Maps and the new guidebook- I like planning hikes nearly as much as doing them 🙂
There’s been a spring in my step recently, the sunny weather has helped, but the main reason is that I’ve been planning our next long distance hike, and not much makes me happier in this world than that! I drafted this blog in my head during a quiet shift at the tea-shop where I’m a part-time waiter, a happy sign that hiking has become the default place for my mind to drift off to again. All our travel to the Outer Hebrides is now booked, so I feel more confident that this hike is becoming a real enough to write about, and all being well, we set off very soon. In this post I want to give a brief introduction to the Hebridean Way (HBW) and how we plan to walk it. More than anything, it’s great to be blogging on wildpilgrims again and thank-you to those readers who are still with us. Although it’s been dormant for a while, this blog is something that I want to continue to develop, both with sharing the experiences and ideals of hiking and bringing in wider things that interest me and intersect with the outdoor life.
What is the Hebridean Way (HBW)?
The Outer Hebrides are a long arc of islands that lie off the north-west coast of Scotland. As our guidebook says, the Hebrides are ‘outer’ in the same way as ‘Outer Mongolia’ or ‘outer space’- they lie on the edge, exposed to the Atlantic weather and are a world removed from life on the mainland. The HBW is a newly created hiking trail which runs the length of the islands, from Vatersay to the Butt (or tip) of Lewis. The final two days from Stornoway to the Butt of Lewis are not an ‘official’ part of the route yet, but it is the logical geographical end of the trip. The total walk is 180 miles, traverses 10 islands (Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis) and involves 5 causeways and 2 ferry crossings. The trail is a long overdue idea, and has been made a reality thanks to funding from the European Rural Development Fund (hurrah for the EU!) and Scottish Natural Heritage. This funding has allowed the construction of new footpaths, including raised peat paths across boggy terrain and the installation of way-marking. There has long since been a popular Hebridean Cycle Way, but the hiking trail follows a different route and, where possible, attempts to avoid roads in favour of wilder terrain. Luckily for us, a new guidebook ‘Walking the Hebridean Way’ has been produced by Cicerone to coincide with the path opening and is a nice accompaniment to trip planning and route finding.
Map of the HBW route split between the southern and northern sections. Source: cicerone.co.uk
How are we walking it?
We’ll be walking south to north with the prevailing wind to our backs. We catch the ferry from Oban on the Scottish mainland to the island of Barra to begin with, and return at the end via ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. Our transport to and from Scotland is via Caledonian sleeper- consistent with all our long distance hikes so far, we have managed to avoid flying, as it seems at odds with the whole philosophy of slow (and low impact) travel that hiking represents. We’ll be wild-camping nearly all the way, which is easy in the Hebrides because it’s legal (as in Scotland generally) and there is plenty of space to pitch-up at night, not to mention some of the choicest wild camp spots in the country! But then there is also the weather, and maybe midges to worry about…which can turn the loveliest of campsites into a living hell. We are keeping expectations pegged low just in case. We plan to take 12 days to walk the distance, averaging 15 miles a day, which given the long light days, seems manageable. The terrain is going to be boggy and uneven underfoot sometimes, but there is negligible ascent compared to mountain hikes. We have an extra 2 days spare for bad weather and other delays, but we’d ideally like to save these until the end to visit some of the other local sites, including the famous Standing Stones of Callanish.
Our food re-supply, in addition to what we take with us, will be from local shops, with the odd pub/cafe snack thrown in. The route passes a small shop every 2-3 days so hopefully food weight can be kept down. We’ll get water anywhere we can, from farm taps and the sinks in public loos to cafe’s and freshwater lochs/streams (for natural sources we are taking our Sawyer Squeeze filter). An additional challenge for this hike is that we have recently become vegans, and I’ll talk a bit more about how we’ll handle this later. Our home will be the trusty Hubba Hubba, veteran of two long GR’s and many other shorter trips besides. It’s getting quite worn now, the floor is becoming porous and the flysheet is fading with sun exposure, but I still trust it enough to withstand all the Hebrides can throw at it. Much as I love the Hubba, I have started the long and tentative process of convincing Barry that we might need a replacement before our next long trail…not easy as a tent is a big investment, plus a new two-person model commits him to more hikes with me 😉
Why walk the HBW?
Search online for pictures of the Outer Hebrides and the islands really do speak for themselves, with blazing shell-sand beaches, distant mountains, loch-studded moorlands, wildflower grasslands and wheeling seabirds. Primarily for this trip, which will be in May, the overwhelming attraction is the wildlife. The western coast of the Hebrides is boarded by large expanses of shell-sand grassland, called Machair. This habitat is one of the rarest in Europe and is recognized and protected under the European Habitats Directive. The Machair supports one of the highest densities of breeding wading birds (lapwing, redshank, dunlin, snipe, curlew, ringed plover) in Europe, and in spring the grasslands are ablaze with wildflowers. All this is helped by the old style crofting agriculture, which works in harmony with the wildlife and is a core part of the island’s culture. In the peak season, the spectacle of the Machair is one of the sights of Europe, and we’ve been talking about seeing it for several years. This year, with the opening of the HBW, which crosses much of the best Machair on South Uist, the timing seemed perfect. Added to this, there will also be seabirds, eagles and corncrakes…the rasping call of the latter being the sound of summer nights on the islands, along with the drumming of snipe.
