Check out our week-long overnight hike in the Cairngorms, with wild camping, bothies and inspiration to plan your own amazing multi-day walk.
This overnight hiking route starts at Blair Atholl train station, on the southern edge of Cairngorms National Park. The walk ends at Aviemore train station on the northwest side of the Park. There’s a train several times per day between the two stations and the journey takes about 1 hour. You can either park your car at one of the stations, or better, plan your entire hiking holiday on the train.
Cairngorms Hiking Map
Get the route by downloading the .gpx or .kml file below. For navigation with Maps.me on your mobile phone, simply download the .kml file and open to add it to the Maps.me bookmarks.
- The weather can change very quickly, so make sure to take a waterproof jacket, warm jacket, hat, gloves, and thermal base layers for the tent.
- Wear hiking boots and take a paper map, plus it’s useful to have a digital map app such as Maps.Me.
- You need a few maps for this hike. In the Ordnance Survey Range, OS maps have a scale of 1:50,000 while OL maps have scale 1:25,000, so the OL maps are more detailed but you have to carry more of them. The maps to take for this hike are OS 36*, OS 43* and OL 53*, or OL 51*, OL 52*, OL 53*, OL 57* and OL 58*.
- For other walks in the UK, see our UK Hiking Guide.
Wild Camping in the Cairngorms
When wild camping and overnight hiking in the Cairngorms it’s good to have a rough plan of your days, i.e. where you’ll hike and where you’ll camp, but you should remain flexible. The weather may be awful, you may get blisters, so you may have to alter your plans last minute. Give your rough schedule to an emergency contact, like your parents, so if you never return they know roughly where to look. But remind them also that your plans are subject to change.
Check the weather shortly before you leave. If it looks dreadful, unfortunately the best advice is to postpone your trip. It will be miserable hiking for days on end in the rain and mist. If the weather turns awful during your walk, try and find a bothy (see below). If you still want to go to Scotland, try visiting the many castles and checking out the whisky distilleries, with perhaps a couple of walks by lochs instead.
What to pack for Wild Camping in the Cairngorms
Camping Overnight Hiking Gear for the Cairngorms
Tent: A good tent should be light yet resistant to the elements, and not too cramped. There’s always a trade-off between space and resistance to the elements, weight, and of course cost. The more you spend on a tent, the lighter and more element-resistant it will be. One thing any tent needs is a porch to store your wet boots and big rucksacks while you sleep. Aim for a lightweight tent, but remember it can be very windy and quite cold, so you’ll need at least a 3-season tent.
Sleeping Bag: Like the tent, there’s a three-way trade between weight, warmth and expense. A mid-range compromise is probably the best option.
Sleeping Mat: Many people forget that you lose a lot of heat from below, so a good mat can keep you a lot warmer as well as comfier. Blow-up mats such as those by Thermarest* are great as they’re light and warm, if a little expensive.
Stove: You can get really tiny stoves that screw into the top of gas canisters. Check that your stove and gas are compatible before you buy them!
Cookware: There are lots of options for cups that fit within bowls that fit within a pan. These are lightweight and space-saving. Take biodegradable soap to clean your dishes. An all-in-one biodegradable soap* can also be used for cleaning yourself and your clothes.
General Overnight Hiking Gear for the Cairngorms
Rucksack: You’ll be carrying this for many hours every day, so it should be comfortable. Make sure you’ve tested it before the start of a long walking trip. You’ll need about 60-75 litres capacity for a multiday backpacking trip. When packing, you should aim not to carry more than 20% of your own body weight. For example, if you weigh 60 kg then ideally your rucksack should weigh no more than 12 kg. Remember when weighing it that you’ll be carrying water too! It’s ok if you decide to take a couple of heavier food items for the first or second day so that initially your rucksack is heavier.
Water: Take water from running streams rather than bogs as it’s cleaner. The water in the Cairngorms is generally clean, but to be safe you can use a UV water purifier* to kill all the germs.
Walking Ideas for the Cairngorms
Grab the Cicerone Walking Guide* for inspiration on where to walk in the Cairngorms. The guide also contains some useful tips for overnight hiking in the Cairngorms.
Clothes: Make sure to bring long trousers to cover up in the evenings. You should take at least a few spare hiking socks as these often get wet during the day. Save some clothes exclusively for evenings and inside the tent – a long-sleeved thermal top, thermal leggings, and socks. I normally get changed into these when we arrive at the campsite, then add on extra layers for sitting out & cooking dinner. Then when it comes to going to sleep, I simply take off the extra layers I don’t need. Don’t rely on washing clothes, as you may not be able to dry them.
Hygiene: If you need it, take biodegradable toilet paper*, or for women a Pee Cloth* can be useful. Wet wipes are great as a shower replacement, but make sure you carry them out. It’s best not to use soap or shampoo as this can contaminate the water supply.
