8 insights I learned while hiking Scotland solo

Here YA contributor Yvette, a kiwi expat in Europe, spills some powerful insights and key lessons she took away while hiking Scotland solo, from top to bottom.

On the morning of May 13, 2018, I set off on a wild solo adventure: hiking Scotland solo, all on my own. Ambitious or what?

My choice of trail was the Scottish National Trail, an 864 kilometer long [536 miles] hike that zigzags from the Scottish/English border to Cape Wrath, the most north-western point of Scotland. 

Completing the Scottish National Trail in just under 7 weeks, I was also the first solo female hiker. The trail was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Not just for the dramatic scenery that the Scottish Highlands offers, but also because this trail taught me so many lessons. It helped me to reconnect with myself and rediscover who I am. It gave me confidence, the ability to trust my intuition, and a kick-ass mentality for coping with stress. 

In times of a global pandemic, I find myself reflecting inward to find the strength I discovered within myself on the trail. Here are 8 things traversing the length of Scotland taught me about life. Enjoy!

hiking Scotland solo

1. We have way too much stuff

I carried everything that I needed to survive my adventure in just a 65 liter North Face backpack: my tent, sleeping bag, food, bug spray, two clothing changes, one book, a journal, and my compass.

Packing the absolute essentials meant I carried less weight, which meant less stress on my body and walking faster. 

At the start of my hike, I packed way too much stuff. A common story, I imagine. Too much food, too many books, maps I didn’t need, shampoo and conditioner [spoiler: you’ll never have a good hair day on the trail], and 26 protein balls. To survive, I had to shrug off the excess weight and forget about materialism. It was a powerful lesson in letting go.

We live in a world that teaches us to buy, upgrade, and consume. Numerous studies have shown that having more stuff doesn’t make us happier – in fact, it hinders happiness.

When I returned to a bustling Edinburgh after weeks of living with less, carrying everything I needed on my back, I was overwhelmed by just how much stuff there is that humans have created. Now I live a minimalist lifestyle, and I’m happier for it.

hiking Scotland solo

2. We know our limits better than anyone else 

During the first week of hiking Scotland solo, I met an older man walking too. He was part-way through a four-day hike and asked me where I was walking to. When I told him I was hiking the country’s length, he proceeded to lecture me on how difficult it would be [duh] and asked if I had the right kit.

I started to panic. Was this hike going to be too much for me? What if I get lost? Do I even have the right equipment?

Then it occurred to me: this man had known me less than five minutes, I’d known myself 29 years. If anyone knew my capabilities and limits, it was ME. Not a stranger. 

This happens all the time. You tell someone about a goal you’re trying to achieve, and you’re met with fears, doubts, and objections from that other person. You end that conversation feeling deflated and unsure if you even want to attempt your goal anymore.

Don’t let anyone get in your head. Often they are projecting their fears and worries onto you. Just remember, you know your limits better than anyone else. 

hiking Scotland solo

3. You can always tell yourself a different story

I have to credit Cheryl Strayed’s Wild for this. When Cheryl hiked the Pacific Crest Trail solo, instead of succumbing to her fears on the trail, she chose to tell herself a different story instead: that she was brave.

I had many fears and doubts creep into my mind while hiking Scotland solo, and they would have crippled my mindset had I let them. Like Cheryl, I told myself that I was brave. That I was strong. That I was capable. I repeated this to myself over and over until the fear dissipated.

Fear was replaced with a confidence I’d never known before. I still apply this to everyday life. If I feel imposter syndrome set in, I choose to tell myself a different story: I’m fucking capable. 

hiking Scotland solo

4. It’s okay; in fact, it’s an excellent thing to make mistakes

One of the downsides of social media is that anyone can project their perfect life online by throwing on a filter or only posting images that convey success. I used to feel so much pressure to be perfect all the time [I still do sometimes], but the truth is, making mistakes and being imperfectly perfect should be celebrated.

So many things went wrong on my hike. I stupidly wild-camped next to a railway line, which taught me to always check my map before setting up camp. Speaking of maps, I also packed the WRONG map, quickly learning how to navigate myself out of a sticky situation. Before beginning, I didn’t break my hiking books properly, which taught me always to pack bandaids and walk 10 miles with blisters the size of golf balls.

But you know what? I learned so much from these mistakes. I’m glad I made so many errors because when I figured them out, my confidence blossomed. 

Embrace your mistakes. Making mistakes means you’re pushing yourself, you’re learning, and most importantly, you’re growing.

hiking Scotland solo

5. The body can achieve some crazy things- treat it with love and respect

I was seriously impressed by how well my body coped with a long-distance hike, especially since the Scottish National Trail was my first long-distance hike. It adapted to my new walking lifestyle in less than one week. By week three, my back was toned and muscular, and by the time I reached the coast, my legs had carried me over 800 kilometers up mountains and through boggy fields.

When I reached Sandwood Bay, I stripped down to my sports bra and underwear, and it was the first time I felt grateful and proud of my body. I also realized I had been mistreating it for most of my life.

I’d spent my twenties starving my body, binge-drinking, trying to squeeze it into tight jeans, and constantly complaining that it wasn’t thin/toned/tan enough. Instead of taking care of my body, I had been abusing it. Yet my body carried me over 800 kilometers with little complaint.

Our bodies are incredible- and we only get given one. Stop dieting and focus on putting healthy, medicinal foods into your body. Thank it for carrying you through every day.

hiking Scotland solo

6. It doesn’t take much to make someone happy

When I reached the halfway point of my journey hiking Scotland solo, I met a man in a bothy and excitedly told him of my accomplishment. I jokingly said I wished I had a glass of wine to celebrate.

The following morning as I was getting ready to leave, the man told me to wait by the window and look outside. He hurried around the back of the bothy, knelt, and then quickly jumped up. 

I watched in amazement as sparks flew into the air- the man had lit a firework! 

He came back inside and said with a wink, ”There’s your celebration.”

I was incredibly touched by the simple gesture and thanked him profusely. 

Then he said the words that will forever stick with me: ”It doesn’t take much to make someone happy. Sometimes it will cost a couple of quid, but most of the time, it costs nothing.”

His advice was so simple, yet it really struck a chord with me. 

I try to do nice, random things for people now- whether it’s a friend who has had a rough day or a stranger. Sometimes all it takes is a simple, genuine compliment to put a smile on someone’s face – and it’s free.

hiking Scotland solo

7. We need nature now more than ever

Being immersed in nature for several weeks forced me to have important conversations with myself. Nature doesn’t judge – it is the one place we can go where we can be completely ourselves.

I had some life-changing conversations with myself over those six and a half weeks- conversations I couldn’t have had anywhere else. I was able to heal from past trauma and think deeply about the direction I wanted to take my life.

Something magical happens when you’re alone in nature. Whenever I’m facing a problem I don’t know how to solve, I go for a walk, and I always emerge from the woods with a solution to that problem and a clear mind.

hiking Scotland solo

8. Nature needs us now more than ever too

Nature has given me so much- and I feel an overprotective urge to protect it. The earth was already in trouble pre-COVID-19, and now thanks to the economic fallout due to the pandemic, the environment needs us more than ever.

Some simple ways we can give nature a helping hand include donating to local conservation charities, getting involved in reforestation initiatives, and attending beach cleanups.

I’ve set for myself to fill up at least one bag of rubbish whenever I go out walking. If we all do a little bit, imagine how much of a difference we can make over a lifetime?

What’s an adventure you’ve had that taught you some incredible life lessons? Can you relate? Share!

hiking Scotland solo

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