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All things hiking

Hiking in Spring:

5 reasons to come hiking in the Cairngorms in Spring

 

How exciting! The approach of the school Easter holidays is always an exciting time here in the Highlands of Scotland, especially in Boat of Garten, as it signifies the start of so many more opportunities to get out and about. Winter can be a bit of a sleepy time, when if you don’t ski, there are far fewer places to go and things to do than during the summer. Many of the castles and other visitor attractions either close or are on such reduced opening hours, you wonder why they bother at all. But once we’re over half way through March, we can look forward to being spoilt for choice

1. The wildlife is all starting to come back to life

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The ospreys should be returning to Boat of Garten in April. The RSPB are poised to open up the visitor centre over the Easter holidays and are closely monitoring the birds on their migration back to Scotland. Unfortunately sometimes the chicks  get lost over in Africa, but hopefully our current pair will make it back safely. It’s been a bit of a soap opera down at Loch Garten in recent seasons so who knows what’s in store this year.

The centre itself has been through quite a revamp though so we now have webcams to see the white tailed (sea) eagle’s nest and a goshawk nest as well as the Ospreys.

Spring in the Cairngorms

Your Natural Adventure in the Cairngorms

RSPB Osprey Blog

2. The days are longer.

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Photo Caption: Wild and remote scenery of Knoydart on a visit in May – Wild Knoydart guided walking holiday

If we think about hiking in Spring, the long daylight hours definitely make it more pleasurable – if challenging to get the kids to sleep when camping. At the beginning of March, we already have 10.5 hours of daylight here in the Cairngorms but by the end of March it’s already increased rapidly and we’re up to 13 hours daylight. For example, March 19th 2015 sunrise is around 6.20am and sunset about 6.25pm. Early starts no longer essential to make the most of the daylight.

Scottish sunrises and sunsets – images from Scot Mountain Holidays

Sunrise and sunset times in the Cairngorms

3. Get fit in the outdoors

Don’t kid yourself – it’s hard to keep fit in winter. Even if it’s not snowing, the shorter days and cooler temperatures just bring to mind more images of hibernating than getting outside and hiking or biking.

Of course, there are those (in a large minority) who love winter for the snow, for the skiing etc; but for the rest of us it takes a cattleprod to get out to the gym … but then something magical happens by the middle or February as the days start to lengthen here in the Highlands and all of a sudden it’s not so hard to get up and out. There is certainly a reason why we have the phrase: “The Joys of Spring”. Now we can say goodbye to the inside of a sweaty gym and take the bike out of the shed, dust off the backpack and take the running shoes out in the woods and along the trails.

family hiking activities.

Hiking in to a secret wild camping spot in Assynt

Photo caption: Spring also means that it’s a time the kids can get back outside. You no longer need to wrap them up like Mummies. This photo was taken on a backpack to a wild camp in Assynt in May. If you’d like details of this trip, we can arrange this for small groups and family groups under Andy’s guidance.

4. Warmer weather – an end to the dangers of snow & ice

In winter, we spend a lot of time instructing about the dangers involved in going out on the snow and ice. Andy runs multiple courses showing clients how to use ice axe and crampons and how to assess the risk of avalanches. All these are things which put the multitude of hikers off. Most people perceive the Highlands as being far too dangerous in winter. You’d almost be taking your life in your own hands to even consider it. Of course, reality is nothing like that and for the number of people who do go out in the hills. The number who have accidents or need to call on mountain rescue is a minute proportion. Accidents are always reported in the media which exaggerates the frequency with which they occur.

Nevertheless, Spring means that these worries can retreat once more and the hiking boots can be dusted off and the maps taken down once more to plan for some high level hikes across the hills. There’s a reason why events such as the TGO Challenge take place in the Spring.

Do bear in mind though – that winter is never far away in Spring here in the mountains and due to our latitude, snow can return with unexpected force in April and May.

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Perfect spring weather for hiking

5. No midges

Hiking in Spring means that you can enjoy long blue sky days, without the ever-present midge. To be honest, in the Cairngorms the midge question is not as great a threat as on the west coast. Despite the relative proximity of the west coast (in Australian or American terms) the weather is very different. In the Cairngorms, the weather is drier and the winters on average colder. Cold winters greatly reduce the presence of midges in the summer.

You can tell our local climatic zone is drier more often than the west coat by the colour of our hills. The hills in the Cairngorms in summer are purple as the bell heather flowers. Bell heather likes dry conditions to flourish. The wetter west coast hills are generally green and grass covered.

heather in bloom

6 questions to ask yourself when planning a hiking vacation in the Highlands of Scotland

The trouble with planning a hiking vacation in Scotland is that you are almost spoiled for choice. There’s no way you will be able to fit everything in to one vacation.

