Date: 19th April 2021
“There is no better place to take on the challenge of a lifetime than in the beautiful, rugged and wild surroundings of iconic Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.”Loch Ness 360 Trail Guide (2019).
Why the Loch Ness 360?
Last year I began planning my first real trail hike. It is something I have wanted to get into for a while and thought what better time to begin than now. I had visited the Scottish Highlands last year in August 2020 and had spent a glorious 3 days exploring the Nevis Range and Steall Falls, both of which inspired me to explore Scotland further. Upon return, I began to plan a longer trip which would give me more time to focus on a chosen area I was interested in and allow me to be part of this beautiful section of the world yet again.
There are many sought after trails in Scotland and choosing the right one for me was important. I have never attempted a full trail hike before and felt I required one which would give me a taste of all the scenery I love best. It was not an easy choice to make as I was torn between many spectacular walks, all of them offering something different and equally enthralling, but I eventually settled on the Loch Ness 360. I made this decision as I feel confident that the distance is easily attainable to my fitness level. I have visited some areas previously in this location and it will include all the stunning scenery and landscape that makes hiking special for me.
The trail guide for this hike written in 2019 describes the Loch Ness as ‘iconic’ with ‘epic, ‘rustic’ and ‘beautiful’ scenes of the Scottish Highlands. From reading the entire hike section by section and viewing the photo gallery, it certainly looks that way. It follows the contours of the Loch Ness as it passes through villages around it and is a combination of farmland, mountain and forest landscape in between.
A little about the route
The hike is approximately 80 miles long and will be done over a 6 day period. The official trail head begins at Inverness Castle and uses the Great Glen Way for approximately 40 miles until it reaches Fort Augustus. At this point, the route then changes to follow the Loch Ness South Trail for the remaining 40 miles back to Inverness. Along the way, the trail passes through the following places of interest:
- Invermoriston (with a choice of higher or lower route).
- Fort Augustus (with a choice of higher or lower route).
- Drumashie Moor
The trail guide describes the route as challenging in places with hilly sections and involves some strenuous accents. The terrain although mountain track and forestry, can involve walking on some asphalt sections for considerable distances which I have heard is not too friendly on the knees and feet. I guess I will just have to see when I get there. I intend to be as self sufficient as I possibly can throughout this walk so will be wild camping for the majority of it. Unlike England, wild camping is legal in the Scottish Highlands, yet the same rules apply in regard to ‘leave no trace’ guidelines.
Here is an overview of what to expect from a terrain and elevation point of view.
From what I have seen and read, the Loch Ness 360 trail is a very popular one attracting many visitors to the area. As the route is made up of two popular trails, many of its walkers may opt to choose just one. The Great Glen Way in particular, has been known to attract hundreds of walkers a year. Beginning in Fort William, the trail only becomes part of the Loch Ness 360 when it reaches Fort Augustus and so during my trip, I may find myself sharing my walk with adventurers who are only doing the Great Glen Way. This is a hike I have looked into for further trips in the future.
When I first began planning my trip last summer, it had appeared that the current coronavirus pandemic was seeing an improvement in infection rates. Lockdown restrictions had been relaxed in many areas across the UK and travel in the near future had looked promising. My plan had been to raise funds for the charity MIND which is a great cause and is one I hold dear to my heart. Unfortunately, due to the UK being placed back into full lockdown since Christmas 2020 until now, I had to have a massive rethink. Many charities would not support the raising of funds during lockdown if the main task involved was hiking as it meant breaching the public health guidelines of ‘stay local’. Obviously, if lockdown had continued, then I would not have attempted the walk and would have postponed it until it was safe to commit to it, but I had hoped to at least set the ball rolling in regards to raising money. Sadly, this could not happen on this occasion as I just did not have enough time to raise sufficient funds this year and so I have decided that next years hike will be best. The Loch Ness 360 will just be for my own personal gain and experience.
There is something about the Scottish Highlands that keeps me coming back for more. Ever since my first visit in the Summer of 2010 when I had stayed in a lovely log cabin for 6 days at Dores, Loch Ness, I had been captured by its beauty. On that occasion, I had visited a few of the places that the hike will pass through so I have some knowledge of what to expect but it will be nice to be able to see all the bits in between that come with hiking and being outdoors. This was something I lacked the first time round due to sleeping indoors and driving around in a car. The scenery in the Highlands really is something else and I have since heard many other hikers say the same. The sheer vastness of the landscape is one reason but also, how secluded you really are when out in these locations is another story. Everything is so spaced out and you can walk for many miles without coming across another house or village for days. The mountains are impressive too and much bigger than the hills in the Peak District. As much as I love my local National Park, I feel Scotland offers more choice when it comes to backpacking adventures and takes hiking to an all new level.
