I became homeless and was battling depression… so I decided to hike the UK coastline, wild camping along the way

  • Bristol native Jim McIlwain began his hike in Somerset in January of this year 
  • For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 
  • READ MORE: The best places to visit in 2024 named by Lonely Planet

A dad who found himself homeless and struggling with his mental health has revealed how he made a complete lifestyle change and spent eight months trekking the UK coastline, wild camping along the way. 

Before this incredible trek, Jim McIlwain, 45, had spent the last six months of 2022 couch-surfing in his native Bristol, trying to hold down a job while suffering from depression. 

Things came to a head in November last year, when he went missing temporarily and tried to take his own life, something he hopes to never put himself or his two children through again. Jim, who formerly worked as a roofer, told MailOnline: ‘I’ve always battled with my mental health ever since I was a teenager. I tried ending my life when I was 18, and I’ve always battled through life with no help whatsoever.’

On Christmas Eve, he became homeless. He said: ‘I was at breaking point. I was sitting in my car with nowhere to go, thinking, “I need to find a way out of this situation I’m in.” I was trying to keep my mind from going back down that path, and I was just so sad and depressed.’

Jim had always enjoyed hiking and camping and found it had helped him mentally in the past. He recalled: ‘I had a bit of a dream and a bit of a vision about walking the coastline. The next morning I went and saw the mother of my daughter and I told her my idea and she said: “Jim, that’s the best idea you’ve ever had.”‘

After finding himself homeless last year, Jim McIlwain (above) decided to make a complete lifestyle change and trek the UK coastline, wild camping along the way

Jim had always enjoyed hiking and camping and found it had helped him with his mental health in the past. ‘I’ve always battled with my mental health ever since I was a teenager,’ he said. Above is Jim’s view from Ben Nevis in Scotland 

To make money for hiking supplies, he sold his car for £700, and on January 8 of this year, he set off on his trek, his rucksack filled mostly with clothes. 

Originally, he planned on walking along the coast of England and Wales – but that plan soon changed. He said: ‘Me being me, I just kept going, so I went a lot further than I expected to go. I was only going to walk England and Wales, but I decided to venture up into Scotland and I fell in love with it.’

His starting point was Lilstock Beach, near Bridgewater in West Somerset, with his route taking him along the Devon, Cornwall and Dorset coast, along with a visit to the Isle of Wight. 

He then trekked along the South Coast to Dover, before venturing to London and heading up the eastern coast all the way up to Aberdeen. The last leg of his journey saw him trek around the northwest of the UK into Wales, where he visited Snowdon, before hiking all the way to Weston-super-Mare, where his journey finished. 

Jim on the first day of his eight-month hike. Bad weather proved to be one of the biggest challenges he faced on the trek 

Jim’s kit at the start of his journey. He struggled to cope with the weight of his bag, carrying 25 kilos (55lb) on his back every day

In the early days of the trek, Jim carried a 25-kilo (55Ibs) bag on his back every day, and struggled to cope with the weight. ‘Wherever I went, that rucksack went with me… anything I wasn’t using on a day-to-day basis, I quickly got rid of,’ he said, adding: ‘When I set off, I had seven pairs of socks, seven pairs of pants and a change of clothes. I quickly realised that I really didn’t need to carry all that kit.’

Three weeks in, he acquired a gas stove so he could prepare meals. Jim set up a GoFundMe page to help him pay for food, equipment and the occasional night in a hostel when the weather was bad. He donated what was left over to charity.

He said: ‘Once a week I needed to get into a hostel or get onto a campsite so I could just shower and recharge my power banks and stuff like that. I washed my kit and then continued.’

Waking up to stunning views and fresh air helped Jim improve mentally 

Wildlife became a source of joy for Jim and he regularly spotted animals including seals and dolphins

He said: ‘I’ve slept at bus stops, shelters on the seafront, churches, abandoned caravans, all sorts of places, anywhere, just so I could get through the night somewhere with a bit of shelter.’ 

Experiencing adverse weather conditions was one of the biggest challenges Jim faced.

He said: ‘The weather was one of the hardest things… if I was wet, I pretty much had to stay wet. And if I packed away a wet tent, there was nothing worse than setting up a wet tent later on in the evening.’ 

Despite the challenges, being outdoors helped Jim mentally and he created some amazing memories.

He said: ‘I think just getting out into the world and getting the fresh air in my lungs helped. And the wildlife just blew my mind. The amount of wildlife I’ve seen… thousands of seals, the dolphins, the birds – it just made my day.

‘I could be having a real tough, hard day, struggling with my feet, not eating… but I would see the wildlife and just sit there for hours. It was amazing. The wildlife was definitely one of the best things.’

Scotland is where Jim made some of his best memories, as he hiked up Ben Nevis and around Loch Ness.

He said: ‘I didn’t realise what a beautiful place Scotland was. Ben Nevis was probably my biggest achievement and it just blew my mind. It took me hours to hike up there and I did it all on my own. I thought, “I can’t believe it, I’m homeless and I’ve walked all the way up to Scotland, the long way round, and now I’ve just climbed Ben Nevis.”’

He described the views as ‘breathtaking’.

‘I was only going to walk England and Wales, but I decided to venture up into Scotland and I fell in love with it,’ said Jim 

Climbing Ben Nevis was one of Jim’s favourite memories from his hike – he hopes to return next year. Above is the view from the mountain  

Jim hiked past Durdle Door in Dorset (pictured). He described the views he encountered on the journey as ‘breathtaking’

Jim met many ‘absolutely amazing’ people on his eight-month hike including a soldier in Wells, Somerset. The pair sped-marched 25 miles (40km) together and are still in contact today.

He said: ‘Coming towards the end of my hike… I thought to myself, “What am I going to do when I get back? Because I’m still homeless, I’ve got nowhere to go, I’ve got no job, I’ve got no income, what am I going to do?”‘ 

He reflects: ‘I thought: “I’ll just go off and, well, camp somewhere.” But then I thought: “I can’t do that anymore, I need to work something out.”‘

When Jim finished his hike, he was offered a room to rent by a friend and recently secured a job. He said: ‘I’ve been there just over three weeks now and I’m really enjoying it.’

Jim isn’t finished hiking for good though. He regularly goes on walks and has high hopes for big treks and wild camping trips next year.

He said: ‘I want to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks. There’s the Outer Hebrides [in Scotland]. I want to go climb some mountains. Do Ben Nevis again. There’s so much I want to see and do in the future.

‘I’m going to keep doing it [hiking] at the end of the day, because I need to keep my mind focused and to stop myself wandering off to a dark place again. I don’t ever want to get to the stage in my life where I think suicide is the answer.’

For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit samaritans.org.

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