All You Need to Know about Hiking the West Highland Way
Do you plan on hiking the West Highland Way? Do you wonder how to prepare for it? You are in the right place! I walked the West Highland Way trail over a year ago and it was truly life-changing. I had a lovely time but I’ve made some mistakes, too. I would love to share some ideas, tips, and advice so your time on the most popular Scottish trail is only positive.
Why hiking the West Highland Way?
West Highland Way is probably the most famous trail in Scotland. It takes you from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow all the way to Fort William, 154 km (or 96 miles) to the North.
It was officially opened in 1980 and became the first officially designated long distance footpath in Scotland. Thousands of people walk the WHW each year, and for a good reason – it takes you through a wonderful variety of terrain and breath-taking views.
If you think I'm exaggerating the "breath-taking views" thing - check my post love letter to Scotland - in photos. I'm right, aren't I?
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There is really no surprise why WHW is such a popular trail. It can be done very fast or leisurely over nine or ten days. You can adapt it to your own physical strengths or length of vacation time.
What is great about the West Highland Way’s popularity is that for most of its length it has a very rich accommodation base – B&Bs, hotels, and campsites – every tourist can find something that matches their budget or preferences.
When you add to it the Scottish approval for wild camping, you are free to spread your daily hikes as long or short as you want.
This is of particular importance when you are a beginner and you are not really sure if 10 km a day is a lot or not. That was my problem – as I started the hike after many, many years of hiatus, I had no idea how my body would react.
I was surprised how tired I was and that I didn’t make it to the planned campsite. My expectations based on other hikers' experiences were unrealistic. The good thing is, there was another campsite a couple of miles before that I could stop at.
If you are not sure of your own capabilities, be flexible and open – don’t beat yourself up for not making some made-up “daily distance”. There are many options and it’s better to cut something short than to risk injury or feel so miserable your whole adventure becomes torture.
How should I prepare for hiking the West Highland Way?
First of all - learn about the trail, so congratulations: that's what you are doing now. Read some good descriptions - I can always recommend the awesome website Walking Highlands where you can find detailed descriptions and maps of every possible trail in Scotland.
I loved reading also hikers' reports to learn even more. I even copied and downloaded them to my kindle to ease my anxiety. If you are as anxious as me - I recommend doing this.
You can read about the trail also in my reports from it:
If you plan on staying at hotels and B&Bs - book them early on, they are all booked in the summer!
If you plan on camping - check what your options are for camping and staying at bothies along the West Highland Way.
Get your gear ready and make sure you break in your boots early on. Do some trial hikes if you can - also with a weighted backpack. If you can't do that (I couldn't) - plan on heaving the first few days easy and shorter to let your body adjust to the sudden change in usage.
Clothes and gear for hiking the West Highland Way
I have prepared a detailed packing list for women hiking and camping solo in Scotland and I advise you to take a look (no matter if you are a woman hiking solo, there are tips for everyone).
The most important things are:
Don’t wear cotton – grab merino and/or synthetic tech wear.
A waterproof jacket is a must. If you want, you can also grab a pair of waterproof pants.
You may want to hike in shorts or have zip-off pants to adjust - depending on the season.
I hiked in very thin fast-drying pants and I don’t think anything thicker is needed. I personally prefer to wear warm upper clothing. If you plan to hike in spring or fall, soft-shell pants and waterproof pants might be a good idea.
Try to go as light as possible - you may use the luggage transport company or simply pack only the most important things. Depending on your budget, try to get the lighter version of the heaviest things - your shelter, sleeping mat, camping cooking ware and sleeping bag. Don't take too many clothes, it's really not needed. You may want to take a look at my guide to lighten up your hiking load for ideas and tips.
There can be mud and bogs. Sometimes, after rain or dew, the grasses are so wet that you are soaked up to your knees within minutes. The good thing is, your pants should dry fast. If you want, you may want to get gaiters, just remember that you sweat under them.
Protect your clothes from moisture – use a few dry bags of different sizes and colors to have your clothes, documents, electronics, and sleeping bag dry. This is particularly important if you are using a down sleeping bag. Make sure your backpack has a rain cover - if it doesn't, buy one.
A head net is a very useful piece of gear. The more to the north you go, the more vicious midges get. Those tiny little bastards are truly annoying. Have a good insect repellent as well, of course. And on a similar note - yes, you need to be prepared for rain but don't be surprised with sunshine! Make sure you have a sunscreen on you as well.
Scotland is very wet - there are bogs and streams (burns) everywhere. The good side of it is, that if you have a water filter you don't need to carry a lot of water on you because you can just fill your bottle up as you go. But remember to use the filter - there are a lot of sheep and cows around, you don't want to drink the water directly from a stream.
Grab a pair of trekking poles with you - there is a lot of uneven ground, loose stones, mud, and roots on your way. Trekking poles provide balance, support for your knees and serve as the perfect probes to check the depth of a mud puddle.
Take a look at some of the gear I use and recommend below:
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Carry it all or let others do it when hiking the West Highland Way?
Another good side of the popularity of this trail is that there are companies that will carry your big luggage for you, so you can go on hiking with just a day bag. The downside is, you need to know your accommodation ahead of time (if you want to stay at B&Bs or hotels you have to book well ahead of time anyway).
I carried all my stuff will me which was really difficult for such a newbie. If you want a light hike and/or if you have health issues preventing you from carrying heavier bags – this is the perfect trail for you.
How to get to the start of hiking the West Highland Way?
Most people do the trail south to north and that’s what I did. I think this is the better way, as you walk each day to better and better views. If you plan on doing the same thing – go to Glasgow. It’s easy to reach by planes or trains. You can choose to spend a day or two sightseeing around the city. I was unlucky with a nasty weather so hardly could see anything.