Thoughts and Feelings
Firstly, my kit! I have had to seriously plan what I intend to take on this hike and plan it well. Due to the fact that I will be carrying it around for the duration of 6 days, I need it to be comfortable yet sufficient to ensure I have a good time on my walk.
Gear and kit list is as follows:
- Sherpa 60/70 litre rucksack
- Vango Nevis 100 tent
- Vango Nevis 100 additional groundsheet
- Inflatable sleep mat
- 3 season sleeping bag
- Inflatable pillow
- 80l expedition waterproof dry sack for lining the whole rucksack
- Jetboil stove
- Jetboil gas canister
- Cup, 1 x camping pan, knife, fork, spoon.
- 12 x Expedition Foods freeze dried breakfasts and main meals.
- Water bottle
- Sawyer water filter and reservoir bags
- 2 days worth of clothing (yes I intend to wear the same hiking clothes for 2 days in a row and wash all kit when I arrive at my halfway stop in a hostel at Fort Augustus).
- Clean underwear (daily)
- Map, compass, head torch, 2 x lighters, first aid kit and spare leads for equipment as needed. (Dry bag 1).
- beanie, gloves and gaiter
- Hand wipes
- Sleep wear (leggings and t-shirt)
- Waterproof trousers and overcoat
- Walking boots
- Spare light pumps for when set up for the night
- Toiletries (minimal)
- Micro towel
I have worked hard sorting through all my kit and making my rucksack as light weight as possible. It hasn’t been easy as it is so tempting to add unnecessary items but I have done well so far. I have however decided to pack some warmer layers of clothing in addition to what is listed as I have read reports that there has been snow in the highlands until very recently and I want to make sure I will be warm enough when the nights are in.
The weather in Scotland as a whole is very temperamental but I have noticed that this gets worse the higher up you get. What can start as a glorious sunny day can very quickly turn to torrential rainfall within an hour and can last all day. A lot of the time, especially round lochs and areas where there are vast amounts of water, the weather can be hit and miss with intermittent rain showers at all times of the year. I am doing the Loch Ness 360 in May 2021 when it is high rain season. I couldn’t book any other time off work I am afraid. This will not stop me however as I am familiar with hiking in all seasons and will give me a perfect opportunity to experience the trail in a different light. The wildlife and vegetation will be different too and this makes the journey kind of exciting for me. Many walkers have all said that the Loch Ness is a stunning location in all seasons and therefore I intend to embrace it come rain or shine.
One of the main worries I have had is about food and how I will go about getting it. The places that I intend to wild camp are not actually in the villages themselves, they are in the forestry and landscape in between so I have had to plan my daily meals in advance. I will be taking breakfast and main meals as dehydrated food but I intend to buy lunch from the shops I pass by as I approach villages.
I have recently started filtering my own water on my walks using a Sawyer Water Filter and bag system. This will be what I use throughout the duration of this hike as it makes more sense to harvest water as I travel. As there are limited shops on route it would involve purchasing lots and carrying it, which adds a lot of extra weight to my rucksack. It is for this reason that I have done lots of research prior to the trip of where suitable water sources are along the route. Surprisingly, there are not that many streams in which to get water on the Loch Ness 360 trail and this did worry me a little. The trail itself, although it follows the contours of the Loch Ness, it does not always come close to the waters edge and there can be times when I might not see the loch at all. However, from reading the advice of others and watching vlogs in which they have kindly shared their experiences, I have managed to plan my camping spots and the places where I can source water to make the adventure a little easier.
So, the wild camping part… What are my actual thoughts around that? Well I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous about it as the date draws near. This is a trail thru-hike and in order to do it, I know that I will have to camp somewhere along the route. Again, there are limited places where it is suitable to pitch a tent due to either the safety elements or the terrain being unsuitable. From reading many other’s experiences, there are some stunning wild camping spots but many tend to be very close together with extremely long distances to walk before you come across another batch of them. However, after much planning, I have managed to plot out my entire route so that I know roughly where I will be camping and there is a water source nearby.
