Backpacking Over Scaraben and Morven

Between Dunbeath and Kildonan lies a vast area of rough ground. The map’s lack of paths promises a fair helping of collarwork but the traverse is worth the effort. Geology, conglomerates and quartzite over sandstone, creates hills which rise above a low, boggy floor with nothing to block views. I could see from the Cairngorms to Assynt and from the Moray Firth to the North Atlantic. The views emphasised the remoteness of the hills I climbed. Morven’s summit is 10 taxing miles from the train home. You might see day walkers who have driven to Braemore. Descend the west flank of Morven, however, and you are on your own.

Public transport can be a bit iffy in the Northern Highlands. Stagecoach haven’t always run the buses their timetable says they will run and my journey home was entertaining. On the last day of April, the bus did what it was supposed to do, dropping me at Dunbeath for a gentle six mile stroll along the lane to Braemore. This is one road I was able to enjoy. Delightful weather and long, moorland views.

The bridge at 0862096 exists and could have shortened my route to Scaraben, with some fence crossing. I preferred to walk on to the end of the road for the stone bridge over the Berriedale Water. Braemore is pretty and there is a stile giving access to the open hillside, which was very wet till it steepened for the final push to the ridge.

Much of Scotland was visible from East Scaraben. I made the mistake of continuing with just a short sleeved base layer under my windproof for the walk to the main summit and was very cold because of the wind by the time I reached the shelter around Scaraben’s trig point. I continued after food and dressing properly.

During the descent from Scaraben’s third, 608 summit, weariness and a realization that the vegetation was unsuitable for camping set in. Scanning the slopes of Smean, I spotted two green patches in amongst the brown mix of heather and tussocky grass. One was clearly too sloping and the vivid green of the other, smaller patch could have meant wet Sphagnum. I investigated and found a water source and a pleasant lawn. Home for the night.

A heavy dew settled during the night and froze before dawn. The early sun dried my Duomid while I breakfasted but the day was dulled by overcast before I set out for Maiden Pap. Conglomerate buttresses make the hill look difficult from a distance. It isn’t.

Smean’s summit gave an easy scramble. Then it was time for the steep, 400 metre ascent of Morven. A path simplifies the ascent through heather and boulder scree.

My many mentions of long views might be getting tedious but the terrain creates them. St John’s Head on Orkney stood out. Foinaven and some hills, probably the Dearg group near Ullapool, we’re visible through the haze. To the south, things were murkier as the bad weather forecast by London-based weather people edged a little closer. As the cold wind was no longer being countered by sunshine, I decided to head over Cnoc an Eireannaich and down the Kildonan Burn to the train.

Looking back, Morven’s conglomerate, stood out from the rounder, quartzite hills I had climbed. The ridge from Small Mount westward gave the easiest walking surface since leaving the road the day before. The map gives Cnoc an Eireannaich a height of 517 (518). Arrival at the summit showed a cairn which was higher than the trig point.

The wind was so strong, the phone vibrated as I tried to photograph the map height’s explanation. I was amazed the shot came out and amazed again a minute later when I put up a bird of prey. “That’s big,” was my first thought. I spent the next 10 minutes persuading myself that I hadn’t got close to a golden eagle but a sighting of a buzzard, with white, wrist patches, later, when I was down in Kildonan gave a definitive answer. The buzzard was much more slender than the bird I disturbed. So, it was an eagle.

The Kildonan Burn was enjoyable initially but then palled as I passed several dead deer, quite a few in a sheepfold at 933254. Long streamers of algae made the water look non-potable, a shame as I was dehydrated. A side stream was cleaner so I stopped for a brew. Reinvigorated, I pressed on down to the Field of Gold. Just before the gold workings is a steep sided gorge, with gorse handily placed to catch anyone who tumbles from the airy sheep tracks.

At the station, lights came on shortly before the train was due, which seemed a promising sign. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, an engineering train came from the wrong direction and stopped to tell me, the only passenger waiting, that the passenger train was running 50 minutes late. A motor had broken so the train had returned to Inverness for a replacement unit. Keeping me informed was a nice touch and the train did eventually get me home.


