The Cape Wrath Trail is often referred to as Britain’s toughest long distance walk. Stretching approximately 230 miles (370 km) from the Highland hub of Fort William to the remote lighthouse of Cape Wrath, it is an unmarked and sometimes trailless route that passes through the wild and spectacular landscapes of northwestern Scotland. Due to the unpredictable weather and challenging terrain, it is a hike that is best suited to experienced ramblers who possess a good level of fitness, navigation skill, and a stoic disregard of having wet feet.
I hiked the Cape Wrath Trail over ten days in the summer of 2018. The post below includes impressions from the trip, logistical and background information, route recommendations and a gear list.
At a Glance
Distance : 370 km (230 miles) approx.
Average Duration : 14 to 21 days
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
Start / Finish :
- Fort William (South) – Cape Wrath (North).
- Which Direction?: The CWT is almost always hiked south to north. The prevailing winds should be at your back (assuming they are prevailing) and the trail’s namesake makes for a dramatic finale.
Getting There & Away:
- Fort William (southern terminus) is the outdoors hub of the Scottish Highlands. It is easily reached via public transport (bus and train) from all directions. See VisitFortWilliam.co.uk for details.
- Cape Wrath (northern terminus): This one’s not so simple. Cape Wrath is 19 km (11 mi) (plus a short boat ride) from the closest public road, and is only accessible by foot or via a combination of passenger ferry and minibus from Keoldale. Note that the ferry/minibus service only runs between May and September, and is regularly cancelled due to the weather and military operations. Thru-hikers should call a day or two in advance (i.e. when you pass through the village of Kinlochbervie) to see if the service will be running when you arrive. See visitcapewrath.com for details.
- What to do if the Ferry isn’t running?: This actually happened to yours truly. I arrived at the lighthouse around midday, and supposedly another minibus was due to arrive within the hour. Unfortunately the winds started to pick up and it ended up being cancelled. I was getting ready to hike the 16 miles miles back to civilization, when the incredibly kind lighthouse caretakers, John and Angela, offered to give me a ride to a spot just before the ferry pier. From that point, I hiked five boggy miles and crossed two rivers before eventually reaching the road to Durness, where I soon procured a hitch into town from two Eastern European guys that ran a local Zip Line business.
- April to September. Irrespective of when you hike, strong winds, precipitation and foggy conditions are likely. A decent rain jacket and a storm-worthy tent are essential. An ironic sense of humour will also hold you in good stead.
- Monthly Breakdown: May to early June is generally considered to be ideal; lots of daylight, relatively midge-free, and the optimum chance of clear weather (take that last point with a largish grain of Atlantic sea salt). July and August are also good, but the midges will be out in full force, and due to school holidays, some of the town accommodation may need to be booked in advance. Mid to late September can be a great option as the temps are a little cooler, the midges are just about ready to say their farewells, and there aren’t as many folks on trail.
Maps, Guidebooks & GPS
- Guidebook: Iain Harper, Walking the Cape Wrath Trail (Cicerone Guides) | Kindle version available | The book includes logistical beta, basic trekking notes, elevation profiles, maps, town information, and time and distance estimates for each of the 14 stages.
- Maps: Harvey Maps (Set of 2), Cape Wrath Trail North and Cape Wrath Trail South | Both sheets are 1:40,000 | Lightweight, waterproof and sufficient detail; along with a compass and/or GPS, all you need for navigation purposes (Note: I became a big fan of Harvey Maps on my recent trip to Scotland, and used them on all three hikes I did: the Skye Trail, Cairngorms Loop and the CWT).
- GPS Data: Walk Highlands has GPS data for the entire trail and all its variants.
- What did I use on the CWT?: I had the kindle version of the Cicerone guidebook on my phone, which I used in combination with the Harvey Maps. As a backup, I also had the Walk Highlands GPS data uploaded to the Gaia GPS App, which came in handy while negotiating a couple of the trailless sections in heavy rain and fog.
- Online Resources: 1. The Walk Highlands website is an excellent resource for all things Cape Wrath Trail and the Scottish Highlands. Trip reports, GPS data, photos and logistical information; 2. Alex Roddie, The Cape Wrath Trail – Trip report, gear list, and an overview of what you need to do to prepare for the CWT. 3. Outdoors Father: In-depth trip report on a 2015 hike of the CWT; 4. Cape Wrath Trail Guide – The online companion to the Cicerone Guidebook. Contains a useful links page for accommodation and travel options.
