Planning Your First Challenge: Route Planning

This site originally bought together a number of entries that followed my experience of planning and preparing for my TGO Challenge crossing. I’ve only one crossing behind me and so can’t claim in any way to be an expert. But the memory of starting from scratch is still fresh in the mind, and so I’ve decided to try and re-create some of these entries (in the wake of the server crash) in the hope that they will be useful to other first timers.

Thinking About Routes

Scotland is a very big place. For me, one of the attractions of the Challenge was to jump in at the deep end and get to know an area that I hadn’t really explored properly. I knew the mountains of western Europe better than I did the mountains north of Gretna. On the Challenge I met a number of other first timers and many seemed to have the same objective. I realised that the Challenge would provide a unique opportunity to walk across a number of areas and distinct mountain ranges. But it wasn’t easy to start planning.

A good resource to first-time Challengers is provide by the Challenge Notice Board. As I got more into my planning I found the noticeboard increasingly helpful. But you do kind of need to know what questions to ask before you can expect answers. And it takes a while to get used to the rather Pythonish humour that dominates the board at times. So, books and guides are the best places to start with.

Scottish Hill Tracks

Chris Townsend recommended I start planning my route with this book and – without any shadow of a doubt – this was by far the best advice I was given in six months of planning. This is an absolute gem of a book.

‘Hill Tracks’ is published by the Scottish Mountaineering Council and is simple and effective to use. Inside of the back cover is an envelope that holds a two-sided map. Pull out the map and you’ll see a small-scale map of Scotland on which all of the major rights of way, ancient drover routes and military roads are indicated. There are about 250 routes featured in all. It is very easy to start thinking about a general route. I started from Mallaig and Hilltracks made it very easy to see what options there were in creating a general line in the direction of Montrose the finishing point for the walk. To create the walk you simply join up the routes. Each route is numbered and the book itself will give you a description of the route and its variations. Often the book will tell you if there is a bothy on route and will give you an idea of how far the start and end might be from the nearest town or village. The routes are clustered together making it easy to compare alternative routes to and from start and finish areas.

To be honest I’m not sure what I would have done without ‘Hill Tracks’. I’m sure that the planning would have taken considerably longer without it. What I ended up with was a good through-route, low-level in the main but one which moved through and over some well defined passes and cols. For my second phase of route planing I studied the OS maps for the walk, and consulted various Munro guides, to see where I might go higher. I then marked the routes up to and down from the higher hills on my OS maps. That way I had the confidence of knowing that I’d planned for both high routes and a safer and lower alternative if the weather was poor. I was walking on my own and, because of the weather, I didn’t go – or stay – as I as I’d planned – the mountains will still be there next time.

I’d certainly strongly recommend you getting hold of a copy of ‘Hill Tracks’. You can often find the book in good booksellers but it is easily available, over the net, from Stanfords.

Lonely Planet Walking in Scotland

This may seem a strange choice for a must-have book but I found this indispensable. I already had this book and didn’t think about looking at during my first phase of planning but I’m glad that I eventually studied it carefully.

One of the early challenges of route planning is to consider where you might stay in the various key towns and villages. These days there is a lot of information on the web but it isn’t always helpful. And I found that when booking accommodation – over the net – many of those I contacted simply didn’t reply; I’m just not sure how effective the tourist booking systems are.

The Lonely Planet guide is as comprehensive as you would expect. Many of the routes listed in the guide will cover ground that you have mapped out using Hill Tracks. But here the route descriptions are more detailed and give you a better feel for degrees of difficulty. But perhaps most useful are the descriptions of the key gateway towns and villages. Here you find local amenities, hotels, guest houses and campsites listed with the usual efficiency of LP Guides.

Buy and study these two guides and you will have made a good start – they’ll provide you with the right kind of questions to unlock the wealth of experience that is available on the message board.

Once you’ve established your basic route there are a number of other great books that will help you tackle Munros and that will provide you with a great photographic insight into the types of terrain that you will be working through. I’ll deal with these ‘secondary’ sources in another post.


  1. Thanks Andy for the heads up on “scottish hill tracks”. I’ve previously confused this with storers book (exploring scottish hill tracks)

    Does SHT cover routes OTHER than central/eastern highlands ?

  2. HIll Tracks covers the whole of Scotland including the borders and the far north. most of the routes are in Highlands; the routes sparser as you move north.

  3. I think that you will find tha SHT is published by the Scottish Rights of Way Society & The Scottish Mountaineering Trust. It should be easily available from any main library. It also covers the whole of Scotland so is useful for planning any routes from day walks to multi-week treks.

  4. Mr Grumpy/Peter is right!

    Serves me right for being lazy – I wrote this post while on a train and should have checked when I got home.

    Pete is right, this is probably the most useful book you can get. Cracking stuff …

    … and a real credit to the Scottish Rights of Way Society and Mountaineering Trust.

    I shall talk a bit more about some of the other excellent books in the SMT’s range a bit later on.

  5. Of course I should have read your blog first, Andy. Out of interest I wasted some lunch hour (and more) figuring how I may make such a route using tracklogs and whilst listening to one of Bob’s Podcasts about TGOC route planning with Chris Townsend.
    I may well track down a copy of SHT and see what I come up with. Can there be anything more relaxing than having the mug of tea out and the maps spread all over the floor, picking out routes?
    I’d like to think I could consider doing TGOC, but I think I’ll get WHW under my belt first to see how I cope with a straightforward long distance trail.
    Once again Andy, thanks for the notes here and elsewhere on your site!

  6. Baz,

    Welcome back!

    I’ll shortly have my second journal online, which will give you an idea of another start.

    The most popular starts are Mallaig and Shiel Bridge. They can both be reasonable first time routes.

    If you can do the WHW then you can do the Challenge. The Challenge bit is walking every day for two weeks, rather than the harshness of the terrain.

    I’d seriously think of doing it. Put an application in this October. You can always withdraw it.

    Track down Hill Tracks. Their map of paths suddenly makes things seem much, much clearer.

  7. Andy, your encouragement is really appreciated – I will apply and look forward to figuring out a decent perhaps Glen based route.

  8. Low level routes are not inferior routes. In many ways they are better as you get to move through the mountains while still being able to see things!

  9. Andy,

    I know many many people do the WHW, but just to register that I really enjoyed mine, which I did in 7 days, and many thanks for your encouragement. I was mainly using SYHAs, which were great (actually fantastic up there in Scotland), but I’d like to consider camping for such a walk again.
    I felt that even though I was in SYHAs I was carrying too much weight and this is where the real connection with ‘going lightweight’ kicks in.
    Apart from the thorough enjoyment of the walk itself, it is great now to check out other people’s kit to see how I would pack lighter next time – actually a fun exercise in itself! I shall be rereading your blog with renewed interest in light of this!
    My favourite bit? Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse – Rannock Moor is amazing. The train back from Fort William has opened up lots of new possibilities for me, too.
    Fantastic stuff. Thanks again for the great blog.

  10. Rannock Moor – magnificent in its bleakness!

  11. Andy–

    Thank you for the blog– I can’t make the 2008 TGOC but have started planing for 2009–starting with my boss…

    I found this highly informative and have ordered the Lonely Planet book. This will be my wife’s first long distance hike and we have already begun training for it. You site is one of several resources we use for the planning and training process. I don’t think she realized how far “200 miles” could be until seeing your site and the equipment options for the trip. It helps because we will be attempting to do it with a tarp and other light weight gear.

    Again- Thank you for the site and I hope to meet you and some of my other influences.

    Rob Anderson

Write in the box and the login details will suddenly appear!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.