Southern Upland Way – Portpatrick to Beattock

I planned to walk the Southern Upland Way unsupported over Easter this year. It was the first time I had managed to go lightweight with my pack, and I intended to wild camp throughout. I set out with Inca, my black labrador, on 17th March and left the way 8 days later at Beattock as she was struggling with the distance and I had a bug I couldn’t shake off. We had walked somewhere between 130 and 150 miles, camped wild 6 nights and spent the final one in a bothy.

This is the story of those 8 days. We’ll be back to Beattock later in the year to finish the remaining miles through to Cockburnspath and Dunbar.

Preparation

I had planned days of 18 miles walking each day which generally took between 10-12 hours to complete. Some going is particularly rough, often boggy, and constant undulation would make longer distances hard work.

Choosing to do this in March has benefits and disadvantages. There are around 12 hours of daylight, changeable weather, and nighttime temperatures just above freezing. Cooler nights mean that I’m less inclined to potter around camp as keeping moving is the easiest way to stay warm. A lot of livestock arrives at the start of Spring for grazing so you are less likely to have difficulties with cattle until around April. I’m lucky that Inca doesn’t bother livestock but it’s something to consider if you are walking with a dog.

Maps

I decided to take digital instead of paper maps. I know this causes some controversy and I’ll explain my reasons. I don’t advocate what others should or shouldn’t do – I simply know what works for me.

For the past five years I have navigated entirely using digital maps on my phone using the OutdoorsGPS app and previously Memory Map. The OutdoorsGPS app enables me to plan routes online using full 1:50000 and 1:25000 Ordnance Survey maps and download them straight to my phone. It has a £10 annual subscription, and I rented the digital 1:25000 and 1:50000  maps I needed for under £10 for 30 days. To purchase the 13 1:25000 paper maps I would have needed would cost around £120 (and weigh around 1.5kg).

This strategy dictates I have to have the means to keep my phone charged and dry. I have an iPhone 6 Plus and the OutdoorsGPS app will run ok in flight mode. A typical day using it to navigate drains the battery around 40%. A 10000 mAh battery pack will charge it around 4 times, and I carry an 11W solar panel to top up the battery pack.

I don’t agree that 1:50000 maps are suitable for the Southern Upland Way. Whilst the route is waymarked, some of these are either missing or distant particularly in remote areas. The remote parts are infrequently walked, so you may be walking through land that livestock roam wondering whether you are following the path or a sheep track. The 1:25000 maps show boundaries and fences; and these can be really helpful for navigation.

The distinct advantage of using the digital map in this way is that I can pull my phone out of my pocket and within a couple of seconds see exactly where I am on whichever scale of map is most useful. You cannot do this as easily or reliably with a paper map, and the digital map also contains your route, so you know exactly how much progress you are making or how far you have to go. I also carry and use a compass.

Food

There are very few options to resupply on this part of the Southern Upland Way. Once you leave Stranraer, your next shop (and pub) is in New Luce which requires a small diversion from the way. After New Luce, there is a small shop and pub in St Johns Town of Dalry, and then nothing until you reach Sanquhar. There is a pub in Wanlockhead and then nothing until you reach Beattock and divert into Moffat. I would grab fresh fruit and/or veg at every opportunity.

I was carrying around 6kg of food for 6 days at the start, and sent a parcel ahead to Sanquhar using CollectPlus (they keep it for 10 days once it’s arrived). You could also send to the Post Office in St John’s Town of Dalry using ParcelForce although that’s a little more expensive.

I decided not to cook to save weight and time. I missed a warm meal at night and probably wouldn’t do this again.

I took Katadyn MicroPur tablets to treat water and these worked fine. There is no shortage of water. Had I been more sure it wouldn’t freeze I would have gone with my Sawyer instead as that doesn’t mess with the flavour of the water.

Shelter and Sleeping

I took a 4 season down sleeping bag that weighs 1.2kg. I took my MLD Trailstar and inner net, although a bivy bag would have been more useful (I don’t yet own one). The Trailstar worked superbly, pitches in a couple of minutes and weighs just over 1kg with pegs.

Many have said it before, but the insulating properties of the Neolite xTherm mat are unmatched, and it comes in at around 450g. Even on the cooler nights I slept very warm.

On my first night at Knockquhassen there was a heavy mist and my sleeping bag became damp. It took me a couple of days to work out that if I threw half of it outside my pack whilst I was walking it would dry out in the breeze.

Pack and Weight

I traded my two Osprey packs in for a Gossamer Gear Mariposa over the Christmas break. It’s taken me a while to get the best use out of the Mariposa but on this trip it was superb. There is a direct weight saving in the pack of 1.3kg, and my pack weight before food and water was 8.4kg.

The outside pocket on the Mariposa is cavernous. I learned to stuff everything I needed during the day into the outside pocket and the rest in the main pack. The load lifters adjust well and with a full pack of around 14kg the weight settled nicely on my hips.

Wild Camping

Others have written that there are few places suitable for wild camping on the Southern Upland Way. I don’t agree with this and had no difficulty in finding great pitches for the Trailstar. You are less likely to find many pitches next to a good water source, so be prepared to carry water to camp.

Fitness

Neither me nor the dog were really fit enough in hindsight. I think I could have continued but Inca refused to get moving on the morning we decided to head home – which is completely out of character for her. A couple of days back and she is fine, but I don’t think she would have managed any further.

I developed a bug on day 6 that I couldn’t shake. When I got home I realised I had lost 6kg in 8 days so I suspect this was down to being significantly undernourished.

And Finally …

This is the longest walk I have completed. It’s a serious undertaking and the remoteness of some stretches make good planning essential. But the ever changing landscape, natural beauty and frequent route finding added considerable interest and enjoyment.

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