- Origins: The CWT was pioneered by David Paterson, who in 1996 published a photography book titled “The Cape Wrath Trail: A 200 Mile walk through the Scottish Highlands.” In subsequent years, other hikers and authors such as Cameron McNeish, Denis Brook and Phil Hinchcliffe popularised different versions of a hiking route to Cape Wrath, using Paterson’s original concept as a basic template. As of 2018, there is still no officially sanctioned trail to Cape Wrath – which is the British mainland’s most northwestern point – but most aspirants tend to use some version of the route alternates laid out in Cicerone Press’ guide book by Iain Harper.
- How long will it take?: The time needed to complete the Cape Wrath Trail can vary a lot depending on the weather and route choices, as well as the fitness, pack weight and goals of the said hiker. Speedy and experienced ramblers carrying a light load can do it in 10 to 12 days. Slower, more heavily laden hikers and/or those that just want to take the occasional day off or do lots of side trips, may take up to three and a half or four weeks.
- How tough is the CWT?: The CWT is not a technically difficult hike, the altitude gains and losses are modest, and in fine weather navigation is not particularly difficult. The challenging aspects of the hike are primarily weather-related. Driving rain and thick fog are often par for the meteorological course, and when coupled with the boggy, soggy and occasionally trailless terrain, the going can often be slow. The environmental difficulties are somewhat mitigated by the fact that there are bothies situated at regular intervals along the route (where it’s possible to dry out), and there is generally not more than two or three days between resupply/town options.
- Accommodation: Most Cape Wrath Trail hikers take a hybrid approach, combining wild camping with overnight stays in villages and bothies (free mountain huts) along the way. See the Cicerone Guide, Walking Highlands or the Cape Wrath Trail Online Guide for accommodation details.
- Bothies are basic wilderness huts that hikers can use free of charge. They are scattered across the Scottish Highlands, and have long represented beacons of dryness and warmth for the cold, drenched and weary of foot. Some of the older bothies are reconstituted shepherd’s huts or farmhouses, and although they vary in size, most have a fireplace, sleeping platforms, and are well maintained. Speaking of which, a shout out to the Mountain Bothies Association for all the great work they do.
- Camping: Thanks to the “Freedom to Roam” act, hikers can camp free of charge pretty much anywhere along the Cape Wrath Trail. That said, due to the often boggy and exposed nature of the terrain, finding a suitable spot to set up your shelter is not always easy. Throw in the inclement weather and midges (from mid-June to September), and it’s not surprising that many CWT Thru-hikers end up spending more time staying in bothies than they had originally planned.
- Resupply: There aren’t as many resupply options on the CWT as there are on Britain’s more popular long distance rambles. Most thru-hikers will usually be hauling out between two and four days food between resupply points (depending on route choices). From south to north there are stores at Shiel Bridge, Strathcarron, Kinlochewe and Kinlochbervie. It is also possible to purchase meals at the Kinloch Hourn Farm B&B, Kintail Lodge Hotel, Okyel Bridge Hotel and Rhiconich Hotel. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the excellent hostel at Inchnadamph has a small shop, which depending on how picky you are, should have enough options in stock to get you through to Kinlochbervie
- How did I resupply?: I did the hike in 10 days, and I supplemented my resupplies with the occasional meal at hotels/B&B’s along the way. Here’s the breakdown: 1. I carried three days food from Fort William to Shiel Bridge. I supplemented this with an unplanned dinner and breakfast at Kinloch Hourn Farm B&B; 2. I bought provisions in Shiel Bridge to get me through to Kinlochewe (1.5 days), which I supplemented with a big lunch and a couple of pints at the Kintail Lodge Hotel; 3. In Kinochewe, I had a meal at the excellent Whistle Stop Cafe, and purchased 2.5 days food to last me until Inchnadamph. On this stretch I also stopped in at the friendly Okyell Bridge Hotel, where I picked up some sandwiches and boiled eggs to go; 4. At the Inchnadamph Hostel I purchased 1.5 days worth of supplies, which lasted me until Kinlochbervie; 5. In Kinlochbervie I had a double serving of fish and chips with a view, and bought one final days worth of supplies at the London Stores of Badcall.
- Water: I didn’t treat any of my water while in Scotland and had no issues. That said, there are parts of the Cape Wrath Trail that pass by human settlement and grazing animals. In such areas it is generally recommended to treat all water taken from streams and rivers (see Intestinal Disorders in the HEALTH & SAFETY section of the website).
