Last year, on the Challenge, I met a number of couples who were doing the walk for the first time. Both couples had children who had recently left home and each of them felt able to consider something like the Challenge for the first time. But not only was this their first Challenge, in both cases it was their first experience of long distance walking. And it was also their first experience of wild camping.
It strikes me that this is one of the great things about walking and backpacking; you can take this up at any age. Not matter how young, or mature, you are there always is a Challenge: and if its not the walking its the planing, and the preparation.
So, if this is to be your first Challenge and your first long backpacking walk I thought I’d retrace my steps and talk about food (something I’ve done before but has been lost in the great Demon Internet fiasco). Walking in Scotland you certainly don’t have to worry about water. But food. My goodness me. Food is always important.
Days on the Challenge are long (although not always too hard going). When you’re trudging through the rain, over peat bogs and far from civilisation its amazing what you fantasise about. Yes food. The next meal keeps you going. And often, food, can be the highlight of the day!
There is a wide range of strategies for dealing with food and eating on the Challenge. At one extreme are those who like to be completely self contained and who carry food for two weeks. Even if they eat the occasional meal in a town they’re carrying a lot of weight. Carry any more than five days food and you really know about it.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who keep things very minimalist. Like Humphrey Weightman. Humphrey is one of those real characters who crop up on the Challenge. For some reason Humphrey didn’t make it into my diaries which is strange as, like me, he’s a guitar player, a mountain walker and more than a little barking to boot. Maybe I’ll write about Humphrey in the future. Anyhow, Humphrey’s style is to eat whenever he finds a cafÃ©, bar or other eating place. He likes to ramble over hills and keep planning to the minimum. When he’s going to be without a place to eat for a few days . As Humphrey once said to me: “I don’t bother with all this macho food dumping or carrying your weight in pot noodles. If I come to a bar I’ll eat and drink. Otherwise I carry bread, cheese, chorizo and a bad attitude….”
But most people find themselves somewhere between these two extremes. For me, I find that it is nice to only have to carry three days food with you although I often find myself carrying food for five days. Shops in Scotland can be few and far between and this is when food drops come into their own.
Poste Restante has been one of the long distance walker’s main standbys for generations. This is the system where you send a package to the post office in a small town, addressed to yourself and full of goodies. On very long trips this system can be used for all kinds of supplies and not just food.
But these days – the the UK at least – it is becoming more difficult to rely on Post Offices. Post Offices in rural areas are closing at an alarming pace. Those that are left are often only open for a few days a week and then for only a couple of hours a day. Posting food to a place that you are staying at is a better option. All along the Challenge route are hotels, hostels and B&B’s that will happily keep a food parcel for you.
For last year’s Challenge I prepared my food a couple of weeks in advance – dehydrating my home made meals – and then posted them off a couple of days before I left. The packages were always waiting for me when I arrived, indeed, on a couple of occasions I’d hardly got through the door when I was given my package.
But there was one problem with my tactics last year. I chose to food drop at hotels and hostels and fend honour bound to stay there as well. I found staying in remote hotels a bit restrictive as I had to book in advance, which meant I had to make that place on that day. As it happened I found myself a day ahead of schedule quite quickly and I spent a not insignificant amount of time phoning ahead in order to rearrange bookings. I’d rather have avoided this. And I found that you can have the best of both worlds.
Some hostels will take your parcels without a firm commitment to a booking – the youth hostel at Braemar is particularly helpful in this regard. Better still the major campsites will always take a parcel and there you really don’t have to worry about bookings. Next time I’ll send my food drops on to the campsites. The sites are cheaper than B&B’s and yet have great facilities. And you can spend the night in your tent – which I much prefer. I’ve mentioned before the quality of the campsites and I’ll post about them again. But the main ones are spacious, have great showers and washing facilities and all have drying rooms. And one obvious advantage over a hostel is that you don’t have a heavy snorer sleeping above you!
The main campsites in Scotland are as least as good as good municipal campsites in France or Germany. The sites in Fort Augustus, Netwonmore, Braemar and Ballater are all excellent.
So, food dropping to campsites is just as reliable as sending packages to B&Bs. They offer more flexibility and less cost. A night in a great B&B is one of the best Challenge experiences. But last year I felt that I was inside too often and not under canvas enough.
Supplementing Your Diet
The great thing about dried food is that it is lighter, and less bulky, than fresh equivalents. But make sure you supplement this on the way. During the first week of my walk I relied completely on dried food, eating only power bars at lunchtime. But during the second week this wasn’t enough and I wished I carried enough food for a proper lunch stop – something of Humphrey’s system would have gone down well.
My biggest mistake was not stocking up on fresh food at Braemar – where there are tow very good stores. I relied on my dried food drop which was the heaviest as it was my last chance to collect my food before I got to the coast – I carried a good five days worth (but it would probably have done for six).
Some fresh food – fruit, bread and vegetables – can work wonders for the body. When walking in European ranges I always try and stock up when I can; I’m not sure why I didn’t do this in Scotland. But I suffered for it.
So, on the Challenge don’t consider carrying two weeks of food – there’s no need for it. Remember go as lightweight as you feel comfortable.
But don’t skimp on your food planning, it’s too important. Unless your Humphrey of course, but then some more explanation might be possible ….