Hundreds of backpackers have headed to the west coast of Scotland to attempt the TGO Challenge. It’s about to begin – but what is it?
Some wild creatures migrate north; others migrate south. Challengers migrate east.
What is it, and why is it unique?
The TGO Challenge is a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast backpacking adventure. Established in 1980 – only two years after the first issue of The Great Outdoors – it has earned a unique place in the UK’s long-distance walking tradition.
The idea is simple: to hike from the west coast of Scotland to the east over a fortnight, taking in some of the best wild land the Highlands have to offer. The essence of the Challenge is adventure and self-sufficiency. You’ll have to cover a decent mileage every day, you’ll be wild camping, and carrying several days’ worth of food in addition to your walking and camping gear.
The Challenge is unique. While it is an organised backpacking event, the route choice is up to you (as is the starting point, although the finish is Montrose for everyone). This makes it different from most other organised backpacking events, and it also means that no two Challenges are alike!
While your route could be unique to you, many people appreciate the social aspect of the Challenge. It’s permitted to hike in groups of up to four, and many arrange to meet up with friends for shorter sections. At the end of the trail, the social event in Montrose has attained legendary stature. Many say that the camaraderie of the Challenge is a big factor bringing them back year after year. Friendships, relationships and even marriages have all been forged on the TGO Challenge.
When does it take place?
The TGO Challenge takes place every May – a time of year that usually offers a good balance between weather, snow and midges. In 2018, it’s May 11-25.
So is it a race?
No, it isn’t a race! The only restriction is that you must have arrived in Montrose by the finishing date for your Challenge to quality. There are no prizes.
How do I enter?
It’s too late for this year, but applications for the next Challenge will open in September – look out for an announcement in The Great Outdoors. Places are limited to no more than about 3-400 (precise details vary from year to year). Applicants are gauged based on their prior backpacking experience, and submitted routes are vetted by the Challenge coordinators. The deadline for submitting your route is usually in January or February.
There is a fee to enter; for 2018, the fee was £55 per person. Aspirant Challengers must be over 18, although there is no upper age limit.
How do I plan my route?
While the Challenge vetting team can provide advice to help you plan a safe and achievable route, the route itself is up to you. This is part of the Challenge’s appeal – it’s very much your own adventure. Routes vary from low-level walks through the glens to difficult courses enchaining multiple Munros. Most Challenges will include some low-level and some higher-level walking. For your first time, it’s often recommended that you don’t try to bite off more than you can chew – you can always tick off that multi-Munro ridge on your next crossing…
What skills do I need?
As a lengthy, self-supported route covering much wild country, it’s advisable that aspirant Challengers should have experience of hillwalking, backpacking and wild camping, preferably in Scotland. If in doubt, the Challenge vetters are happy to advise you on ways to build up your experience and confidence before the event.
And what about gear?
There is no set kit list for the Challenge; as an event for experienced backpackers, gear selection is up to the walker. However, the coordinators recommend that all Challengers pack the following items:
- Tent or suitable shelter
- Sleeping bag
- Cooking equipment
- Waterproof and windproof clothing
- Emergency rations for at least one day
- Maps, compass and whistle for each walker
- If snowy conditions persist on your route, ice axe, crampons, and the requisite skills
Due to the emphasis on self-sufficiency, there is no such thing as luggage transfer on the TGO Challenge!
What’s the history?
Back in the late 1970s when The Great Outdoors magazine was fresh and young, outdoor writer Hamish Brown proposed the idea of an organised, non-competitive backpacking event to TGO Editor Roger Smith. In May 1980, the Ultimate Challenge was born, originally sponsored by Ultimate Equipment Ltd. In 1992 it became The Great Outdoors Challenge.
It has been held every year without fail since 1980, and the concept remains the same: walk across Scotland, be self-sufficient, seek out wildness, and have some fun along the way.
The oldest person to achieve a crossing is Jim Taylor, who completed his 20th Challenge in 2014 at the age of 91.
Where can I read accounts written by Challengers?
The best place to visit is the Challengers’ Blogs and Photos section on the TGO Challenge website, where there is a big listing of blogs from the 2017 Challenge.
Many of the members of our very own Blogger Network are also TGO Challengers. Keep an eye on their blogs for updates. On Twitter and Instagram, check out the hashtags #TGOChallenge and #TGOC2018.
How many people have done it?
As of May 2018 – the start of the 38th Challenge – 3,322 people have participated, 9,757 crossings have been started, and 8,688 crossings have been completed. 236 people have completed 10 crossings, 19 have completed 20 crossings, and one person, Bill Robertson, has completed a remarkable 33 (his final was in 2016 at the age of 83).