Juls Stodel, a long-distance hiker and bothy enthusiast, is on a one-woman mission to spend a night at every MBA bothy in the UK.
At the halfway point, 50 bothies in, The Great Outdoors chats with Juls about ‘survival mode’, bothy code and the many miles in between as she waits out a weather front in order to continue her big walk between every Mountain Bothies Association shelter in Britain.
The Great Outdoors: What inspired the Big Bothy Walk?
Juls: In June, my landlord decided to sell my flat. Nowhere else was renting. I ended my lease, put my belongings into storage and set off on an adventure. I wanted to stay at all of the MBA bothies in the UK, making the journey on foot where possible. It’s not just about the buildings or the landscape, but also about embracing the culture and history of these shelters and their former lives.
The Great Outdoors: What’s more exhausting – the walk or the logistical planning of the walk?
Juls: While the walking has taken me outside my comfort zone, the constant mental work is far more wearing. Often, I’m planning three routes for each day in case the weather turns, the waters are in spate, or a path no longer exists. I have to keep in mind my food supply, how I can stay dry or warm, whether my power bank will last until the next civilisation, and how long I can stand smelling like an old gym bag before I absolutely have to do laundry.
The Great Outdoors: Tell us about the postcards.
Juls: In each bothy I leave a blank, stamped postcard with my parent’s address. In my bothy book entry, I ask people to write back. About two-thirds of the postcards make it back to me and I’ve received wonderful stories and drawings from MBA volunteers, families, and from people who, like me, gave up on a normal life and just keep moving.
The Great Outdoors: Can you recall your most memorable night in a bothy so far?
Juls: At Greensykes – the second bothy I reached – my bothymate was Eddie Dealtry, one of the first Marilyn completists, who I’d written about on my blog. I was quite starstruck. I might’ve told him I’d been doing this longer than three days so he wouldn’t think I was an idiot! We were joined by a man who’d lived in Antarctica. I got to hear a lot of stories. If I’m the least interesting person in a bothy, it’s going to be an excellent evening.
Another I remember fondly is my only all-female bothy at Glencoul. I was walking with Emma Schroeder and we met another woman, Margy, who’d undertaken her first proper hike to reach the bothy. It was like a high school sleepover – snacks and ghost stories. We went swimming in the loch in the morning and Margy joined us for the next two days. Probably 80% of the people I’ve shared with have been men, so it was fantastic to get a ladies’ night.
The Great Outdoors: Which bothy has really saved your skin while you’ve been hillwalking?
Juls: Sourlies is a damp, dark place that lets in the wind and has a fire that doesn’t work, but the journey there was such a nightmare that it became the cosiest place in the world. My second venture into Knoydart – in a biblical deluge. The mountains turned silver under the water flowing down them. We had to perform water crossings earlier than hoped and ended up diverting over a rockfall. Paths became fast flowing streams and the land was thigh-deep bog. I have never been more soaked in my life. I had almost no strength left by the time Sourlies came into view. Heavenly light and angels singing couldn’t have made it feel like any more of a blessing.
The Great Outdoors: You’ve had a few scrapes and gained a few scars so far – can you tell us what happened?
Juls: In Arrochar, I badly misjudged a swollen water crossing. My first step was fine. My second was not. I was smashed off my feet and carried away, convinced I would die in three feet of water. After flailing and fighting I managed to grab a bank and pull myself up, only to find I was trapped on a small island. With my tent and my bag drenched, I was exposed, going into shock and hypothermia and unable to get back across the waters that knocked me down. I made a call to Arrochar MRT; the first time I have ever had to call Mountain Rescue and I wasn’t even on a mountain!
That event didn’t leave a scar, but I do have a nice V-shaped chunk ripped out of my left hand after getting caught on barbed wire on my way out of Resourie. My horrific hip blisters from that over-saturated Knoydart crossing have forever left a mark on my upper arse, too.
The Great Outdoors: How do you keep yourself entertained on these longer winter nights?
Juls: A lot of non-hikers may like to think I’m doing cerebral things like learning about stars or quietly drawing. In reality, I have every episode of Below Deck downloaded so I lose myself in trash TV. If that gets boring, I’ll probably be playing air guitar and singing loudly and badly.
The Great Outdoors: How do you feel about the MBA at this stage of your Big Bothy Walk?
Juls: I’m even prouder to be a member now. The work done by volunteers to maintain the shelters, and their history, is incredible. When I have finished this, I will put myself forward to become an MO.
The Great Outdoors: What’s been the most frustrating break of bothy code you’ve witnessed?
Juls: The bothy code isn’t hard to follow. There are only five rules and none are complicated. But, sadly there are repeat offences; bad toilet practices and leaving rubbish behind.
The one that most angered me was at Gameshope. Set in an area of rewilding, Gameshope doesn’t have a fire in order to protect the environment. Numerous signs ask that fires are not lit. While I was there, a group started a campfire outside the front door. I did protest loudly, but ultimately, not loudly enough. Their fire left a huge scar. I made a bothy report, but still feel upset months later. For many, having a fire is a part of a bothy experience – but if that is the case then go to any of the 90% of bothies that have fires and leave ones like Gameshope alone.
The Great Outdoors: And, to cheer us up a bit, a moment that restored your faith in humanity?
Juls: Bothy culture itself – strangers sharing whatever they have; fuel, food, or just stories – restores my faith in humanity. It’s a culture based in trust, respect and mutual appreciation for wild places and the small piece of history we have the privilege of sheltering under for the night. I may have set off on this journey solo, but there’s no way I’ve been doing it alone.
The Great Outdoors: Can you talk us through your decision to take a break – for now?
Juls: When it starts to consistently feel less enjoyable and become more of a chore, I know I should pause. Looking after one’s mental health is extremely important; whether you’re out for a day, or you give up your home to walk for an indefinite period of time! I took a short break in September, and there’ll be another at some point, to allow my brain to stop existing in ‘survival mode’.
Follow Juls’ Big Bothy Walk on Instagram @over_stepping.