“Hillwalking” is a spectacular way to explore Scotland, and “Munro-bagging” brings an almost cult-like appreciation to the sport. Here’s one Canadian expat on just what that is — and actually, it’s pretty darn spectacular.
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Sam Harper
Among the notable and unique things for which Scotland is known, bagpiping and Scotch whisky among them, Munro-bagging is particularly alluring for the outdoor adventurer. Referring to the hilltops that reach over 3,000 feet (or 914 meters), the 282 mountains in Scotland that are above “Munro” height draw locals and travellers alike to attempt to “bag” as many as they can by foot.
Named after the mountaineer Sir Hugh Munro, who was the first to catalogue and survey these peaks in 1891, his legacy lives on in the hills he frequented through this popular pastime. Choosing to explore Scotland through the Munros gives a unique perspective of all that the country has to offer; from the formidable cliffs of the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, to the rolling green glens of Perthshire, to the subarctic landscape of the Cairngorms and the glacially carved Western Coast.
The wonderful, wild and diverse terrain that Scotland offers is actively encouraged to be explored by the unique Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which features a Land Reform Act that’s more commonly referred to as a right or a freedom to roam. In exchange for access to most of Scotland’s land and inland water, the code imposes respect, care and responsibility for the land and the environment on not only owners and managers, but also on users — meaning that the remotest of the Munros can be traversed and wild camping is frequented, as long as the surrounding landscape is treated with respect. (Here’s a great resource that explains how this all works, which is very unique to Scotland.)
Defining these hills can actually become quite technical, and with the increasing accuracy in the way we survey mountains, these classifications have fluctuated somewhat since Sir Hugh took to the hills. For instance, other parts of a mountain may reach a height above 3,000 feet, but if it’s in certain proximity to a Munro, it would be considered a subsidiary of the higher summit, which usually is marked by a stone cairn. These are sometimes referred to as Munro Tops.
Additionally, it’s not just hills that surpass the 3,000-foot mark that are named; mountains between 2,500 to 3,000 feet are Corbetts, and those between 2,000 to 2,500 feet are Grahams. These heights even take on a different name in Lowland Scotland, with hills that exceed 2,000 feet in this area being dubbed Donalds. Similarly, if you head across the borders into the greater UK, any hill more than 3,000 feet is considered a Furth, making Munro-bagging a uniquely Scottish activity.
Hillwalking in Scotland truly is a feat, and Munro-bagging can bring almost a cult-like appreciation for the sport. Among those who head out to the hills there are ambitious adventurers who have the goal of completing them all, aptly referred to as ‘compleators,’ or other times as ‘Munroists’ by the Scottish Mountaineering Club — there’s a shortlist of less than 10,000 who can claim this title.
Although some choose to conquer these over a lifetime, some choose to do the “round” (as it’s referred to) as fast as they can. The quickest person to achieve this is mountain runner Donnie Campbell, who finished the round in 31 days and 23 hours in 2020. This time is quite extraordinary though, with the average person completing all 282 peaks in just over two decades.
What to Expect
Scotland is a land of rugged and sometimes unforgiving landscapes, and Munro-bagging is not for the faint of heart or the unprepared. Hillwalkers who come to the highlands to tackle these peaks need adequate hiking experience, as most require navigational skills (map and compass style), and depending on the season or the hill, specialized equipment or skill set.
Some trails are well-trodden, like the famous Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak situated in Fort William at 4,411 feet (or 1,345 meters). But most others require traversing through trail-less moors and glens, fields of heather, river and burn crossings, bogs, and boulder fields. The terrain may demand scrambling or climbing, require equipment such as crampons or helmets, and for some you’re even advised to have a guide, especially the likes of the Black Cuillin, which bring about magnetic navigation abnormalities.
With the weather being increasingly changeable, you can expect to walk through the likes of heavy rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind, and under scorching sun. Some days, we’ve experienced every one of these weather events in a single afternoon.
In terms of navigation, purchase a compass and refer to the Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, available in either 1:25 000 or 1:50 000 scale, which can be purchased at any outdoors store, or online. There are plenty of navigational courses throughout the country that can teach you how to use these correctly. Some hillwalkers choose to use their devices for navigation, which can be fantastic in terms of accuracy. But in the case of adverse weather or battery depletion, always have a paper copy handy and know how to use it.
