This Handbook contains everything you need to know about the Secret Compass Epic expedition to Scotland.
Read on to discover our ethos and team-centered approach and for the nitty gritty like flight and visa advice, insurance requirements and kit recommendations.
Use the buttons below to ask questions or if this handbook answers all of your questions you can request a space on the team by completing the booking form and submitting a deposit (bound by our T&Cs). We will then be in touch by phone or email to hopefully approve your place on the team!
Upcoming Expedition Dates
11 to 20 September 2020
Arrive: into Crianlarich on Day 1.
Depart: leave any time on Day 10.
Insurance: Ensure you have comprehensive cover.
Docs: If you are a visitor to the UK send us your flight and insurance information and a copy of your passport.
The aim of this epic expedition is to cross Scotland from Loch Etive on the west coast, to Perth in the east, including a source to sea journey on the River Tay.
Hike inland to the source of the River Tay on the slopes on Ben Lui before paddling its length. At 188 km long the River Tay is Scotland’s longest river, almost bisecting the whole country from Ben Lui to where it flows into the North Sea at Dundee. The team will follow it for 140 km, using expedition packrafts, until reaching its tidal limit at Perth. Don’t underestimate the challenge of reaching the start of our packrafting journey – you’ll hike for three days through the remote Scottish highlands, wild-camping along the way and carrying everything we need on our backs.
Complete a challenging cross-Scotland expedition.
A source to sea descent of Scotland’s longest river.
Forge a route on foot from Loch Etive to Ben Lui.
Summit Ben Lui, 1130 m.
Avoid the crowds and trek through remote valleys.
Follow the River Tay from the rugged highlands to wooded valleys and moorlands.
Learn to packraft and negotiate up to grade 2-3 rapids.
Day 1 (Friday) – Crianlarich
Teammates will meet at the team hotel in Crianlarich. This evening, meet your expedition leader and your team for a briefing.
Day 2 – 4 Taynuilt to Tyndrum
An early start on day 2 as the team takes a short train-journey to Taynuilt, on the shore of Loch Etive. You’ll head out from here carrying everything you need in your backpacks for the hike inland to Ben Lui. You’ll start out following the shore of Loch Etive, before heading inland for your first wild-camp location in a remote valley. Over the next two days continue roughly east crossing various hills and valleys, passing through Glen Strae and Glen Orchy on your way to Ben Lui. Summit Ben Lui (or Beinn Laoigh in Gaelic), your first goal of the expedition, before following the waters of the River Connonish down the valley. Night four will be spent at a campsite where the team will re-stock on food and collect your packrafts.
Day 5 to 8 – Packrafting
You’ll set off this morning on foot with until the river becomes navigable. The team will then inflate your packrafts, strapping your backpacks onto the front of the rafts to continue the journey by water. Over the next 4 days continue your journey on the River Dochart, through Loch Dochart with its ruined castle. passing through Loch Lubhair and then the large Loch Tay, covering around 30 km per day. Once past Loch Tay the team will officially be on the River Tay. From here to Grandtully there will be numerous grade 1 -2 sections and isolated rapids, with a one or two up to grade 3 depending on conditions, with the larger rapids portaged where required. After that the river is quieter and more relaxed with time to absorb the views.
Day 9 – Packrafting
Your final day on the river and a last chance to test your new-found white-water skills with some white-water along this section. A full day’s paddle, arriving into Perth in the afternoon with time for a well deserved shower.
Day 10 (Sunday) – Departure
The expedition officially ends after breakfast today, although if you wish to do some sightseeing there’s plenty to do in Perth.
About Secret Compass Itineraries
Please remember that this itinerary acts as a framework plan. It provides guidance as to our intentions but will not be followed religiously. This is an adventure and by definition the outcome is uncertain. The leadership team may flex and change the plan depending on numerous frictions encountered en route. An adaptable, team-centred approach is required.
All our expeditions are achievable by people with an active and healthy lifestyle. However, although this is a UK based expedition do not underestimate it, it will test you and at times you may be sore, tired, hungry and definitely wet! You must be prepared physically and mentally for the expedition and for living in basic conditions for the duration. Team members should be willing to be part of a team working together to achieve the goal of the expedition. The biggest challenge will be carrying heavy rucksacks during the trekking phase over tough terrain and some long days and challenging whitewater on the river, although this can be portaged if required.
