Adventure doesn’t always need to take you halfway around the world or take months of planning and saving. What if I told you that there is a place where you can be immersed in the wild with no roads or other people to share it with, just a few hours away from Central London?
I decided I had had enough of the madness in London and the bullshit of the general election and decided to pack my bag and get the hell out of town for a few days to get away from it all.
Fort William Station
I jumped on the Caledonian sleeper train in Euston and after a few drinks in the well stocked on-board bar I settled into my cabin for the night. The sleeper train has various options for travellers ranging from seated accommodation, shared berths and single occupancy cabins. I went for the latter as nobody needed to share with me after a weekend of wilderness exploration! The accommodation is basic but adequate for a good night's sleep with a bunk and a sink and just enough space to swing a small rodent. The hypnotic repetition of the clickety clack as we trundled along had me asleep in no time, and before I knew it I was awoken with the arrival of a pot of coffee and breakfast at around 7:00am the following morning. I opened my blind to be greeted by wonderful highland landscapes zipping past as we made our way through the mountains. I lay on my bunk and watched the world go by for a bit and in no time at all we were pulling up in Fort William up in the highlands of Scotland.
This was a rather spontaneous trip and apart from getting on the train and ending up in Fort William I had made very few provisions for the weekend ahead. I knew that the weather wasn’t going to be great having checked the forecast before I left London, so I hot footed it to one of the many outdoor shops in the town to get kitted out for the next few days. Ellis Brigham have a huge store just outside the train station where you can get anything you need for any expedition in the mountains, after stocking up on a few bits missing from by kit, I set off to find my first adventure.
Nevis Range bike trail
Anyone who is into mountain biking will have known that the world downhill championships had been going on the week before and I couldn’t resist the chance to go and check out some of the cycle trails on offer at the Nevis Range where the pro’s had been competing. I had seen enough of the coverage of the competition to know that my skill grade was far below the requirement to hit the competition trail safely, so I headed to the hire shop to get kitted out and find out the best places for me to explore. The centre is well catered for all abilities from the absolute beginner to the more ambitious rider like myself. I set off into the hills for a quick 10km loop to warm up before hitting some of the more technical features. Unless you were born on the side of a mountain there will be little to prepare you for the steep inclines and lung burning ascents, but after a bit of climatisation I was soon making good progress. The trails are simply some of the best I’ve ridden and I could have spent the whole weekend blatting around the Nevis Range, but the realisation that I had yet to do any walking nor fully work out where I was going to walk soon hit, and I dragged myself away from the adrenalin fuelled bike trails and went off to the cafe to have my last proper feed and work out a plan for the rest of the weekend.
I had been to the area many years ago to climb Ben Nevis, but never explored more of the hills surrounding it. I had Googled a bit before I set off from London and thought that “the Mamores” looked like an interesting area to explore. So I packed up my bag with everything I needed for getting out into the wild and set off to an area called Glen Nevis to start my walk into the unknown.
I’ve done a fair bit of hiking and camping over the years, but this was the first time I had attempted a solo trip and would be the first time I had opted for wild camping rather than using more formal campsites. Unlike the UK, Wild Camping is completely legal in Scotland, and providing you abide by the “leave no trace” guidelines you’ll find no problem camping out in the hills. The prospect of getting out into the middle of nowhere and experiencing some solitude with just the hills and the wildlife for company filled me with trepidation. I was excited yet unsure if the reality would live up to the concept. The reality was that nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of everything in the highlands. The landscape is of epic proportions and with this comes some pretty hardcore distances to cover. I wasn’t used to carrying everything with me so carrying a large pack took a few miles to get used to. I felt I was making slow progress, but it wasn’t long before I had reached Steall Falls which turned out to be my last point of human contact for the rest of the weekend. I sat and soaked up the view for a bit, but with the afternoon getting on, I needed to find somewhere to camp for the night so I set off down the valley to find a good place to pitch up.
Steall Falls, Glen Nevis
It was soon apparent that what might look like a cracking camping site on the map doesn’t always transpire into a suitable spot in reality. The ground was particularly wet and totally unsuitable for pitching a tent on, so I carried on ambling along trying to find a good spot. Even the places that looked good in reality turned out to be mostly unsuitable and the high of spotting a clearing in the distance soon turned into disappointment as my boot squelched into the boggy moss upon arrival. Eventually after a few more miles than I had intended to walk, I found a perfect place to setup for the night. It was worth the extra effort as by this time I was in quite literally the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t believe my luck, it wasn’t raining, there was at least two more hours of light left to setup camp, and the only sign of life was a herd of deer on a distant hillside and the comforting sound of the stream burbling beside my camp. I was unsure how this solitude would feel at first, as there was some sense of exposure being so far from anywhere with no lifeline of mobile phone signals or reassurance of other people around. I soon realised that there had been nothing to fear and settled into my first night in the wild.