Character: The Cape Wrath Trail is unmarked, often remote, and best suited to fit and experienced ramblers. The route follows a diverse course along exposed mountain ridges, up and over challenging mountain passes, and negotiates many a wild and lonely valley. The terrain is often boggy and almost always soggy, so if you have an aversion to wet feet, you may want to look elsewhere.
Alternates: There are a number of different route alternatives during the Cape Wrath Trail. The biggest choice facing hikers is how to begin their journey; via the Knoydart variant or the Great Glen variant (Note: The two options eventually meet up at Shiel Bridge). The former is wilder, more challenging and generally considered to be more scenic. Unless you are in a rush or looking to ease your way into the trip, go for the Knoydart route.
Here are some of my personal highlights from my CWT hike:
- Sections: Stage 3 – Glen Dessarry to Barisdale; Stage 4 – Barisdale to Morvich; Stage 14 – Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath.
- Lochs: Loch Nevis, Loch Beag, Loch na Sealga, Loch Gleann Dubh and Barrisdale Bay (not a loch, but nonetheless worth a mention).
- Bothies: Maol Bhuidhe, The Schoolhouse and Glendhu.
- Villages/Restaurants: Kintail Lodge Hotel (Shiel Bridge), Whistle Stop Cafe (Kinochewe), the Old School Restaurant (Kinlochbervie) and the Ozone Cafe (Cape Wrath Lighthouse).
- Campsites: The dunes of Sandwood Bay.
- Fun Literary Facts #1: The Cape Wrath Lighthouse was built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson, famed designer and builder of lighthouses (most notably the legendary Bell Rock Lighthouse). He also happened to be the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was the author of the classic adventure novel “Treasure Island.”
- Fun Literary Facts #2: At the beginning of the second stage, hikers pass under the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which in recent times has become world famous due to its appearances in the Harry Potter films.
Five Final CWT Tips
- Head net: These gossamer weight items can be a sanity saver during midge season. Be sure to bring one with ultra-fine mesh, as the little blighters can penetrate normal mosquito head nets.
- Ear plugs: Due to inclement weather, many CWT’ers spend more nights inside of bothies than they originally planned. If you happen to be joined by multiple other hikers, it’s likely that at least one of them will be a snorer.
- Trail runners, not boots: Chances are your feet are going to be wet irrespective of your choice in footwear. Trail runners are lighter, more comfortable, and dry a lot quicker than heavy boots.
- Insulation Layer: Leave the down jacket at home, and bring a lightweight fleece for three season hiking in the Scottish Highlands.
- Time your finish: Cape Wrath is periodically used by the British military as a live firing range. It would be a real downer to walk more than 200 miles only to get shot in the final stretch. Check Visitcapewrath.com for up-to-date details or call the Ministry of Defence (MOD) directly at 0800 833 300.
Musings from the CWT
The Backcountry Litmus Test
I’ve always enjoyed hiking in crappy weather. The way I figure it, if I’ve got the right gear, skills, strength and fitness, what’s not to like? Ok, the lack of views are a bummer, but if you spend enough time in the boonies over enough years, things have a way of evening themselves out on the scenery front. There’s no point spitting the dummy over something you have no control over.
One my favourite things about rambling in “shitty (but not really) conditions” (e.g. 1°C to 5°C combined with driving wind, rain and thick fog) is that it makes me a better hiker. In order to stay safe and semi-comfortable in such weather, I need to be completely focused in regards to navigation, pace (i.e. not too fast / not too slow in order to minimise sweating yet still stay warm), layering, changes in conditions, and calorie and H2O intake. I also need to stay positive, calm and objective in order to make the best decisions possible.
The other thing I love about hiking in inclement weather is that it acts as an affirmation. If after all these years of rambling I can still enjoy meeting meteorological and environmental challenges, then I know that the unconditional love I’ve always felt for heading out into the wilderness remains unchanged. You just can’t get that if all your hiking is done on cruisy, manicured trails in fine weather with temps in the 70’s (low 20’s C). It’s like a healthy, long-term relationship; you won’t truly know where you stand with someone until you have passed through difficult times together. Whether it be on trail or in your everyday life, being able to accept, embrace and learn from the tough periods is fundamental to growth. And for those of a wayfaring disposition such as myself, I can’t think of a better teacher than Mother Nature.
