West Highland Way

If you want to see the Scottish Highlands, may I recommend walking them?  Hiking nearly 100 miles through bogs, freezing wind and rain, and clouds of midges may not seem like much of a vacation, but I would disagree.  I wanted to keep going once I reached the end seven days later, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  The scenery along the West Highland Way, people you’ll meet, and places you’ll stop at can only be experienced by completing such a walk.  And it’s cheap – I only had to pay for travel and supplies.

A fingerpost sign points back to the Way after a detour off the trail

Looking back at Glen Falloch and the remains of stone buildings

Gallery: West Highland Way Photos

In the beginning, I was somewhat upset that I wasn’t backpacking through more desolate country.  When I go on multi-day backpacking trips in the U.S., I try to get as far away from civilization as possible.  This, however, is the U.K. and desolation is hard to come by.  And why would you want to go to a foreign country and not at least have some interaction with the people and their culture?  The West Highland Way was the perfect mix of backpacking, camping, desolation, and culture.

My tent sitting in Glen Coe, behind the Kings House Hotel. A nice place to stop in for a pint and some food after a long day of backpacking. Scotland.

How and When to travel

Options for completing the West Highland Way

There are a few ways to walk the West Highland Way.

  • The first is to carry a ruck with some extra clothes and stop at B&Bs or inns along the way.  The longest you’ll ever go without seeing one is about 12 miles (4-6 hours).
  • The second way is to hire a carry service to drop your bags off at each place you’ll be stopping at either to camp or sleep in a bed.
  • The third and most difficult, and what I chose to do, is to carry everything and camp along the way.

Transportation to and from the West Highland Way

Getting to and from the West Highland Way is easy.  A bus from Glasgow International Airport takes you to Central Station where a 30-minute train to Milngavie drops you off at the start of the trail.  The trail then ends a mile from the train station in Fort William, where it is a pleasant 4-hour train ride back to Glasgow.

Looking up at the Devil's Staircase, an 850-foot climb constructed in the mid-18th century. Scotland.

Hikers climbing the “Devil’s Staircase”, an 850-foot climb up an 18th-century road.

Along the West Highland Way

The trail itself is extremely popular.  I chose to go in the third week of September.  School is back in session, the wind and rain haven’t arrived in full force yet, and the midges have largely retreated.

Midges, if you don’t know, are the scourge of the Highlands.  They are nasty little biting flies that will cover you in a dark cloud.  Fortunately, a slight breeze and Avon Skin So Soft can keep them at bay.

If you go from May to September, the weather will be more favorable and the days longer, but be prepared for swarms of both other walkers and the midges.

The trail is worn and marked well, so I dare say a compass and GPS are not needed unless you plan on leaving the path.  I used Charlie Loram’s “West Highland Way” (4th ed).  It is the only guidebook you will need.  In a convenient size, it has information on everything regarding the Way, and the maps are clearly drawn with distinguishing features and rough walking times.  I always knew where I was.

Some things to be prepared for

Footwear

Much of the trail follows old 18th-century military roads.  These are cobbled and are particularly hard on the feet.  It’s not like walking on packed dirt or even pavement.  After walking 15 miles with 40 pounds of gear (11 of which was photo gear), these hard uneven stones start to take their toll.  Make sure you have boots with sturdy soles.

The Way continues on the old road, with Glen Coe on the other side of the pass. Scotland.

Food

Gas for backpacking stoves is also difficult to find along the Way.  This is assuming you did not pack any per the Transportation Security Administration guidelines.  The cooking store at the start of the trail was closed when I started, and I did not come across another store that sold any until my third day.  They only carried large canisters of gas that would have lasted weeks, not to mention would have added a lot more weight.  There is a large camping store in Glasgow, and if you get there with time to spare, stop by and grab a small backpacking canister.  I managed with cold food and stopping in the various hotels and pubs along the West Highland Way for hot food.

Water

I didn’t want to carry too much water, so I had one 32-ounce bottle and did just fine with that.  With a filter, there are more than enough stream crossings to find water.  Just watch where you get it from – I’d avoid areas directly downstream of heavy grazing areas and farms.  If you don’t have a filter and don’t mind the weight of a lot of water, you can fill up whenever you pass hotels and pubs.

Gray Mares Tail waterfall is at the end of a short trail north of Kinlochleven

Go to the bathroom every opportunity you have – whether it be behind the trees or in a pub.  There are many long, straight stretches along the Way that have absolutely no cover.  This can be a problem on a crowded trail.

Weather

Don’t forget your rain gear!  No matter when you go, the weather can quickly change.  The first few days were a decent temperature but it was always overcast and raining.  My microlight rain jacket and backpack rain cover kept everything dry through some heavy rain.  It was impossible to completely dry out my rainfly, and the freezing temperatures on my last night had turned it in to a nice block of ice by the time I woke up.

The Way continues through Glen Falloch in morning fog. Scotland.

A tree grows in the middle of an old moss-covered stone wall. Scotland.

Do you have any experiences along The West Highland Way?  Share them below!

Official West Highland Way website

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