The West Highland Way is the most walked long-distance trail in Scotland. 96-miles of hikers heaven from Milngavie to Fortwilliam. It is usually walked or cycled, with some hardy folk even running the entire distance! Thousands of people walk the route every year. Attracted by breath-taking mountain scenery, beautiful lochs and the serene sense of calm brought on by the remote Scottish Highlands.
People also choose this route as it presents somewhat of a challenge. How big a challenge depends on your level of fitness, the barriers you are personally overcoming and how long you choose to walk it over. The beauty of the way is that you can make it your own. Walk it in 4 days or 14. It doesn’t matter! It’s all about going at a pace that’s right for you!
We decided to tackle the West Highland Way after completing several Munros and craving a new challenge. We had heard a mixed bag of reviews regarding the route. Some horror stories of blisters, 12-hour days, aches, pains and tears. Other stories of jubilation, inspiration, and triumph. However, everyone was unanimous on the fact that it was an experience not to be missed!
Tips for Completing the West Highland Way
We were quite inexperienced when we tackled the WHW, in the sense that we hadn’t completed a long-distance trail before. We had tackled our fair share of hikes, but after a typical hike you get to go home and rest up. The real challenge of the WHW is waking up day after day and pulling on your walking boots again. Some of the barriers you face will be physical. A LOT of the barriers you face will be mental. However, there are certainly some things I wish we had known (or taken more heed of) before we started the route.
Purchase the Right Walking Boots
The West Highland Way is 96 miles of hard going on your feet. By the end of most days my feet literally felt as though they were on fire. The pain across the soles of my feet far surpassed any other discomfort I felt. It wasn’t until the day after we arrived in Fortwilliam and I was asking a fellow walker what boots I should use that I learned how important it is to get a good quality sole. I naively assumed all soles were much and such the same.
I realise how ridiculous that sounds now, but at that stage of my walking journey I hadn’t thought about it too much. After bouncing up a number of Munros in my trainers I thought I was doing well by simply buying a pair of walking boots prior to setting off. If you’re new to walking a VIBRAM marked sole will offer you more protection against rocks and the hard ground. I would also recommend some quality insoles.
It would also be useful to take more than one type of walking shoe/boot. Some of the West Highland Way is flat and even, and your feet would probably benefit from a more flexible shoe or boot. Many people I know would choose a trail runner for this terrain. Other sections are a lot more uneven and rocky and your ankles and soles may need more rigid support. It is also high recommended to test your boots out and break them in prior to your journey as blisters really are just the WORST!
Your Socks Matter
As well as underestimating the importance of my boots, I have to admit I also didn’t put too much thought into my socks. I was under the impression after 20 years of playing football that I had feet of steel, and a little walk wasn’t going to bother me so much. I packed my regular sports socks smug in the fact that I’d saved myself a wee bit of coin. Massive Mistake! Splash out on good quality walking socks. I can’t explain how much difference they make. My sister had strongly recommended merino wool socks to me before I left for the West Highland Way, and now that I have finally gotten around to getting them I couldn’t agree more! Socks are an important component in the fight against blisters!
Plan your route ahead of time
Don’t cut corners when you’re planning your trip. We decided to do the walk over 6 days and we had a moderate to good level of fitness. We booked accommodation for most of our overnights and made sure we did so well in advance. You can also book a company to take care of all your planning for you, but if you put in the research and give yourself enough time it is easy enough to plan yourself. I will share our itinerary at the end of this blog.
You can get more information on potential accommodation here https://www.westhighlandway.org/accommodation/
Bring Layers and Waterproofs
Remember this is Scotland where you can easily go through all four seasons in one day. We had one day walking up the Devils Staircase and through the mountains under blazing sunshine and beautiful blue skies. Contrast that with what felt like the wettest day on earth, when we walked across Rannoch Moor. I have literally never been so soaked in my life (everything in our bags was too). Make sure you have clothes for all types of weather, definitely bring full waterproofs, and always throw in some extra socks. The West Highland Way is the kind of route where you need sunscreen and a woolly hat… perhaps in the same day!
To carry or not to carry?