Each phase of this expedition is self-supported once the team is dropped off at Loch Etive and then once you collect your packrafts and resupply at Ben Lui so you will be required to carrying all your food, supplies and equipment for each section of the expedition. Please factor this into your training and mentality and ensure that you train for the expedition and arrive fit and ready to go.
You will be required to be fit enough for the following.
Expedition Grading: 270°.
Daily activity: varies but up to approx. 10 hours per day.
Trek: up to 15-25km per day with daily ascents of 700 – 1100m.
Carry: 17 – 21 kg including own kit and equipment and a share of group kit and food.
Terrain: Rough and varied. See ON EXPED for details.
Altitude: up to 1130m.
Packraft. Average 30 km per day, mostly flat water but up to grade 3. We’ll need to portage boats and backpacks around un-navigable sections which will depend on water levels.
Swim: strong swimmers who can swim at least 200m, are happy with the prospect of falling from a packraft in rapids and capable of pulling themselves back into a raft if needed.
Climate: The Scottish Highlands in September can experience anything from balmy, sunny “Indian summers” to gales and rain. See ON EXPED for details.
Age: over 21, fit and healthy.
Team members should have previous experience of multi-day or overnight hill-walking trips in the UK with experience of carrying all of their equipment and camping out. Those who do not have previous experience of this will be asked to commit to training and getting some experience prior to departure. Prior paddling experience is not required, but clients should not underestimate the physical challenge of a multi-day paddle.
This is a one-way expedition and we anticipate most teammates will utilise some public transport to reach the start and end point.
Train. There is a train station in Crianlarich just a short walk from the team hotel. There are currently 3 trains per day from Glasgow and there may be greater choice closer to departure as the current temporary timetables become less restricted. For your departure, Perth is a major city with many trains per day back to Glasgow or other cities. Perth is also both stops on the Caledonian Sleeper services from London to Scotland.
Car. Since this is a one-way expedition, if you choose to drive to the start point then you will need to arrange your own travel to return and collect your car.
Fly. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the nearest airports.
Visas and Entry Requirements
If you do not normally live in the UK it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct visa to enter the UK if required, and that you comply with all other entry requirements.
Currently, if you are entering the Scotland from overseas you may be subject to additional COVID-19 related entry requirements such as mandatory 14-days quarantine. This depends on which countries you have travelled from and through to arrive in Scotland. You can find more information on COVID-19 related restriction on entering Scotland here, please ensure you research and monitor the requirements for your own personal situation. If you are travelling to Scotland via England or any other country in the UK, be aware that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own requirements which may vary.
The expedition is all-inclusive (from lunch on Day 2 until lunch on Day 9), however your meals outside of this, in Crianlarich and Perth, are not included for flexibility regarding COVID-19 restrictions and meeting indoors.
The following is Secret Compass’s recommended kit list for our expedition to Scotland. If you’re purchasing new equipment, weight should be a consideration.
Secret Compass will supply tents, stoves and technical packrafting equipment. You will be required to carry all of your own equipment for the expedition along with a share of group cooking and other group equipment so ensure you leave room for this. The food and equipment provided by Secret Compass for the trekking phase will weigh approximately 8 kg so please factor this into your training and packing. Your packrafting equipment will weigh a further 7 – 8 kg, but as it will be collected after the main trekking phase, it will only need to be carried for relatively short periods.
Secret Compass has arranged team members discounts with Cotswold Outdoor, Nordic Life, Outdoor Hire and Expedition Kit Hire, details of these will be sent through on booking.
Baggage and Sleeping
RUCKSACK: 60-80ltr, all your personal gear needs to fit easily into this pack and have enough room for a tent, food and share of group equipment provided by us. You will need to strap your packraft to the outside of your bag (and possibly buoyancy aid and helmet depending on how much room there is in your rucksack) for some periods so bring additional straps for this.
DRYBAGS: it’s vital that all of your gear and food can be kept dry on the trek and on the packrafts.Ideally use one large one to line your rucksack, and smaller bags to put essential items in and organise kit. The large rucksack liners will leak so anything important needs to be waterproofed individually. Your rucksack will get very/completely wet whilst packrafting.
