My 2019 Challenge took me through beautiful Glen Affric

The Great Outdoors Challenge is Britain’s premier backpacking event. Inaugurated in the 1970s by The Great Outdoors magazine, it challenges walkers (the rules state: “Running is not allowed”!) to cross the Highlands from west to east over a 15-day window each May. There are a limited number of start points, though the finish can be anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath.

The first task is to qualify. Challenge organisers Sue and Ali, who run a hostel at Newtonmore,  give first-timers a rigorous check – essentially, I had to present a five-year wild camping diary. My 2017-18 walk certainly helped here. “You’ve nearly done a Challenge already!” they told me. The next hurdle is the ballot – the event is always oversubscribed – but they do their best to allow in first-timers and in October ’18 my place was confirmed.

My 2019 Challenge

I decided to re-use large parts of my 2017-18 route. After all, I knew I could accomplish it, and that’s a confidence-booster straight away. Although Strathcarron is one of the allowed start points, my first two days in ’18 were quite tough, so I decided on a more straightforward start from Shiel Bridge.

From Glen Affric to Braemar, all would be the same. Though I didn’t have any real problems east of Braemar in ’17, for the Challenge I planned to climb Lochnagar, though as it happens I didn’t – I used my ‘foul weather alternative’ that day, and ended up in one of Britain’s highest bothies instead. From here I headed down into Glen Esk, leading me to my ’17 finish point of Edzell. From there, I had an easy last day to the coast at the wonderful bay of St Cyrus.

Read about my 2019 Challenge here

My 2022 Challenge

When I came back from my 2019 Challenge, I told people it was pretty much two of the best weeks of my life. Back home, I started planning my 2020 Challenge – it was cancelled, courtesy of Covid, of course. My entry switched to 2021, but that had many uncertainties too, so like many others I deferred to 2022.

It wasn’t an ideal build-up. Though I’d done plenty of hill-walking in 2021, and a few good days of trail walking on the Yorkshire Wolds Way, foot problems kept recurring after the New Year (probably due to cheap boots I’d bought to cope with the Essex mud). They were just about sorted when I walked the Speyside Way as a TGO warm-up, only to have a calf problem at the very end of that.

But things cleared up enough that a few weeks later I was ready to set off from Torridon. I’d wanted a more northern line, and Torridon is as far north as the Challenge lets you get. I made my way by Glens Carron and Strathfarrar to Cannich, then crossed Loch Ness by the dedicated TGO-only ferry. By crossing the Monadhliath, I reached Aviemore, then went through the Cairngorms National Park to Tomintoul. It then remained to cross the Ladder Hills before heading down by way of Tarland to join the River Dee to my finish at Aberdeen.

Adaptability note: though all Challengers must have an approved route, with foul weather alternatives in case of problems, they need to be prepared to react to the land. Early on, I found a river I couldn’t cross, necessitating a two-day diversion. Further east, winter storms had twice made matchsticks of forestry, and I had to work out alternatives on the spot.

Read about my 2022 Challenge here

Cicerone Extra articles

Here are links to two articles I penned for Cicerone Extra, one on the planning for 2019, and one on the walk.