We decided pretty early on that we wanted to carry our own baggage- it felt like it added a little something to the challenge. However, there are plenty of baggage companies who will transport your bags from stop to stop, allowing you to carry a lighter day pack. If you have any misgivings at all about carrying your own luggage then I would suggest hiring a company to carry your bags.
Do you really want to camp?
Wild camping is allowed along most of the trail within the parameters of the Scottish Outdoor Access code, however there are some areas specifically around Loch Lomond that do not allow wild camping. There are also some campsites on the route, however before you roll up that tent and sleeping bag ask yourself, do I really want to camp? I have nothing but the greatest respect for those who camp along the way- I really do see that as a challenge in and of itself. However, I have realised after much trial and error that it isn’t really for me.
We planned to camp one night out of five but after being completely drenched on Rannoch Moor we were absolutely elated to be able to book a pod at the campsite. When everything gets wet, and I mean REALLY wet, it’s very difficult to get dry again unless you have an indoor space to assist. The campsite also had a drying room, which was extremely full that night! If you choose to wild camp, you wont have that luxury. Also, if I am being honest, the thing that got me through most days was imagining diving into a soft comfy bed after a hot shower. It’s a personal choice but a shower and a clean comfy bed gets my vote every time.
Plan your meals
We always prepped our snacks and lunch to eat on route and then treated ourselves at the end of the day to a nice meal out somewhere. Along with the hot shower and comfy bed this played a massive part in keeping my morale up. Whether you are living off dried rations or eating three meals out every day it’s important to plan your food and don’t underestimate how much fuel you might need to get through the day. There will be long stretches where you don’t pass a shop, café, or restaurant so prepare in advance! Factor in the fluids you need to carry each day as well. You will need at least a couple of litres a day (probably more) to stay hydrated so factor that into what you’re planning on carrying.
Not all Days are equal!
We made the mistake of dividing our days up mainly by distance and not thinking in depth about the terrain. This resulted in a day that seemed very reasonable on paper (Balmaha to Inverarnan) which ended up being a complete and utter nightmare. The section along Loch Lomond is probably the most difficult of the whole way and I would definitely suggest factoring in its difficulty when you’re planning. We had to finish that day under the cover of darkness, which was quite an unsettling experience. Don’t underestimate this stretch!
Mind the Midges
Midges can be a massive pain in Scotland during the summer months. They are at their annoying worst when the weather is warm and humid and they tend to be more active in the early morning and evenings so try and keep bare skin covered during these times. It is useful to get a repellent such as Smidge or Avon Skin So Soft. During the day you wont notice them as much, and you might even be one of the lucky ones (like me) who rarely seems to be bothered by them.
Manage your Pain
The vast majority of people who complete the West Highland Way are going to experience some level of pain and discomfort. Providing you are not injured, or experiencing really bad blisters most of this pain can be managed by following a few steps. The aches you are feeling are due to the strain being placed on your muscles, joints and body in general as you walk. DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) can be the worst in the morning, and you may question how on earth you will get through another day of walking when you wake up. Remember to stretch out in the morning and during the walk to give your muscles the best chance to recover.
It is also important to fuel your body correctly and get plenty of carbs and protein to quicken muscle recovery. Stay hydrated as this will help keep cramp at bay. If you are sweating a lot an isotonic drink or some salt in your snacks will help to replace lost sodium and electrolytes. I would also highly recommend finding a painkiller that works for you. I personally like to take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, but remember not to take it on an empty stomach!
Pack a First Aid Kit
I would highly recommend packing a lightweight first aid kit to help with any minor accidents, incidents, and blisters. One of the main ailments that halts a keen walkers journey are blisters. They may seem minor, but anyone who has had the misfortune of experiencing a bad blister knows just how debilitating it can be! Plasters will be your friend in many situations so there is no harm in throwing some in along with other first aid basics.
Check for Ticks!
Ticks are fairly common in the Scottish Highlands, so it is important to check your body for ticks at the end of every day. Ticks come in a variety of sizes and while their bite doesn’t usually hurt the consequences can be major. A small minority of ticks carry Lyme disease, which can cause lifelong problems for humans. If you discover a tick on you be sure to remove it with tweezers or a tick removing device, being careful to ensure the head is not left in the bite. Also be careful not to crush the body of the tick when removing. Usually removing the tick is sufficient, but if you develop a rash, a bullseye mark or a fever after having a tick bite it is important to consult with your doctor!