Very briefly, ViewRanger

ViewRanger is a big, complicated app which links to a confusing website. Luckily, the mapping provides plenty of value on its own. There is no need to take any notice of all the social media nonsense. So, no mention of POIs and geocaching here. Instead, I’m using ViewRanger to provide authoritative measurements of the distance I ran while assessing two other apps and two devices.

ViewRanger’s endless 1:25,000 scrolling is brilliant for route planning and, in the field, the app is also useful for detail, such as putting names to coastal rock features.  I must look out for the Scholl next time I’m aiming for Noss Head.


Withings Go relies on accelerometers and is claiming that today’s run was 3.2 km (2 miles) further than ViewRanger states. However, ViewRanger explains what GPS readings it has recorded – 387 in 10.5 km, which is one every 27 metres – and so it’s distance is far more likely to be reliable (albeit an underestimate as I wasn’t running in straight lines).


For the record, these are the distances claimed by each of the apps for today’s cross country run.

ViewRanger: 10.5 km

ISmoothRun: 11.32 km

Wahoo RunFit: 11.01 km

Withings app: 13.71 km

Apple Health: 10.9 km

The Withings Go’s accelerometers can distinguish between a fast walk and a slow run but appear unable to cope with a stride shortened by tussocks and bogs, hence the inaccuracy of the Withings app.

Note that ViewRanger has imported the heart rate and paces from Apple Health. Health says I took 12223 paces during my run whereas the Withings app has only recorded 12112 paces so far today. It seems wrist accelerometers and accelerometers in a chest pocket record movements differently.

Tracking a run

In a year’s time, I will be able to claim to have been enjoying activities in the great outdoors for half a century. Although I am no longer a member of Walton Chasers Orienteering Club, my navigational skills have reached such a high level that the idea of needing a GPS is silly. I just don’t.

So, a GPS is unnecessary but one thing has driven me to purchasing maps for the ViewRanger app – I bloody hate counting contour lines. Having distance travelled and ascent undertaken sorted out for me is a delight.

Other apps offer other metrics. An inexpensive Withings Go pedometer counts my paces and the time spent swimming. It also offers a rough assessment of my sleep via a fairly good app.

A cheap but limited Wahoo heart rate monitor helps me stick to an 80/20 running regime. In theory, at least, 80% of my running is at an easy pace with rest being quite a bit quicker. The aim is to include both quantity and quality for maximum progress. Wahoo’s app for displaying data from the heart rate monitor is pretty basic so the iSmoothRun app also helps track my workouts.

Some of these apps are able to use weight readings from a Lumsing electronic scale, which I found on Amazon for a third of its usual price. The apps use the latest weight measurement to guess at the number of Calories burnt during exercise. The calculated value is one I only take seriously if it justifies a pig out. The Lumsing’s display shows weight. To discover percentage body fat the iWellness app is needed. I thoroughly dislike this app.

You get what you pay for. ViewRanger has proved expensive because I gave in to the temptation to buy 1:25,000 maps for the whole country. Regrets – none at all because I love maps and ViewRanger is fairly usable. The pedometer, heart rate monitor and weighing scale, by contrast, were relatively cheap and are OK rather than good. Good enough? For me, yes, although there are features I miss.

I am going to compare these devices and apps in the hope that you will gain sufficient information to be able to decide whether the cut price approach, in general, and these items, in particular, are of any use for the things you do. A daft number of screen shots will be needed, which is a good reason for splitting this review into parts.

The John o’Groats Trail

Volunteers are constructing a trail along the coast from Inverness to John o’Groats. The Trail will allow End to End hikers to avoid road walking in Caithness as well as opening up spectacular scenery to those of us with lesser ambitions.

The Trail is not a path. Where landowners have given permission, stiles are being built but the underfoot conditions offer slow going. Tussocky vegetation and cows with calves in summer mean that the Trail is best undertaken in early Spring. March, when days start to lengthen, might be best.

