So you’re planning on walking the West Highland Way? Don’t set foot on the trail without reading these essential West Highland Way tips first.
They’ll save you time, money, and potentially lots of pain and suffering! Not to mention help give you the best possible chance of completing the course.
Essential West Highland Way Tips
The 96 mile route through the Scottish Highlands is one of the best hiking experiences we’ve ever had. Spanning from Milngavie to Fort William, this spectacular walk is the adventure of a lifetime.
It’s a challenging, exhilarating, emotional journey along historic paths. And it’s surrounded by scenery so phenomenal that it will stop you in your tracks at regular intervals.
Having completed this epic hike ourselves, we’ve got plenty of brilliant advice you should know before attempting it. Here are 15 West Highland Way tips to help you on your own adventure.
1. Pack Clothes for All Weather
Being from England, we’re quite used to changeable weather. That said, Scotland is a completely 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.
This is undoubtedly the most important of all our West highland Way tips. Plan ahead and you’ll have no issues.
2. Get Your Training Right
The West Highland Way is not an overly technical walk. But 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, you’re walking an average of around 14 miles per day. Your longest stretch will likely be almost 20 miles.
Particularly if this is your first multi day hike, you need to be sufficiently prepared. Put simply, that 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. It’s not all paved paths and much of it is uneven which can be tough on an unaccustomed body.
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.
3. 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 like that.
They 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.
You simply leave your bags in a safe place in the morning and a company comes and picks it up. By the time you arrive at your resting place for the day your bag is waiting in another safe place. Genius.
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. In fact along the way converted a number of guys who were struggling with their backpacks.
Fortunately for them you can opt in at any time during your walk without pre-booking. They were able to get a partial service for the legs they had remaining on a pro rata basis.
Want to know more about what a baggage transfer service involves? Check out this article where we explain just how the West Highland Way baggage transfer service works.
4. Wear Suitable Footwear
Most walkers would make a blanket recommendation to wear hiking boots when walking the West Highland way. However, this is something that we take issue with.
We always hike in running shoes. And regardless of where we are in the world, from Machu Picchu to the mountains of Japan, they have always been fine.
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 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. This means 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 shoes will do the trick perfectly.
5. 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. Do some trial walks on terrain similar to that of the West Highland Way. It varies from tarmac roads to uneven paths with large loose rocks and can be wet at times.
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. There were even a couple of guys we got to be friends with couldn’t make it to the end.
They aborted their walks 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.
6. 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 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 swarm relentlessly in their thousands, and brazenly go straight for your head.
By the end of the week Sarah had literally hundreds of bites. So many that her face was red and pimpled all over. She looked like a teenage boy suffering with a severe dose of adolescent acne.
This is one of the West Highland Way tips that you should definitely heed. Get a head net and take plenty of repellent.
The repellent that we were recommended by the locals is called Skin So Soft and it works a treat. It’s also completely different to mosquito repellent in case you were wondering.
7. 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. Because much of it is quite rural, you’ll have a job finding a pub or building 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, so will all of its contents.
Even if you do have a bag cover, the rain still has a sneaky knack of finding a way in. The best thing to do is to get a couple of dry bags for your valuables.
Items like mobile phones, cameras and any other electricals you carry with you will thank you for it. For the sake of a few bucks you’ll save yourself potentially thousands in replacing your valuable gadgets.
8. Get a Filter 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. You can’t see the bacteria that might be lurking in it.
We met a guy whose wife had fallen ill from drinking untreated water along the route a couple of years ago. She got so ill that she 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. However, carrying all of that with you will significantly weigh you down.
The solution? A great water filter bottle.
We packed our Water to Go water bottles which worked great. However, while they were the best bottle on the market at the time, we’ve now switched to a different product that we feel is superior.
The GRAYL Geopress does exactly the same job and functions with very similar technology. Essentially it filters out 99.9% of the bad stuff that water can contain including heavy metals, viruses and bacteria.
The main difference is simply that the Water to Go bottles tend to leak as they have no cap on their lid.
The GRAYL Geopress on the other hand has a twist cap that ensures absolutely no leakage.
Filter water bottles are great on the West Highland Way because they allow you to just fill up whenever you’re running low.
For us it meant we were carrying a maximum of 750 ml of water at any one time. This weighed a lot less than the 3 litres many people plump for.
And if you’ve walked any distance before, you’ll know that extra weight should be avoided at all costs.
