Backpacking Across Scotland in the 2024 TGO Challenge

Head of the valley between Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor

I’ll be backpacking coast to coast across Scotland in the 2024 TGO Challenge next May for the third time. The TGO Challenge is an annual backpacking event started in 1980, where 400 backpackers, hiking solo or in small teams, attempt to hike cross country (approximately 200 miles) in 15 days. Scotland is one of the few places where you can hike across an entire country without worrying about private property boundaries because there are access laws permitting use without prior permission, which makes an undertaking like this feasible.

I completed my first Challenge solo in 2010, hiking from Shiel Bridge to Montrose (see trip report), and my second in 2013 with my friend Martin Rye (see trip report and video below) from Torridon to Montrose. This time I expect to hike solo again, although you often run into other “Challengers” along the way to spend an evening with wild camping in the hills or to walk with for a day or two before heading off on your own route.

There’s no one set route or trail that everyone follows. Instead, you have to map out a route of your own design and submit it for approval ahead of time. It’s reviewed by a handful of experts who are familiar with the terrain to ensure that it’s safe and feasible. Much of the terrain that you need to traverse is quite mountainous and remote, and the route vetters as they’re called, provide very valuable advice about dangers that may be encountered and alternate routes that can be used to avoid them. These include washed-out bridges, rivers in flood, high wind, cliffs, and the usual hazards of hiking and backpacking across exposed (very few trees) and mountainous terrain.

Excerpt of my 2020 Route Plan which was cancelled due to Covid.
Excerpt of my 2020 Route Plan which was cancelled due to Covid (click for full PDF)

The benefit of planning your own route is that you can climb the mountains you want to summit, visit the waterfalls you want to see, meet up with friends at a specific date and lat/lon point for a wilderness wine and cheese party, or visit the towns where you want to have a zero-day. If you like route planning across wilderness terrain, it’s also a lot of fun to learn about the country and figure out where you want to go. In fact, I expect to spend much of my free time this winter planning my route.

The Challenge is to hike from the west coast to the east coast in 15 days.
The Challenge is to hike from the west coast to the east coast in 15 days (within the red boundary).

I last planned to hike the Challenge in 2020 with my friend Ken, but we’d had to cancel due to the COVID-19 epidemic. I received a deferred entry as a result of that cancellation which is why I’m guaranteed a spot in 2024. All other qualified applicants must submit an application in a random draw which opens this Sunday (10/1/23). While I hiked a big section of the Cape Wrath Trail in 2019 (and still plan to finish the last few days), I wondered if I’d ever do any significant backpacking in Scotland ever again. So when I received an invitation to join the Challenge and use my deferred placement yesterday, it was easy to decide to go.

Needless to say, I’m excited to be heading back to Scotland and look forward to meeting up with many old friends in the hills or at the banquet at the end of the 15-day Challenge period. That’s always a hell of a party!

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