Skye Trail: Information, Advice and Personal Reflections

Northbound

Start: Broadford

Finish: Rubha Hunish

Distance: 80 miles (129km)

Total ascent: 13,074ft (3985m)

Traditional northbound sections: (Over seven days)

  1. Broadford – Torrin, 12 miles
  2. Torrin – Elgol, 10 miles
  3. Elgol – Sligachan, 11 miles
  4. Sligachan – Portree, 12 miles
  5. Portree – Storr, 9 miles
  6. Storr – Flodigarry, 18 miles
  7. Flodigarry – Rubha Hunish, 8 miles

What was the trail like?

The Skye Trail was the adventure and the challenge it promised to be, taking me through iconic and extraordinarily unique scenery from the deep valley between the Cuillins to needles of The Old Man of Storr. It provided numerous challenges; physical, mental, logistical, and also endless reward.

Skye is an island that has an individual and recognisable geology and was, for a long while, as unpenetrable and as unhospitible as they come. The trail goes many places where cars and traffic absolutely could never reach, on pathless grounds for much of it, and was as unforgiving as it was beautiful.

It was one of those trails where it felt like I’d packed a year into a week, and one of the best I’ve ever done.

How challenging is this trail?

The Skye Trail is a large step up from many UK trails. The physical element, especially when carrying a backpack, is technical and requires a moderate to high level of maintained fitness and no small amount of proportional strength. It requires agility to navigate treacherous cliff-edge pathways, knowledge and preparation for numerous fordings, and the endurance to continue through long, difficult stretches where there are few exit points; most notably the constant large undulations of the exposed Trotternish Ridge as well as the vertigninous and treacherous coastal path between Elgol and Camasunary Bay. And this is just if the weather is moderately kind.

The area is prone to mist, reduced visibility, heavy rain and storms. Navigational confidence is essential, as is the ability to be flexible with your planned route and times. It is a gauntlet, but it is not a race. A breached tent is not unlikely; make a plan for how to deal with it. Even if you are hiking in midsummer with clear skies and a bright sun, you are very exposed on the ridge and the situation can get uncomfortable quickly. A sense of humour is vital.

There are no waymarks, and much of the trail is pathless in open ground. You need to have a high level of self reliance, even if you are going in a group. This is not the UK’s most remote or challenging path, but it is quite a few notches above the vast majority of our long distance trails, and people do die hiking on Skye every year. This is not just another West Highland Way. Do not take it lightly or think you can just wing your preparation.

In regards to planning, you should be able to sufficiently plan ahead for water and resupplies as not every town or village passed through will have a shop, and if you need water on the ridge (and you probably will) it will involve leaving the trail to find it. Public transport is infrequent and mobile signal, especially in the south and at long stretches on the ridge, is unreliable to non existent. If you (understandably) wish to bail back to town in a storm, it might well involve a choice between riding out an unnerving situation or a long, additional walk and an expensive taxi ride.

This is absolutely not a path to attempt as a first solo long distance path. It absolutely is a long distance path for those that already have a few trails under their belt that want to up their game.

How long is the path?

The Skye Trail is around 80 miles long and has 13,074ft (3985m) of ascent.

However, due to it being an unofficial route there are a number of variations that can affect this one way or another. The Harvey Map shows most of the usual variations though, unfortunately, the Cicerone Guidebook does not.

What is accommodation like?

In Scotland it is legal to wildcamp, as long as the Access Code is followed, and many backpackers opt to wildcamp at least a few nights of the trail. There are several official campsites on the island, but only a couple in close proximity to the trail itself; most notably the Torvaig campsite in Portree. The current Cicerone guidebook is not up to date, and many campsites are currently closed indefinitely post-pandemic. Most notable the campsite in Sligachan, though there is good wildcamping just beyond.

There are two bothies – one at Camusanary and one at Rubha Hunish – which are unlocked and free to stay in, as long as the Bothy Code is followed. For those unfamiliar with bothies, understand that they are free but unheated, and have no electrical supply or plumbing. The Rubha Hunish Bothy however, does have a vat where rainwater is collected which can then be tapped and used by visitors.

In regard to hostels, the Flodigarry hostel as marked on the Harvey Map and mentioned in the Cicerone guide will be remaining closed until at least the end of 2021, leaving hostels only in Portree and Broadford along the route. There is a bunkhouse in Sligachan open from the start of March to the end of October. To investigate these further, please look at the Isle of Skye official website and the Independent Hostels Guide.