Rules for Wild Camping in the Cairngorms National Park
The most important rule is ‘leave no trace‘. When you’ve packed up in the morning, nobody should be able to tell that you camped there. This means clearing up all your rubbish and carrying it out with you. You don’t need any permit to wild camp in the Cairngorms National Park (though you do in some points of Scotland such as the Trossachs & Loch Lomond).
You are allowed to light a fire if it is safe to do so. It must be in a contained area and you shouldn’t leave the fire unattended. In the morning, scatter the ashes and roll any stones away so nobody could tell you even lit a fire. It’s better to just use a camping stove to cook your meals. There aren’t many trees in the Cairngorms National Park so it’s unlikely you’ll find wood anyways.
Bury human waste. Try not to use toilet paper, or use biodegradable toilet paper and use as little as possible if you do. Look out for the toilet symbol on OS maps, these are most likely in towns or at car parks. Take a small trowel with you to bury your human waste and toilet paper. Walk at least 10 meters away from the path, and further from any ruins/caves/picnic areas. Don’t go close to streams as this can contaminate the water, which you yourself may be drinking! If you haven’t got a trowel, use hiking poles or your hiking boots, or even your hands to dig a hole.
Best Spots for Overnight Camping in the Cairngorms
- Near a water source, but not too near. Don’t camp right next to a stream or lake as water levels can rise quickly! Also check it’s not too boggy where you pitch your tent.
- Sheltered, but with a breeze to keep the midges away! The very top of a mountain, or mountain ridge, can have fabulous views but could be very windy. Remember, the wind can pick up at nighttime! Don’t camp directly underneath an unstable cliff.
- Flat and smooth. Don’t camp on sloping ground if you want to be comfortable, and don’t camp on tussocks or spiky vegetation!
- A saddle between two peaks can be a good spot, though it can be very windy. Saddles often have nice grass and are quite flat. However, sometimes they can be wet and boggy. If the wind isn’t very strong, a little wind is good to keep away the midges.
- You are not allowed to camp in farmer’s fields, and shouldn’t camp too close to private property so avoid these places.
Food on an Overnight Multiday Walk
The ideal food on a wild camping trip is lightweight yet contains many calories. Don’t take anything heavy such as cans unless you use it on the first or perhaps second day. The one thing we splurge in weight on is small packs of long-life milk. We open them in the evening for a tea when we arrive, then use the rest for a cup of tea at breakfast and tea for the thermos. This normally uses up the entire pack quite nicely.
Our typical menu is below:
- Breakfast: instant porridge (just add hot water) plus a cup of tea, with extra boiling water to make a tea thermos for the day.
- Lunch: Bread and humous/cheese for the first couple of days, then wraps and humous, then crackers with humous, then just simply Ritz biscuits.
- Dinner: Specially designed dehydrated camping food is great because it contains a lot of calories for minimal weight and it’s very simple to cook – you just add water. There’s also very little rubbish left over and you don’t have to really think about anything. The main downside is that they’re fairly expensive, though we get them anyway because they’re so convenient. I find I could always eat more, so you still need to take a lot of snacks. These dehydrated packs are probably not tasty if you try them at home, but if you’ve been walking all day, they taste like the most delicious thing in the world.
- Snacks: Chocolate, biscuit bars, apples for the first/second day, Fruitella or similar sweets, dried fruit and nuts.
Midges are tiny flying insects that bite you. They don’t carry any diseases and their bites tend not to be too itchy, but they are super annoying. Midges don’t like bright sunlight, wind or rain. They do like it in the evenings and early mornings when it’s fairly still and damp but not raining too heavily. You can’t control the sun or rain, but you can try and find camping spots that are slightly windy. You don’t need much of a breeze before it’s too windy for the midges.
To keep the midges at bay, insect repellent is needed. Smidge* is alcohol and deet-free, yet works well against the midges. It was specifically designed in Scotland for this purpose! You also need to cover up, i.e. wear long trousers and tuck them into long socks, and wear long sleeves. Then insect repellent is needed only on your hands and face/head. For the face/head, a midge net* is also super useful. Note that the netting on these face nets is finer than that used for mosquitoes.
Bothies in the Cairngorms
Bothies are small huts in the wilderness where you can stay for free overnight. They are usually quite far from any main road, in the middle of the Scottish wilderness. You can’t book in advance, but normally you will find space inside. They are busiest in summer on good weather weekends, but even then you may be the only person staying the bothy. If the bothy is full, you can always camp outside and make use of the bothy facilities such as the toilet, dry shelter and perhaps a stove.
