The 96 mile route through the Scottish Highlands from Milngavie to Fort William is one of the best hiking experiences we’ve ever had. It’s a challenging, exhilarating, emotional journey along historic paths, and surrounded by scenery so phenomenal it will stop you in your tracks at regular intervals. But there are a number of things that you should know before completing it, so don’t set out on your great adventure without checking out these essential West Highland Way tips.
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Pack Clothes for All Weather
Being from England, we’re quite used to changeable weather. That said, Scotland is a different beast! It’s the only country we’ve ever visited where it will start to rain, but when you look up there’s not a cloud in the sky. Blue skies and sunshine in the morning can turn into sleet and hail by the afternoon, and what is a path one minute will be a running stream the next if there’s a sudden downpour. Make sure you pack for all weather, and have layers for any eventuality in your day bag - we can’t stress this enough.
At times we felt like Lady Gaga performing in concert with the amount of outfit changes we were doing. One minute it was blazing sunshine and we were in shorts and t-shirt, the next it was tipping it down and out came the rain coats and jumpers. Scotland is well known for often throwing all four seasons at you in a single day and after experiencing it we can confirm it is no myth. The Highlands are even more erratic than the rest of the country, so do yourself a favour and be prepared.
Get Your Training Right
Though the West Highland Way is not an overly technical walk, as with any multi day hike it will still present a challenge, and therefore shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’re completing it over 7 days as we did, then you’ll be walking an average of around 14 miles per day, while your longest stretch will be almost 20 miles. Particularly if this is your first multi day hike, you need to be sufficiently prepared, which means getting out there and pounding the pavement.
Build your way up over a period of time until you’re comfortable walking around 14 miles, how long this takes will depend on the fitness base you’re starting from. You should also make sure that you train on similar terrain to the West Highland Way, as it’s not all paved paths and much of it is uneven. On top of this, if you’re not used to walking for a number of days in a row then you need to incorporate some consecutive walks into your training plan.
Use a Baggage Transfer Service
Another of our top West highland Way tips is to use a baggage transfer service. You might have some romantic notion that carrying your 20kg plus bag is all part of the experience. And in fact we met a few people who told us we were cheating by not having our backpacks weighing us down at all times. That was their opinion. But when we breezed past them as they grunted and sweated their way up the notoriously steep Highland mountains, we were certainly glad we’d opted for baggage transfer.
If you’re not sure what it involves, check out this article where we explain just how the West Highland Way baggage transfer service works. It’s super simple and it’s extremely cheap for the service that you get. We were evangelising about it for the whole duration of our walk, and along the way converted a few guys who were struggling with their backpacks. They booked on for a partial service as a result, as you have the option to use it from the start or for single stages.
Wear Suitable Footwear
Most walkers would make a blanket recommendation to wear hiking boots when walking the West Highland way, but this is something that we take issue with. We always hike in running trainers regardless of where we are in the world, from Machu Picchu to the mountains of Japan. We always select trainers with a good tread and feel that they provide all of the support that we need. Though some people think we’re absolutely mental for doing this, there are a number of reasons behind the choice.
Trainers are light, comfortable, and the thinness of the material means that they always dry out overnight if they get wet. The hikes that we do, including the West Highland Way, tend not to be extremely technical, meaning that you don’t actually need any specialist equipment. If you want to wear hiking boots then no problem, but trust us when we say that a good pair of running trainers will do the trick perfectly.
Break Your Footwear In
Whether you opt for hiking boots or trainers, perhaps the most important of these West Highland Way tips, is that you must break them in. That doesn’t mean going for a five minute walk around your local park to test them out. Breaking in should be done over a matter of weeks, and ideally a number of months. Wear them as much as possible and make sure you’ve tested them on terrain similar to that of the West Highland Way, which varies from tarmac roads to uneven paths with large loose rocks.
If you don’t break your footwear in properly you will completely jeopardise your chances of finishing the walk. When we completed it we met numerous hikers who had horrific blisters from wearing new shoes, and a couple of guys we got to be friends with couldn’t actually carry on after suffering for a few days in absolute agony. This tip goes for hiking boots and trainers as they both need time to mould to your feet. Don’t be the wally that cracks open a box of shiny new sneakers at the start line.
Get Some Midge Repellent and a Head Net
Multiple people had told us about the midges in Scotland, but for some reason we didn’t really take them seriously. We tend to find that in many instances people often exaggerate when it comes to how bad things like this are. And considering we’d never even seen a midge prior to rocking up to the West Highland Way, let alone been bitten by one, we took their warnings with a large pinch of salt. Big mistake.
