The Cairngorms have long been at the top of my adventure destination list, with the promise of dramatic mountain landscapes and raw untamed beauty. Living in the South East of England, I can get to France quicker than I can get the Scotland by most forms of transport, so travel time holds me back, as well as money.
Last year I took a sleeper train to Fort William, which is a similar travelling distance to the Cairngorms from my home in Kent. This was great for travelling overnight, thus saving two days worth of daylight for the journey, but it had a hefty price tag of £180 return, and I didn’t sleep a wink. This time around, I didn’t have the budget to use the sleeper again, but overnight travelling is a great way of saving time (and days off work) so when planning my Cairngorms adventure, I wanted to find a cheaper way of making the journey at night.
Saving money on Travel
In my student days, I often travelled on the Megabus from London to Southampton, sometimes for as little as £6 return. I wasn’t sure whether Megabus could get me anywhere near the Cairngorms, so I logged on to the website for the first time in few years to see what I could find.
I was thrilled to discover than I could take a coach from London Victoria to Aviemore and back again for only £17.50 at the beginning of July, giving me two months to plan the rest of trip, so I booked straight away.
From past experience, I knew that I was unlikely to sleep well on the Megabus, but I had high hopes that it wouldn’t be too awful. And for less than £20 return, two nights of crappy sleep seemed pretty bearable.
Being able to get to the national park and still have change left from a twenty, inspired me to try and do the whole trip for less than £50. A few days of adventure for the price of an average meal at a restaurant seemed like a brilliant challenge and a bargain. Having enough disposable income can feel like a huge barrier for most people when it comes to adventure, so achieving this would surely make any future adventure plans feel more within reach.
The Ryvoan Bothy | An Lochan Uaine (The Green Lochan) found along the path to the Bothy.
Sleep for free
Accommodation is usually the next biggest cost (if not, the biggest) of any trip, so finding a way to reduce the cost of a bed for a night was vital to staying within my new £50 budget. My first thought, as this was Scotland, was wild camping.
I’ve been wild camping a few times in southern England, but in Scotland it is much easier as it has less restrictions. As long as you respect a few simple rules, you should encounter no trouble when pitching up your tent for a free night under the stars. A great way to save money (once you’ve invested in all the gear) – and wild camping makes for a great adventure all by itself.
Another option was sleeping in a Bothy – which, if you don’t know already, is a small basic building which is free to use for hillwalkers and wild campers maintained by The Mountain Bothies Association charity (if you do decide to stay in a bothy, please consider supporting their hard work). Since hearing all about them from a blog post by Alastair Humphreys, I’d wanted to experience a night in one.
I researched Bothies near Aviemore and discovered the Ryvoan Bothy – a simple yet beautiful building with mountain views, about an hour’s hike from Glenmore Visitor centre, on a good path. It sounded like the perfect first timers Bothy.
The great thing about using a Bothy or wild camping is that neither of these require booking. However, there is no guarantee that the Bothy you visit will not be occupied to full capacity when you arrive. Knowing this, I decided to mainly wild camp but try and spend a night in the Bothy if I could, to mix things up a little and hopefully have my first bothy experience.
Note: When researching the area, I discovered that the Pine Marten Bar in Glenmore very kindly offers shower and toilet facilities for wild campers, asking only that you buy something from their shop – a great solution for staying clean over the weekend and stocking up on essentials.
My base expense for travel and accommodation was now at £43.70 which I’ve broken down below.
- Train tickets from my home in Kent to London and back £15.90
- Megabus return ticket from London Victoria to Aviemore £17.50
- Bus ticket from Aviemore to Glenmore Visitor Centre and back £5.30
- Donation to Mountain Bothies Association £5.00
Beautiful pine forest along the path toward the Ryvoan Pass.
Eating on a budget
Already having invested in some basic clothing and camping gear over the past couple of years, meant that I didn’t need to buy any specialist equipment for the trip. I also have a OS maps subscription, so I downloaded all the maps I wanted to my phone for use offline and printed suitable copies out onto paper to take with me. So this just left the issue of food to sort.
Regardless of whether I was at home or in the Cairngorms, I was going to need to eat. So you could call this creative accounting, but I decided that if I could bring it with me or find it in a supermarket in the area, it shouldn’t be factored into my budget usage, because it would be the same as eating at home. I was only going to count it if I spent money on it in a restaurant, cafe or bar.