I did briefly check out other options such as using campsites but then I felt this would change my experience. Wild camping for me is a game changer and brings some magic into my adventures. I enjoy the freedom whilst out and a sense of being closer to the elements. A campsite would not only take that sense away, in my opinion it would be too sterile. There is also the issue that wild camping is free and a campsite is not.
One thing I did think about is how I will have enough power source to keep my devices running smoothly. I use a good amount of battery powered devices when out on my adventures and some last longer than others. Although I have map and compass I tend to use this in emergencies or if I take a wrong turning somewhere. Instead, I like to use the Strava app on my mobile to track mileage and elevation. As this is constantly running, the phone needs to be kept topped up with sufficient power. I also use my phone camera to take photographs, record video footage and make calls. In addition to the phone, I use a head torch and lighting in the tent at night. I have recently purchased an additional portable external charging unit so feel confident that I will have more than enough power to charge my devices. On the third night where I intend to reach the halfway point at Fort Augustus, I have booked into a hostel where I will use this opportunity to recharge my external power device, wash and dry my kit and freshen up before beginning the hike along the Loch Ness South Trail the following morning.
The trail guide does clearly state that there are sections of this hike where there is minimal phone signal and none at all in places. Due to the fact that I know this in advance, it has come as less of a shock to my system. It just means that extra precautions will have to be taken in the way of letting my loved ones know this and that they may not be able to contact me when I am in certain stages of the hike. I may have to consult my trusty map and compass if my GPS will not function.
Finally, the biggest thought that has played on my mind throughout and one where I have had to really weigh up the pros and cons, is will I be scared whilst camping in the wild as a solo explorer and will I be safe? Wild camping in any situation is a risk. There’s no question about that. When anyone sets out to wild camp they know that the chances are they could be alone and may not see another person for the entire duration. Seen as I am fairly new to solo wild camping, there are certain safety precautions that I take to prevent accidents and keep myself as safe as possible. The main safety precautions I take are ensuring I check in regularly with my loved ones and give them my location so they know where I am. I never post my location on social media if solo walking until I have left that particular location and when camping, I try and pitch away from trails and paths where there are likely to be people passing.
Being a bit scared when wild camping is normal, especially if you are doing it solo and are not familiar with the sounds of a particular location where you are at. My weak area at present is forest camping as it is something I have not yet attempted. All my other camps have been on moorland or in considerably open spaces where the atmosphere is different. When camping in a forest or woodland, there will be totally new sounds and habitat which might not have been present in other parts. This may take some getting used to. As this hike will include a considerable amount of forest walking, it will mean camping amongst the trees a lot. I’m not saying I won’t feel scared at times, but because I am fairly clued up to what to expect, I feel confident enough to try it and not let a wild imagination get in the way. I guess I will soon have the opportunity to put these skills to the test and I will let you know in my future blogs how I get on. Only time will tell…
I am thoroughly looking forward to my first solo trail thru-hike next month. Most of the preparation is almost complete and I feel I have thought about the main aspects of the journey carefully and efficiently. When it comes to solo adventuring and long distance walking it really is about taking the plunge and giving it a try. I will never truly know what anything is like until I try it and my aim is to get as much out of the experience as I possibly can.
The distance I will be walking per day ranges from anything between 14 and 16 miles so it will definitely be a challenge. There have been times when I’ve worried if I’ve been a little too optimistic at times regarding the mileage but the more I’ve thought about it, it really is mind over matter. From reading the experiences of others on their hikes in secluded places, it often isn’t the distance that causes issues. It has been a combination of things such as loneliness, fear, constant doubts and tiredness. Having faith that the right choices have been made, careful planning and being realistic in expectations will all contribute to a successful and fulfilling hike and hopefully be one to look back on fondly in time. I guess now, all there is left to do is bring on the Loch Ness 360! The rest will hopefully tell itself…
As always, Thankyou for stopping by to read my blog. If anyone has done the Loch Ness 360 hike and has any useful pointers to give me regarding it then please drop me a line in the comments section. I’m open to any support I can get. I will keep everyone posted on my progress as the walk occurs and afterwards, there will be detailed blogs about the different stages I encounter throughout this trip. Take care everyone and hope to see you soon.
My apologies are given now that the photographs used in this blog post are from an old album taken during a trip to Loch Ness in the Summer of 2010. They are not the best quality but were taken using an old digital camera of which I cannot even remember it’s name. They are however, my photographs all except the map image and elevation information which was sourced from the official Loch Ness 360 Trail Guide of 2019.