10 beginner tips for walking the West Highland Way
A friend, Hilary, recently walked the West Highland Way with her 11-year-old daughter Holly. The 96-mile walking trail is the most popular walking route in Scotland and some 50,000 people from across the world set out to complete the trail from Milngavie, near Glasgow, to Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands every year. (The West Highland Way can also be walked in the opposite direction, from north to south.)
Hilary has written her top tips for walking the West Highland Way from a novice’s point of view. She has kindly allowed me to publish these for the benefit for others who hope to complete this famous Scottish walking trail. It is possible to do the West Highland Way as a guided tour as well.
Top tips for walking the West Highland Way (from an amateur)
1 Plan your journey well in advance
There is a West Highland Way website, which is a tremendous source of information. It breaks down the route into different sections depending on how long you want to take to walk it.
When my husband and son, Paul and Jamie, did it two years ago they did it in six days, which was a bit tough so we decided to do it in seven days.
The website then lets you decide how to split your journey, which then lets you see where you need to book your accommodation. It also gives you information about all aspects of your journey from what to take, to where to stay.
Editor’s note: Also see Walk Highlands.
2 Think about your budget
It’s not that cheap to do the West Highland Way. Even if you camp along the way (although see point four) there is still a lot of equipment to buy. You also need to have accommodation for every night en route, so the longer you take, the more it will cost you.
There are lots of options for where to stay, from tents, to hikers’ huts, to B&Bs, to youth hostels, to hotels. We did a mixture of all of these.
Our favourite was our first night in a B&B in Drymen (we felt we could have come home that night but wanted to properly embrace the “journey”). Jane at the Shandon Farmhouse B&B looked after us extremely well and it was our most comfortable night.
The hikers’ huts on the West Highland Way are warm and much better than camping, but the two we stayed in straddled our longest day and we could really have done with a proper bed on those nights (and en suite toilet!) and you need to bring your own sleeping bags and pillows, which considerably increase your luggage requirements. But they keep your overall costs down.
It’s definitely worth having some of your nicer accommodation towards the end of the walk because by then everything is sore and having a bath and a close toilet are especially welcome then.
3 Book your WHW accommodation ahead
You need to do this early, especially if you are planning to do a walk of the West Highland Way at a busy time, including spring, summer and autumn. In some places, there are lots of options, but depending on your route, other points have limited places to stay and you will be a bit stuffed if the only accommodation is full.
For example, Rowardennan, a common end to day two on the WHW is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There is a pricey hotel and a youth hostel. We stayed in the youth hostel, which was great and has a very picturesque setting, and we had dinner, cooked breakfast and a packed lunch there, too. Holly and I had our own room but these can book out so it’s worth getting everything booked up well in advance.
4 Don’t camp (IMO)!
Obviously, you can camp if you want but whatever time of year you choose to do this, remember it’s the west of Scotland and likely to pour with rain at least some of the time. You will have no opportunity to dry things if you camp.
You will just have really long days of walking, carrying very heavy rucksacks, and then have to pitch a tent on water-logged ground before freezing overnight, and then pack all your wet stuff up again in the morning to set off and do it all again the next day.
Every time we saw anyone camping on the West Highland Way, we thanked our lucky stars it wasn’t us.
Editor’s note: Camping is a cheaper option, especially in Scotland where the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows for wild camping. It’s important to note the Camping Management Byelaws in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park between March and September, because the West Highland Way goes through the national park. You can book to camp in the zones (cheap) or walk at least 200 metres away from the trail to wild camp.
5 Book your baggage to be carried for you
We tried to be sparing with what we took but still had tons of luggage for completing the West Highland Way. And we used all of it. There is no way we could have carried it on our backs every day.
There is a whole host of companies that will take your bags from accommodation to accommodation on the West Highland Way for you for around £35 to £45 per bag.
But beware if you are thinking of doing this in the October school holiday week because quite a few of the companies stop at the start of October. We eventually found (thanks to marvellous Jane at the Shandon Farmhouse B&B) Go Haggis who keep going a bit longer than most of the others, but after October you’d be hard pushed finding anyone to do this for you.
