How To Create A Successful Hiking Route

A couple of years ago, I spent six enjoyable days hiking the East Highland Way and wrote a series about it for all you fine folks. Back then this trail through Scotland had only just been established by devoted hiker Kevin Langan.

I felt like a real pioneer when I did this route. The 82-mile journey from Ft. William to Aviemore was unmarked and there was no guidebook yet. Kevin was kind enough to email me PDFs of the page proofs. I never saw anyone else doing the trail and only heard of one other hiker, a German who was a day ahead of me.

Now the East Highland Way is fully established. The guidebook is not only in print now, it’s on its third edition. Kevin’s website is getting tons of hits, and his publisher has added some stuff for the techies in the form of a free Android mobile phone app for the route, which is now available on the Google Play store. GPS (.GPX) and Google Earth (.KMZ) route files are available to download from the website free of charge, as is a new amenities brochure, which includes maps of each location and places of interest.

The trail has also received markers. When I did it I had to rely on generally trustworthy Ordnance Survey maps. It’s nice to have confirmation with trail makers, though.

I caught up with Kevin and asked him how he went about building this new trail and what’s new after two years.

%Gallery-163506%What made you decide to establish a new route in the highlands and what made you pick the Ft. William-Aviemore line?

After walking the world-famous West Highland Way, I noticed that hikers can engage with a whole other network of interconnected trails such as the Great Glen Way, the Rob Roy Way, the Kintyre Way, and the Cowal Way. It was by exploring these routes that I then became aware of a satellite group further east. The Speyside Way, Dava Way and the Moray Coastal Trail seemed to be cut-off and isolated by a series of lesser-walked glens. It occurred to me that strategically, a new connection at this point could theoretically fuse together the various national trails and create a much larger path network to explore. The missing link in question ran between Fort William and Aviemore, two towns already drenched in outdoor culture and heritage. This was entirely theoretical at first and was never anticipated to become a mainstream long distance trail.

How did you go about researching and establishing the route?

In the years to follow I explored the area many times both physically and virtually, trial-blazed various routes and took more notes than I knew how to compile. It was through detailed analysis of the terrain and distances that I finally settled on the East Highland Way route as it stands today. Three websites and three guidebooks later, the route is becoming more popular with each day.

How did you get markers for the route? Were those put up by the government?

The waymarking has been done by building up relationships with various landowners. There are also various existing sections that use locally waymarked trails already, which is great – mainly the Badenoch way and the newly waymarked Loch Gynack trail. The EHW waymarking so far has been done very organically from the ground up. The new orange East Highland Way markers have been distributed to land owners and strategically placed at their discretion. These will include the forests of Inverlair and Corrour and also the full length of Loch Laggan past Ardverikie.

How has the route changed since I walked it (when the first edition was still in production)?

Since you walked it the route has changed immensely. Almost 10 miles of reduced road walking:

1: The route now leaves Fort William via the old Ben Nevis access path past the Alcan smelter, rather than the tarred cycle path to Torlundy.

2: The route uses a new Forest trail approaching Spean Bridge, which bypasses the road section.

3: A new forest route through the Ardverikie estate, which reduces the road walking along the Ardverikie driveway by a few miles.

3: The road walking through Laggan village has been chopped in half with a shortcut over the moor to Glen Banchor.

4: A new high-level route has been introduced between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which replaces the old tarred cycle path.

5: A new route waymarked through Invereshie House estate towards the Frank Burce sculpture park.

What’s next for the EHW?

I think the East Highland Way is growing steadily and I would be happy for people just to continue walking and enjoying the route and that over the years further waymarking is introduced and further road walking eliminated. It’s quite a simple project with a simple agenda. The most important thing for me is the quality of the product. I need to stay focused on finding the best quality paths and attractions along the route and everything else will sort itself out.

Are you planning to establish more routes?

I’ve got various projects, which are ongoing and take up lots of my time. There will hopefully be other long distance routes in the future although this isn’t something I’m actively pursuing at the moment. They are extraordinarily time consuming and need a lot of effort and hard work not to mention free time to be produced properly and with a high quality output in mind.

[Full disclosure: I contributed several photos to the original edition. I didn’t ask for payment, and I don’t receive any royalties. I gave Kevin free photos because I believe in promoting this trail. I don’t know if they’re in the third edition.]

Five great hikes in Scotland

Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. With a varied landscape of lush glens, steep mountains, and rugged coastline, there are plenty of great hikes in Scotland to satisfy any hiker. Here are five of the best.

West Highland Way
One of Scotland’s most popular hikes runs 96 miles from Milngavie to Ft. William. The trail offers a good sampling of many of Scotland’s ecozones including lochs, moors, forests, hills, and mountains. One highlight is the Devil’s Staircase, a rough ridge north of Glen Coe that offers challenging walking, and, if you go off the path, the toughest scrambling in Scotland. Check out the West Highland Way website for more information.

