May 2013 News cartoon - Tackling Scotland's long-distance walking trails
Scotland has quite a few long-distance walking trails. It started with The West Highland Way, then blossomed. Now pretty much most of the country is accessible on your feet. This is a good thing, because it's not all accessible by bus or train. I've done quite a few of them: The West Highland Way, The St Cuthbert's Way, The Great Glen Way, The Speyside Way, The Fife Coastal Path, The Southern Upland Way, and others that I've just made up, spending many glorious hours pouring over maps and planning a route. As such, I felt it was important to impart some of the knowledge I have accrued over the years, to help you avoid the pitfalls that befall the inexperienced long-distance rambler.
When I said I had walked The West Highland Way, I've actually walked it in two halves. It was the first big walk I tackled, and inexperience saw me load a rucksack with tins of beans and such like. It wasn't so much a pack as a huge edible brick. And in all my youthful enthusiasm me and the brick walked from Milngavie to the youth hostel at Rowardennan, a distance of some 26 miles or so. All in one day. Instead of dumping my pack, showering, and having a few ales and food in the nearby hotel I merely lay immobile on my bunk for quite a long time. Every time I closed my eyes I felt my body was ploughing its way through yet another forest. That first day was too much for me, and by the time I reached Bridge of Orchy my knee-caps had given up the ghost. 'Do you want some tea and scones?' the landlady at Bridge of Orchy enquired through my room door. 'No thanks,' I replied, 'I'll just lie here and die for a while.' Next day I caught a train back home.
This is why planning and some knowledge is crucial. It allows you to enjoy the walk. There are folk who do like to tackle big walks as if they were an assault course, endeavouring to walk them in the quickest time possible. There's nothing wrong with that, just so long as that is what you wish to do. Me, I now prefer to take it easy, to enjoy the walk and scenery, and to have enough energy left at the end of a day of walking to explore the place I have arrived at. For me, that's what it's really all about.
And so, this is my advice.
■ That's the serious stuff done. Before you actually set off you should have spent some time practising, getting used to a full rucksack, used to your footwear, happy with a map and compass, and used also to the accumulative effect on the body of more than one consecutive day of walking. It takes the human body a few days to heal after a day of walking, and if you walk for a few consecutive days it has insufficient time to properly heal. So do a few days in a row beforehand to build up your fitness levels. Also, be frugal with what you carry in your pack. A heavy rucksack can cause misery. Do you really need one pair of socks and one pair of undies for every day, or could you get away with just three of each by doing a small wash at the end of every day? (There are companies who will carry most of your stuff for you. Some of these companies may even plan the whole walk for you, if that's what you want.)
■ Decide which long-distance walk you wish to do by reading as much about it as you can, whether via leaflets or online tourist information. Your decision should be based on the time you have available, the length and terrain of each trail (Scotland's long-distance walking routes vary in length and terrain - The Fife Coastal Path, for example, is fairly flat and never too far from civilisation, whereas The Southern Upland Way is very hilly and so remote you may go days without seeing a town, shop or another human being), and what you personally want to see (you might prefer coasts to forests, and you might prefer remote isolation to lots of little towns). The choice is yours.
■ Having made your choice, you should then purchase all the paper Ordnance Survey maps you need to cover the whole route. I recommend Ordnance Survey's Landranger series, which have a scale of 1:50 000 or one-and-a-quarter inches to a mile. Some folk may like to use maps in guide-books. I prefer paper OS maps.
■ This is the good bit. Sit down at a big table and open out each map, one at a time. With a fluorescent yellow highlighter pen, highlight the route of the trail as it crosses each map. This makes it easy to see the route at a glance when you're actually walking. Most of Scotland's recognised long-distance trails will be shown on your Ordnance Survey map as a line of small red diamonds, with the name of the trail shown now and then.
■ Having marked the route on all your maps, you then have to decide what part of the route you will walk each day. This decision will be based on your fitness level, whether the route is flat or mountainous, and what you wish to see at the end or during every day. Unless you have a tent, every day's walking is going to have to end at some place that provides accommodation, whether in a town or a remote farm. To this end, some days you will walk less than you'd ideally prefer so as to have somewhere to stay that night. Other days you may walk a little more than you'd like, for the same reasons. It's all about balance. I cannot over emphasise the importance of this planning stage. It is crucial.
■ Once you have planned where you will be at the start and end of every day of walking, you then have to decide whether to book all your accommodation for the whole trail or leave it to chance. Leaving it to chance is very risky. Ideally, you should book ahead. In trying to book ahead you may find problems with availability that will require you to alter your daily schedule and each day's distance. Tweaking the route at this stage is okay. At least when all your guest houses, farms or hotels are booked you don't have to worry about such things whilst walking.
