WEST HIGHLAND WAY
This post is basically just to sum up our overall experience on the West Highland Way, and to offer some tips and advice for anyone who is thinking about trying the Way in future. I’ve broken this down into ten points, some are just reflections on our own experience, and some include hints, tips and our recommendations for other travellers. I could probably have written a lot more, but I think these ten points conclude our trip quite nicely. Plus we still had loads of amazing photos left over that were too good not to include!
1. Refil your water
This is the most important of all my West Highland Way tips. Carry a water bottle with you at all times. I used one of the hydration bladders with the hose attachment which means you don’t have to keep stopping to take your bottle out of your bag. The downside of this was a plastic flavour every time I had a drink, but you get used to this after a while. I suppose the plastic taste will eventually fade the more I use it. The most important thing you have to remember is to refill your bottle at every single stop! We forgot to do this and were left dehydrated on the second day.
2. Take a guidebook
We used Charlie Loram’s West Highland Way guidebook which we found to be excellent overall. There are hand-drawn maps which take a bit getting used to at first, but he provides much more detail of things to look out for than if we’d brought a regular OS map. There is also information on accommodation, wildlife, plants, historical sites and everything else you might need to know while walking the Way.
We bought a second-hand version for a few quid from Amazon. It turned out to be an older edition which meant some of the maps were slightly out of date, but that didn’t really matter. The latest edition is also available but is a bit more expensive, so it’s up to you whether you can afford it or not. There are also lots of other guidebooks available.
We didn’t bring any other maps as the path is so well signposted it’s difficult to get lost. Perhaps you may need one if you were walking in winter if the paths become obscured by snow.
3. Wild Camping
We got a bit carried away with the idea of wild camping every night – it’s a great idea in principle as it allows you to get as close as possible to nature. However after two days hiking you WILL want a proper shower and a flushing toilet.
There is also a camping ban on the East side of Loch Lomond which limits your options on day 2. There is a wild campsite just past the Youth Hostel at Rowardennan, but as I mentioned previously it looked as though it would be swarming with midges. Plus there is only room for 2 or 3 tents maximum, so if someone is already there then you would have to continue on. The other option is the Bothy at Rowchoish, but that means you would have a longer hike on Day 2 which would cover some of the most difficult terrain of the whole walk.
There are lots of places on the Way which offer a campsite for a small fee, which still gives you the feeling of being outdoors, except you still have access to toilet and shower facilities. Everywhere we stayed was excellent, except By the Way at Tyndrum which I would suggest you avoid!
4. Tent size
We bought a 2-man tent since there were only two of us, but in hindsight it was far too small and left us with little space to store our bags and gear. A 3-man tent would have given us more storage space plus we could have spread ourselves out a bit more! So for anyone thinking of camping I’d suggest sizing up with tents and going for the extra space. If you intend to carry all your own gear then look at weight though when purchasing, there are lots of different options available. Pop-up tents tend to weigh less than those with poles, but may not be as sturdy in windy conditions, so that’s something else to take into consideration.
5. Foot care
You will need to invest in a proper pair of hiking boots with a thick sole. Trainers/sneakers are not suitable for long distance walking. Opt for breathable and waterproof if you can, and wear them for a few months beforehand to break them in. When walking wear thick hiking socks (available from sports/outdoor shops) or some people prefer to wear two pairs of socks to lessen any rubbing.
Even if you follow all of these rules though, chances are you probably will get blisters, unless you regularly hike 15 miles in a day. Take lots of plasters and Compeed – They can be expensive to buy at the shops on the Way, so stock up beforehand. I managed to get a multipack of 20 Compeed from eBay which was much cheaper than buying in the shops, but I still needed more while we were walking.
Apply the Compeed to your blister, and just leave it on until it starts to come off naturally – usually after a few days. Don’t try to pull them off too soon or you may rip the blister open before it has properly healed and cause more damage to your feet.
Painkillers are also good for sore feet – paracetamol tablets and ibuprofen. Buy the max strength ones or if you know anyone who can get prescription painkillers from the doctor then even better! There are also a variety of pain relief gels and muscle rubs available.
At night while you’re in your campsite or accommodation just wear a pair of flip-flops to let your feet breathe.