Last weekend, I hiked the final two stages, from John o’Groats back to Wick, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. My first wildcamp of the year also took place.

John o’Groats was much nicer than I remembered and surprisingly busy for April. Several other groups were hiking towards Duncansby Head and, at the Bay of Sannick, a man was flying a drone. He was photographing a seal from a respectful distance but the seal was fascinated by the drone and craned its neck for a better view.

Once past the Stacks, I left other walkers behind and headed along a path through heather over the Hill of Crogodale to Skirza. A road up from the quarry at Skippie Geo offered an alternative to the Trail. I’m not entirely convinced that my conscientious line to Thistly Hill was rewarded. To be honest, the Haven of Skirza was a bit of a let down.

The lovely sands of Freswick Bay soon restored my spirits. Then the scramble by the mill at Freswick Mains gave a fun introduction to the next stretch of cliff, which has more than it’s fair share of ruined castles and brochs. It’s not a stretch to rush, which is a good job, because you can’t. Even in Spring, the vegetation makes walking a slow process. In fact, at Bucholly Castle, I was quite tired and gave some thought to pitching.

Just 9 miles in, I couldn’t bring myself to stop. As the best pitches were not quite flat, not quite dry and not quite out of sight, pressing on was the best option. A pork pie and a cinnamon bagel gave me the energy to continue.

After a messy corner next to a pig farm, the Trail eased and was very pleasant in front of the houses at Auckengill. This harbour, unlike Skirza’s, is a visual treat and, fanfare, there is a short path along to the Mervyn Tower monument and broch. More slow going near the quiet, main road led to the spectacular, cliff top ruins of Keiss Castle.

After two more brochs, I reached Keiss harbour, with its big, stone breakwaters and pretty, little boats. The old warehouse appears to be flats now. I didn’t look closely. Instead, I climbed the stairs up to the village green and made a complete hash of finding the path back to the beach. As my route was dreadful, I won’t describe it.

My excuse for the error was concern about the River of Wester. Tide out – it’s ankle deep. Tide in – chest deep. The tide had turned so, once on firm sand, I motored along Sinclair Bay. The bay is spectacular and popular. Walkers could be seen in small groups right along the 3 miles of sand. I hurried past all of them and paddled straight through the river without needing to roll up my trousers.

Wick golf course looks a dream campsite and the clubhouse was closed but I had a sweeter, wilder pitch in mind so on I went. Through a field with sheep that followed me, by two camper vans at the end of a long, dirt track, past the very posh Ackergill Tower and into Ackergillshore via a children’s playground.

The light was fading fast as I finally pitched on perfect turf above the silver sand of a bay popular with eiders. ViewRanger claimed my 32km jaunt had included 1400 metres of climbing even though the Trail had never taken me above 80 metres. I slept well.

Next morning, my early start was rewarded with birdsong, notably from larks on land and eiders off shore. A short walk brought me to Girnigoe Castle and the best bit of the walk, around Noss Head. Numerous black guillemots added their squeaky whistle to the continuing bird chorus. Beyond the lighthouse, with all of the last stretch in view, I stopped for a second breakfast. While I enjoyed my final mini pie and bagel, a fishing boat clanked close by as a crab pot was lifted.

The alarm calls of oystercatchers and herring gulls around me suggested the birds here are more familiar with fishermen than with walkers. I hope the John o’Groats Trail encourages more walkers to enjoy this glorious coastline. My weekend hike was over but I’m giving serious thought to doing the entire Trail next year because the bits I’ve seen are excellent.

The Trail has its own website and WalkHighlands also has a complete description of the route. However, the most inspirational resource I’ve found is the Facebook page of Gavin Paul Bird. His Caithness Images, with drone footage of the Trail, are utterly seductive.

Filming with an iPhone 7 Plus


Apart from enjoying a lovely morning, the aim of today’s hike was to find out how well an iPhone 7 Plus and a Gorillapod work together as a video filming set up for backpacking.  Sadly, I can’t show you the results as this blog doesn’t accept video so you’ll have to take my word for the acceptability of the product.  It’s plenty good enough for me and would look fine on YouTube.