SLEEPING BAG: rated to at least comfort 0C. Down is lighter and more compact than synthetic options but you MUST invest in a good waterproof stuff sack and consider double bagging as your pack will get soaked through on the rafts. If you know you sleep cold, consider a thermal liner or plan to sleep in your warm layers.
SLEEPING MAT: If using a self-inflating or inflatable roll-mat bring a repair kit.
BASE LAYER: 2 x top and bottom long thermals, merino wool is recommended.
LONG TROUSERS: 2 x quick drying trekking trousers, consider zip-off shorts for flexibility.
MID LAYER: fleece or equivalent eg. a thicker merino or powerstretch layer.
LIGHTWEIGHT SOFTSHELL LAYER: (optional but recommended). A thin breathable but windproof layer for wind protection over base layers.
WARM LAYER: Synthetic insulated jacket or thick fleece to put on over other layers at breaks and in evenings. Down is not necessarily recommended due to the likelihood of wet weather, if bringing down you will need to ensure it is kept dry.
WATERPROOF JACKET AND TROUSERS: Gore-tex or equivalent, with a hood and large enough to fit your warm layers underneath.
WATERSPORTS CAG: With seals at neck and wrists to keep you dry on the water.
GAITERS: Highly recommended to help keep feet and trousers dry and clean in boggy areas and offering additional protection in stream crossings.
WALKING BOOTS: Waterproof, with ankle support. Your boots should be well-fitting and worn in.
HIKING SOCKS: 4 x hiking socks. Make sure they work with your boots.
WETSUIT BOOTS/ SANDALS : for river crossings and a change of shoes in camp, not flip flops. (could also be used for on the river as below if you will be comfortable in them all day).
RIVER SHOES: A separate pair of shoes will be more comfortable for paddling than walking boots. These should have drainage and good grip.
WIDE BRIMMED SUN HAT/CAP: (optional).
WARM HAT: for evenings.
WARM GLOVES: Warm and ideally windproof. Powerstretch gloves are good.
PADDLING OR CYCLING GLOVES: Half-finger padded gloves are great for rafting.
ROBUST WATER BOTTLE OR BLADDER: you need to be able to carry at least two litres of water.
SPOON: a long-handled one is suggested for ration packs.
TREK/SNACK BARS: 1 per day of your favourite bars to supplement meals and boost morale.
Health and Hygiene
WASHBAG: compact bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, biodegradeable soap.
TRAVEL TOWEL/SARONG: (optional).
VASELINE: Keep this handy to help prevent chafing and blisters.
RE-SEALABLE PLASTIC BAGS: For dirty washing, toilet paper, wrappings, etc.
ALCOHOL HANDGEL: enough for the entire trip.
FACE-MASK: Required for public transport and group transfers.
Small First Aid Kit
A team medical kit with a comprehensive primary care provision will be carried (by the leader and shared between teammates). You should also carry your own small first aid kit but inform your expedition leader before using your personal medical supplies.
A WATERPROOF BAG OR TUPPERWARE BOX: keep kit dry and safe.
PAINKILLERS: Ibuprofen and Paracetamol.
COMPEED BLISTER PADS: please note that Compeed produce several similar looking blister packs for corns, etc. Please ensure you purchase the standard/original item.
REHYDRATION SACHETS OR TABLETS.
PIRITON TABLETS: For allergies.
EURAX CREAM: For bites.
ANY MEDICATION YOU NORMALLY USE: You MUST make Secret Compass aware of any medical conditions before you travel.
TREKKING POLES: great for navigating rough or boggy terrain and river crossings with heavy packs.
HEAD TORCH AND SPARE BATTERIES: Petzl Tikka heard torch or equivalent.
GAFFA TAPE: for emergency repairs to your kit, you can take some off the roll and wrap it around something else in your kit.
LIGHTERS: 1 x good quality lighters for starting stoves and burning toilet roll.
KARABINER: 2 x for securing items to your rucksack or to your packraft.
SPARE BOOT LACES: Make sure they are the correct length for your boots. Can also be used as emergency ties or a washing line.
