17 golden nuggets for this epic trail!
Having walked the full 96 miles of the West Highland Way, twice since May 2021, I thought I would share with you my top tips for the trail.
My first trip was a wild camping experience and on the second trip, I took a group of eight hikers utilising hotels and luggage transfer.
#1 – Don't underestimate the difficulty of this trail.
When you see posts on Facebook or videos on YouTube, you can see that there are certain aspects of the West Highland Way that are challenging. After speaking to a Scottish guide at Inversnaid Bunkhouse on my first hike, he told me that 75% of people actually fail to complete this walk. 96 miles is a long way, and the most common quitting point is usually at Crianlarich, which is the halfway stage (with a convenient train station!).
So what makes this trail so difficult? The initial few days ease you into the walk, and then you hit Loch Lomond. The 26 miles along this epic Loch is gruelling both physically and mentally. It's exhausting mentally as you can not let your concentration levels relax otherwise you will end up falling off a cliff or down a waterfall. If you make it to the end of the Loch, by day three you will never want to see another bolder, tree root or waterfall again, but there is more to come!
One of my group walkers found the section along Loch Lomond an absolute breese, but she struggled with the long military road through the Rannoch Moor section and dealing with the rain and the midges – so you never really know how it will impact you.
My advice would be to make sure that you have trained for this hike. Walk in all weathers and get plenty of hill-climbing practice!
#2 – Take extra cash
Either take extra cash with you or have additional funds in the bank. There are many “honesty boxes” and places to stop along the trail where you end up spending money. Places such as The Green Welly Stop is very expensive. To give you an idea, a pack of five Compeed plasters cost our friend Emma £10! Most places take cards or are contactless nowadays, but there were some places where they still expected cash, so be prepared.
#3 – Pre-book accommodation
If you are using hotels, hostels or campsites then you will need to prebook, especially between the months of May to September. If you are wild camping, then you will need to get a permit to camp along Loch Lomond. It is not expensive but well worth it, to secure those amazing views!
#4 – Get a West Highland Way Passport
I was disappointed to see that not many people were collecting the stamps in a West Highland Way Passport. The passport is something that you can purchase online and the proceeds/profits go towards the maintenance of the trail.
#5 – Take the alternate route
There are a few alternate routes on The West Highland Way (blue or red routes). They all end up at the same junctions but offer alternative things to see. On the route into Inversnaid, there is an option to go down towards the Loch or up and through the forest. A local recommended the forest trail to me (even though the West Highland Way was pointing towards the Loch). He told me that people had died on that route, and since Covid there has been little trail maintenance. I took his advice and where the two paths eventually merged I saw two ladies with blood all over them where they had fallen on the lower route. Using an app called Guthook, you can see the comments of where people had mentioned where it was dangerous.
#6 – Size up!
Walking with so many people there was one common issue (apart from bruised legs from falling over) and that was small blisters underneath the toe nails. At cafe's we would see people taking off their shoes and socks and nursing black toenails which is not a pleasant thing to see or to endure! The best way to avoid this is to “size up” on your walking footwear. The West Highland Way brings many declines where your toes are pressed (even slightly) against your shoe toe box. Taking a shoe that is one size bigger than your foot is a good way to avoid it. I completed this trail with size 5.5 shoes, and I usually walk in a 4.5.
#7 – Stop at the Inveraron Hotel (even for a cuppa)
This fantastic hotel is about 2 miles after the iconic Bridge of Orchy. I have stopped here twice. The first time was for an evening meal (awesome haggis, nips and tatties with whisky sauce) on my way to a wild camping spot (the best spot on the trail!). The second time was for breakfast as the chef at the Bridge of Orchy contracted Covid and the kitchen was closed. I must say that the Inveraron Hotel offers the best breakfast on the whole trail! In addition to it being the only place to grab something to eat until you reach Kingshouse, they feed the deer here and it is generally a lovely place to stop.
#8 – Take trekking poles
In my opinion, trekking poles are a must on The West Highland Way and they saved me from a few near misses on more than one occasion!
#9 – Be prepared for rain!
It rains a lot in Scotland (which is why it's so green!). I saw a couple of people with the type of ponchos that you purchase at Alton Towers when taking a ride on the log flume! Please don't be that person. If you want a successful hike then prepare for the wet stuff. It can hit you horizontally and on those last few days where you are very exposed to the elements, it can be quite dangerous. Think about rain jackets, waterproof socks, keeping your stuff in a dry bag, waterproof case for your phone etc.
Whilst I'm on the subject of the weather, also be prepared for the sun! Remember your sun-cream, and don't forget your hat!
#10 – Do's and Don't for Midges!
