Scotland is quite a small country, but most folk live in the bottom third of the land. While the north of Scotland is a magical place for walking, for seeing the wildlife and for absorbing the magnificent beauty of the landscapes, if ever you were to get lost or to get into any trouble, there might be no-one around for many, many miles to help you out.
This lack of people means that the most important thing to take with you on your walk is the right attitude. Care and preparation is everything. The first thing a walker must realise is that once out in the wilds death can come easy. Nothing owes it to you to keep you alive, the hills and streams couldn't care less if you fall down a gully and break your ankle. Nothing is going to help you try and climb out as you desperately try to climb above the rising level of the burn1 shivering, your battered body vainly trying to fight off the effects of hypothermia and blood loss. Nothing is going to patch you up. No-one is going to help you fend of the crows and the foxes that will eat you alive once you're too weak to fend them off. No-one to stop the scavengers going for the soft spots - the eyes, open wounds and the anus being perennial favourites. OK, this all may seem a bit over-the-top and gruesome, but it is put here because it really could happen if adequate precautions are not taken. Walker be warned.
The Right Attitude
The right attitude in the Highlands of Scotland could save your life. The most important thing is to realise that the mountain will always be there, so you can always try it again if things don't work out the first time. You are not invincible, if the cloud starts lowering be prepared to abandon the attempt, the mountain will not be impressed when you manage to reach the summit in howling gales and driving rain. It will not be impressed when you go over the cliff's edge because you were blinded when the gale blew snow into your eyes. It will not be impressed when the rescue dogs dig your stiff, frozen carcass out of the bog. You can always come back.
If you have the correct attitude, you will automatically do some very useful and important things. And the best thing you can do is to plan everything carefully - the route, the equipment, the back-up - everything. The following is just a guide to what to do and what to take. It may have to be adapted for your particular walk. Another thing that the correct attitude will encourage is the honest assessment of your own level of fitness, and so the true amount of time needed for the length of the walk. If in doubt go out for a five mile walk and see how you do. Use this as a guide to choose walks that are manageable. If you cannot manage to walk five miles on a relatively flat area, there is no way that you will be able to climb Ben Nevis2.
This could be the longest part of the whole expedition, especially if you are trying to get a group of people together. The first thing to do is to decide where you are going. Everything then stems from that choice. It dictates how long the trek will take, the best time of year to tackle the route, the equipment that will be needed, how to get to the start of the walk, who will need to be told where you are climbing and when you are due back.
The final item on that list is possibly the most important. Once you are ready to go, you must tell someone where you are going, and when you will return. This simple measure could save your life. Nobody will look for you if nobody knows you are missing. The best ones to tell are probably your family, if you are able to contact them soon after you finish your climb. If there are no phones where you are staying then your family might not be the best. Use your common sense when choosing which people to tell. If you are staying at a hostel or hotel, then the people there will look out for you if you let them know.
The right equipment is what allows you to complete your walk comfortably and safely. What you take, and the exact amount, is determined by the particular walk you are doing, the time of year and if you are walking alone, or not. The following are 'must have' items, even for easy, single day, busy, summer walks.
This is the minimum that should go with you, and only when the walk is fairly easy and fairly busy.
A good pair of boots: No matter what you are doing, these are very important.
A waterproof jacket
A map: A good of the area you are in is essential - preferably an Ordnance Survey 1:50,000
Some vittles3: A couple of sandwiches, a packet of biscuits, a couple of packets of chewy sweeties.
Some water: At least a litre.
A good compass
A signalling device: A whistle, a flashlight and possibly a mobile phone. Beware that mobile phone connection in the highlands can be a bit dodgy, to say the least.
A small first aid kit: Plasters, bandages, sunblock, pain killers.
Warm clothing: Bring a spare change of clothing too. It may be warm at the bottom, but the wind at the top might be frighteningly cold.
A Rucksack: A good bag to carry all the above is very handy.
Tissues or a handkerchief: A streaming nose is no fun on the hilltop.
Beyond the Basics
The above is acceptable only on the easiest of walks. If you are planning a trip alone, out of peak season, off the beaten path, or where there is difficult terrain, then you will need a lot more. If you do not have the following, or at least most of the following, and you have to be rescued, then the Mountain Rescue team will not be happy bunnies.
Now you may think that everyone going on a hill-walking trip will take most of these. This is not the case. A large percentage of people who come up to the Highlands to go walking haven't a clue with regard to what they're about to embark upon. Others take the risk, knowing full well what they are up against. Generally speaking, these people are loonies.
A walking stick: Or possibly a ski pole.
A set of flares
A sleeping bag
A small gas stove, or another way to brew up.
Tea: A good brew of tea is better than coffee for quenching thirst.
Food: Some food to be cooked, but which could be eaten raw.
Another change of clothes: Or at least underwear.
Some walkers, once they have escaped their psychiatric ward, decide that they want to climb a hill in winter. Now, winter conditions can be found in Scotland, and especially on hilltops, between October and March. For these conditions you need even more kit. You will also need to know how to read a map, and to use a compass, in very poor visibility. Walkers deciding to do this, do this at not only their own risk, but at the risk of the Mountain Rescue service as well. As well as all of the above, you will need the following.
- An ice axe
- Waterproof trousers
- A shovel
- A hat and gloves
- Experience - as always, the most important thing.
Some Things to Bear in Mind
Due to the sun's axial tilt the daylight in the higher latitudes can last a long time, with effective daylight lasting well beyond 9pm throughout most of north Scotland during June and July.
On the other hand, the axial tilt causes short days during December and January, with it getting dark well before 5pm in most places, and in some areas it will start getting dark not long after 15:30.
Mobile phones are a good idea, but beware that reception in the middle of nowhere is often not very good. That being said, for the extra 350grams that it is, it's worth taking along. Several people have had their lives saved by them.
The weather can be extremely changeable, and it can change very quickly. Though it may be a nice day when you start out, it can quickly become very windy, or it can rain or sleet, or even snow. It is entirely possible to get all four seasons in one day. So prepare.
Start early. The earlier you start the better. Make sure you are at the bottom of the hill and ready by 9am at the latest. This means that you have plenty of daylight if things go wrong and less chance of having to spend a night on the hill.
Water is almost everywhere in Scotland, and this natural resource can be made to work for you. You can refill smaller bottles on most walks, rather than having to carry larger bottles all the way. Not all water is safe to drink; the water you should use is burn water. Fast flowing, clear water, that is running across rock, or stones4. Make sure there isn't a dead sheep 100 yards up stream, but other than that this will be safe to drink. And it will possibly be the best water you have ever tasted.
The most important skill to master is map reading, including with a compass. You should be able to give a six figure map reference of where you are. This will pinpoint you to an area of 100 yards or so. The Mountain Rescue team will value this accurate time-saving information, and when they can get you off the hill quickly, so too will you.