Secret Compass organises expeditions, not sightseeing tours. Our expeditions are team-centred, flexible and dynamic. Teams are managed on the ground by Secret Compass staff: industry-leading professionals and guides of the highest calibre. They put the structure in place for your team to have an incredible experience while achieving your expedition’s aims. Our people are as passionate as you are about achieving the extraordinary in the world’s wildest places. Secret Compass teams often go to places that others don’t. This makes our expeditions truly different, taking you beneath the skin and beyond the headlines of the world’s most remote reaches. Inspired by history’s great explorers and challenges, you’ll be set ambitious goals and will overcome similar hardships to those experienced on the audacious journeys of the past.
Remember this is not an organised tour. It is an adventure. More often than not expeditions don’t run smoothly! The nature of the areas we operate in mean that we will encounter a number of challenges that we expect everyone to meet and relish. Friction and hurdles are all part and parcel of an arduous expedition and also to our success as a team. These make the journey more interesting and are often the best and most amusing parts when looking back. Each expedition is thoroughly reviewed on its return and team members will have the opportunity to provide feedback which helps to inform planning for future expeditions.
Local Partners and Bureaucracy
Our teammates can only achieve the extraordinary with the help of people in the communities we travel through. NGO and aid workers, guides, fixers and interpreters all work extremely hard and are generous in their hospitality to us and our teams: visitors in their land. They are crucial to our success. Please remember and respect that their perspectives and concepts of time, environmental responsibility and customer service might differ to yours. Occasionally there is no established protocol for outside visitors which means we encounter local power struggles or disagreements. Our leaders have years of experience in delicate negotiations like these and conversational chess – especially through an interpreter – and these interchanges are often memorable parts of any expedition.
Infrastructure and Natural Events
The areas we travel to often especially remote. Transport infrastructure can be ageing, inadequate or non-existent. Flooded roads, collapsed bridges, fallen trees and vehicle break-downs are all par for the course. Our teams thrive on overcoming challenges like these – be prepared to get stuck in and push occasionally! Natural phenomena like desert sand storms, early monsoons, landslides across key routes, winter coming early, gale force winds and driving snow can all make for a more interesting time on the expedition.
In some areas our teams explore, we rely on local food sources. This can often be outstanding (but can also be very average) and we always make the best out of the resources available. In other cases, we will supply filling and high-calorie dehydrated expedition foods (ration packs)
Part of a Team
Secret Compass fosters a team mentality across all its expeditions and projects. Like all teams you will have a leader who will give direction to your progress. Crucial to your team’s success – especially when the going gets tough – is the attitude of the teammates working together to achieve the aim. You really are part of a team, not a cosseted guest on a tour. We ask teammates to muck in and help out any aspect of the expedition, from fetching water and helping to prepare and cook food, to carrying some group kit and equipment if required. The working language of all teams is English.
There really is no typical expedition member, though everyone needs to be fit, healthy and ready to take on the expedition’s aim by the time of departure. Participants range from 21 to 65+ in age and come from all over the world. Backgrounds include contract workers and engineers, IT specialists and students, teachers and literature lovers, journalists and keen photographers and so many more. What bonds our pioneering teams is their shared spirit of adventure and their sense of humour and positive outlook. A good teammate looks on the bright side when the 4×4 breaks down, the rain comes early and when a meal is distinctly pedestrian. Our teammates help each other, look out for each, encourage each other and help each other when needed. Our teams have done us proud in working together to achieve their common goal: the aim of the expedition. If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right expedition company.
You need a robust, spirited and can-do attitude to cope with demanding days and rough camping in rugged and wild places. You’ll cover good daily distances (generally carrying your own kit and equipment), eating expedition foods or relying on local food sources. These elements combine to create the unique character of each expedition. On expedition, challenges, frictions and changes to plans are inevitable. Teammates should meet and relish these as an integral part of any arduous expedition and its ultimate success. Such things make the journey more interesting and are often most memorable parts when looking back.
Secret Compass is an expedition company not a tour company. Expeditions contain inherent risk. This is part of the appeal for teammates. We do not make expeditions safe as, by definition, that is impossible. We construct and implement a three-staged risk management approach to reduce risk to what we perceive as a tolerable level.
