Opened in 2017, the Hebridean Way might be a new addition to Scotland’s long-distance trails, but it is quickly growing in popularity among trekkers and walkers. Whether you decide to walk it by yourself or in a group, in one go or in several stages, here are 10 invaluable tips for the Hebridean Way that will make your walking holiday in the Outer Hebrides smoother and more enjoyable!
Planning the route, booking your accommodation and packing purposefully is only half the deal of a successful trekking holiday – there are a lot of things to consider when setting out on a two-week long-distance trail!
Since it is such a new trail I found it quite difficult to find practical advice and first-hand experiences about the journey. Of course, there is the hiking guidebook which contains lots of useful information about the path, distances and infrastructure, but not much personal advice. The trail might be becoming more popular, but apparently not enough long-distance hikers also write blogs, so I could find only a few articles about the trail online.
Hebridean Way Hiking Guidebook
Published by Cicerone, “Walking the Hebridean Way” is currently the only available hiking guidebook for the Hebridean Way.
On 192 pages it contains a lot of practical advice for traveling the Outer Hebrides and walking the Hebridean Way in particular. There is also a section with background information on the Outer Hebrides and the trail – the history, flora and wildlife on the islands, geology etc.
The book describes the trail in 10 stages, but also offers suggestions for 8- and 14-day itineraries. The detailed trail descriptions are useful for day-to-day use, there are small maps for reference and distance markers which make it easier to keep track of your progress.
Get the Hebridean Way guidebook here!
I hope that my Hebridean Way tips, however, will change this and provide you with some personal and practical advice that is all based on my own first-hand experience of the trek.
#1 Plan a route that you CAN do
From previous hiking trips, I knew a thing or two about my physical abilities and my limits. For example, it was clear to me that I would not be able to hike 21 miles a day for three days in a row, even if the ground is mostly flat. Thus, I quickly ditched the 10-day route suggestion from the guidebook and created a schedule that pushed my abilities, but would also still be enjoyable. It is a walking HOLIDAY after all!
I knew my limit was around 15 miles and so I tried to stay below that on my daily routes. If you are reasonably fit and have hiked before, that might be quite similar for you. To test it, I suggest going on a long day hike or even an overnight hike with a full backpack kit to test how far you can walk before feeling like you’ve had enough. Then consider that you will be doing this 12 days in a row and adjust accordingly.
#2 Plan well ahead
I’m a spreadsheet kind of gal, so I made a detailed spreadsheet containing all key information about my trek from day to day. Not only did it make it easy to keep an overview, but I could also share this document with someone at home so they’d know where I should be each day. Trekking solo as a woman, this was very important to me.
My spreadsheet contained information about the start and end points of each walking stage, how many miles I’d walk that day, where I’d stay that night plus contact info if applicable, if there were any cash machines, cafes or shops on the way, how many days worth of lunch I’d have to buy, where I could potentially fill up my water bottles and ferry times, where applicable.
If you’re not into spreadsheets, find another way for you to make this kind of information easily accessible without relying on internet access – maybe a slim notebook or printed out pages in a waterproof case.
By making an overview like this, you will also realise where it’s best to book ahead. B&Bs and hostels can be fully booked during the summer months. You won’t need to book ahead for local buses or ferries (as a foot passenger), but I recommend booking your travel to and from the Outer Hebrides in advance.
I always book my trains on trainline.com and the bus from Ullapool to Inverness can be booked directly on the Citylink website. Ferry tickets wick CalMac can be booked in advance here – get the Hopscotch 8 ticket to cover all 4 ferries for the Hebridean Way.
#3 Take the bus or hitch on long road bits
While the Hebridean Way makes use of a lot of existing paths and new trails were also built, there is still a considerable amount of road walking. I estimate I walked around 3 miles each day on the day, sometimes even more. Most often it was along quiet side roads, but on a few occasions, I also had to walk along busier main roads – either way, it was not enjoyable. Walking on tarmac hurt my feet and joints, walking next to the road was not always an option because of lack of space or uneven ground, I lost time having to move aside for passing cars, and on top of that it was far more boring than walking through the wilderness.
However, my head was weirdly disconnected from my body and I would not admit that taking the bus or hitching a lift would have been a clever idea. I wanted to walk the entire route so badly, that I ignored the damage I did to my body and soul by staying on the road all this time.
To save yourself the effort, I recommend taking the bus or hitching a ride, particularly on those long stretches of road – most importantly the last section of the trail from Achnamore to Stornoway. Your body will be thankful and you can put that energy into detours or other walks in the Hebrides.
#4 Download local bus timetables
Even if you intend to walk the whole way, it is good to print off local bus timetables or save them to your phone in case of an emergency or a last-minute change of plans. Phone reception is sparse along the trail, so it’s best to download important documents like this in advance. You can find local timetables on the council’s website.
