Walking the Scottish West Highland Way is a great way to experience Scotland’s beautiful nature. The trail is well maintained and takes you through a big diversity of landscapes with in particular the characteristic moorlands. The people who set out the trail around 1980 did a good job in keeping it interesting. In ‘Hiking the West Highland Way’ you can read all about the trail.
Walking the West Highland Way is not particularly hard and you do not need a great level of experience. Overall, the trail is quite flat and there are only few occasions where it rises and you have to make an effort. It is almost impossible to get lost because most of the time there is only one road and otherwise there are well placed waymarks. All kinds of people can walk the West Highland Way. I have seen families do it and even grannies and grandpas.
Although the trail is not that hard, you should not underestimate it. For example, weather conditions can be horrendous and can turn a day of happy walking in a day of survival. The trail is in total 152 km so you need to be able to walk at least a couple of days. Some areas between the villages are quite desolate with no shelter so you cannot just stop. In order to make the West Highland Way a pleasant experience you need to come prepared. You want to enjoy the nature and the freedom without any worries. But how do you have to prepare? Here are a couple of things to think about.
Choose the right time to go
When it comes to hiking, the weather is always something to think about. I once red in a magazine that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Well, this is not entirely true. I think most people will agree on the fact that it is much more fun to walk in the sun than in the rain. No matter how good your clothes are, everything will still get wet when it rains. No nice picnics, no nice mountain views and it is definitely more exhausting to walk in the rain. Chances are high in Scotland that you will have rain or hail and snow but there are a few months with a bit more sun.
Winters can be harsh and unforgiving. The cold and the snow will make things hard so unless you are up for a real challenge, you might want to skip that season. Spring can be unpredictable but from May you will have more chance to see the sun. Plants are starting to flower and the temperatures are pleasant. Because these months are busier it is harder to find accommodation but camping has become a good option as well. May and June are good months to go and so are September and October.
In July and August it is high summer so with better temperatures you would think these months are a good time to go. But something else likes these months as well, midges! There can be loads of them and with few people around, you are and easy target. They are very small but can dominate your whole experience and something tells me it will not be for the better. This is really something to keep in mind.
Choose your kind of accommodation
The choice of your accommodation has everything to do with the size of your backpack. If you choose to camp, your backpack will be much heavier than if you decide to stay in an hotel for example. You have to bring your own tent, a small mattress and tools for cooking if you want to prepare your own meals. Your backpack will easily weight 16 kg or more. Camping can be a lot of fun but if you miss the strength to walk days with a heavy backpack I would advise to choose a different kind of accommodation. I shall explain the options.
Because the Highlands are quite remote, the options for accommodation are limited. Villages are very small and in some cases not more than a hotel and a house. It is possible you have to book a hotel or bed & breakfast way ahead. During the trail you cannot change your schedule because you need to be there on that specific date. If you like to have more flexibility and freedom you can choose to camp. You do not have to make reservations and you can choose how far you want to walk on one day. Sometimes you can even camp in the wild and some people consider going back to basic and being close to nature as a great feeling of freedom.
Along the trail you will find a couple of campsites with showers and toilets and sometimes a small store. Keep in mind that not every village has its own campsite and in bottle necks like Inveroran and Kingshouse you have to camp in the wild. ‘Wild’ in this case means next to a hotel so you have the hotel bar to warm up and have a meal but in some areas you can choose to really camp in the wild.
For the people who do want to camp but are not able to walk with a big backpack there is a special service called ‘Travel Light’. They pick up your luggage in the morning with a van and drop it off at your next destination. Of course you can also choose to use this service if the bag turns out to be too heavy for you along the way. Camping is by far the cheapest option but when it rains life can be quite hard.
Bunkhouses and hostels
If you do not want to travel with a heavy backpack and want to travel on a small budget, bunkhouses and hostels are a good option. Still, bring your own sleeping bag. Bunkhouses are wooden cabins and hostels are shared rooms. Most of them have cooking equipment or otherwise a restaurant close by. They do not have bunkhouses in every village so you have to adapt your schedule to it. Know that on time you have to leave the trail to sleep in Glencoe. You have to take the bus to get there or hitchhike.