I can’t fully articulate the sense of calm and peace I discovered out there in the wilderness, there was no feeling of danger even as the light faded, just calm and tranquility and the feeling of disbelief that I had such a huge area of land all to myself. This was truly one of the most beautiful places I had seen with huge mountains surrounding me, including the biggest mountain in the UK nestled in with the clouds drifting over the summit. This place was way beyond idyllic, this was jaw dropping, mind boggling beauty and I had it all to myself! After a few more moments of smugness and being in awe of the location I found myself in, I settled down for the night and cooked up some much needed dinner. The evening stayed light until well after 10:00pm and by the time the darkness drew in, I was well on my way to a peaceful night’s sleep.
Chilling in my tent, enjoying the view
I woke up at dawn to the sound of splats of rain hitting the tent which is never the sound you want to hear first thing. Having ventured outside for a morning piss, I quickly returned to the sanctuary of the tent and my warm sleeping bag and enjoyed a rather decadent extra hour lie-in as there was no point going out into the rain quite yet. The rain came and passed in scattered showers, and I timed my exit to give me enough chance to get the tent down and pack up for the day ahead.
The tent was too wet to packup properly, so I strapped it to the outside of my pack and slung the raincover over to keep the elements out. I had come up with two options for the day whilst waiting out a rain shower in the tent earlier that morning. Head up and over the Mamores via Binnein Beag (a 900m ascent) or to carry on down the valley and head towards Corrour station which is a particularly remote train station which the sleeper train happens to stop at. I felt the allure of the hills and decided to hit my first peak of the weekend and set off up the slopes of Binnein Beag. Thankfully things started off gradually so I was able to acclimatise to the pack weight before things got too serious.
Looking back down at my campsite
I made my way up and before not too long had arrived at the first plateau. It was a lovely Lochain with views overlooking Ben Nevis in the distance, it would have been another great place to setup camp. I carried on and made my way up higher, until finally reaching the summit via a rather scrabbly scree slope. The descent was short and sweet and I moved on between the mountains heading towards Binnein Mor and the Loch beyond. The valley I traversed looked far less gruelling on the map, but after the realisation that I had a 600m descent, and a similar climb up the other side I cracked on and made it over to another Lochain on the other side of the mountain. It was rather windy by this point, so after soaking up the view I started to make my descent down to Loch Eilde Mor and then on further down to the village of Kinlochleven where I hoped I could grab a bus back to civilisation in Fort William.
Lochain up in the mountains
It was a pretty steep climb down into the village and by this time my legs were starting to advertise for new owners that weren’t going to put them through such torment. I made it down and despite the rather long wait for the Sunday bus service, I was soon enough heading back to Fort William with plenty of spare time to catch the sleeper train home. I had spent 24 hours with only myself for company, but was pleased to find like minded souls to converse with on the bus, and back in Fort William. There was great pleasure in the solitude I found out on the hills, but it was comforting to find other people out doing similar trips and sharing tales from the mountains they had explored. I settled back into my bunk on the sleeper train and before I knew it I was sleeping my way peacefully back to London ready for the week ahead.
What a view!
Top tips -
1. Keep the weight down by taking only what you need. In hindsight the extra 8kg of camera gear I carried was too much and I could have saved weight by carrying less water and collecting water from streams on my route.
2. Have the right kit for the environment. Getting wet is miserable unless you have the right kit to stay dry so if rain is expected make sure you have the protection you need. Don't scrimp on Boots or Rucksack, your feet and shoulders will thank me for that advice!
3. Know how to read a map. Technology is brilliant and I used the viewranger app on my phone with downloaded Ordnance Survey maps lots over the trip to scout out routes and locate myself when disorientated. But it can’t be relied on and a good compass and map are essential for a trip into the wild.
4. Plan enough, but not too much. It’s good to prepare yourself and have a bit of an idea of where you’re going and what you are going to do. I was lucky to wing it and end up in great locations, but it’s not always clear on the map how the landscape affects your speed and distance capabilities, so try not to set too many ambitious targets and walk within the limits of your abilities.
5. Don’t be scared to be alone. I was far more anxious about being out in the hills alone than I needed to be. Whilst this trip would have been just as fun with friends, the personal challenge and isolation was great for the soul and the sense of achievement - a pleasent hit at the end of a long weekend. I saw less than 3 people over my whole walk and each of those were lovely friendly walkers out enjoying the wilds much like I was.
What to pack?
There are a few things that you really must consider essentials for a trip like this. If you’ve done some backpacking and done a few festivals you probably have the basics already. Here’s a list of the stuff I took to give you an idea of the types of gear you might need.
Kit List -
1. Berghaus Waterproof Jacket (www.ellis-brigham.com) This has been my trusty jacket for a few years and has always performed very well. Gore-tex or equivalent is a must!
2. Salomon Quest 4D GTX boots (www.ellis-brigham.com) These boots are really comfy and kept my feet dry even when wading through boggy moss. They are light but supportive and grippy on most mountain surfaces, including wet rock.
3. High Gear Sleeping bag (www.gooutdoors.co.uk) Not the lightest or smallest, but for less than £50 you can't go wrong with this 2-3 season bag.
