Brambling’s West Highland Way tips
Travel Tips | 29 March 2021
Travel Tips | 29 March 2021
Our West Highland Way tips are based on our trip on the famous route in early autumn of 2018. It’s by no means a complete list – as you’ll soon discover, there are many excellent sites with useful information and we’ll try to link them up here for you as well. What we tried to do is get your imagination working and show that taking on a week-long trek can be a great way to experience and enjoy Scotland.
Hard to imagine that last year the famous West Highland Way celebrated only its 40th birthday. All its 96 miles (or 151 kilometres, if you prefer) connecting Milngavie on the edge of Glasgow with Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis offer not only stunning views and physical challenge, but also a chance to meet amazing, like-minded people along the route. To let you enjoy WHW at its best, we decided to break down our personal tips into two categories.
First of all, try to consider when you would like to hike the West Highland Way. Many people think that high summer guarantees the best weather. As much as this can be true, it is also the busiest time of the season and crowds on the trail can make it less of a spiritual experience. In our opinion, Spring and early Autumn are way better (you can find all the reasons for visiting golden-brown Scotland in our previous post). We started our walk in early September, got a good mix of weather (and you do need to experience a proper Scottish downpour at least once to earn the bragging rights!) and never had to endure crowds.
As a long route, West Highland Way needs to be hiked over multiple days (unless you have the stamina to conquer it in one go during the WHW race). This means you can assess your fitness level and adapt the stages to your comfort. Apart from a few more challenging stages like Conic Hill before Loch Lomond and Devil’s Staircase in Glen Coe, the way is suitable for all able ramblers. Most people tackle it in 7 or 8 days, breaking the distance into manageable stages, usually aiming for a particular place to spend the night.
Planning your accommodation beforehand is crucial. Depending on when you decide to go, the spaces in inns and bed & breakfasts might fill up fast in high season. Even if you decide to camp, we recommend booking all your tent pitches in advance, as in many places the spaces are limited. Same goes for wild camping – we had no issues finding a spot for the first night in the wood next to Drymen, but due to camping bylaws in the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park you have to book a space in the few places designated for wild camping. If you do decide to hike WHW the old fashioned way, make sure you know and adhere to all the regulations of the Scottish Outdoors Code. Being able to enjoy the wilds of Scotland in this way is a hard-earned privilege and we should always make an effort to use it well.
The last, but crucial bit of pre-hike planning is training for the WHW. If you’re not regularly walking for long distances, it’s a good idea to get some practise in before you take on the Highland paths. Start with setting yourself a short distance goal and gradually extend it so your muscles and stamina can become accustomed to continuous effort. Gradually build up distance upon different terrains (and in different weather!) so you can be prepared for anything. We simply made an effort to go for regular hikes with our friends, ending with a proper all-day climb with filled backpacks, but there are many ways to prepare at your own pace.
Now that you know when and for how long you are venturing into the Highlands, it’s time to complete your gear. Again, much depends on the weight you want to carry and the style in which you want to hike the trail. If you want to take it easy and use one of the bag carrying services, you don’t have to worry that much – simply put together a big backpack with change-over clothes and overnight essentials, as well as a smaller backpack with things you’ll need on the route. But if you want to be self-sufficient and rely only on what you carry, you have to think smart, and you have to think light.
First things first – the shoes. We won’t advertise any brands, but high-ankle hiking boots are ideal for this kind of adventure. Wrong footwear can cut your hike short, so make sure you have suitable footwear and use it for at least a few walks before you tackle West Highland Way. Then you need your waterproofs. No matter what time of the year you choose, you’re more than likely to experience a few rainy days on the mountain paths. But as the old saying goes – there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing. A dependable and light rainproof jacket with a hood is a must, we also recommend waterproof over-trousers which in our case came in handy more than once. If you want to carry everything in a big backpack, you might want to invest in a waterproof cover – it will save you from using the drying room at every campsite. Finally: the clothes. We approached it from the multi-layer perspective. A breathable undershirt (merino wool ones keep you dry and don’t smell even after a few days of use), then a warm but breathable polar top, softshell jacket and a waterproof over-jacket when needed. Hiking trousers and a spare change in case of accidents, good thick socks and sport underwear also made things more comfortable. Your training hikes in preparation for WHW will give you a chance to work out a combination that works best for you.
If you decide to stay closer to nature throughout the journey and camp, you will need a tent able to withstand heavy rain and wet, windy conditions. For chilly Scottish nights you’d probably be safer with a three-season sleeping bag, and to fill your belly with nutritious grub you will possibly need cooking equipment – unless you plan your route from pub to pub, which is absolutely doable!
No matter what style and pace you choose, you should pack your backpack full of snacks (more is always better than less) and get ready for the most vicious beast of the Scottish glens: the midges! These annoying insects can make every camping or pitstop unbearable, so do yourself a favour and grab a good midge repellent (we used Smidge, other brands are also available). You might also consider getting a net for your head – they cost pennies, but in the worst places give you a little bit more comfort.
This list is by no means exclusive (especially if you’re camping wild you should think of a few other essential items), but the last of our West Highland Way tips is this: take some good company! Even though it’s easy to meet good people on the route itself – as well as inns and pubs along the way – facing the distance, weather, midges and exhaustion is much easier with a few pals sharing in the joy. Our rambling party consisted of two couples, which gave us a good balance between interacting along the way and having some time alone from time to time. We camped together, killed time chatting or improvising a roleplaying game on rainy days, and shared a pint or two at the end of a long day. This human factor complements well the stunning beauty of the Scottish outdoors, so you can start your planning by sharing our post with you friends and forming a party to conquer the legendary West Highland Way!