I bought a couple of dehydrated expedition style food packets to take with me from my local camping shop, just to save on pack weight. You could say that I wouldn’t sit at home eating one of these, therefore they should have been factored into my special costs for the trip. But at just over £4 per meal, I figured that a meal made at home from scratch could easily cost the same per head (although freeze dried food is nowhere near as appealing or delicious as steak and chips!) and I was carrying it with me from home.
Along with these, I packed some ‘just add water’ porridge, some granola bars, a couple of pieces of fruit, some sandwich thins and a tube of primula cheese. I also took some teabags and some powdered milk. My tiny camping stove is only good for heating water, so anything to be eaten hot, needed to be able to be made with only boiled water in a mug or in its own package. Evidently, this wasn’t going to be the most gourmet of weekends away.
Hiking around Loch Morlich and the Rothiemurchus Estate.
My trip to the Cairngorms
My trip to the Cairngorms was everything I imagined it would be – a fantastic adventure. I was incredibly tired after the 14 hour bus journey, so the first afternoon was spent looking around Aviemore before getting a bus into Glenmore and getting a feel for the area.
I spent my first night in the Ryvoan bothy, surrounded by beautiful mountain views. The hour long hike through pine forest to reach it was stunning, despite some rain. As common with sleeping in a bothy, you never know if you will have it all to yourself or not. So in addition to myself and my partner, the bothy was shared with a lovely couple who had been on a climbing course in the area, a young man who had driven over from Ireland that day and a couple of hungry mice.
In the days that followed, we did some hillwalking around the area, climbing Meall a’ Bhuachaille which gives amazing views over Loch Morlich and across to Cairn Gorm mountain. We also visited the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and learned about the history of the reindeer herd that roams on the mountain nearby. We wild camped next to Loch Morlich and walked the trails around it. We also visited the cosy Pine Marten Bar one evening for a drink and to listen to some live music. On our last day we jumped off the bus at Rothiemurchus Estate and hiked through beautiful forest to another Loch nearby before walking in to Aviemore to catch our coach home. All of this was free, except for £3.50 to enter the Reindeer centre and the glass of wine in the bar.
I have to be honest. I did actually end up spending over £50 on this trip – but hear me out, it is perfectly possible to do all of the above and spend less than £50. There were two reasons I went over budget and both things were avoidable. The first reason was food. I am a foodie and it’s a weakness when it comes to trying to save money on any trip. My budget was self imposed just for challenge and as I could afford to spend a little more than £50 for the weekend, I caved. And i’m not sorry. Some delicious things were consumed.
Now the second reason I went over £50 was because of sleep. It turns out that Megabuses are horrendous to be on for 14 hours and sleeping on them is nearly impossible (especially if you are a light sleeper and normally require earplugs to get a full nights worth in your own bed, like me). By the last night of the trip, tiredness took its toll and I was dreading the return journey. I felt that if I could have a decent nights sleep beforehand, I might just be able to function on the day I got home, thus not wasting the day catching up on sleep or spending it in a totally zombie-like state. So, I booked a cheap nights stay at the hostel in Glenmore. Yup, i’m a princess.
So, I did spend more than £50 but, less than £100 for the whole weekend. I still think that’s a winner. I value thriftiness, but let’s face it, you don’t want your adventure to feel like a punishment – and you really shouldn’t miss out on the Cullin Skink (Fish Soup) from the Rothiemurchus Café, if you can stretch your budget a little. I look back feeling like this was the perfect balance between enjoying those little luxuries, along with the great outdoors. And anyway, every good adventure should probably end by a fire, in a cosy village pub.
I really hope this doesn’t leave anyone feeling cheated by the title of this blog post. The aim of sharing my experience is to hopefully give a little inspiration and help spark some ideas for planning your own budget adventure. This challenge has shown me that if you’re willing put up with a little discomfort and go without some luxuries, you can get a lot of adventure for a surprisingly small price tag. Adventure doesn’t have to be expensive to feel epic.
We would love to hear about your own ideas for and experiences of budget adventures – comment below or if you’d like to submit your own budget adventure story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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