We conduct a thorough risk assessment of potential hazards and threats that may be encountered on the expedition and provide recommendations to reduce the likelihood of harm occurring/ severity if it does occur.
As part of our expedition plan, we detail actions to be taken to implement and resource the recommendations of the risk assessment. This includes a detailed medical and communications plan.
The expedition leader is responsible for dynamic risk management on the expedition itself.
Key risks encountered on this specific expedition include slips, trips or falls in remote areas whilst trekking, or falling from your boat on the river. If you would like to see the full Risk Assessment for this expedition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Incident Management and Medical
As part of the safety plan, Secret Compass has a full incident and emergency plan for medical and other emergencies. This will be discussed in full at the arrival brief, so everyone is aware what action will be taken. In summary, incidences are usually managed on the ground by the expedition leader in the first instance with remote support from Secret Compass’s 24 hour Operations Room including medical advice if required, before evacuation to the nearest appropriate medical centre.
It is your responsibility to understand the risks associated with adventure travel in remote areas. You also must understand that medical evacuation will take an extended period of time (potentially up to a day) and will require wilderness extraction techniques and long carries by stretcher. By joining this expedition, you accept the risks associated with the venture. If you require any more information on specific risk management for this expedition, or would like to speak to us about our medical planning prior to the trip, please get in touch.
Read team Testimonials or watch this short video featuring expedition teammates (filmed on location in Ethiopia) for an insight into life on expedition.
Terrain and River Conditions
The team will trek to Ben Lui through typical Scottish Highlands landscape. Expect rough, open moorland, boggy valleys and mountain-sides, and very occasional rocky scrambling. There may be occasional tracks or sheep tracks, but for most part there will be no paths. There will also be some river and stream crossings. Although Ben Lui is the only planned summit en-route, we will be crossing several ridges and colls with 500-700m of ascent.
The paddling phase will take you from the small, gravely rivers Cononish and Fillan to the wide and meandering lower River Tay with field and wooded edges, mud banks and sand beaches. Most of the time the water will be flat, but interspersed with whitewater sections, isolated rapids and occasional weirs. Most of the whitewater is grade 1-2, but depending on the conditions the Grandtully rapids can be considered grade 3 and the Falls of Dochart grade 4. Remember the nature of packrafting means rapids are easily portaged if required or if you are not comfortable with the whitewater elements. Loch Tay is 15 miles long and surrounded by mountains – wind behind is more common and will mean an easy, wind-assisted paddle down the loch, but a strong head-wind would make this section challenging and the team may pack away the rafts for part of the journey in favour of hiking.
The Scottish Highlands in September can experience anything from balmy, sunny “indian summers” to gales and rain. Most likely will be something in between but you’ll need to be prepared for all eventualities. Average temperatures in the highlands for September are a pleasant 15°C, during the day, dropping to 5°C overnight with rain or showers always a possibility. Of course these are averages so the team may have cooler, wetter or warmer weather and on the summit and colls temperatures can be 5-10°C less, with wind-chill or damp making it feel cooler.
In Crianlarich and in Perth the team will stay in a comfortable city centre hotel, details for both will be confirmed closer to departure.
On expedition you’ll wild-camp in tents. This will most likely be in one-person tents, but depending on what is suitable at the time with regards to COVID-19 precautions and what individual teammates are comfortable with, we may ask you to share a tent (single sex) to save on weight due to the unsupported nature of the expedition.
Meals are not included in Crianlarich and Perth for flexibility and due to restrictions on group sizes for meeting indoors. There are several options for food in Crianlarich and in Perth the team hotel is in the city centre with plenty of options to eat nearby or at the hotel.
On expedition Secret Compass will provide dehydrated expedition rations for breakfast and dinner – these are high-calorie and very tasty. We’ll also provide packed lunches – these will be simple but filling fare which will taste even better on a hillside! If you have any dietary requirements please inform us when applying. We also recommend you bring a favourite snack or cereal bar for each expedition day as a morale boost.
Your expedition leader will be carrying at least two methods of communication, usually a Satellite Phone or a InReach two-way communication device and a mobile phone. These will be used for regular updates to head office and for emergencies.