The Old Romantic
On the seventh day of my CWT hike the weather was mostly clear. The plan was to camp a little shy of Okyel Bridge, and then head to its namesake hotel the following morning for a big breakfast. Mother Nature had other ideas. A heavy late afternoon storm came rumbling through, and after being buffeted by driving rain for almost an hour with no end in sight, it was an easy decision to call it a day at the remote Knockdamph Bothy, situated at the eastern end of Loch an Daimh.
Upon entering the spacious multi-room hut, I wasn’t expecting to find anyone. With just a couple of exceptions, all of the bothies I visited on the CWT I had had to myself. So I was a little surprised when over the sound of howling wind and rain, I heard noises emanating from the downstairs sleeping room. Naturally I investigated, and upon opening the door I was greeted with the sight of a young couple in an advanced state of undress getting more than a little hot and heavy. I quickly shut the door, muttering three or four rapid-fire sorries as I did so. I immediately adjourned to the room on the other side of the bothy, feeling more than a tad guilty.
After not more than a few minutes had passed, the young couple – now fully clothed – came into the other room and apologised profusely. They obviously hadn’t expected company anymore than I had. “No worries“, I said, and we all ended up having a good laugh together. It turned out they were students in their late teens/early twenties from Bristol. They were up in the Highlands for their first ever multi-day backpacking trip. They were genuinely nice kids, and after chatting with them for a short period I said, “You know what, guys, I think I’ll continue hiking for a little while longer.” They courteously insisted that wasn’t necessary, but despite the fact that it continued to pour down outside, the decision was a no-brainer.
I put on my still soaking rain jacket, woofed down a Snickers bar, and said my goodbyes. As I headed back out into the storm I broke out into a wry grin. I was young once upon a time. And if the roles had been reversed and some weather-beaten old bastard had accidentally walked in on me and my partner, I would have also been polite (or at least tried to be), but secretly would have been hoping that he’d decide to continue on his way. Which is what I did; never let it be said that Cameron James Honan stood in the path of young love!
Cape Wrath Trail Gear List
Overall I was happy with my gear selections on the Cape Wrath Trail. Despite some wet and wild weather, I was never uncomfortable during the hike, and felt prepared for any meteorological scenario that may have occurred. My base weight for the Cape Wrath Trail was 9.2 lbs (4.2 kg), and the total weight came in at 12.3 lb (5.6 kg).
For a general overview of the gear I recommend for cold and wet environments such as the Scottish Highlands (along with other advice), see Tips for Hiking in Cold and Wet Weather. Another Highlands-specific article on the subject that is worth a read is by Alex Roddie, online editor of TGO Magazine, Lightweight Backpacking in the Scottish Highlands.
|ITEM||WT. (OZ)||SUB (oz)||SUB (kg)||COMMENTS|
|MLD Burn||14||Frameless backpack of choice for almost a decade.|
|Pack Liner (Trash Compactor Bag)||2||Cheap & effective|
|MLD Duomid (0.75 DCF) with Solomid Silnylon Innernet.||24||Upsized from the Solomid XL for a little more space on what promised to be a cold and wet trip / Very quick set up / Holds up well in a storm.|
|Guylines – Kelty Triptease||1||Guyline of choice for many years.|
|Stakes – Mix of sizes & styles (8) / Mostly MSR Groundhogs||2.8||Groundhogs are great; in addition to their durability, the red colour makes me less likely to lose them than the generic silver.|
|Pad – Thermarest NeoAir XLite (Regular)||8||Very comfy / Doubles as makeshift framesheet for pack / Put feet on backpack when sleeping.|
|Quilt – Katabatic Alsek 22 (Long – 900fp Hyperdry Goose Down)||22.2||I would have been fine with the Palisade 30, but wanted to take the brand new Alsek for a test run. As with my other Katabatic quilts, the workmanship is top notch.|
|LokSak 20×12 (Food Bag)||1.2||Food storage bag of choice for hundreds of nights / Seals usually start to go after about six weeks of regular use.|