4. Osprey Aether 70AG (www.ellis-brigham.com) I carried 21kg of gear without major issues. Really well made bag with the best support system I've ever used. There's loads of space to hold all your stuff, and a perfect bag for hiking, travelling or backpacking round the world.
5. Quechua Quickhiker Ultralight 3 Tent (www.declathlon.co.uk) Super tent, lightweight and dry even in very wet highland rain. It's more 2 man than 3, but really good all round tent if you want more space. The porch big enough to store kit in or strip out of wet weather gear. Only 2.6 kg which was lighter than my dslr camera body!
6. 1000 Mile walking socks (www.1000mile.co.uk) If your prone to getting sore feet then good socks are a must. These ones are brilliant!
7. Mosquito spray (www.boots.co.uk) The scottish midgies are relentless at this time of year, so make sure you have something to keep them at bay. There are local concoctions which are said to work well, but this stuff from boots seemed to do the job for me.
8. Karrimor waterproof bag (www.karrimor.co.uk) A must if you are carrying anything that must not get wet. I put all my camera gear in this to keep it dry.
9. Suitable walking clothes (various outlets) You don't need to go mad on expensive hiking clothes, but a pair of quick dry trousers and various mid layers (fleece and t shirts) should be enough. I also invested in some waterproof trousers which were a godsend in the rain.
10. Coleman Divide+ 200 LED Torch (www.coleman.eu) A nice little LED torch which is plenty bright enough and has a special twist lock to keep the batteries from draining or the torch turning on in your bag.
11. Ever Ready LED head torch (www.amazon.co.uk) A head torch is a really good tool for camping or even festivals. This one was cheap and cheerful but works well and does the job.
12. LightMyFire Spork Set (www.cotswoldoutdoor.com) The ultimate in outdoor eating. Is it a spoon, is it a fork, nope it's a spork!
13. Cloud Base Sleeping Mat (www.alpkit.com) This is a great lightweight inflatable sleeping mat, comfortable and doesn't make as much noise as some when you roll about.
14. Vango One Person Cook Kit (www.blacks.co.uk) Perfect for the solo trip, doubles up as a mug too!
15. Coleman FyreStorm Stove and Xtream Fuel (www.coleman.eu) This is a really well performing stove, works in all weather conditions and high wind too.
16. Kupilka cup and spoon (www.kupilka.fi) This is a cute and quirky wood looking bowl made from some sort of composite material so is super strong.
17. Matches and Lighter Be prepared! I take both matches and a lighter in a sealed zip lock bag.
19. Compass (www.ebay.co.uk) Tech like GPS is great, but not always reliable, thankfully the magnetic field of the earth is so don't forget a good paper map and compass.
20. Mora Bushcraft Black Knife (www.morakniv.se) Mora make hands down the best value knives on the market and this one is no exception. It's really sharp so be careful!
21. Go Pro Hero 5 and battery (www.amazon.co.uk) This is a great camera for all weather use. It came out more often than my pro gear did due to the weather. It's waterproof and can put up with some abuse so perfect for this type of trip.
22. Freeloader off grid photographer charger (www.poweryouradventures.com) This is a really cool battery charging system. It has a small battery pack suitable for charging mobile phones etc. The pack has a solar panel on it so you can replenish your battery on the move. For bigger tasks like camera batteries it also comes with a big solar panel which you can strap to the top of your rucksack. It wasn't the best conditions in Scotland with little direct sunlight, but the charger kept me juiced up for the whole trip.
25. Real Turmat dehydrated food, Forestia Wet food & Kendal mint cake Low fuss, low weight and high energy food is important and I can really recommend both Forestia and Real Turmat for both wet and dehydrated food. Takes no time to cook and really filling after a long day walking.
About the area
Fort William and the surrounding area has for many years been a key destination in the highlands. Self named the “outdoor capital” you begin to realise there are endless options for adventure in this area. Nevis Range is a great location for outdoor activities like Mountain Biking, High Ropes etc, and you can find many organised activities like Canyoning, Kayaking, Sailing, Climbing (including indoor ice climbing) and Whitewater rafting in the town. I think I could have walked in any direction from Fort William and found myself isolated from the general population in the midst of the wilderness. There are literally endless peaks to bag and obviously the biggest of them all Ben Nevis for those who want to tick that off their bucket list.
The Caledonian Sleeper train is a really time efficient way to get from London to the highlands, you waste no time (other than time you’re normally asleep) getting there, and it leaves the whole weekend free for activities. I was really impressed with the service and whilst the trains could do with a bit of an update to keep the service fresh and reliable it really does provide all the basics you need for a night’s sleep. Do get the image of the Orient Express out of your head though - it’s nothing like that, and more hostel than hotel in its accommodation. Prices vary dependant on the type of accommodation you chose. A cabin to yourself is obviously more expensive than a standard seat, but worth the investment if you want to be well rested upon your arrival and more importantly your return to London ready to get back to normal life. https://www.sleeper.scot/