The first day was fine, and we were feeling pretty smug with ourselves that we hadn’t caved and bought one of those ridiculous head nets we’d seen being peddled in shops at the start of the trail. By day two we’d realised the error of our ways. Seriously, I can honestly say that midges are way worse than mosquitoes.
These little guys relentlessly swarm in their thousands, and brazenly go straight for your head. By the end of the week Sarah had so many bites that her face was so red and pimpled, she looked like a teenage boy suffering with a severe dose of adolescent acne. Get a head net and take plenty of repellent, the one that we were recommended by the locals is called Skin So Soft and it works a treat.
Remember Your Dry Bags
When the rain starts on the West Highland Way, it can go on for hours, and sometimes even days. We were relatively lucky with the weather and only had a few days of bad rain, but when it did come down, it was no joke. A lot of the route is quite exposed meaning that there are few trees to shelter under, and because much of it is quite rural, you’ll have a job finding a pub or anywhere like that to cower in.
This means you’ll get soaked through, as will your bag, and if you’re not prepared with a waterproof bag cover, all of its contents. Even if you do have a bag cover, the rain still has a sneaky knack of finding a way in, so the best thing to do is to get a couple of dry bags for your valuables. Things like mobile phones, cameras and any other electricals you carry with you will thank you for it.
Get a Filtered Water Bottle
Water is freely available in abundance along the West Highland Way route. You walk the entire length of the stunning Loch Lomond, and after the second day you’ll come across a waterfall at a rate of about one every twenty minutes. Though the water looks fresh, it’s not advisable to drink it directly as you can’t see the bacteria that might be in it. We met a guy whose wife had fallen ill from drinking untreated water along the route a couple of years ago and had to pull out.
In order to not get dehydrated it’s a good idea to drink around two to three litres each day while you’re walking, but carrying all of that with you will significantly weigh you down. We packed our fantastic Water to Go water bottles, which filter out 99.9% of the bad stuff that water can contain and just filled up whenever we were running low.
It meant we were carrying a maximum of 750 ml of water at any one time, weighing a lot less than the 3 litres many people plump for. Get your hands on one before you start, they really are a great investment.
Take a Camera
The West Highland Way has a reputation as one of the most beautiful hikes not just in Europe, but on the entire planet and we met people who’d come from all over the world to complete it. The scenery we encountered along the route is some of the most breathtaking we’ve ever seen and we’ve been to our fair share of stunning locations.
Part of our job is to take photos to document the amazing places we visit, so we always carry a camera with us, but you really don’t want to miss out by not packing one. Waterfalls framed by pink and purple flowering plants, vast sparkling lochs, rolling green hills and panoramic views of craggy mountains are just some of what to expect.
Bring a plastic container
We happened upon this one by accident as we hadn’t actually planned to bring plastic containers with us at all. But the night before the walk, we stayed with a couple of good friends in nearby Glasgow, and they very kindly made us a packed lunch for our first day hiking. The plastic container they put it in turned out to be a great idea to carry in our backpacks for a number of reasons.
Firstly, with everything else that went into our day pack, it would have been easy for our lunch each day to get squashed and battered by the other contents. Fruit, sandwiches, chocolate bars etc. would all have been worse for wear by the time it came to eating them.
Not only that, but the plastic container also acted as a kind of insulation. If you’ve ever walked with a backpack on you’ll know that your back gets extremely hot and sweaty, and in turn the stuff inside your bag gets hot and wet. The plastic container stopped that from happening to our food, and even our essential sugar boosting chocolate bars stayed fresh and didn't melt.
Follow the Signs
We were slightly worried before setting off that we should have spent some time learning how to read an ordnance survey map in the event that we got hopelessly lost in the Scottish Highlands. Or at the very least printed off one of the maps available on the internet of the West Highland Way route that lots of other people recommend.
Turned out we didn’t need anything like that as the route is impeccably signposted for the entire way and it would have been extremely difficult to go wrong at any stage. So though it’s an obvious piece of advice, make sure you follow the signs and you’ll be reet. Don’t worry too much about maps and that stuff, it’s really not necessary. We got the whole way without one, so can you.
Don’t Worry. You Can Do It
The fact that the West Highland Way is almost 100 miles and takes most people over a week to complete can make it quite a daunting prospect. But really, if you’ve trained properly and broken in your shoes then there’s no need to sweat it. It’s not a race, it’s an experience, and no matter what pace you walk at you’ll meet plenty of people to keep you company along the way.
As we’ve said a couple of times already, this is not a technically difficult walk. That means there is no rock climbing, no dangerous spots to navigate and nothing more difficult than a couple of slightly steep climbs. The West Highland Way is a wonderful and exciting adventure that should be enjoyed, not suffered. So don’t worry, you got this. You can do it!
Planning on walking the West Highland Way? Let us know in the comments if you've got any questions.