I also did something unorthodox- I skipped the first stage from Milngavie to Drymen. I’ve read it was mostly rural fields walking and I’m not exactly a fan of that. Now I regret it a bit – and I hope to go back one day and do it all again properly – from the very first step.
You can reach Milngavie by local bus or train easily. Trains run hourly from the Glasgow Central, a bus will take about 30min and goes every 15-20 min. You can check this website for bus schedules.
There is a train between Fort William and Glasgow to easily go back after you finish or to start from there. Fort William is kind of an adventure capital of the Scottish Highlands with multiple trails starting there and the famous Ben Nevis demanding your full attention.
What weather should I expect hiking the West Highland Way in the summer?
Well, you have to be prepared for everything (maybe except for snowstorms) - even when hiking in the middle of summer. I had a couple of sunny days and a few overcast. I had heavy rains with strong winds.
Make sure you have all the appropriate clothing with you and dress in layers. One thing you can be sure – there will be rain (unless you are extremely lucky). The temperature can reach 30*C (unusual) and can drop to around 10*C.
It means, again: layers, layers, layers – and no cotton! If you need some ideas as to what to pack and wear – head over to my Scotland packing list for women (men will find it useful as well).
Check out some of your options for hiking underwear and base layer:
And for a light insulating mid-layer:
What should my budget be for hiking the West Highland Way?
I went way over my budget when I was in Scotland. Most of it was my own fault – I just underestimated my own needs and the cost of small things in bigger numbers.
If you are doing the West Highland Way only, it might not be all that bad, but there are a number of great cafes and restaurants on the way where you might want to stop by and have a drink or lunch. I thought I would be avoiding them but after a long and hard hiking, you just feel you deserve a treat (and you do!).
But those are not that cheap – a tea or coffee is around 2-3£, a meal is a minimum of 10£, usually much more. For breakfasts only you will pay in the range of 6 - 11£.
Make sure you always have extra cash for unplanned expenses, including an emergency taxi or train rides.
The campsites cost around 10 – 12£. I have no idea what the price for other accommodation is, as I didn’t use it.
What skills do I need for hiking the West Highland Way?
The West Highland Way is a very well marked trail and rarely should you run into troubles. That said – if the weather is bad and thick fog falls, you might have a hard time seeing where the next trail mark is.
Have a map with you, GPS on your phone and a downloaded map of the trail. Never use just phone for navigation, but have it as a support. Have a compass on you and learn basics of using it – it might be useful with thick fog.
You do not need any special mountaineering skills, there is no serious scrambling along the way.
Hiking the West Highland Way, similar to any other trail, requires knowing and following the Leave No Trace rules. It is not difficult to follow them if you read and prepare ahead of time! Taking the typical Scottish weather into consideration, it’s worth knowing a few things about camping and hiking in the rain.
Take a good care of your feet when hiking the West Highland Way
Blisters are the biggest party pooper out there. I also got two huge ones when I hiked the WHW - mostly because I didn't know at the time how to look for symptoms, when to stop and how to treat them. Now I know better and rarely get any anymore. Here are a few tips:
Wear two pairs of socks: first a very thin liner with CoolMax (or other moisture wicking fabric) and then merino wool-mix socks. If you carry a heavier backpack, use thicker socks with more amortization.
If you already know what are the spots on your feet likely to get blisters, tape them ahead of hiking. Use the kind of tape boxers use (fabric, non-elastic) or even duct tape. I know I am prone to get blisters on the inner sides of my heels, so I just stick a long piece of tape under my heels and I am good to go.
The moment you feel a hot spot forming - stop and treat it! Don't wait till a blister appears.
If a blister appeared - don't pierce it. The risk of getting an infection is just too high and not worth it.
Some people swear by Compeed, I hate them. They are expensive and b/c I used them under my heels (stepping on them when hiking) they oozed some kind of glue goo into my socks which was unwashable - I had to throw away two pairs of sock liners. Expensive liners. I prefer regular bandaids and sports tapes.
Have some kind of camp shoes/slippers to let your feet rest.
Always have a pair of dry socks to sleep in. After a whole day of hiking, clean your feet (wet wipes if you have no access to water), let your feet air dry, and then put on the dry socks.
What kind of people are hiking the West Highland Way?
There is very little chance to walk the trail in complete solitude. But all the people I met on my way were wonderful. There was this fantastic feeling of solidarity and common purpose. I am telling it as an introvert and social anxiety sufferer!
If you are thinking of hiking the trail solo – go for it! I am a solo hiker and I met some other soloists on the trail. You will have the option to walk alone or to join some other smaller and bigger groups of people.
If it is the first solo adventure you plan on doing, it’s probably the best choice. Even if you injured yourself, there wouldn't be a long time before some other hikers come and find you. There are also farmers or small villages not far from trails.
The more to the north you go, the more secluded the area is. If you worry about the more deserted regions – join other hikers.
Throughout my month-long hiking in Scotland, I didn't meet any man who would have made me feel uncomfortable - and I met some while being alone and even staying with them alone in bothies. I can highly recommend hiking in Scotland for solo female hikers!
Accommodation when hiking the West Highland Way
I think the best way to find your zzz's on the West Highland Way is to camp. There is something magical when your tent has the view to the mountains or a loch and you can’t hear any town’s sounds. You can also legally camp in most of the places along the trail.
You are forbidden to camp in some areas along the Loch Lomond - check the website to see the map. What you need to know, though, the ground doesn’t always cooperate. Some of the areas are so boggy, you just won’t be able to pitch your tent. In the second half of the trail, forget about using a hammock – there are no trees.