The next 750 miles

It’s almost the end of the year, and nearly time to look back at what I’ve achieved in 2015. But before I do, I’d like to look ahead.

Scottish long-distance hikes

My main Scottish objective for next year is the Skye Trail.

I’ve had my eye on the Skye Trail since hiking the Cape Wrath Trail earlier this year. The ST is nowhere near as long – it’s only about 79 miles, in fact – but, in common with the CWT, it crosses a wide variety of rugged and pathless terrain on its journey north. Part of what made my CWT experience so great was the extremely challenging nature of the wild landscape. I believe the Skye Trail will offer a similar challenge.

I’ve only visited Skye a few times, but the island has a unique magic about it and I’m really looking forward to returning for a long-distance hike.

Before I tackle the Skye Trail, I have two warm-up routes in mind: the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way. My brother James is hoping to join me for the Skye Trail, and as he lives near Inverness I thought it made sense to walk from Glasgow to Inverness so we can travel on to Skye together.

These trails are altogether different – very well travelled, much easier underfoot, and I expect to be able to achieve far greater daily mileages on both the WHW and GGW. My hope is to be able to hike both trails combined in 7-9 days, which should be very achievable.

So, taken altogether that’s the first half of May accounted for!

My big trip for 2016

Two months ago, I wrote about how I intended to hike a 500-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Despite a number of uncertainties I decided to go with the assumption that the trip would happen – I find this helps me get in the right frame of mind for planning.

I’m still just as enthusiastic about visiting the Sierra Nevada, but I’m starting to sense that 2016 might not be a great year to do this hike, for several reasons. California is in the grip of a catastrophic drought. It’s very early in the winter season yet, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the drought and things do not appear to be improving for the area I hope to visit. In 2015 lack of water and wildfires were real problems for hikers in some of the areas I intend to walk through.

The real problem here is uncertainty. If I want to do this trail, I have to apply for permits in about four weeks, and I would need to book flights not long afterwards in order to get the best deals. Likely conditions in July/August will be impossible to gauge with any accuracy until April or May – possibly even later.

Have you seen how expensive it is to travel to California? A single flight would cost several times more than my entire budget for the Cape Wrath Trail! I have considered a number of different fund-raising options, but I think to make any real dent on the cost I would need a full year for planning. For a 2016 hike that’s time I don’t have.

So, given these uncertainties, I have been looking for other possible objectives. And I think I’ve found one that will suit me very well indeed.

The Arctic Trail / Nordkalottleden

I came across this hike completely by accident. Browsing the excellent website of Colin Ibbotson led me to his trip report from thru-hiking the Arctic Trail last year.

This is the most northerly long-distance trail in Europe, and starts (or ends, depending on which way you hike it) near Tromsø in the far north of Norway. The trail crosses a vast area of wilderness in Lapland, crossing over into Sweden and Finland many times. It’s approximately five hundred miles in length.

Several things immediately attracted me to the idea of thru-hiking the Nordkalottleden.

  1. I have hiked in Norway once before, in 2010. Back then I had limited wilderness experience and had to cut my trip short due to bad planning and other factors, but the wild landscape of Jotunheimen made a big impression on me. I think I would love backpacking in the Arctic.
  2. There are few resources in English available about this trail (and certainly no English guidebook). While a slight inconvenience, this adds to the sense of adventure, and means I must take planning very seriously.
  3. Having chatted to Colin about the trail on Twitter today, he described it to me as being like the Cape Wrath Trail, but a step up in terms of remoteness and seriousness – and, of course, twice the length. That sounds pretty good to me.
  4. The resources I’ve seen, and the people I’ve spoken to, all point towards the fact that very few people actually thru-hike the Arctic Trail. I’m an outdoor writer as well as a backpacker so this is actually quite significant for me. In short, it’s a more notable adventure to write about because fewer people have hiked it (or even heard about it). While enjoyment of the hike itself is the main factor, I can’t say this isn’t an attraction.
  5. Scandinavia has a reputation for being expensive, but overall this would be a dramatically cheaper trip than the Sierra Nevada due to the cheaper flight costs.
  6. Bears are not a problem in Lapland so I wouldn’t have to carry a bear canister!

There are some logistical issues to work out, resupply being the main one – I’ve heard that there is a section about 200 miles long with no resupply options. However, the excellent Scandinavian hut network actually makes this less serious than you might think. Numerous huts lay on the route, and virtually all of them offer more comfortable accommodation than the average Scottish bothy. Some even have food available to buy. While I expect to camp most of the time, there’s the option of a safety net in the event of serious weather (which I saw in abundance last time I was in Norway). And I still have my DNT hut key!

It’s early days yet. There’s still a chance I’ll go with the PCT, but I’m increasingly thinking I will hike it another year instead – preferably a year in which extreme drought is not going to be an issue. For now, the Arctic Trail has captured my imagination.

I’ll be sure to keep you posted, whatever I decide.

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