistake to think that a glens route is necessarily ‘easier’ than an over-the-hills route; after several days of rain, when burns turn into raging torrents and bogland turns into deep swamp, folk ploughing through the watery glens will soon tell you otherwise.

It is possible to walk across Scotland without camping, but this means some very long days. Most people enjoy the prospect of a wild camp, somewhere they simply couldn’t get to on a day walk, and this is very much a part of the event. We have had some absolutely stunning high camps when the weather was good – and a few memorable ones when it wasn’t!

For some, the Challenge is quite a social event, meeting up with old friends in various watering holes along the way – Fort Augustus, Newtonmore, Braemar, Ballater and Tarfside. For others it is ‘time out’ and several days might pass without seeing anybody much, least of all another Challenger. Again, most people mix and match and especially as the east coast approaches, things tend to get more sociable–thecampingfieldatTarfside, which is a real Tent City, is a sight to behold.

Finally, where on earth are you going to finish? You have the choice of anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath, which is a lot of coastline. There are all sorts of obscurely named bays and cliffs and tiny hamlets to explore, along with more traditional places such as Stonehaven, the atmospheric Dunnottar Castle or the scenic St Cyrus and Lunan Bay. Once there, wherever it is, you are then allowed a lift! Everybody has to get to Montrose to Challenge Control to sign the Finish Register and receive a very well-earned certificate.

Image © Markus Petter