Hotels, bed & breakfast and inns
The luxury version of the trail involves hotels, B&Bs and Inns. In all cases you will have your own room and a nice warm bed. You will be able to travel very light and you will get a breakfast in the morning. In the hotels and inns you can have dinner as well so everything is set. A B&B is a sleepingroom in some ones house. They offer you a bed and a breakfast. For some places like in Inveroran and Kingshouse you have to book way in advanced because it is the only option. It is much more expensive but it will make the trail much easier. The downside is that it is less adventurous. One word of advice, spoil yourself at least the last day after you have finished the trail with a nice B&B.
Bring the right equipment
Bringing the right equipment is one of the most important things on a hike. It can truly make a difference in a wonderful or horrible experience. Do not go for cheap. It can be a disaster if you tent turns out to be not waterproof. Nowadays there is excellent hiking equipment which is light and compact and it is really worth to spend some extra coins on it. If you are going to sleep in hotels and B&Bs you do not have to bring much but it is a difference when it comes to camping. I will give a list with things you really want to bring if you are going to camp along the trail.
- Good shoes: it is so important to bring good shoes. They need to be solid and waterproof and it is wise to have worn them more often before you are going on the hike. Otherwise there is a big chance you will get blisters.
- Backpack: big enough to bring all the things you need. Around 55-70 liter.
- Raincoat and trousers: it is very likely you will have rain during the trail and you do not want to end up with wet clothes. It can be hard to get them dry if you are camping so better avoid it.
- Rain cover for your backpack: because you do not want to sleep in a wet sleeping bag.
- Warm sleeping bag: the nights can be quite cold and even in May it can get below freezing.
- Sleeping mat: your muscles will be tired after a day of walking so a good sleep is important. Although it is not as good as a real mattress, it is better than nothing.
- Small pillow: sleeping mat.
- A light tent: On hikes like these, every extra kilo counts. You want to travel as light as possible so spend some money on a good tent. Of course you want it to keep the rain out as well.
- Water bottles: you need to drink enough and you can fill them everywhere. I usually bring two.
- Walking sticks: your legs will have to carry a lot of extra weight during the trail and it is easy to get injured. With walking sticks, your arms can take a bit of the weight.
- Cooking equipment: although it is not truly necessary because there are enough possibilities to eat in pubs, it is good to bring some cooking equipment like a stove, fuel and a pan. You never know, maybe you got stuck somewhere and need to cook for yourself. Also bring some instant food like pasta.
- Medical kit: just a basic kit with some medical things like bandage and aspirins. You never know what happens.
- Mobile phone: in case you need to call for help.
- Flip flops: to give your feet a break from the intense time you will spend with your walking shoes.
- Trailblazer West Highland Way guide: It was a really good guide with a lot of information. Basically everything you need to know. The good thing is that they use small maps and finishing these maps really keeps the spirit high.
Choose the villages where you want to sleep
On the West Highland way you will cross around 20 villages, one bigger than the other. In all these villages you have different kinds of accommodations. Some have campsites and some have not for example. You need to make a schedule depending on your accommodation and your stamina. Do you want to walk the trail in 6 days, or maybe 9? You need to know this or have some kind of idea before you start. You need to know where you can sleep and how long you have to walk per day. Take it easy if you are inexperienced. 14 – 20 km a day is more than enough and set out the best possible schedule.
Know where you can buy food
In almost every village along the West Highland Way you will find a place to eat. A pub or a walkers bar in a hotel. So if you are not wild camping you can have dinner and breakfast in the place where you sleep. You will not always find a pub around lunchtime and maybe you want to cook for yourself so once in a while you have to do groceries. Not many villages have a store so you have to plan where you want to do groceries. Get the information before you leave so you will not get in trouble once you are walking.
Get in shape
You will have to walk for at least six days in a row so you can image it requires a certain level of stamina. If you get injured, the hike is over so you need strong legs in order to avoid this. Personally, I think jogging is the best way to get fit. I tried walking once a week in preparation as well but it did not work for me. So go jogging and make those legs stronger.
These are pretty much the basics when it comes to the preparation for the Scottish West Highland Way. Keep these things in mind and you will have an amazing experience in Scotland’s beautiful nature.
Let me know if you have any good tips you would like to share!