The vast majority of hikers take a mixed approach to accomodation, with even most wildcampers taking a break in the Torvaig site north of Portree to have a shower, do some laundry and charge devices either before they start the ridge or after finishing it. In normal circumstances, the Flodigarry hostel was a traditional stopping place as well.

If you are hoping to hike directly inn to inn throughout that is unlikely to be possible as the distances between areas with brick and mortar accommodation are often more than a day’s walk. It is possible to spend your nights based in one or two hotels, B&Bs or guesthouses and travel to and from each day but, frankly, it could well end up being a logistical annoyance and a great expense. As public transport is infrequent, after hiking out to the road you would likely mostly have to take taxis to and from your accomodation. The hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses on the island are, more often than not, how do I say? Just a bit fancy with prices to match. Even the unfancy ones have the demand to be able to be expensive. But if you have the money, patience and time and you really, really, really do not want to carry a full pack, then carry on my wayward son.

I, as always, am not a good resource for the positioning and standard of hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs, but I would say to absolutely book in advance in the summer months. Even as I was walking in mid September, every sign up outside every establishment, including the campsites was a ‘no vacancy sign’

Can I wildcamp?

In Scotland, wildcamping is legal as part of Right to Roam and there are many, many suitable places to set up a discreet and lightweight camp. If you are unfamiliar with wildcamping, please be sure to get savvy with the Access Code.

The basic rules for wildcamping, wherever you are, are as follows;

  • Where possible, obtain the landowner’s permission
  • Solo or small groups
  • Pitch up as it is getting dark, leave early
  • Choose a space that is out of the way of main paths, is unobtrusive and discreet.
  • Be aware that where you choose to pitch is not an area of protected growth or where ecological restoration attempts are being carried out.
  • No fires. Definitely no fires sourced from trees in the area.
  • No music
  • Leave no trace. Understand that this encompasses more than just picking up your litter, it means leaving no impactNothing that will cause damage to the ground or surroundings, or disturb the environment (no fires, no music, pitch somewhere clear and unprotected). If you need the toilet, bury your waste and pack everything else out, this includes loo roll and female sanitary items. If this all sounds like effort, no fun and kinda icky to you, please don’t wildcamp.

How easy is it to resupply?

There are standard Coop supermarkets in Broadford and Portree, a small shop in Elgol, and a small convenience store in Staffin, a couple miles down the road from Flodigarry. As long as you are not walking late into the evening, Portree is an easy resupply whilst Staffin and Elgol has far shorter hours. Remember Sunday Trading Laws apply.

That being said, there are also a few steller chippies in Broadford, Portree and Staffin (may I recommend The Chippy in Portree, or, for a good breakfast and an incredible hot chocolate, Cafe Arriba), with other hot and cheap takeaway food also available. There are teashops in Elgol and Torrin and Food Trucks are often parked in the carpark for the Storr and Quiraing as well as in a viewpoint in Torrin along Lock Slapin, but I wouldn’t put all eggs in those baskets or you might end up pretty hungry.

I would advise fans of whiskey to save the visit to Talisker until after the trip – and know that a bottle is a tenner cheaper in the Coop.

How frequent are water sources?

For the most part very good. Mountainous terrain leads to lots of small running streams and flowing water. The exception on the trail is the ridge. It is not unusual for a hiker to require five or six litres of water in a crossing especially if they are camping on the ridge and also need water to cook with. Burns are marked on the map, but rather aim to reach them before your water runs out just incase they are not sufficient.

As Skye has a fair amount of grazing livestock, it is definitely advisable to filter and treat your water.

What guidebook and map do I bring?

This is an unofficial route, and this basically means that as long as you start in either Broadford or Rubha Hunish and end up in the other you’ve hiked the Skye Trail. However, there are a couple of more formal variations, and one that is dominant overall. The Cicerone Guidebook covers the seven day southbound standard, but doesn’t offer much of the variations. Fortunately, the Harvey Map XT40 does. Unfortunately, Harvey Maps rather suffer in their path mapping of the more coastal regions with insufficient amounts of detail. It is all still very usuable for those that make good educated guesses, but it is disappointing. For a northbounder, the Harvey Map is obviously easy to switch around, the guidebook requires more concentration.

That being said, having the two together means it would be very hard to put a foot wrong. There is excellent route description in the Cicerone book, and plentiful information about the route in a small, easily carried, light book that is perfect for working with. Cicerone keeps their high standard yet again.

I had also downloaded the daily routes from WalkHighlands onto my GPS device. Whilst I used these mainly for confirmation rather than to follow, the path appears to hold true.

How do I get there?