Everyone raves about Avon”s “Skin so Soft” – but I didn't have much luck with this. What worked for me was the “Smidge wipes”. I also covered up, so wore lightweight hiking leggings and a sun hoodie. The only skin that was exposed was my face and hands (and neck if my hood was down). I was still bitten, but not as much as my fellow hikers and I put this down to the Smidge wipes. I sprayed my clothes with the Skin so Soft, but wiped my face and hands with the wipes.
When I hiked in May, I didn't see many midges, tics or horseflies at all. Camping was a breeze and I loved every minute of it. It was a different story in July, and a bug head net will be something that you wear nearly every day, especially if you are camping. Tip – remember to take your head net off when you get inside your tent, otherwise you will be in for a miserable time!
If you do have midges inside of your tent, then wait until it is dark, turn on your head lamp (or camp light) and all the midges fly to the light. Then blitz them with your skin so soft! It works a treat (although it does look like a midge graveyard in the morning!).
#11 – Take £1 for the shower at Kingshouse
In all honesty, the free toilet and shower facilities at Kingshouse were rather disgusting. The locks were broken on the doors to the toilets and people have taken rocks inside to help keep the doors closed. The showers are on a timer and you need £1 to put into the machine to get hot water (or you can have a cold shower). Also, make sure that you get into the correct cubicle that relates to the machine where you placed your £1 (I made the mistake of putting my £1 in the slot, then got into the wrong cubicle. My friend next door enjoyed a free hot shower!).
Saying that I also spent time in the bunkhouse and the showers were superb, spotless and I would highly recommend staying here. They provide fluffy white towels and the bunk beds are offset, so you don't bash your head on the base of the bunk above.
#12 – Make the effort to see a sunrise
If there is one regret that I have is that I didn't get up in time to see a Scottish sunrise. (Or that I didn't get out of my tent!). My walking buddy, Kit, who is an amazing photographer captured the sunrise most mornings. What a great way to start the day!
#13 – Visit Glengoyne Distillery
I'm not a big whisky fan, but if you enjoy the golden nectar then take the small alternate route on day one to Glengoyne Distillery. Two people that I met at Inversnaid Bunkhouse explained that they give a 1 hour tour and you end up with three good sized bottles of whisky, all for £25. As it's day one, which is a low mileage day (if you are staying in Drymen), then this slots in well as an extra activity.
#14 – Navigation
The West Highland Way is extremely well way-marked. I have walked a lot of UK National Trails and this is by far the best way-marked route. I used Guthook mainly as a guidebook to get information about points of interest. Guthook was also a good app to use to see how far it is until the next cafe, town, campsite, point of interest etc.
There are a few hiking apps out there that help you navigate The West Highland Way. As mentioned, I used Guthook, but the routes are also on Hiiker, OS Maps and Alltrails.
#15 – Drying your boots
If you are camping then drying your boots at night will be a bit of a challenge. Some of the campsites such as Beniglas Farm and Drymen Camping / Inversnaid all have dry rooms, but if you are wild camping then it is a different story. Remember to remove your insoles at night which help with the drying process.
If you are staying at hotels and hostels then I would highly recommend purchasing some boot dryers, which you can send on with the luggage transfer people each day. The Drysure (no electricity needed) are excellent, but if you need them day after day, then they will soon wet out. I used electric ones (like these) which worked perfectly every time. Nice, toasty warm dry shoes every morning!
#16 – Have a go on the Glencoe Ski lift
As you cross Rannoch Moor towards Kingshouse, you will pass the Glencoe Mountain Ski Resort. On my second trip, I took the opportunity with my friend Rebecca to venture up the mountain via the ski-lift. The views from the top are just amazing, and the waterfalls that you pass on the way up are breathtaking. You don't have to stay at the resort, and you can pay on the day to simply have a ride on the ski-lift. If you are feeling adventurous then during the summer months you can hire a mountain bike and take the ski-lift up with your bike, and then cycle down the ski-slopes!
The campsite at Glencoe Ski Resort offers a cafe with hot food (open to all), and they also have neat hobbit houses where you can stay for the night. So, if you fancy something a little bit different and don't want to pay £90 for the bunkroom at Kingshouse (or the extortionate rate for a room in the hotel), then the Glencoe Ski Resort is an option and only 200m off the trail.
#17 – Take time to smell the roses
The West Highland Way is such an epic trail that it is difficult to take it all in. I urge you to take a paddle in one of the many streams, sit under a waterfall, swim in a loch, sing in a tunnel, stop and enjoy the views, look back to where you have come from and have a go on a rope swing.
I started this article by saying how challenging the hike was, but it is also the most rewarding trail I have completed to date. I love the different terrain as you progress further north and to finish in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the UK (Ben Nevis) is simply indescribable.
Good luck with your journey, and I hope that you love every minute of the trail as much as I did.