■ Okay, you are now at the stage where most things have been sorted. On an A4 bit of paper you should now write out your schedule. This will have each day of walking, where you will be walking from and to, the distance, whether there are any shops or inns or potential lunch stops on route (if not then you need a packed lunch - planning is crucial!), and the exact address and phone number of the guest house or hotel that you have booked in to be staying in each night (This location of your accommodation should also be marked on your map, if possible - it's no good walking into town only to find you passed your guest house four miles back!). Thus you may see at a glance what is going on, and don't have to frantically root around in your pack for essential information at the end of a day of walking. This schedule can also include things you may wish to see at each day's destination: old abbeys or castles, tourist attractions, great pubs, etc. This A4 paper schedule will stay in your wallet for the whole walk, start to finish. At times it may take over from your brain.
■ And that's it. You're ready. Or actually, you're not.  During every day of walking you will need to know roughly where you are on your map at all times. This is something you should practise beforehand. It is a skill that will become second nature after a while. Failure to do this can lead to real problems, some of which may even be life-threatening. When walking in big forests or on an open hill I generally keep my map in hand, thumb always on my exact location. I constantly check for features on the map and look out for them on the ground: ruined cottages, streams or rivers, slopes (up or down?), overhead power-lines, etc. These features give me confirmation that I am where I think I am. And having emphasised the importance of carrying paper Ordnance Survey maps, I must also stress the need to carry a compass, and to know how to use it. You need a compass because mist can fall. If you can't see recognisable features, or even your feet, then you need to be able to navigate. In the past I have witnessed folk being led in some distress off a misty hill by a farmer because they were clueless and did not have a compass. It gave me some satisfaction to forge onwards in such conditions, happy in the knowledge that I knew how to read my map and use the compass in my hand. These are very important things folks, more so in remote areas.
■ And that is it. Close the door behind you, fasten straps on your pack, and set off on an adventure on Scotland's long-distance walking trails. I can guarantee that whatever trail you tackle, each and every day will bring at least one wonderful moment that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Scotland's Online Tourist Guide
May 2013
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FOOTWEAR - It's important to have both boots and trainers/hiking shoes with you on a long-distance walk, if for no other reason than to have a change of footwear at the end of a day of walking. It's also important to have worn them quite a few times so you know what bits of your feet may be first prone to damage.
RUCKSACK - A heavy rucksack takes a lot away from the enjoyment of a long-distance trek. Some companies offer services whereby they carry most of your stuff for you, leaving you with just a day-pack, but I personally like to carry all my stuff. Consider what you need to carry and what you don't. You really don't need a pair of socks and a pair of undies for each day you walk. Wear a pair of each and carry two pairs of each. At the end of every day simply wash out those you've been wearing. Chances are they'll be dry by the next day.
MAPS - You need to be very comfortable reading the paper Ordnance Survey maps (Landranger series) you will carry. After some experience, reading them becomes second nature. But you also need to have some sense. Do not presume that because there is a public house marked on your map in that hamlet that it will either be open or even there at all. For as soon as you buy your map it will already be out of date. Check the year in the bottom-left of your map. See? In the few years between the land being surveyed and you buying your map that public house may have become just a house, with no food or drink.
f you are not absolutely certain that there is either a shop or an inn that will be open around lunch-time during each day's walk, then you need to carry food. Your guest house or hotel may make up a packed lunch. If they don't offer that service then you will need to visit a shop to buy stuff for lunch. If the place you're at is so small it has no shop and your guest house doesn't offer a packed lunch, then you're in trouble. And this is why planning before you actually walk is so important. In such a scenario you would have to have bought food and drink previously, at some place that had a shop, and you'd have to have bought stuff that was not perishable or needed refrigerating. I like to carry some emergency oatcakes and bananas in case it all goes horribly wrong. And don't be frightened of carrying a few Mars bars or whatever, although watch out if it's very warm, in which case you may find the inside of your pack lined with sticky brown gloop. Water is also crucial. I always carry two litres of water. The water will probably be the heaviest item you will carry, but you need it.
Always carry a sowing needle and some thread. Buttons do come off now and then, and having to do two weeks walking while holding up your trousers is not good. Carry sharp items like this in a small screw-top bottle so you don't come to harm when rooting around in your pack.
Think about the weight of items in your rucksack. You don't really need a large tube of toothpaste. Buy a smaller tube or even a sample tube or two. All these small weight savings add up.
In addition to a sowing needle and thread, carry other small emergency things, like sticking plasters and a small tube of Savlon for grazes and such like. To be honest, I find the Savlon to be as crucial as water. A whole day of walking in hot sweaty temperatures can give rise to what I can only describe as Bum Rash, an angry red inflammation between one's nether cheeks. Some Savlon at the end of each day soothes just such a thing. Take my word for it.
May 2013 News - A Hiking Special
News banner for Scotland's online tourist guide
The 'Scotland's Great Trails' page of the following website will give you a good insight into long-distance walking routes in Scotland:
Inchcolm Island and the Firth of Forth, viewed from the Fife Coastal Path
A Walk With Elves - by Ed Burns
Video of Milngavie to Drymen walk on the West Highland Way
Video of Milngavie to Clachan of Campsie walk
Video of Blairlogie to Bridge of Allan Walk, via Dumyat
Video of a walk from Milngavie to Strathblane via the Gowk Stane