Bothies are great as a shelter, and perhaps a toilet, but they don’t offer much more. You still need to bring everything you would when camping, except the tent. For example, you still need a sleeping mat and sleeping bag, plus a stove to cook your food, and a headtorch for when it’s dark. It’s common for multiday walkers and those overnight hiking in the Cairngorms to combine staying in bothies with wild camping. In this case, you’ll have a tent as a backup in case the bothy is full. If you don’t have a tent, you’ll always be able to squeeze into a bothy, but might want to plan to arrive early and not visit on weekends in summer to the most popular bothies.
Rules of Staying in a Bothy in the Cairngorms
As with camping, ‘leave no trace’ that you visited the bothy. Carry out all your rubbish (and extra rubbish that may have been left by previous unthoughtful guests). It’s acceptable to leave non-perishable food, but don’t leave anything that may attract animals. If there’s no toilet, walk at least a couple hundred metres away from the bothy (and away from any water source) before going to the loo, and make sure to bury any solid material. You’re also not allowed to cut down any trees to make a fire.
Additionally, you should record your visit in the bothy logbook. This lets the owners and maintainers know it is being used, so they are more likely to spend money on maintenance and hut improvements. Bothies are not meant to be used for more than a couple of days at a time. They are for multiday hill walkers, most of whom spend just one night in the bothy before moving on. So don’t base yourself in a bothy for multiple days in a row.
Cairngorms Overnight Hiking Route
We arrived mid-afternoon in Blair Atholl and spent the rest of the day walking into the mountains. The next six days were full days of hiking. On our final night we camped not so far from Aviemore train station, so our eighth day of walking was fairly short.
The route described below is meant to be used for inspiration in planning your Cairngorms overnight hiking trip. It’s unlikely you’ll want to walk exactly the same route unless you have a similar amount of time and a similar fitness level. Some of our days were very long, so a very good level of fitness would be needed to complete the same route in the same time.
Marked on the map are additional bothies and suggested camping spots. Since you can wild camp in the Cairngorms, you can camp anywhere, and at the camping sites mentioned there are no facilities, they are just nice spots in useful locations.
Day 1: Into the Cairngorms from Blair Atholl, 7.8km & 365m climb
From Blair Atholl train station we left town heading up the River Tilt Valley. Instead of following this valley along, we left the river valley to the right. For a shorter first/second day (or in bad weather), simply following the path by the River Tilt would have been a good option. After walking along a small road, which turned into a track, we started on a small path through the real wilderness.
We started the first day quite late because we didn’t arrive in Blair Atholl until the afternoon, so soon started looking for a camping spot. After almost 1 km after the larger track we found a spot a few tens of meters off the path to the right. It was slightly sloping and in the heather, but dry and with a bit of a breeze. We returned to the path to cook as this was the only flat surface without heather we could find.
Day 2: Beinn a’ Ghlò Munros & Tilt Valley to Bynack Lodge Ruin, 21km & 970m climb
Our second day was a lovely walk starting with some climb up to a ridge, including two Munros. At the end of the ridge we kept slightly left to walk down the spine of the ridge. The path wasn’t very clear but the vegetation was low and walking wasn’t too difficult. We followed the spine as it bent left then right, keeping above the steeper slopes by the river.
Lower down the path became a bit clearer and the vegetation turned into grass. We could now see the bridge across the River Tilt and aimed for this. Once on the path on the other side, the rest of the day involved easy walking along the fairly flat path following the river up the Tilt Valley.
We set up our tent on the flat, dry land by the ruined Bynack Lodge. There were a couple of trees here to provide a bit of shelter, and it wasn’t too far to walk to the river for water. However, we were there on a calm night and there were many midges!
Day 3: River Dee, Morrone Peak & Loch Callater, 30.3km & 745m climb
The first part of the day involved an easy walk down the River Dee Valley with some lovely views. Most of the climb came from walking up Morrone Peak above Braemar. Walking around the peak instead of up it would be an easier route, and the preferred route in bad weather.
After Morrone Peak we descended and crossed a road before following a jeep track up to Loch Callater. The weather looked doubtful so instead of camping we stayed in Callater Stable Bothy. Nobody else spent the night in the bothy, but a couple of people were camping nearby next to the lake. Remember not to camp too close in case the water level rises quickly overnight! During a gap in the rain we managed a quick swim in the Loch.
Day 4: The Stuic, Lochnagar Peak & Loch Muick, 26km & 1150m climb
We had quite a lot of climb today, but it was worth it for the views at The Stuic and from Lochnagar Peak. If the weather is bad and visibility poor, it’s not worth walking up these higher peaks and could be dangerous since the path goes near lots of steep cliffs.
If the weather is fine but you want to shorten the overall route, you can head left instead of right at the saddle after Lochnagar. This misses out on the circuit of Loch Muick and saves you about 11 km and 700 metres of climb.