If you have already walked the West Highland Way and fancy any even bigger challenge click here.
OUR WEST HIGHLAND WAY ITINERARY
DAY 1: Mingavie to Balmaha
- DISTANCE: 20 Miles
- TERRAIN: Easy. Mostly on a flat path and road.
- WEATHER: Braw
- PINTS: Three
- ACCOMODATION: Oak Tree Inn: Very nice, comfortable hotel with restaurant and bar.
- PAIN LEVELS: Non-existent.
- HIGHLIGHT: Sitting eating our meal outside at the Oak Tree Inn, under blue skies watching fellow walkers come and go.
DAY 2: Balmaha to Inverarnan
- DISTANCE: 21 Miles
- TERRAIN: Difficult. Especially difficult during the Loch Lomond stretch. Uneven and slow going underfoot.
- WEATHER: Lovely
- PINTS: One (too exhausted for more)
- ACCOMODATION: Drovers Inn: Extremely old and quirky bar and accommodation. Rooms are fairly basic but you are staying more for the unique experience.
- PAIN LEVELS: Starting to feel the burn.
- HIGHLIGHT: Experiencing the beauty of the stretch along Loch Lomond and the sense of accomplishment when we managed to finish it.
DAY 3: Inverarnan to Tyndrum
- DISTANCE: 12 miles
- TERRAIN: Good: Mainly well surfaced path and track with moderate hills.
- WEATHER: Overcast but mainly dry
- PINTS: Zero!
- ACCOMODATION: Tyndrum Lodges. Really clean and tidy room with a great shower and the most comfortable bed! Felt like luxury.
- PAIN LEVELS: Sitting crying in the shower pain!
- HIGHLIGHT: The comfort of the bed after a difficult day (not in distance, but just where my body was at)
DAY 4: Tyndrum to Glencoe Ski Centre (Kingshouse)
- DISTANCE: 18 miles
- TERRAIN: Good, but very bleak walk over Rannoch Moor
- WEATHER: Biblical rain and wind, especially across Rannoch Moor
- PINTS: Zero
- ACCOMODATION: Last minute glamping pod at Glencoe Ski Centre after a unanimous decision NOT to camp! Unbelievable views across to Buchaille Etive Mor.
- PAIN LEVELS: Elevated, but drowned out by the incessant rain and need to push forward!
- HIGHLIGHT: The achievement of beating that wet and bleak day, and the comradery of fellow walkers who were experiencing the same thing!
DAY 5: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven.
- DISTANCE: 9 miles
- TERRAIN: Clear path but rocky and stony in places. Steep climb out of Glencoe (Devil’s Staircase, followed by beautiful views and then a seemingly endless descent into Kinlochleven.
- PINTS: 1 pint and one bottle of wine.
- ACCOMODATION: The Highland Getaway Inn. Really comfortable with a nice patio overlooking the river. Also an onsite bar and restaurant with really good food!
- PAIN LEVELS: Struggling to stand. Stretch, stretch and stretch some more!
- HIGHLIGHT: The climb up the Devil’s Staircase followed by the most beautiful and dramatic walk through the mountains. We were so lucky to have such a clear day to experience the amazing views.
DAY 6: Kinlochleven to Fortwilliam
- DISTANCE: 16 miles
- TERRAIN: Initial climb through woodland followed by a stony track. Last stretch is on a tarmac pavement into Fortwilliam.
- PINTS: 4 delicious celebratory pints!
- ACCOMODATION: Air BNB Apartment. Clean and comfortable accommodation in the centre of Fortwilliam.
- PAIN LEVELS: Feet on fire- hobbly finish!
- HIGHLIGHT: The slow descent into Fortwilliam with Ben Nevis as a backdrop. Truly magical!
The West Highland Way is a fantastic challenge for a wide range of people. The route is diverse and dramatic- each section with its own unique personality. The Way is an amazing experience that can be achieved in all manner of ways, by all manners of people. The most important thing is to do it YOUR way! I look forward to hearing about your own experiences of Scotland’s favourite long distance trail.
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