Recently I fulfilled a little goal by walking the first 92 miles of the Southern Upland Way, from Portpatrick on the west coast to Sanquhar.  It was my first ever long hike, and my first ever long solo mission.  And, as was to be expected, I learnt many lessons from the experience so I thought I’d share them.  My advice will not be of much use to an experienced long-distance walker, but it may help other novices like me!  .

My original plan was to do the full 92 miles in under 80 hours; setting off at 6 am on the Monday and arriving in Sanquhar on Thursday afternoon.  But as it was, I ended up doing the walk in two sections of three days each, over 4 nights in all.  It took around 117 hours in the end, but with a four day break at about the half way point.  I wish this had not been the case, but it is what it is.  And it just gives me the excuse to give it another go sometime (although my long-suffering other half and our children have, understandably, vetoed my requests for any more adventure time for a while!).

Firstly – what did I take?  I had a 35lt backpack because I wanted to try and travel light, but I was worried it might not be big enough.  On the first 3 days I stupidly had a drawstring plastic JD Sports bag clipped onto the rucksack with all my food in but this caused constant distortion of weight distribution and it was really quite simply a bit daft.  Lesson 1: Don’t clip extra bags onto your rucksack (and definitely not a bright yellow JD Sports bag unless you like looking like a bit of a douche).

As for food: well, after the first half of the walk I realised that I took way too much.  I thought that all that walking would make me starving, but I don’t remember feeling hungry once, no matter how little I ate.  The whole 92 miles was mainly fueled by homemade flapjack, tictacs and the life-giving power of tablet.  All massively unhealthy but I survived so it can’t have been so bad.  Lesson 2: Don’t take enough food and snacks to satisfy a family of 4 for a week – you won’t eat it and you’ll resent carrying the extra weight.

In relation to food: liquid…it’s quite a sensible idea to always ensure you have enough water and plan ahead accordingly.  Don’t always just assume you’ll find decent drinking water at any point as this may not always be the case.  Lesson 3: Don’t get yourself into the position where you are so thirsty, lost in the dark on a moor and are genuinely considering sucking water from moss.  Just definitely don’t do this.

Sleeping stuff:  After initially being unsure whether I wanted to bother with the added weight of a tent, in the end I just got a super cheap single skin festival tent, mainly because it was light.  And cheap.  This fitted nicely onto one of the sides of my backpack, with my roll mat wrapped in a tarp sheet on the other side which was a pretty equal weight balance.  All fairly sensible so far.  Then, thinking I was being clever, I decided to take my 3 year-old son’s sleeping bag because it took up less space in my backpack than my own.  This was not a clever idea.  Lesson 4: Unless you are under 4ft, or you like having really rubbish nights sleep, an adult-sized sleeping bag is the right choice.  (But I’m quite sure most normal people already know this).

What was I wearing?  I don’t go for all that branded hi-tech fancy gear, mainly because I can’t afford it…and even if I could, the thought of spending £70 on a pair of trousers makes me feel a bit sick.  Including what I was wearing, I had with me: 3 pairs of stretchy leggings (grand total of £15), a long sleeved top, t-shirt, vest top and 2 thin jumpers. And 5 pairs of underwear and decent walking socks.  I think I actually got it about right in terms of the amount I took – although I did smell worse than a tramp after those first 2 nights.  I didn’t really have a suitable waterproof coat, but then, as if by magic, a week before my first trip I found a Berghaus jacket in Polskeoch Bothy – the zip was a bit fucky but other than that it was fine.  And it ended up serving me well; when I do get round to buying a decent coat I will return the one I found to the bothy for someone else to have an adventure with! Lesson 5: Don’t take too many clothes and don’t spend loads of money on stuff – its not a fashion show and you won’t really see many people any way.  

Other bits and bobs: I tried to keep it to the absolute minimum but I think this is a concise list of everything I managed to cram into the front 2 pockets of my backpack:

  • Cicerone guide book, map & compass.  I really need to learn how to properly use a compass, but I also need to get a proper grasp of the concept of left and right.  This would help me a lot I think.
  • Headtorch – absolute essential.  I only got a cheap one but I think I will invest in a more powerful one soon.
  • ‘Beauty products’: travel towel, anti-bacterial hand gel, midge spray, face wipes, vaseline, toothbrush & paste, contact lenses & compact mirror (not so much for vanity, more in case of rain because, as anyone who wears glasses knows, walking in the rain wearing glasses is horrible).  And after my tramp-like state after the first half, on my second time round I took a bottle of perfume to mask any camping-in-bog aromas.  Vera Wang Embrace, in case you were wondering.
  • Notebook and about a million pens.
  • Book – I couldn’t decide what book to take for ages.  Then, because of the mural in Polskeoch Bothy I am working on, I was reminded of a story I love that I haven’t read for over a decade; The Five People you Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom. It was actually one of the GB Ultra Runners who suggested this book title as part of the mural and I thought that since my mission was partly inspired by the ultra runners, then it all linked up nicely.  During the first half of the walk I also took a little sewing project to work on which did prove to be a godsend when I was taking refuge in the Beehive for 22 hours.
  • Phone charger, for obvious reasons.  My phone lasted on medium battery usage from Portpatrick to Bargrennan (over night at the Beehive).  Then it lasted again after a full charge from Bargrennan to Dalry (over night at White Laggan).  Then after a full charge at the Clachan Inn in Dalry it was fine until Sanquhar.  For me my phone had many vital uses: as a way to say goodnight to my kids (when I had signal), to know the time, to check the weather forecast en route and for the use of the camera.

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As for other lessons, the main lesson I learnt, above all else, is that everything is different in the dark.  I naively thought that I would be able to cover some of the miles in the night, no problem.  As Ralph McTell sang: “There’s nothing in the night that’s not there in the day” so I’m not afraid of the dark, but on the two occasions I stupidly found myself trying to navigate and keep my composure in the pitch black, it actually turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Not really something I want to do again any time soon.  I can forgive myself for the first time it happened, but the second time was just sheer stupidity on my part.  Lesson 6: Always ensure that you are set up for the night before it gets dark, unless you want to end up stumbling across a moor, falling in stinking, stagnant bog water many times over.

My final lesson, based on my strange experiences on the Southern Upland Way is: Always talk to strangers.  And if an old man in the pub offers you his spare bedroom for the night, then accept the offer and it will all be fine.