Tips for Hiking Scotland’s West Highland Way
Last winter we reviewed Saoirse “Story” Ibargüen’s favorite gear for an AT thru-hike. This time, Story is going trans-Atlantic to provide you with some tips on how to hike Scotland’s West Highland Way.
Story originally hiked the West Highland Way as her first thru-hike in 2016. However, now that she has more miles under her hipbelt, she decided to give it a go again. Saoirse used the knowledge she gained over the past five years of thru-hiking to compile some tips for West Highland Way Hikers that she wished she had her first time on the trail. Below are Story’s 18 tips for hiking the Highland Way.
(1) Do not be Fooled by the 100-mile Trail Length
This trail is deceiving. It will not be one that you can easily do massive 30+ mile days on as the bushwhacking and elevation profile of the trail makes a heightened pace extremely difficult to maintain.
(2) Plan Ahead for a Good Weather Forcast
You are going to want to plan for the weather. While this is difficult, especially in Scotland, pay attention to seasonal weather trends and long-term weather forecasts. Otherwise, you might miss out on sunshine all together.
(3) Bring a Map and/or The Guthook App
While there is a great system of guideposts along the trail, just like with all trails, the guidepost occasionally disappears making it imperative to have a backup. Having a solid backup can save you a massive headache.
(4) Start in Milngavie
The trailhead is right in the center of Milngavie. Luckily, it is easy to take a train to Milngavie from virtually anywhere in the UK. As a bonus, Milngavie has some great resupply options right in town.
(5) Take a Train from Fort William
The final terminus of the West Highland Way is in Fort William. Luckily, just like in Milngavie, it is easy to take a train back to wherever you need to go. So skip the expensive cab ride and enjoy the UK’s great public transit system.
(6) Allow 5-9 Days the Hike the Trail
While travel length will vary from person to person, if you want to take time to enjoy the full cultural experience of going into towns (and their pubs) you will want some extra time.
(7) Stay in Hostels
As the trail goes by so many towns, you can stay in hostels virtually every night if needed. This makes the West Highland Way a great trail for people who are new to hiking and who might not have their overnight camping gear set up all sorted out yet.
(8) Be Prepared for the Cold
This is Scotland. It can be cold any time of year. So bring your puffy, insulated hat, or whatever your favorite piece of cold gear is to avoid an uncomfortable – and potentially dangerous – situation.
(9) Pack for Rain
Bring your packliners, rain layers, and all your waterproofing gear. Oh, and you are going to want to bring lots of extra socks. If you don’t, Scotland’s notorious rain will wear you down.
(10) Use the Drying Rooms
Speaking of the wet weather, many of the hostels along the trail have drying rooms. These rooms will help you and your gear dry overnight – making it much easier to get back on the trail the next day.
(11) Get Ready for a Rocky Trail
This trail is EXTREMELY rocky. Almost every step you take will be entirely on rocks of different shapes. According to Saoirse, it makes the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail look like soft and easy singletrack.
(12) Be Aware of Which Campsites are Paid Vs. Wild
While you are allowed to wild camp across much of the trail, there are some paid official campsites along the trail to watch out for. They can become especially important in the few areas along the trail where wild camping is prohibited.
(13) Watch out for Midges & Ticks
Midges can make it very hard to enjoy being in the outdoors during summer in Scotland. That said, if you are used to the blackflies of New England, you will be more than fine. The scenery will be plenty worth it – just bring your bug net and your bug spray.
(14) Go Swimming in Loch Lomond
It might be cold, but it is a tradition and absolutely gorgeous. Even if you only hop in for 30 seconds it will be invigorating and a great way to cool down after a long day of hiking.
(15) Don’t Fret About Water Sources
There are plenty of water sources along the trail. Just make sure to bring your filtration systems.
(16) Be Prepared for How Exposed the Trail is
The Scottish Highlands have almost no trees. You are going to be going between bare hills and open valleys for almost the entire trail. You are going to want to bring appropriate sun and wind gear. In addition, with how exposed the trail is you need to watch out for storms. Don’t be afraid to run into a nearby hostel rather than hiking through bad weather with no cover.
(17) Add Ben Nevis to Your Trip
Ben Nevis is the highest Mountain (or Munro as they are called in Scotland) in the UK. It is really easy to add Ben Nevis to the end of your trail as it is very close to the terminus at Fort William.
(18) Stop at Green Welly Stop
This is the most important tip – go to the Green Welly Stop. If you want to do the trail in a week – and only resupply once – then this is the place to do it. Plus, it has basically everything you could ever need during a good town stop (gear, food, and a restaurant ) all in one place.
The West Highland Way is one of the premier short-distance trails in the world. Armed with these tips from Story, you will be one step ahead on your trip panning.
Most importantly, remember to always hike your own hike and make the most of whatever the trail throws your way. Happy Hiking!
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