6 Bring the right gear
This is really important for West Highland Way walkers. I’ll break it into sections.
Clothing: It is worth investing in a few good items of clothing for this. Whatever you wear, your feet will get sore, but it will be much worse if you wear the wrong footwear.
Much of the terrain is rough, stony ground and almost all of it (for us anyway) was water-logged. Get a good pair of boots and lots of pairs of socks. We had to re-use socks a number of times over but at least we managed to dry them overnight.
I would suggest proper waterproof trousers and gaiters (if you get soaked first thing in the morning you can stay freezing all day) and a properly waterproof coat (ideally a thin shell that you can wear on top of lots of layers as you can end up hot while walking, and wet, and it’s easier to take off underneath layers and keep the outside waterproof one on to stay dry).
Food: Stock up on portable, non-perishable snacks before you leave. There is little opportunity to buy these en route, and even if you can, you won’t be inclined to take long (or short) detours to shops after walking for miles during the day.
I advise lots of chocolate/nuts/energy bars/whatever you fancy to last you the week. Also, before you leave, go through your itinerary and make sure you know where each meal is coming from.
If you’re staying in a hikers’ hut, is there somewhere you can have breakfast and what are you doing for a packed lunch?
Most of the sections of walks don’t have somewhere you can buy food en route so you will need to have a packed lunch with you as you leave each morning. Most of the places on the way will provide you with packed lunches if you ask, but it’s worth checking in advance.
General equipment: You’ll need a wee rucksack each for during the day on the West Highland Way to carry food, extra clothing layers, painkillers, water etc. We bought rain covers for our rucksacks, which came in very handy as we got absolutely soaked on a few of the days and everything inside our rucksacks would have been wet without these. (Editor’s notes: Dry bags inside the rucksack work well, too.)
Think about the collapsible walking poles. We didn’t have these but for a few of the days we used large sticks, which helped a lot with support. But they did get a wee bit cumbersome at times and it would be useful to be able to fold them up and carry when not required.
Take as many Compeed blister plasters as you can buy. These are actually magic. And they stay on even if your feet spend the day soaking wet submerged in puddles. Stick them anywhere that feels like it’s remotely rubbing and hopefully you’ll see off many blisters before they come.
And, finally, take plenty painkillers. You will need them.
7 Bring the right company
You are going to spend a lot of time with whoever you choose to do the West Highland Way with. We had a wonderful time but it was tough going. Everyone on the West Highland Way walk needs to be completely invested in getting to the end. I cannot imagine having to cajole a reluctant traveller for the whole journey.
8 Track your progress
I took my Garmin watch with me, which I usually use for triathlons/training. But it has a “hike” setting on it, which meant we could see how far we had travelled on the West Highland Way and how quickly we were going each day.
This was actually really useful to give us an idea of how long we had to go.
I also downloaded an app (Trekright: West Highland Way) which was really useful as it plotted us directly on the West Highland Way map using GPS so we could see where we were in relation to the route of the day.
The West Highland Way is well signposted, but every so often you come to an intersection and it’s not entirely clear which way to go and it was a really helpful tool for making sure we were on the right track. It was also the thing that stopped us going too many miles off track on day two when we went in the wrong direction.
(Editor’s notes: Viewranger is also an excellent app for your smartphone.)
9 Take lots of photos
The scenery on the West Highland Way is truly spectacular. Photos don’t really do it justice, and you need to appreciate it as you go along (see point 10!) but there were times when we were tired/sore/wet/grumpy and couldn’t be bothered stopping for a minute to take a picture but I made myself stop.
Not only did it make us appreciate the view at the time, but we’ll have a lovely chronicle of our journey in years to come.
10 Just do it!
If you are tempted to walk the West Highland Way, or thinking about it, then just do it. I’ll never forget this week I’ve had with Holly and I hope she won’t either.
The further we got into the countryside, the further our stresses and strains of every day life drifted. I will always treasure the quality time we had together over the week, but also the challenges, laughs and views we shared, as well as the people we met on the way. I cannot recommend the West Highland Way strongly enough.
Please do send me any tips you have for walking the West Highland Way.