1. Do you cherry pick? Head for Skye, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe? You’ll have to gamble on the weather?

The scenery on Skye and around the west coast of Scotland is remarkable from the road. It has inspired movies such as “Brave”. The draw is understandable but the disadvantage is that for Scotland it can be “touristy”. It will be unusually busy with other visitors. If you’re looking for a quiet experience of Skye when you have a chance to enjoy the scenery without the crowds, you’ll need to consider taking the time to explore there out of the main tourist season. April, May and September are the best times to head over there. You have a high chance of good weather and a low to non-existent chance of encountering the dreaded midges.

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2. Can you afford the time to explore one of the waymarked long distance routes?

In recent years, particularly since the Land Reform Act (2003), there has been public money available to develop paths across Scotland. This has resulted in a proliferation of way marked long distance routes. The Land Reform Act (2003) formalised the right of access to all land in Scotland, whether privately or publicly owned. Access rights are for outdoor recreation, for crossing land and water, and for some educational and commercial purposes. Exercising access rights, and managing access land, must be done responsibly.

The most well-known of the long distance routes is the the West Highland Way, but there are many others like the Speyside Way (the one to do if you’re in to whisky). Another recently mapped route which is less formally organised is the Cape Wrath Trail. This trail is described by Cameron McNeish as: “It’s the sort of long distance route that most keen walkers dream of. A long tough trek through some of the most majestic, remote and stunningly beautiful landscape you could dare imagine.” You can research more details here: http://www.capewrathtrail.co.uk/foreward.htm There is also a recently published map by Harvey maps covering the area involved.

A full list of long distance paths across Scotland is available here:http://walkhighlands.co.uk/long-distance-routes.shtml They range in length from 338km to 38km. Some can be linked together to make a longer route.

The disadvantage, depending on your point of view, of most long distance paths in Scotland is though they go through mountainous areas most if not all of these routes do not go up the mountains so if you stick to the waymarked route you’ll only be admiring the peaks from afar.

Cairngorms - LGL options

Photo Caption: Long distance path walking in Scotland

 

3. Do you want to dabble in short walks along a driving tour through the Highlands?

There has been quite a lot of investment in path construction and signage in Scotland since the development of the Outdoor Access Code in 2002. There are opportunities virtually everywhere to get out of the car and explore a wee bit to a viewpoint or through spectacular woodlands or around a loch etc. The difficulty is in knowing which option to choose.

WalkHighlands can help with this in that all the walks they list are graded and have an estimated length in distance and time. However, possibly the best way of choosing is to ask your hosts at your accommodation for their recommendation of the best walk to choose and if you have a wee bit more time available take advantage of a guided walk as you will gain so much more insight into the area from the guide’s knowledge. There are ranger guided walks in most areas, particularly in the National Parks like the Cairngorms and the Trossachs which will reduce the cost. Some of these walks are even free. Boat of Garten has it’s own ranger service offering guided walks around the woods behind the village. The RSPB also offer guided walks on the Abernethy reserve.

4. Would you like a guide?

The advantage of booking a walk with a guide is that you’ll be able to get off the beaten track with confidence. You might even be able to do a longer walk or go higher than you would be confident doing on your own.

A guide will also have extensive knowledge of the local folklore, the environment, the flora and fauna as well as the terrain through which you are hiking. There really is nothing better for bringing the area alive to you. As a student or cash strapped tourist you may consider the cost relatively high. However when you look at the cost of eating in a restaurant or your accommodation for the night, you’ll realise that on an hourly rate your guide is not charging a lot of money. A qualified mountain leader will have invested years of training into his qualification not to mention the cost of the training course itself.

A qualified mountain leader (or accompagnateur) will charge from £150 – £200 for a day out. This fee will be split across the clients in the group. The larger your group of family the less the cost per individual. The rewards of going out with a guide for the day are however beyond price as you will learn so much more about the area which you won’t find in the guidebooks.

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5. Do you want to stick to one part of the Highlands and really get to know that area well?

Most organised hiking tours will explore only one area in depth. While this approach is not for everyone (many people visit a country with a tick list of sights they want to visit – which are inevitably the same spots 90% of visitors also want to see, resulting in overcrowding), if you go on an organised vacation you are often more likely to have a more genuine and authentic experience of the country you are visiting.

It is worth checking that the company you book with has a philosophy which appeals to you. Also that the structure of the trip suits your priorities. For example, if you are thinking of booking with Scot Mountain Holidays but it is important to you to have 5 star hotel style accommodation, rather than a home away from home, you will probably look elsewhere for your trip. The philosophy behind our vacations is that our guests stay within our home. They immerse themselves in the atmosphere and feel comfortable discussing all aspects of life in Scotland.