The HBW is also chance to try and get back into our hiking groove as a couple. Our days on the GR5 didn’t go well last year, it seems that the tougher the hike, the more it tends to emphasise the differences in our hiking styles, and the different things we want/need from the experience. This was one of the reasons we came off the GR5 as the same old disagreements re-surfaced and detracted from what the hiking should be. The trail was too hard for the time we had allocated for it as well, and with more time in the future, either I or we, intend to return. I’m not saying that either of our approaches to hiking are wrong, they are just different, and sometimes we can’t manage to bridge the gap between them. The HBW promises some degree of challenge, but our itinerary is not over-stretched, and I’m confident we can manage a largely harmonious trip if we are both prepared to reach for the middle ground.
Training hike on the South Downs last week, with full pack-weight, through the luminous green light of spring beech-woods.
Are there any particular challenges?
Apart from weather and the native insect life which are to be expected on the HBW, a big challenge for us is that we’ll be cooking and eating a vegan diet on a hike for the first time. As if finding lightweight, healthy hiking food were not already hard enough! Becoming vegan at home has been OK because we ate mostly veggie anyway and I have the facilities to prepare proper food, but being limited to a Pocket Rocket stove and one cooking-pot is going to require some careful planning. I’m still getting my head around the options, but primarily it means that we’ll have to take some vegan staples with us to add to the usual carbs we’ll find en-route. I hope to doing a mini blog about this first attempt at vegan hiking before we leave.
Are there any special gear requirements or changes?
The HBW is not a major, multi-week trip so, despite some bits of gear getting a little worn, I’m confident that most of what we have will be fine for now. The minor gear tweaks for this hike have been made mainly in expectation of foul weather. You can see our updated gear list here. For spring/summer Spanish hikes we tended to go minimalist with one and a half ‘sets’ of clothing which, layered effectively for cold mornings and evenings, was enough for weeks on the trail. In Spain we could also usually depend on sun after the rain to dry our stuff out- but this is very uncertain in the Hebrides, so we’ll need to prevent getting too wet in the first place and carry a couple of spares (like extra socks!). Some items, like merino base-layers and down jackets are strictly protected from rain at all times in waterproof stuff sacks- we need to be able to rely on these to change into if we are cold/wet at the end of the day. Despite the likelihood of rain, we’ve opted to wear our non gore-tex trail shoes, because once wet, they dry out quicker than their gore-tex equivalents. Barry will be wearing Salomon XA Pros and I’ll wear Brooks Cascadia trail runners.
For the Hebrides we’ll be adding waterproof over-trousers and a wind-proof jackets to our usual clothing. We also replaced our old Marmot Precip rain jackets last year with new Alpkit Balance jackets, which find a perfect ‘balance’ (it’s in the name!) between being high spec and very lightweight. In fact Alpkit, a small UK-based outdoor company, is fast becoming my go-to place for our clothing and other minor gear needs. The Alpkit ‘Parallax’ waterproof trousers are also super-light, and although I haven’t tested them yet, they come well-reviewed. Although not usually found on hiking gear lists, these trousers are so light and packable that I might consider making them a core part of my kit for mountain hikes, especially after experience on the GR5 last summer where rain made me cold a lot of the time.
The super-light Parallax waterproof trousers take up negligible space in the pack.
Added to the trousers, we are also taking lightweight wind-shells (mine is an Alpkit ‘Arro’ and Barry will use a Rab ‘Vital’ jacket). I think windproofs are underrated and I rarely seem them on gear lists, probably because they are not strictly necessary and will add a small amount to base-weight. I often resorted to doubling my old Marmot waterproof jacket as a windproof, especially on a chilly mountain descents, but I found that abrasion occurred under the rucksack shoulder straps and around the hip-belt. This degraded the DWR waterproof coating and caused the jacket to go porous more quickly in those areas. Our new Balance jackets need to last, so we’ll save them for proper rain and use the windproofs for other times. The windproofs also come with a light DWR coating, making them a shower-proof and versatile layer.
Will I blog from the HWB?
I’m not planning to post from the HBW as internet access will be limited. Usually I’d write and upload blogs during our rest days, but there won’t be many (or any) on this route, so the plan is to keep notes and write the trip up when I get back. I hope to follow a photo journal format to give a feel for what it’s like to walk this route which, with the grace of good weather, has the potential to be truly fantastic. I’ll try to upload regular photos onto Instagram during the hike and you can view them on the photo panel on the blog homepage, or by going to http://www.instagram.com/wildpilgrims/
Stay tuned for a mini blog on how we’re planning to hike Vegan…