Backpacking Across Scotland: The TGO Challenge is more than just walking

The TGO Challenge is a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast backpacking adventure. In essence, it is about experiencing the remote parts of Scotland you can only reach by foot. As it turns out, it is also an event where lasting friendships are made.

For the 2019 Challenge, komoot joined forces with The Great Outdoors magazine for the event. Here we chat with two participants who met on the Challenge and have been friends ever since. 

Sue and Ali tell us about how they met, as well as what backpacking means to them…

How did you get into backpacking?

Ali: I was introduced to backpacking by my Dad. After many holidays static camping and walking hills (He took me up Scafell Pike, Snowden and Ben Nevis by the age of 8) we started backpacking in my early teens walking the Cotswold Way and Two Moors Way. A TV film starring Joss Ackland as an elderly man walking Land’s End to John o’Groats inspired me and in 1990 I did it in a gap between jobs. This was before any LEJoG guide had been written so I had to plan my own route and that really gave me the backpacking bug. 

Sue: My first experience of backpacking was a trip to the Lake District in my late teens and I never looked back. It is something innate in me. I too had a long-held desire to walk a LEJoG but it was 2010 before I got the chance to do mine.

What is your favorite thing about heading into the wilderness with a backpack and tent?

Ali: A difficult question to answer – can we say everything?! The main thing for both of us is being able to be in remote places we couldn’t access on a day walk. There is nothing better than setting up your tiny home at a high camp, eating your tea while admiring a stunning view and waking up to a glorious sunrise.  

But we’re happy in bad weather too! It can be quite hypnotic listening to the sound of rain on the flysheet while you are snuggled in your sleeping bag. At the very least there is a sense of achievement after a successful camp in bad conditions even if some moments are more pleasurable in retrospect than they are at the time!

It often lets us climb hills before most people are awake. We once climbed through morning cloud on remote Ben Alder to be treated to a cloud inversion on the summit well before 08:00. Sitting in the sunshine watching peaks poke through the cloud as it descended is something neither of us will forget. 

The simplicity of life on the trail is also a big part of backpacking. It is only when you are carrying your home on your back that you realize how much “stuff” you don’t need! The simple routine of packing up and walking to your next home is very satisfying. You tend to walk at a slower speed and have more time to play with so there is more freedom to take in your surroundings. 

Can you share your personal TGO story? How did you first get involved? Why did you keep returning?

Sue: I first participated in 1982 on the third Challenge so I have been involved for over 3 decades. I had a break in the late ’80s and early ‘90s when I cycled competitively but have entered regularly again since 1999.

Ali: My Dad showed me write-ups of the first Challenge in 1980 but at the time I was too young to participate. University and family life got in the way for many years and I had forgotten about it until I picked up a copy of TGO in 1999. My eldest child’s birthday is during the event so it took some negotiation to be able to participate in 2000 and I have only ever been able to come along on alternate years. 

There are many reasons why we, like over half of first-time Challengers, returned. The capacity to plan and walk a different route each year has a lot to do with it. However, the main factor is the sense of camaraderie. You meet so many people from all walks of life but you all have just one simple common aim – to reach the East Coast. The TGO Challenge is purposefully non-competitive and this engenders a great sense of friendship. It might sound corny but it really is a big family!

Can you tell us about how you two met while backpacking the TGO Challenge?

Ali: The story of how we became friends will be echoed by many other Challengers – a chance encounter leading to a long-standing friendship. We met quite by chance at a campsite in Tummel Bridge in 2004. Both of us were ahead of schedule so neither of us should have been there! We walked together the next day and met up, again by chance, a few days later. We kept in touch and planned a few days together two years later – then we decided to walk most of Sue’s 10th crossing together in 2008. 

On our next TGO Challenge, we walked the whole thing together. Halfway through we stayed in a B&B that was a little run down and planning to sell up. It sowed a seed in both our minds and within a few days we had even decided the doorknobs needed changing! It was all fanciful of course but the seed of a joint venture germinated and six months later we discovered we had both looked at the house online. Our husbands, surprisingly, didn’t take much persuading. We viewed the B&B and realized it wouldn’t work for us but when the hostel came up a few years later we finally made that dream a reality by buying Newtonmore Hostel in 2012. 

Initially, Sue and her husband Neil ran it with me providing holiday cover, until my family and I moved up in 2014. Despite 7 years in business, we are still friends! 

We think we are the only business to have come out of a Challenge meeting but there are many more long-term friendships and there have been quite a few weddings – including one at the Challenge dinner in 2016 with both bride and groom wearing Challenge T-shirts!

Obviously, the TGO Challenge provides a sense of community. Do you find there are similar mental health benefits/community spirit with ‘regular’ backpacking?

Ali: For many backpacking is a welcome break from the stresses and strains of daily life but for a significant minority those trips are an important part of maintaining their mental wellbeing while they deal with difficult home lives or physical or mental health problems. 

Of course, chance encounters and friendships can form on any backpacking adventure but are more likely when backpackers are around at the same time or in significant numbers. We know similar friendships and communities form around walks such as the Camino de Santiago and the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. What makes the Challenge slightly different is that people come back year after year helping to turn those encounters into longstanding friendships.

The mental health benefits don’t just come from the community though. We feel the solitude is equally important and is often underrated. Traveling alone through a wild and beautiful place gives you the time to find out what really matters to you. You don’t need to enter the TGO Challenge to get that “headspace”. However, it is the mixing and matching of periods of solitude and encounters with other like-minded people that makes the Challenge so special.

See the route that Sue and Ali walked in 2019 here and keep an eye on The Great Outdoors website for announcements about the 2020 event.

Photos © Ali Ogden