Of course, if you have enough time you could consider a shorter, organised trip as part of your vacation and tour the rest of the country by car/bus.

6. How will you get to your area of choice and how long will it take?

Think about access – a major consideration as part of the planning. Some areas of the Highlands are more difficult to reach than others. For our organised vacations we have tried to make it as easy as possible for our guest to access them. We offer pick ups from Aviemore station and Inverness airport. In the Cairngorms, we are lucky enough to be near the major route north from Edinburgh – the A9, which makes it very efficient to get here.

It may look like it isn’t far to reach some areas of the Highlands but travelling on narrow, sometimes single track roads, will take longer than anticipated.

When planning your trip bear in mind that reaching some areas by public transport can be time-consuming. Many of the routes used have to go around rather than through the mountains.

 

Top tips: what to pack for a day hike in Scotland

We are frequently asked what to pack for a day hike in the Highlands, usually by our guests preparing for their guided walking tour with us. People often ponder on whether they should pack shorts, a sun hat, sunscreen. What gloves to bring etc – the list goes on.

Bear in mind, that if you are planning to head out on your own or at least without a guide, then you will also need to pack the following gear and be familiar with how to use it.

map & compass: you will need a good quality, local, walking map such as Harveys or Ordnance Survey (we stock the 1:50,000 OS map for our area). Do not rely on your mobile phone mapping.

You should also always pack some food (even small snacks) and some water. It is possible to refill your water bottle along the route, but take care if you are following a low level popular path. If there is a lot of livestock in the area, it would be best not to refill your bottle unless you have a water purifier with you.

Long or short pants (trousers)

Always tempting if you happen to strike the good weather to whip out the shorts to go for a hike. It is however worth bearing in mind that Scotland is not without its pests. There are ticks in Scotland which hang on the undergrowth, particularly at low levels waiting for someone or something to come past. Ticks are often carried by deer who rub them off on the vegetation. The ticks wait there for the next host to continue their life cycle. They can wait for years.

If you do pick up a tick it is not the end of the world. There is Lymes Disease in the UK which can be treated with antibiotics – but early removal of the tick is key to the prevention of the disease. We have tick removers here at Fraoch Lodge. Make sure you check yourself over at the end of the day. However, you can minimise the risk of picking up a tick by wearing long trousers and gaiters over the top of your boots. Generally speaking dog walkers and golfers are often at more risk than hikers of returning with ticks.

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Long or short sleeves

Unless you’re going to be battling through particularly overgrown parts of the countryside, the length of your sleeves is not too vital and the rate at which you get cold will determine whether you think long or short sleeves suitable for the day.

 

Boots or approach shoes

There are not many well graded, smooth paths in the Scottish hills. Most tracks are relatively rough with loose stones and rocks. It is usually sensible to use over the ankle walking boots to protect your ankles from turning and also to keep your feet as dry as possible. Leather boots, though heavier, should provide the best protection and will be generally more waterproof than gortex lined fabric boots.

Cairngorms - LGL options

 

Gortex or Nikwax Analogue/Paramo waterproofs

Waterproof shell jackets are by far the most popular. Most shops stock a wide range of jackets designed with gortex fabric. Andy himself prefers to wear Paramo clothing or Cioch direct waterproofs. Both these companies use the same material. Cioch Direct specialise in made to measure clothing. The advantage that the Nikwax analogue material has over gortex is that it is designed to be reproofed after washing so is likely to last you longer. The jackets can also be returned for repairs at little or no cost. The disadvantage is that the material is heavier and can prove to be too warm in the height of the summer – though at an average year round temperature of 0oC, the Paramo jackets are usually suitable for the Cairngorm plateau.

Hat and gloves

Always useful to include a warm hat and gloves at the bottom of your pack as it can be cool on the hill tops even in August.

Base/Mid layers

The most sensible attitude to your clothing for hiking is to make sure you have several light layers which will provide maximum flexibility rather than one or 2 choices. Make sure that your layers are not cotton options as you could cool off very rapidly, should your cotton layer become damp whereas synthetic or wool layers will either dry more rapidly or stop you from cooling down too much.

Rucksack/Backpack

The most useful size of packpack to bring with you is a 35 litre pack. This will be large enough to take all excess clothing, camera, packed lunch etc. Smaller than this may mean that you have to limit what you take on the hill, particularly in winter.

what to pack for a day hike

Wandering into the Cairngorms

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any queries about the clothing/gear you are intending to bring with you for your Scottish vacation.

Want to get more out of your hike?

If you’d like to book a guide for your day hike, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Andy is extremely knowledgeable about the Highlands of Scotland from history to nature and everything in between. A hike with him is an introduction to everything you wanted to know.

Email: info at scotmountainholidays.com

Tel: +44 1479 831 331

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