Top Tips to Safely Explore and Enjoy Caithness and Sutherland – by Sue Agnew of Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

Walking in the Wild

We’re lucky enough to live, work and play in one of the most interesting, varied and diverse areas of countryside in Scotland. We welcome visitors to come and explore our stunning landscapes, and make their own memories. It has been, without doubt, one of the strangest years most of our generation has experienced. But there are many positives, and one is that many more people have taken time out of busy lives to appreciate and explore the great outdoors.

Image: Distant craggy mountain stands proud against a vibrant sky with gentle puffy clouds around it.

Ben Loyal - Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

And what better place to do this than in Caithness and Sutherland. Where else in Scotland can you traverse from stunning sandy beaches of the east coast, with coves and stone steps to small harbours; views from the north to the almost touchable Orkney Islands; a hinterland in the centre with bogs and wet pools reflecting the vast skies within the internationally important flow country; to the west coast experience of a land of small lochans and isleberg mountains rising from the vast landscape in the North West Highlands Geopark. But please don’t do this in a day! Take your time to explore, and build your memories where your mood and the ever-changeable weather may take you.

Image: Two mountain rescue volunteers practice lowering a stretcher down a rock face on a bright sunny day.

Near Laxford - Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

There are many chances to step off the beaten track and have a real adventure. Safely. There are plenty of guide books and websites that will give you ideas for walks from low-level easy rambles for the family, to more exciting adventures exploring the summits of peaks, or wild and remote destinations. You should consider carefully the levels of difficulty, what experience you need to tackle them safely, and very importantly, what equipment you should take and where to check the weather. Have a look at the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, so you are familiar with how to explore responsibly. We are lucky in Scotland to have one of the most inclusive access rights in the world, but we must respect others, care for the environment and take responsibility for how we use this right to access. Finally, always let someone know where you are going.

Image: Mountain Rescue Landrover sits on a turf-covered field with distant mountains in the background and a helicopter flying overhead.

Ben Loyal - Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

I’ve been a member of the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team for over 15 years. As volunteers, we have a network that covers all of Caithness and Sutherland, available 24 hours a day to assist search and rescue of anyone in trouble in the countryside. However, we would rather not be taken away from our day jobs, our families, or our own leisure time. There are many times we’ve just started the BBQ, or settled down for the evening, when the phone goes and we are called out to look for someone who is lost or injured in the countryside.

We know not all accidents can be avoided, but we do ask everyone to follow some very simple advice to try and stay safe.

  • Know what you’re doing before you go and do it; the mountain/route/adventure will always be there for another day if the weather isn’t right, or you don’t feel confident.
  • Make sure you always carry the correct equipment – our weather is changeable, and it’s a rare day that you won’t need waterproofs in your pack, or hat and gloves.
  • Take food and, if its cold, a hot drink with you, and water – although our mountain water is generally safe to drink.
  • Ideally, if you’re going somewhere remote, a bothy shelter is a simple and light addition that can get you out of the cold and wet if you need it.

Most important is having a map and compass for those adventures, and know how to use them. You might be heading for a summit that you can clearly see at the start of your walk, but the weather can change and before you know it you are in thick cloud and have wandered off the path. It’s really important you have some kind of communication with you – mobile phone or tracker system, so you can call for help. But keep your mobile phone switched off to save the battery while you are walking – and keep it away from your compass as it can interfere with it.

Collage of four images: Each image showing mountain scenery in different weather: sunset, night, rain and clouds, and blizzard.

Plan ahead to stay safe and enjoy - Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

There are plenty of places to go for skill refreshers or some training – and a lot more can be found on line now. The Mountaineering Scotland website has plenty of tips on ‘skills for the hills’ as well as current advice on coronavirus. And of course there are many organisations and guides available to help you too. It can help make your adventure more exciting – and safer.

And remember, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. If you do go wrong or have an accident, it may take a little longer than usual for help to arrive. We have to keep our own team members and their families safe, and even with the increase in vaccinations, there is still a risk of transmission. If for any reason you do need help, please call 999 and ask for mountain rescue.

Image: Mountain Rescue volunteer crouches by an empty stretcher as a helicopter lands on the grass not too far away.

Sandwood - Assynt Mountain Rescue Team

Enjoy the great outdoors – it’s a stunning part of the world which is there for everyone to appreciate and love. Please do it safely and with consideration for others who live and work here.


Assynt Mountain Rescue Team is a Charity that relies on donations to enable us to save lives. There are 35 volunteers based throughout Caithness and Sutherland available 24/7 to help people. Sue Agnew is an active team member and has held roles of Deputy Team Leader and Team Leader. Donations can be made through JustGiving.com/assyntmrt.


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