However, my interest lies in a set up for backpacking and there is a problem.  Filming on a cold day absolutely demolishes the charge in the battery.  Viewranger claims I was out for 2 minutes under 4 hours.  Filming occupied the first 3 hours and, in that time, the battery charge dropped from 100% to 21%.  For the walk home, I put the phone inside my jumper and listened to a podcast.  For this leg of the walk, the charge dropped from 21% to 20%.  So, for backpacking, the iPhone and Gorillapod set up would need to be used sparingly even though my Anker battery pack is pretty huge.


The Gorillapod is part of the problem.  It’s head is stiff and not easy to deploy.  Getting the tripod out of a rucksack, attaching it to the phone and setting it up would be tedious enough to keep me from shooting video except when highly motivated.  Today, I kept the iPhone locked into the Gorillapod and held the phone in my hand.  The legs of the tripod lay along my forearm.  This set up was convenient and very easy to use but exposed the phone (and my hand) to the cold wind.  A permanently attached tripod could also be a problem if I chose to take a side trip up Suilven on my next hike.


I’m hoping my next trip will take no more than 5 days between power sockets.  Even so, discipline will be crucial.  Using my iPhone, a Gorillapod and an Anker power pack will get me the results I want so, failing a lottery win, that’s what I’ll be taking.


Aquapac phone case

Using my hugely expensive new phone as a camera when near cliffs gives me the willies. The naked phone is slippery, if gorgeous, and the Apple leather case only slightly more grippy.

Today, I tried using the phone inside an Aquapac case. Firstly, I found that Touch ID wouldn’t work. I also discovered that the bare phone sticks to Aquapac’s plastic but, when in the leather case, it slides in and out quite easily.

During a walk, I need a phone case which helps to stop me from dropping the phone at all, let alone over cliffs. Aquapac’s lanyard does exactly that. I had the phone in my top pocket with the lanyard round my neck. The lanyard was unnoticeable during my 4 hour walk. Obviously, I’d be wary of putting the lanyard round my neck in a situation where it might catch but today’s walk was an easy one.

The last question concerns photos. Can a decent shot be taken through the plastic case? Here is some silica-based evidence – sunlight rocks and a cropped photo of an engraved door panel.

Not too bad, I think.  My thanks go to Ian Sommerville at Daunerin’ Aboot for advising me to try the Aquapac case.  Sadly, in this day and age, I have to mention that I paid for the case with my own money.  No one never gives me nowt!

Kale crisps

Two powerful hikers who eat more interestingly than most when backpacking are Aria Zoner and Liz Thomas. Both have mentioned kale crisps as a source of veggies for wild camps. I like kale and miss green vegetables when walking from one remote pitch to the next so I decided to give kale crisps a try.

The recipe is really simple but I’m not going to provide it here. After eating half of my test batch, I experienced nasty, sulphurous belching. I dread to think what the farts are going to be like. A recipe strictly for wilderness walks, I think.

Ben Macdui – the Munro for families


Ben Macdui used to be a hill with a reputation.  Its distance from roads meant that any problems could become serious.  Now, the funicular on Cairngorm and the easy mountain biking approach from the south have opened the summit up to families – three on my visit.  Its not only the hill which has become tamer.  One of the mums chatted to me, which suggests solitary men in their sixties don’t look as scary as they did before their few remaining tufts of hair turned grey.

I had started the day at Bob Scott’s Bothy and finished under my Trailstar in Coire an Lochain.  The formally permanent snow patch has gone but the coire is now home to large numbers of ptarmigan.  Next morning, I hiked down to the ski centre and arrived just in time to use my free bus pass for the ride down to Aviemore.







Some of the books currently available on the subject of dieting are very good indeed. Books written by paleo dieters and also by committed vegans deserve praise, in my opinion. Of course, if books on low carb and on low fat dieting are both of a high standard, reading them could be confusing for someone who just wants to be healthy and a little lighter.