6. Bag service
There are numerous bag carrying services available, which transport your rucksack between stops, meaning you don’t have to carry it with you. You can pay for the whole thing upfront, but you need to specify which accommodation you would like your bag dropped at on which day, which ties you into quite a rigid schedule. Or if you’re not sure yet where you’re planning to be each day then you can just organise daily transfers by speaking to the reception of the accommodation you’re staying at. This option may be slightly more expensive overall, but it gives you some flexibility if you decide to have a shorter or longer day walking.
If you do opt for the bag carrying service then you will still need to carry a small day-bag with your food, water, sunglasses, fleece, etc. Anything you may need over the course of the day.
7. Schedule / Itinerary
Part of the reason we had hoped to wild camp each evening was that we didn’t have to follow any set itinerary and basically we could just stop whenever we wanted each day. We found out early on that this didn’t really work. We ended up sticking to the traditional 7 stages which are broken up in such a way that all 7 days have a similar difficulty level, and take around the same amount of time to complete. We had initially found it a bit odd that one stage was 20 miles, while the next stage was only 8. However the 20 mile section is mainly flat meaning you can maintain a good pace; while the 8 mile section has the steepest uphill climb of the whole Way.
The only change I would suggest to the traditional 7 day plan is perhaps walking from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy on day 4 (18 miles instead of 11) which would make day 5 slightly easier – instead of leaving from Tyndrum to Kingshouse you would be leaving Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse (13 miles instead of 20).
There are shorter itineraries available for more experienced walkers, and you can complete the walk in as little as 4 days, however this would mean an average of 25 miles a day – so only for the most experienced hikers. You can also spread it out and take longer to complete the walk – various itineraries for different lengths of time are available online.
The 7 days seemed ideal for us, as relatively inexperienced hikers. We found it challenging, yet we still had plenty time each day to have rest stops, photo opportunities etc. We could basically just take our time and do whatever we pleased. You don’t want to feel as though you’re having to rush all the time – it’s supposed to be enjoyable! Most walkers on the Way go for the 7 day schedule.
8. Which time of Year?
We had read lots of information and guidebooks before setting off regarding the best time of year to do the walk. Tackling the Way in winter should be avoided unless you are experienced in those types of conditions. The guidebooks advised us that the summer months were worst for midges, however I experienced more midges when I did the walk in May 2012 than we had this time in July. The amount of midges usually depends on the weather – they tend to like hot and wet conditions best.
Anyone who has visited Scotland before will know that the Scottish weather is completely unpredictable, so there are no guarantees of avoiding rain. May is the most popular month for walkers doing the Way as it tends to be slightly drier although that is not always the case. If you go at this time you would need to book accommodation well in advance as most places will be very busy.
Take clothes to suit all types of weather, as no matter what time of year you go, you are likely to experience all four seasons during your trip. The weather is unpredictable, the amount of midges is unpredictable, so there aren’t really any hard and fast rules about when you should attempt the Way – anytime between April and October is good for walking. Remember during Spring and Autumn the nights will be slightly colder if you’re camping, and also the days will be slightly shorter so you won’t have as much daylight to complete each stage.
9. Bring a hat
Bring a sun-hat / baseball cap – scorching sun is rare in Scotland, but if it does come out and you’re walking in it for hours then you’ll end up with sun stroke if you don’t cover your head. Alternatively lots of walkers choose bandana-type scarves which can be tied around the head, or worn round the neck in colder weather.
In regards to friendships, there will be times that your relationship with your walking partner(s) will be tested, as someone may be having a bad day, or bad moment. There will inevitably be a few minor arguments as well as laughs, so choose wisely when you are deciding who to come with. If it’s a partner or relative then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about, but last time I did the walk with a group of 6 girls, some of whom I didn’t know very well. The atmosphere was tense at times, to say the least!
Walking the Way you meet lots of new people – everyone is very friendly, and everyone usually says hello as they pass each other. You tend to bump into the same people each day, and usually end up building up quite good friendships and having lots of laughs along the way. We made lots of new friends that we still keep in touch with and have swapped photos on Facebook!
I hope you have enjoyed reading our West Highland Way adventure. We certainly had a fun time while out walking, and it’s been great to look back on all the photos again. This was our first walking holiday together, and certainly won’t be our last – we are already planning to get back out again once the weather improves! In the meantime, please feel free to leave any comments, or read more of our adventures here.