#5 Set your phone to flight mode to save battery
Thanks to my battery pack, I never ran out of battery on any of my devices and always had my phone at hand for emergencies and photos. Even when I was running low, I managed to save battery on my phone by setting it to flight mode. I could still use WiFi when available and listen to my podcasts at night, but I didn’t waste battery unnecessarily.
Alternatively, consider bringing an old phone with you that has a much longer battery life than any smart phone.
#6 Cash is king
While you can pay by card in many shops and hotels in the Outer Hebrides, it is important to carry cash with you on the Hebridean Way. You will need it on local buses, in smaller cafes and shops, to pay for campsites etc.
Additionally, carrying cash made it easier to keep track of my expenses. I took note of all the money I spent and managed to stay within my budget for regular expenses – I blew it a little for an epic day trip to St Kilda.
I always made sure I would have at least £100 in cash in my purse, also for emergencies. There are cash machines in Castlebay, Creagorry, Lochmaddy, Leverburgh, Tarbert and Stornoway.
#7 Podcasts against loneliness
When I told people I would go hiking on my own for two weeks, many asked if I wasn’t worried about feeling lonely or bored spending so much time by myself.
I brought two strategies against boredom and loneliness – a book and my phone full of podcasts. While most nights I was too tired to read, I always listened to at least one episode of my favourite podcasts before falling asleep. It gave me comfort, entertained me and fed me lots of material to think about during my walks.
#8 Leave time for buffer days
I had left 2 buffer days in my itinerary, but realistically it was only one day, because, the second I was planning to take after my hike. I wanted to rent a car and drive to the Callanish Standing Stones and other sites on Lewis, and I was not going to miss that. I was left with one rest day in the middle of my trek but plans changed and I went on an adventurous day trip to St Kilda instead – amazing, but not exactly relaxing. I still managed and even though I did not rest much on my rest day, I still got a physical break from carrying my backpack and a mental break from the trail.
Initially, I meant to spend 3 weeks on the trail, leaving plenty of time for lazy days by the beach, cosy indoor days when the weather was too bad outside, or simply to take it slow and remain in my favourite spots a little longer. It didn’t work out with my work schedule, but if you can arrange it, take your time and leave time for a few more buffer days in your trip!
#9 Don’t ALWAYS trust the marker posts
I found most of the way to be very well marked. When researching the trail, I read online in a few places that the marker posts were not frequent enough, direction arrows were missing and that it was quite challenging to find your way across some of the moorland sections. But for the first 7 days of the trail, I found that to be complete nonsense. From Vatersay to Berneray I thought the waymarking was exceptional and it was very easy to follow the trail even when there were no obvious paths. The posts are light-coloured 4x4s and the disks on them are bright white, so they are easy to spot, even when it’s raining. Additionally, the side the disks are fastened on indicates the direction the trail is going so you always know which direction to look for the next post.
This all changed when I hit Harris – it’s almost like the trail makers ran out of 4x4s and disks. All of a sudden the marker posts were really infrequent and were often missing trail disks. Sometimes they were only fastened onto one side of the posts (often facing hikers walking north to south, so I couldn’t see them), other times the single disk faced the trail’s side, rather than indicating a direction – it was really misleading at first, since I had gotten used to using the waymarkers for navigation.
There is definitely room for improvement in terms of the waymarking infrastructure of the trail – I guess it is a question of additional funding coming in in the future. The main thing to keep in mind is to stay calm when you can’t immediately see the next post and if you lose the trail (almost happened to me once near Seilebost), backtrace your steps and use an OS map for navigation. You will find the trail again!
#10 Find your Heb Way family
I might have walked the Hebridean Way on my own, but I never felt like I had to be alone for too long. No matter where I went, I met people – sitting next to me in the cafe, working behind the bar at a pub, camping next to me on the campsite or stopping for lunch at the same picnic site as me. I made an effort to talk to everyone I met, tell them my story and ask for theirs – I wanted to find my trail family.
There is something that connects people who travel to the Outer Hebrides, whether they are walking, cycling or road tripping – we all have something in common: a sense of adventure in faraway places. It was easy to get chatting and feel comfortable with fellow travelers on the Heb Way, and it provided me with a lot of comfort during this solo hike.
Within a few days, I met several people again or discovered them on social media and it felt comforting to update each other on our progress. By the time I reached Stornoway, I had found my Hebridean Way family who I could share my success with and stay connected with far beyond the trail.
I loved my time on the Hebridean Way, but I felt very much like discovering uncharted territory. Over time there will be more first-hand experiences of the trail available online and in book form, but for now, I hope that these 10 tips based on my own personal experience will help you to prepare better for the Hebridean Way!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: My trip was supported by Vaude with gifted camping equipment, CalMac with complimentary ferry tickets and VisitScotland who covered my accommodation in Stornoway. All opinions are my own.