|Gatorade Powder Container||1.8||For many years my rehydrating vessel of choice when going stoveless.|
|Toaks Titanium Spork||0.3||Top end wrapped in orange tape so I won’t lose it.|
|Reconstituted sports drink bottles (2)||2.4|
|FIRST AID / HYGIENE|
|Sunscreen (repackaged in tiny btle.)|
|Hand Sanitizer (repackaged in dropper btle.)||I haven’t had a case of the backcountry trots since 1999…….I think a big reason is diligent use of hand sanitizer.|
|Aquamira (repackaged in dropper btles.)|
|Toothpaste (mini tube)|
|Dental Floss||Doubles as sewing thread|
|Antiseptic Wipes (2)||Clean cuts / wounds|
|Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube)|
|3M Micropore Medical Tape||Breathable, paper tape / Adheres well.|
|Ibuprofun (8)||Vitamin “I”|
|Sewing Needle||One armed blind folks can sew better than me.|
|Duct Tape, Mini Tube Super Glue (repairs)||To compensate for lack of sewing skills|
|Nivea Lip Balm SPF 30||Kept with sunscreen & hand sanitizer in shoulder pocket.|
|Rain Pants – Montbell Versalites||3.6||Lightweight, quick drying, and a surprising amount of warmth for something that weighs less than 4oz / Not super durable.|
|Rain Jacket – Montbell Torrent Flier||8.6|
|Insulation – Montbell Chameece Inner Jacket||8.8||I’ve owned this fleece for the last four years / Ideal insulation layer for Scotland in summer – warm enough, not too heavy and performs well when damp.|
|Wind Shirt – Montbell Tachyon Anorak (old model)||1.9||After more than a decade of using Montbell wind shirts, the warmth to weigh ratio of these items never ceases to amaze me.|
|Extra Socks – Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew||2.6||Three years old and still going strong.|
|Dirty Girl Gaiters||1.3||Helped keep mud out of my trail runners.|
|Bandana (1)||0.5||Towel, neck/face protection, condensation wipe, convenience store holdups when low on cash.|
|MLD eVent Rain Mitts||1.2||Outer Layer for hands.|
|Montbell Chameece Inner Gloves||0.9||All-time favorite liner gloves. Unlike pretty much every other pair I have used, they are fairly durable.|
|Warm Hat – Montbell Chameece Beanie||1.1||Excellent beanie / Not too thick / Stretchy enough to fit my noggin / Doesn’t seem to be available in the US at the moment.|
|Ultra fine mesh Head Net||1||Sanity saver in midge season.|
|Phone – Samsung Galaxy S7 (Unlocked)||5.4||Good photos & Video / Have used an unlocked phone in recent years, to avoid heavy roaming charges when overseas. I pick up a different SIM in each country and pay local rates.|
|Camera – Sony RX100 3||10.2||After a couple of years of using my phone, I bit the photography bullet and upgraded. Happy with the results so far.|
|Stuff sacks – HMG Cuben Fiber (3)||2.5|
|Montbell Power Head Lamp||2||This headlamp has grown on me | Lightweight, double-click, four settings, good battery life, 160 Lumens max | No longer miss my old Black Diamond Spot.|
|Montbell UL Trekking Umbrella||4.5|
|Wallet/Credit Cards/Passport||0.7||Used thin plastic card holder as Wallet|
|Swiss Army Classic||1.3|
|Suunto M-2D||1.2||Lightweight, adjustable declination; compass of choice for years | (Note: No longer made. Will upgrade to Suunto M3 Global in near future).|
|Wall charger, cover, cord||3|
|Small LokSaks for Valuables (2)||1||Protection for phone, charger, wallet|
|BASE WEIGHT||TOTAL||9.2 lb||4.2 kg|
|Shorts – Patagonia Baggies 7″||6.7||I cut out the liners.|
|Base layer – Montbell Merino Long Sleeve Zip Neck||5.9||Great baselayer / Not too thin, not too thick / Spot on for shoulder season conditions.|
|REI Merino Wool Liner socks||1.6||Still my favourite Merino liners after more than a decade / Cheaper and more durable than the big sock companies.|
|Hat – Adapt-a-cap||2.5||Back from the dead. Had it repaired and sewed up. Not as good as new, but still functional / From what I’ve seen, the latest models have a different design, and aren’t in the same league as the old ones.|
|Shoes – Brooks Cascadia 12||24||500 miles per pair / The Cascadias have returned to form since the dodgy 10th incarnation.|
|Fizan Compact – Hiking Pole (1)||5.6||Tent setup / Fencing practice during breaks……Tokyo 2020 here I come.|
|Timex Ironman Watch||1.5||Light, cheap, durable, reliable.|
|Sunglasses||2||Polarized lenses / 100% UV Protection.|
|TOTAL WEIGHT||12.3lb||5.6 kg|
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