I know. You’re looking at this hoping I’m going to say that there’s a super secret, ultra fast, really cheap bullet train that speeds the length of the country all the way up and then pops over the Sound of Sleat to deposit you in Broadford. Sadly, there isn’t. I know. I was bright and hopeful like you once too.

If you can’t or don’t want to drive, there are a few options:

From Inverness, you can get the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh – hailed as one of the most scenic train routes in the country. The Kyle Line train leaves ten minutes after the Inverness train gets in, though a two hour wait before the 20 minute bus from the Kyle might prompt you to just start walking over (the walk takes about two and a half hours)

If you’re less interested in the scenic route, you can just take a Citylink bus from Inverness straight to Broadford. The bus leaves two hours and a half hours after the Inverness train comes in. This will also take about two hours and fifteen minutes.

Having taken both the train and the bus route, I would say go for the bus. It is slightly cheaper, but honestly just as scenic. It seems the Kyle Line is prone to cancellations and delays and the trains themselves are pretty old and the windows grimy making appreciating the route not as clear as you may like.

The next option involves getting to Glasgow and, from Glasgow, getting a Citylink bus along the width of Scotland to the island itself. The bus will take seven hours, and there are three a day so click the link above and plan accordingly.

Now, if you really, really want to go ‘over the sea to Skye’, from Glasgow take the five hour train to Mallaig, and from the ferry port get the CalMac ferry to Armadale (30 minutes) and a bus onwards.

So, I’m sorry, there’s no bullet train and no super cheap option (A return for me from Manchester to Inverness was £138 with an additional £38 for a return ticket from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh), but hopefully you feel more informed. If you ever do find that secret train, please spill me that tea.

What other reports would I recommend?

Due to the more challenging nature of the Skye Trail, there are a generous number of thoughtful and thorough reports made by experienced and well respected hikers. This includes Australian Cam ‘Swami’ Honan on The Hiking Life. Word to the wise, Cam is a beast – he has hiked over 60,000 miles in 61 countries and his reports are incredibly professional and cover exactly what most of us would need or want to know (and a few things we didn’t know we needed). His competence is going to be far beyond what even an ordinarily proficient hiker/backpacker’s might be, Keep the source in mind. Cam backpacked the trail northbound in five days, taking the Bad Step/Loch Coruisk path to Portree and several side quests, wildcamping throughout with the final night at the Rubha Hunish bothy.

Despite Cam’s literal world of adventures, he remains fascinated by the smaller things and is incredibly humble. His own recommendation is the report from Alex Roddie, writer for The Great Outdoors magazine and general all-round British adventureman. Alex’s report is less a bullet point of facts and need to knows and involves much more storytelling for those of us, like myself, who appreciate the personal experience. Alex and his brother hiked the trail in six days, via the Bad Step/Loch Coruisk path and, I believe, wildcamped on all nights.

Moving on from the blogs to the vlogs. I am not usually one for researching paths via YouTube – it becomes a faff trying to get past the many videos featuring dramatic music and drone shots of the vlogger looking contemplative on outcrops and endless, endless, incredibly boring takes of the vlogger walking past their own positioned camera. The types of video that would make anyone appear epic, but are far more about the hiker than the hike. I’m sure their mums love these media offerings and are very proud, but they’re pretty damn useless for the rest of us.

That being said, there is a man who absolutely nails what someone (or at least someone like me) wants from these videos. Scotsman John from Hounds of Howgate hikes with his amazing dog Moss throughout Scotland and his set of videos on the Skye Trail, whilst long, are brilliant, thorough, funny, simple to watch and engaging. He constantly refers to the landscape in context to what is shown on the Harvey Map and what is written in the Cicerone guidebook. In each video he reports as he walks that day, and then finishes with going over the map and explaining what it shows, what it doesn’t, and what we should be aware of. My own Harvey Map was covered in notes from watching his videos. John and Moss backpacked the Skye Trail southbound in midsummer over seven days, wildcamping on three nights, and booking two nights at the Torvaig campsite and a couple more at other campsites (the Flodigarry hostel campsite that is not currently open). I also now have a lowkey crush.

No list of reports on a Scottish Trail would be complete without linking to WalkHighlands which goes over every aspect of the trail in detail and includes reports from its readers. You can also download GPX routes and waypoints from the site.

LDWA does, of course, give its penny’s worth, but there is nothing there that is covered better than anywhere else. Members have access to their GPX and other GPS files but, having downloaded these initially, I’ll warn you that it a bit iffy and not quite complete. I would recommend the WalkHighlands downloads far more strongly.

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