East Highland Way
Scotland’s newest long-distance trail starts at Ft. William and ends 78 miles later at Aviemore. In between, the trail passes three beautiful castles, prehistoric sites, several fine lochs, and a wonderfully remote and abandoned stretch of wilderness. For more information, check out my Gadling series on hiking the East Highland Way. Also check out the East Highland Way website.

Great Glen Way
Another popular hike, the Great Glen Way crosses Scotland from Ft. William to Inverness, a 79 mile route that takes you through a broad stretch of forest, as seen in this photo courtesy Karsten Berlin, and along the length of Lochs Locky, Oich, and Ness. Loch Ness is 23 miles long and the second largest loch in Scotland. Most walkers take nearly two days to walk its length, providing a chance to admire its beautiful scenery and mistake every ripple on its surface for a monster. I’ll probably be doing this hike in September. Stay tuned for a special Gadling series!

%Gallery-150536%North to Cape Wrath
Despite this being an unmarked and unofficial trail, there are two guidebooks dedicated to hiking to the Scottish mainland’s northernmost point — the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. One route starts at Ft. William and is 202 miles; the other starts at Banavie and covers much the same ground, clocking in at 205 miles. Parts of the route are unmarked and even uninhabited, meaning you’ll have to bring a lot of gear. This is not a hike for the inexperienced. On the other hand, you’ll be seeing some of Scotland’s most remote spots. The hardy souls who have done this have told me it was one of the toughest challenges they’ve ever faced, and the most rewarding.

The Clyde Coast Way
If hiking to Cape Wrath is a bit more than you want to tackle, the Clyde Coast Way is a lot shorter and more forgiving. At only 50 miles, it can easily be done in four days and provides plenty of stunning views of Scotland’s southwest coast. As you walk from Ayr to Greenock, you’ll have mountains on one side and distant islands on the other. You’ll pass through several coastal towns, each with their own attractions such as historic churches and, more importantly, pubs. There’s easy access to roads, railway stations, and accommodation throughout, making this a good choice for the beginning hiker who wants plenty of beautiful scenery.

Another great hike worth considering isn’t actually in Scotland, although you can see Scotland from the trail. The Hadrian’s Wall Path follows the length of Hadrian’s Wall from Wallsend 84 miles to Solway Estuary. You’re just on the English side of the border for much of the time and you can visit several Roman forts along the way. You also get bragging rights for having walked across England. Just don’t mention you did it at its narrowest part!

My year in adventure travel: a look back and a look forward

Happy Boxing Day everybody! As I sit here stuffed with my mother-in-law’s cooking after a traditional Spanish Christmas, I’m thinking back on all my travels in 2010 and looking forward to 2011. One of the best parts about my travel year has been sharing it all with you. I love the comments you’ve sent suggesting sites to see and trails to take, and was especially amazed by the outpouring of support I got from Ethiopians and Somalis for my series on their countries.

Early in the year I took my wife on a road trip in Ethiopia for our tenth anniversary. I have always wanted to go there and it didn’t disappoint. A combination of nice people, good food, awesome coffee, and tons of historical and archaeological sites shot it right to the top of my list of favorite destinations. So much so, in fact, that we’re going back in 2011! We haven’t finalized our plans, but we’ll be doing another road trip to a different part of the country and then I’ll spend a month or so in Harar, a fascinating city I want to learn more about. So expect a series about Ethiopia in 2011, including at least one trek to a certain remote castle in the rugged Ethiopian highlands.

Harar is the gateway to Somaliland, an emerging nation that has broken away from the chaos in the rest of Somalia. My two weeks there shattered every preconception I had about the region. Somalilanders are working hard to build a peaceful nation in a region notorious for war and corruption. Since they aren’t recognized as a country, they’re receiving very little assistance from the outside world. I’m proud that my series of articles helped in a small way to publicize their efforts.

As regular readers will know, I always celebrate my birthday with a long-distance hike. When I turned forty I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. This year for my 41st I hiked the East Highland Way, Scotland’s newest trail. For my 42nd (moan) I plan to return to Scotland. I’m not sure where I’ll go, so I’m hoping one of you can help me decide. I want a hike of about a hundred miles over beautiful but rough terrain, with a steady diet of historical and archaeological attractions. Any ideas?

All these wanderings really filled up my hard drive. The gallery features some photos that didn’t make it into the original series. I hope you like them.

There were some less-adventurous trips in 2010, such as exploring the tombs of Rome, the sights of Yorkshire, and the legend of Jesse James. I’ve also had plenty of wonderful armchair adventure travel courtesy of my fellow Gadlingers. Two of my favorite series have been Andrew Evans’ amazing trip around Greenland that left me green with envy, and Catherine Bodry’s exploration of Yunnan, China, graced with her beautiful photos.