If there is an emergency and a family or friend is struggling to contact a team member, they can contact Secret Compass’s Operations Room on +44207 096 8428 and we will endeavour to pass on a message within 24 hours.
Cell Phone. You may have phone signal at times during the expedition, especially on summits or ridges and near towns, but it would be better to come with the mindset of taking the opportunity to switch off from everyday communications.
Here are some frequently asked questions that are specific to this expedition. Read our general FAQ too for questions such as ‘how do I join an expedition’ and more. Can’t find your answer? Contact SCHQ.
I’m a total beginner. Can I come?
Unfortunately not. Although this expedition is UK based it is still a challenging expedition and teammates should have experience of multi-day trekking carrying weight. You must be physically prepared as per the Fitness tab and Handbook’s instructions, ensure you have the right kit and that your boots are worn in.
Do I need rafting or other water-craft experience?
Not at all, training will be provided. The majority of the journey is still on flat water, and for the white-water sections packrafts are very forgiving and great for beginners. If necessary, higher grade whitewater sections can be avoided by portaging although teammates should come with the anticipation of rafting as much as possible. Rapids will be risk assessed on a dynamic case-by-case basis with the skill and confidence levels of teammate taken into account. Although no experience is required, a little paddling experience of some sort would be beneficial so that you know it’s an activity you enjoy.
Can I bring my own packraft?
Yes, contact Secret Compass to arrange the details.
Will there be phone signal?
Definitely not at all times and less likely during our trekking phase. Potentially patchy signal during the paddle, improving as we pass by towns. Your expedition leader will carry satellite communications for emergency use.
The forecast looks good – do I really need waterproofs?
Have you ever been to Scotland? Please take the kit list provided in your handbook seriously as Secret Compass only recommends things we think you might need. The weather can be variable at any time of the year in Scotland and indeed the UK in general.
Can I talk with other teammates?
Secret Compass will set up a WhatsApp group for this expedition prior to departure as it does with all expeditions. This will help you answer kit questions among yourselves and to perhaps organise shared lifts or meet ups beforehand if appropriate.
Can I charge my electricals?
There will be no opportunity to charge electricals once you have left Crianlarich.
What measures will be in place regarding COVID-19?
This is a quickly changing situation and we will be monitoring and reviewing Scottish restrictions and guidelines for COVID-19 safety over the coming weeks. Various measures are available and can be taken depending on guidance at the time of departure, some examples are below:
If, by the time of departure there are restrictions in place regarding the number of people or households that are allowed to meet outside, we will abide by these.
Apart from accommodation and meals in Crianlarich and Perth, the expedition is entirely outdoors and there is plenty of room to socially distance during all expedition activities outside of emergency situations. This makes the expedition phase very low risk with regard to COVID-19.
All teammates will be required to bring sufficient hand-gel for the duration of the expedition to maintain good hand hygiene.
Shared group equipment such as stoves or water filters can be designated for one person only to be in charge of carrying and using each item if required.
Hotel rooms and tents will be single shared, unless members of a household are travelling together.
We may require you to bring a face-mask for group transfers.
Expedition ration packs only require the addition of boiling water to prepare, and your expedition food will be individually packed into sealed bags at least 72 hours prior to departure if required.
If COVID-19 regulations mean we are unable to run the expedition then our new booking promise means you will be entitled to a refund if desired, or a credit note.
I live outside of the UK, can I join the expedition?
Yes of course, but as with all of our expeditions, ensuring you comply with entry requirements for the country an expedition is held in is the responsibility of individual team mates. This may include a visa, if required, or in the current situation, additional COVID-19 related entry requirements. If you are joining this trip from overseas you may be subject to additional COVID-19 related entry requirements such as mandatory 14-day quarantine. You can find more information on COVID-19 related restriction on entering Scotland here. Please ensure you research and monitor the requirements for your own personal situation.
Will you transfer my luggage?
No, each phase of this expedition is self-supported with the only outside logistical support being a drop-off of packrafting equipment and re-stock of group food at Ben Lui. Luggage not required for the expedition cannot be transferred from Crianlarich to Perth, so you must bring only what you need and will carry for the expedition, or make your own arrangements.