Long Distance Hiking in Scotland: Tips for Walking the West Highland Way

It seems that no matter where you go in Scotland, you’ll soon see a bonnie or breathtaking view. The natural beauty of Scotland, whether in the lowlands or the highlands, is reason enough for a visit. There are, of course, numerous historic sites and cities to visit, but if you’re the active type and enjoy the great outdoors, walking the West Highland Way may be just the trip for you.

There are various walking/hiking routes throughout Great Britain and even other routes through Scotland, but the West Highland Way is one of the most popular routes in all of Britain. It starts in Milngavie and ends in Fort William, covering 152km (95 miles). Along the way you’ll pass Loch Lomond and the Devil’s Staircase, before finishing at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland.

Even if you’re relatively new to participating in long scenic walks such as this, it shouldn’t be too daunting. Most of the paths are fairly easy. As a result, you are able to enjoy the scenery throughout the Way, rather than focusing on simply making it through rough terrain. Some guidebooks and other resources will say that the walk can be done in seven days. However many people find that the logistics of breaking it down into seven days is just too difficult. Eight days is preferred for this walk, allowing time to enjoy the view rather than focusing on the miles.

Scottish Highland Cattle, Montana

Lodging and Logistics

If you’re new to distance walking and not used to camping, there are youth hostels, hotels, and bed & breakfast places along the way. You will need to plan your walk accordingly, though, and you’ll need to book in advance. However, if you’re more open to camping, there are other options. If you don’t mind roughing it, but still prefer some sort of roof over your head, there are a number of wooden tents and bunkhouses to be found.

Hikers who want to take their own tent and make the most of the surroundings have a number of locations available to them for wild camping. Be aware that wild camping is only allowed in certain areas, although there are other established campgrounds when wild camping is not an option. However, there are some wild camping areas that are absolute dream spots. If you’re stopping overnight in Inversnaid, you can wild camp in a bird reserve that offers a stunning view of the sunset over Loch Lomond.

In terms of the gear you will need, there are certain basics that you will need with you. If you really don’t relish carrying a heavy pack or have physical reasons for being unable to, there is always the option to hire a company that will transport your gear from stop to stop for you. However, most people carry their own packs, and it pays to pack wisely.

First and foremost, you will need food and water, because there are not many refreshment stops along the way. You will also need proper clothing and footwear, including good weatherproof outer clothing to deal with the inevitable rain. Maps and compasses are nice, but rarely needed, as the path is clearly marked throughout the walk.

Loch Lomond - the other end

The Route

Once you’ve sorted out the nuts and bolts, it’s down to the actual walk. The initial route begins in suburban parkland just outside Glasgow and leads you toward the southeast corner of Loch Lomond. Much of the scenery is rural, with heath, pastures, and woodland. The next part of the walk goes from Drymen to Rowardennan and includes moorland, woodland, and a climb up and down Conic Hill.

Rowardennan to Ardleish takes you along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, Britain’s largest freshwater lake. The walk here can be surprisingly arduous and taxing, because of the woodland terrain, but it also provides some spectacular views. As you leave Loch Lomond in Ardleish, you head into the Highlands and follow Glen Falloch. The journey will include water meadows and cascades, as well as attractive forest walks to Tyndrum.

The route from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy is the shortest and many choose to make a short easy day of it in the middle of the walk. The walk from Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse is considered by some to be one of the most appealing sections of the whole walk, particularly the Blackmount section with its scenic wonderland of mountains and moors. The Kingshouse Hotel at the end of the walk is said to be the oldest hotel in Scotland.

As you move into the final stretch of the Way, you’ll come across the Devil’s Staircase, the steepest and highest point on the West Highland Way, with a switchback trail. It has the most challenging reputation, but is still doable for anyone remotely fit. Eventually, after a stop in Kinlochleven, you’ll be on your way to the final stop of the West Highland Way, Fort William.

Ben Nevis

If you’re really up for a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Ben Nevis, but for many, that is a challenge for another visit. You can always start and stop your walk along the West Highland Way wherever you choose, and it can be a social experience, as hikers meet at local pubs at the end of the day to exchange stories. Whether you want solitary time alone with your thoughts or a cheerful outing where you can make new friends, the West Highland Way offers both, with views of the Scottish countryside that will stay with you forever.

Alison Netsel

Alison is a native Floridian, who now finds herself in the Netherlands, thanks to an Italian boyfriend. She's an art historian by degree, a writer by profession, and a photographer in her mind.

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