It’s been a wonderful year with a great team and great readers. I’m looking forward to 2011!


Climbing Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain

I just turned 41, so it’s time for my annual long-distance hike in order to prove I’m not as old as the numbers say. Last year I spent six days walking the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path. This year I’m in Scotland to tackle the region’s newest trail, the East Highland Way, stretching from Ft. William on the west coast 76 miles inland past lochs, mountains, and castles to Aviemore.

Before heading out into the countryside I want to defeat Ft. William’s greatest challenge–a grueling climb up Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain at 4,409 ft. (1,344 meters). While there’s a trail all the way up, it’s faint in places and there are sheer drops that have claimed more than a few lives. With the summit usually shrouded in mist and the trail fading to near invisibility at the top, I’ve come prepared with a map and compass as well as wet-weather clothing, a sweater, food, plenty of water, and all the usual emergency gear.

I walk the three miles from my B&B to the trailhead, where a youth hostel and information center are covered in posters warning hikers to be prepared. Ben Nevis and other peaks loom over the valley. It’s sunny at the moment, but I can’t see the summit of Ben Nevis because it’s blocked by its lower slopes. The start of the Pony Trail, the most popular way up, is almost at sea level, so we’re going to earn every one of those 4,409 feet. The first thing I see is a search and rescue helicopter coming down off the summit. Propitious!

The trail is hard right from the beginning. Uneven stone steps lead up a steep slope on long, winding switchbacks. The sun is strong and my t-shirt is soaked in sweat. The whole of western Scotland seems to be at my feet. Ft. William is visible in the distance, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. Several other lochs and rivers makes deep cuts into the surrounding hills. Water and land are a patchwork of blue, green, and gray smudged by shadows from the scattered clouds. Further up I come across a small mountain loch nestled in a little valley and fed by the numerous little streams that trickle down the slopes. I’m tempted to take a drink–I do this all the time in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid–but the piles of sheep dung make me think twice.

There are plenty of others on this trail, either huffing and puffing their way up like me, or staggering their way down with wasted expressions on their faces. As I continue upwards, the short grass gives way to bare rock splotched with green and yellow lichen. The sky darkens and thin wisps of cloud descend over the slope. Soon visibility is down to fifty yards. The crowd thins out too, and at times I am alone in a weird, colorless landscape of pale broken rock and thickening mist. Cairns positioned at regular intervals mark the trail. I can faintly see other cairns on either side. Some of these mark where search and rescue found dead climbers. Others have been built for seemingly no reason, although they could easily mislead the unwary, leading to the creation of more memorials. It’s cold now and I’ve put on my sweater and raincoat. Freezing rain needles my face.

%Gallery-99558%The summit appears as a surprise. One moment I’m walking alone up a gentle grade, the next moment the land flattens out and I see a summit marker and emergency hut with several silhouettes cavorting around it. I’ve made it!

The ruins of a weather observatory built in 1883 sit to one side. Even back then Ben Nevis was a popular climb, and the scientists were often bothered by exhausted hikers begging for food. The observatory posted suggestions about climbing the mountain, advising healthy men to neither rest nor drink water while climbing, but to bring a lemon and some biscuits or sandwiches. They also advised that, “The fair sex, the broken-winded, and the rheumatic must do their own sweet will on Ben Nevis.” While I’m not a woman, broken-winded, or rheumatic, I have to admit that I drank water and rested on my way up, and you should too. I wonder what other bad exercise advice was popular in Victorian times.

While I’ve made it up, coming down is where most climbers get lost, hurt, or killed. I’ve taken compass bearings and the line of cairns is visible enough to confirm my reading. It’s vital not to stray off the path as this surreal terrain all looks the same. In several places funnels of slick grass and rock lead to sheer drops.

A part of me wishes some of my fellow hikers would fall down them. Litter is scattered everywhere. Why would someone take the trouble to slog up the tallest mountain in the British Isles only to leave behind a plastic bottle? I pick some of them up, but I’d need a thirty-man crew with garbage bags to get it all. Ben Nevis is the perfect example of a scenic location that’s become too popular for its own good. I head back down with mixed feelings.

I navigate through the mist with no trouble and as I get on the clearer part of the trail the diaphanous curtain of clouds lifts to reveal the surrounding countryside. It’s only a trick, however, and soon a bitterly cold rain pelts down. More people are struggling up, including one bedraggled guy wearing only a long-sleeved shirt and carrying only a small bottle of water. I’m tempted to tell him to turn back but he’s already proven he won’t listen to reason. The descent is a long. slow slog down innumerable switchbacks that seem to last forever, but eventually I make it to the bottom and spot what should be at the end of every difficult hike–a pub. I go get a pint. I’ve earned it.

Next time: Starting on the East Highland Way!