For those of you visiting from countries who are renowned for woodland predators, you’ll be happy to hear that Scotland’s lack of them makes for easy backcountry hiking and camping. As a Canadian born and raised, tossing bear hangs on camping trips or carrying bear spray on a hike was the norm — but here, predators are slim, save for a roe deer or the occasional squirrel. You can wild camp with ease of mind.
When To Go
The Munros are best bagged from early spring into late fall, the summer season being the most popular time for hillwalkers in terms of climate. This being said, as mentioned above, expect a variety of weather conditions at any time of the year. On the west coast of Scotland especially, be wary of the infamous Scottish midge in the height of summer, the likes of which can turn off even the most avid of hikers and overnight campers.
Doing any hillwalking in the snow turns the pastime into more of a technical sport, meaning you’ll need either a guide, or specialized equipment and skills. Many of these Munros make way to avalanche paths, and the remoteness of the hills mean that most of the time you will be out of service.
Scotland’s Mountain Rescue comprises teams based around the country of highly trained and competent volunteers who help anyone caught out in Scotland’s outdoor spaces. If you do find yourself in difficulty, the emergency number in Scotland is 999, and when you call, ask for Mountain Rescue.
This organization is yet another reason to be as prepared as possible when heading out into the hills. Avoid putting unnecessary stress on their operations to save the service for those who are in dire need of it.
Where to Begin
Choosing where to begin is part of the fun of it. You can start from lowest to highest, or highest to lowest; from north to south, or east to west; from easiest to hardest, or most remote to most renowned.
The hills are further categorized into 13 regions, which offer up another way of where to begin, starting at a location you’re wanting to visit. The Munros can either be done as singles, or as part of a smaller round, many of them able to be completed in succession once you’ve gained the height — good examples of this are the 5 Sisters of Kintail, the Ring of Steall, and the White Mounth.
These smaller rounds make for excellent long weekend trips, with wild camping, bothy stays, and B&Bs popular options among hillwalkers. Briefly, bothies are small backcountry huts that are free to use and are monitored by the Mountain Bothies Association of Scotland. They are, like the Munros, unique to Scotland, and offer respite from the elements if required, or a good place to tuck in for the night — a space that’s intended to be shared among anyone looking to use the facilities.
Use resource guides to get a better idea of what you can expect from the hills in a particular region. There are a number of published books that offer photos, detailed descriptions of the walk, and are categorized by the area. One of the best online resources is Walkhighlands, a comprehensive site that details all hiking expeditions in Scotland, whether they be short or long. Use these in conjunction with your OS maps.
What To Bring
For a day trip, start with the right clothing, and strap on a good pair of hiking boots, preferably ones that support the ankles and are waterproof. It’s advisable to wear a lot of layers, sweat-wicking tops and trousers, durable socks, sunglasses and/or hat, warmer thermal layers, and good waterproof outer layers in the very likely case of rain.
Pack a small hiking bag with adequate food and water for your planned route, a head torch (or headlamp), a basic first-aid kit, and your navigational kit. Other considerations include hiking poles, gaiters, a waterproof cover for your map, sunblock, insect repellant, bite ointment, and iodine pills or a small filter to restock your water supplies. For the latter, though there are many burns, rivers and waterways that form a network across Scotland, remember that wildlife shares the space, so filtering is always recommended.
Inclusive of everything you’d bring on a day trip, for rounds that require overnight and backcountry stays, bring a small waterproof tent (always bring a tent even if you’re relying on a bothy, as some are small and can fill up quickly in season), a cooking stove and the correct fuel, more provisions, and perhaps a battery pack if you’re using your main navigation or GPS on a device. These suggestions are made on the assumption that the hike is not being undertaken in the winter.
As long as you’re up for the challenge and are adequately prepared, the Munros are as rewarding as they are demanding and make for a fantastic experience. They are a vastly underrated and exceptional way to see the unique landscapes of Scotland.
How many can you bag in one season? ♦
Sam Harper is a freelance travel writer who has lived and worked around the world, calling the Canadian Rockies, the Australian Outback and New Zealand’s Fiordland home. Now based in the Scottish Highlands, between writing on adventure, outdoor and working travel, she enjoys trail running and cooking up plant-based eats. For more of Sam’s work, please visit www.thelongtermtravellers.com.