On our route we descended to Loch Muick and it began to rain heavily. The last photo I ever took on my old camera was taken here before water infiltration killed it. Partway around the other side of the lake we took the path upwards to the bleak moorland. There’s no shelter anywhere near here apart from Allan’s Hut, which we didn’t know about at the time. Otherwise, it would have been a dream come true! Instead, we rapidly set up our tent by a boulder a few hundred meters before the hut. It was very wet inside when we got in.
Day 5: Broad Cairn, River Dee & Bob Scott’s Bothy, 35km & 810m climb
This was a long day. We woke up to better weather and continued along the path over Broad Cairn and crossed our route from the day before to walk up Carn an t-Saigart Mor. There’s the wreckage of a plane near here for those interested.
From Carn an t-Saigart Mor there’s a very faint path down to the right, or just walking over the grass and heather is fine. On the other side of the little stream, the route heads left and there’s a real path. We reached the old bridge over the River Dee and continued along the small lane on the other side.
After some fairly gentle walking along the valley, we followed the trails back into the hills to reach Bob Scott’s Bothy. This is a popular bothy and we saw a few other people here in the late afternoon, but nobody else stayed in the bothy overnight. We were very thankful to be indoors after the wetness of the previous night and managed to dry our clothes slightly.
Day 6: Ben Macdui, 14.3km & 1050m climb
The walk today was quite short, and we were at our overnight stop around lunchtime. We reached the top of Ben Macdui in a mix of sun and cloud, and it was very cold. At 1309 metres high, Ben Macdui is the second tallest mountain in Scotland (and the UK). It’s not really worth walking up Ben Macdui if the weather is awful, in which case you can walk the short distance directly through the valley from Bob Scott’s Bothy to Courrour Bothy.
From the top we descended to the southwest. The path is not clear and it’s quite steep and rocky, but never really scary. There’s no great alternative if you want to descend into the River Dee Valley. However, there are super nice views on this way down.
When we reached the valley bottom we turned left, then just across the river to Courrour Bothy. Just before you cross the river you can take a shortcut that leads diagonally to the bridge. While definitely shorter, it can be extremely wet and boggy and difficult walking too. You can just stick to the main path and turn right a short distance later to keep your feet dry.
Courrour Bothy is quite popular and we camped nearby. There would have been space for us to stay inside, but we wanted to go to sleep very early so kept away from the noise.
Day 7: The Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul, Braeriach & Loch an Eilein, 25.8km & 1150m climb
If the weather is poor, the route heading north through the valley would be a good alternative to walking up the ridge. For us the weather started medium to good, so we headed immediately upwards to the ridge. At the top we first turned left to reach The Devil’s Point, a great viewpoint over the valley below. We returned and continued northward, taking in Cairn Toul and Braeriach, the third and fourth-highest mountains in Scotland respectively.
It’s quite rocky in places on the ridge and sometimes the path isn’t clear. Make sure to keep checking your map / GPS so you don’t get too off-route. The long descent then starts from Braeriach back down to the valley. After this, it’s a simple and gentle walk downwards through heather and some lovely pine trees.
We wanted to camp close to Aviemore as we had to catch a fairly early train the next day. We camped by the shore of Loch Eilein. This is in an area of special conservation and it’s advised to camp in the designated ‘wild camping’ field by the car park (for a fee). However, you are technically allowed to wild camp by the lake as long as you follow special rules: Do not light any campfire, use the toilet facilities by the car park, camp out of sight of the path, don’t set up your tent until late, and take it down early the next morning.
Day 8: To Aviemore, 5km & 20m climb
It was an easy, short walk from Loch Eilein to Aviemore. The train station is on this side of town, and there’s a large Tesco nearby. We bought loads of delicious food to eat on the train back home, it was great. I hope we inspired you to go overnight hiking in the Cairngorms!
Grab a Hiking Guide to Scotland
Scotland’s 100 Best Walks* is a great book to get for hiking inspiration when you’re planning your trip to Scotland. The Cicerone Guide to Ben Nevis and Glen Coe* is the perfect book if you’ve decided to stay in this area, one of the best hiking areas in Scotland. Finally, The Munros* is the definitive guide to the routes up Scotland’s Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet, or 914.4 m).
For other walks in the UK, see our UK Hiking Guide.
FAQS: Overnight Hiking in the Cairngorms National Park
Yes, you can wild camp in Cairngorms National Park. You don’t need a permit, but you can’t camp too near private property and need to follow the ‘leave no trace rules’.
There are many spectacular places to wild camp in the Cairngorms. Glen Tilt is fairly easy to get to yet remote and very scenic. Around Lochnagar Peak it’s very wild and if the weather is nice you’ll have fantastic sunset/sunrise views.