Get your hands on one of these beauties before you start, they really are a great investment.
9. Take a Camera
The West Highland Way has a reputation as one of the most beautiful hikes. That’s not just in Europe, but on the entire planet.
Indeed, 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. Which is saying something considering 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. This is just a small sample of what to expect.
10. 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 good friend in nearby Glasgow. She very kindly made us a packed lunch for our first day hiking.
The plastic container she put it in turned out to be a great idea to carry in our backpacks. It’s one of our best West Highland Way tips for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we had a lot of stuff 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. Yum.
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. In turn the stuff inside your bag gets hot and wet.
The plastic container stopped that from happening to our food. Even our essential sugar boosting chocolate bars stayed fresh and didn’t melt.
You don’t need anything fancy, just a decent tupperware will do. Try something like this clippable container to make sure it doesn’t come open in your daypack.
11. Follow the Signs But Take a Backup
We were slightly worried about the navigation side of things before setting off.
Should we have spent some time learning how to read an ordnance survey map? What if we got hopelessly lost in the Scottish Highlands?
At the very least we were anxious we should have printed off a Google map of the route.
Turns out the route is impeccably signposted for the entire way.
So though it’s an obvious piece of advice, make sure you follow the signs and you’ll be reet.
There are a couple of sections where it’s not the clearest, but it’s reasonably difficult to go wrong at any stage.
That said, many people feel far more confident with a map in their back pocket. And if we were to do the walk again we’d definitely stash one in our daypack (just in case).
The best rated and most recently updated map is this Trailblazer walking guide.
More than just a map it’s got guides to most of the villages and towns along the route. It also includes info on planning, where to stay and places to eat.
Top tip: take a clear ziplock bag to store it in so you can still take a glance at it even if it’s raining cats and dogs.
12. Don’t Forget Your Travel Insurance
If you’re coming to do the West Highland Way from overseas then don’t forget your travel insurance. While the West highland Way is not technically difficult, there’s always the possibility that injury or sickness could ruin it.
Sarah twisted her knee quite seriously on the third day. While it didn’t warrant a hospital visit, it did stop her from fully completing the walk. She had to catch the bus between a number of stages.
It also meant doctors and physio visits were required to rehabilitate the injury. Had we not been from the U.K. with access to free healthcare, it could have potentially been extremely costly.
For this reason we always recommend getting a travel insurance plan that definitely covers you for this type of activity. It’s just not worth messing around with.
Our preferred choice is World Nomads as they’re designed by travellers, for travellers. Their policies also cover you for numerous adventurous activities as standard. Get a quick quote below:
13. Take the Train Back to Glasgow
Unusually the journey from Fort William back to Glasgow is actually slower by train than by bus.
So why do we recommend the train? Well this stretch of track is renowned as being one of, if not the most scenic train journeys in the world.
Unless you’re in a mad rush, it’s well worth the extra 40-50 minutes in journey time.
Potter-heads might recognise parts of the trip from the Harry Potter films. The stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct was famously used in the blockbuster movie series as part of the Hogwarts Express route.
Magical castles, gorgeous lochs, towering mountains and beautiful forests are just some of the cinematic highlights you’ll enjoy.
The train is the only way to experience many of the breathtaking views.
It takes roughly 4 hours to get from Fort William to Glasgow Queen Street. This gives you plenty of time to drink in the incredible scenery.
There are usually 3 Scotrail trains that run a day. The times are 7.44, 11.40, and 17.47.
Save money by booking your train ticket in advance. If you book a month before you plan to ride prices can be as little as £5.
Even a week beforehand tickets will only cost around £20. But if you leave it to buy them on the day they’ll be significantly more expensive.
Advanced tickets are ordinarily released about 12 weeks prior to the departure date.
14. Get Your Accommodation Booked in Advance
The West Highland Way is one of the most popular long distance walks in the world.
Each year around 85,000 people take on the route or portions of it. This means that the best accommodation tends to get booked up well in advance.
We can personally attest tot this as we missed out on some of the accommodations we were hoping to stay in.
To avoid disappointment, the best idea is to plan where you’ll stay each night and get it booked up.
We use Booking.com to book short term accommodation and used it for all of our West Highland Way bookings.
15. Don’t Worry. You Can Do It
The West Highland Way is almost 100 miles and takes most people over a week to complete. These facts 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. There are no dangerous spots to navigate. In fact there’s nothing more challenging 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 on these West Highland Way tips.
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Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.