So, to start with, here is some simple guidance. The right diet for you is

  • One you can stick with
  • Promotes big, easy poos

Not so difficult after all, is it! Recent research from Belgium, which was corroborated by Dutch scientists, found that big, easy poos are a characteristic of a rich and varied community of gut microorganisms. You probably want a healthy community of gut bugs if even half of the claims currently being made on their behalf is true.

My own preference is for a whole food diet similar to the Mediterranean diet recommended by the NHS. However, I have enjoyed reading both of these.

  • The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney
  • How Not to Die by Michael Greger

They come from opposing viewpoints and both manage swipes at the other while promoting their own preferred diet.

As a neutral, I can’t help noticing that the vegans use the latest research when explaining the benefits of a plant-based diet but then use older research when discussing the opposition. That older research lumps grass-fed meat and beef broth enthusiasts in with the pie and chips brigade, which has the effect of making saturated fats look bad.

But the paleo and primal enthusiasts are equally guilty. They, too, use the latest findings for justifying their own choices but use ancient research which groups cake, biscuit and fizzy drink guzzling in with the kind of diet for athletes described in Matt Fitzgerald’s book.

Bang their heads together and you might get some sense out of them. Crucially, both camps are down on refined foods, which is why both kinds of diet, vegan and paleo, can work for the people who adopt them.

Despite all of the claims of bad advice from the medical community, damning saturated fats, the average person has not cut back on fats. Modern diets are high energy diets, rich in both fats and carbs. If we worked the way Superhod used to work or if we tried to backpack over all of the Munros, we could get away with eating a high energy diet, but we don’t and that is why so many of us now have Type 2 diabetes.

For sitting, whether in a car, at a desk or in front of the TV, we need a low energy diet which fills us up and that is where whole foods come in. Sugars, starches and fats are OK when encased in cellulose cell walls. We can’t digest the cellulose but our gut bugs can. They love the stuff and, at least until they digest it, the cellulose makes us feel full.

There is no end to the cake or pie, both sweet and savoury, that I can eat but apples and baked potatoes soon fill me up. Meaty diets also tend to promote satiety but the best diet ever measured for quelling hunger pangs was a super high fibre diet, which involved eating 3kg of vegetables, berries and nuts a day. Five hundred grams of cabbage as part of lunch is a little more than I could manage.

One other benefit of eating dietary fibre lies in the slowing down of absorption of glucose into the blood. If glucose levels stay within homeostatic limits, no new insulin needs producing. As insulin promotes weight gain, keeping its level constant is good for those of us who are already big enough.

Our taste buds can soon get used to a diet which contains very little refined sugar. When I was 14, nearly half a century ago, my mother announced that we were all giving up sugar in our tea. Getting used to tea without sugar took roughly ten days. Now, I cannot stand tea with sugar in it.

Life without sweets or cakes is also achievable and results in the discovery of sweetness in all sorts of natural foods, for example, ordinary potatoes. Taste buds recalibrate fairly quickly, although discipline is needed during the transition.

If you can make that breakthrough, whichever diet you opt for will work. Saturated fats may not be the danger still claimed by some and gluten definitely isn’t for the vast majority of the population but John Yudkin was right. Refined sugar is pure, white and deadly. Avoid!

Food for Thought

In a recent Guardian article, Martin Robbins wrote about weighing himself hourly for three days.  The article is well worth reading.  This paragraph caught my eye.

“The first surprise was just the sheer amount of mass involved. In three-and-a-bit days I consumed a massive 14.86kgs of stuff – about 33lbs. That was made up of 3.58kgs of food and 11.28kgs of drink (including 700 grams of a nice red). That’s way, way, way higher than I expected.”

That mass is roughly what my rucksack would weigh in total, including a tent and a stove, at the start of a six day hike without resupply.  Assuming I consume a similar mass when at home, two conclusions are obvious.  First, an awful lot of a backpacker’s daily consumption comes out of streams.  My second conclusion is that my lighter, backpacking diet is so different from what I eat at home that I really should treat myself to more, better, restaurant meals when I hit town.