Hiking the West Highland Way had been on my bucket list ever since I moved to Scotland. When some friends from Berlin announced they would finally come to visit me, the decision was easy – we would hike at least part of the West Highland Way, followed by a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train (aka Harry Potter train) and a day in Glasgow. This photo essay will make you want to literally follow our footsteps in no time!
When to hike the West Highland Way
The best time for hiking West Highland Way is spring and early summer. In April the trail is not as busy as in summer yet, baby lambs can be spotted everywhere along the trail for added cuteness, and the dreaded Scottish midges are yet to emerge. Waiting until May can have the benefit of drier weather (May is after all the driest month to visit Scotland), but the traffic on the trail is picking up and early swarms of midges frequent the trail (particularly on drizzly days and around dusk).
Most of the northern half of the West Highland Way leads through a tree-less landscape. Be prepared for mercilessly sunny days as well as horrendous rainy days – there is often no shelter from the rain or sun whatsoever.
Despite May being quite a busy month for hiking the West Highland Way, fellow hikers quickly disappear behind the next corner or over a hill. The windy nature of the trail constantly gives you the illusion of being alone on the trail.
Solo hiking the West Highland Way
Would I hike the West Highland Way by myself? I asked myself this question every day, particularly because I want to pursue more solo long-distance hiking. The short answer is YES. The longer answer is that on the first day I might have been a bit nervous – it was drizzling and humid, guys hiking in groups passed by us and disappeared along the forest trail, the thought of carrying everything by myself, rather than splitting the load with my friends made my backpack seem even heavier. BUT in the end, I knew that those feelings of uncertainty were only an effect of being on a long-distance hike for the first time ever.
I was happy to be able to share every moment of the trail with my friends, but I absolutely would encourage any woman to hike this trail on her own. There is regular phone reception, no necessity to wild camp, there are plenty of other solo hikers on the trail and there are luggage transport services providing cheap transfer of your bag so you only have to carry a day bag.
Speaking of luggage transport services – we decided against carrying everything ourselves, and had two bags filled with spare clothes and food transported from hostel to hostel by Walkabout Scotland. Walkabout Scotland is a company providing walking holidays in Scotland, among which you can find the West Highland Way. While we drafted our itinerary and booked all accommodation ourselves, going through an experienced company like Walkabout Scotland can save you a lot of hassle navigating the many options along the way.
Hiking with friends has of course the advantage of having someone to talk to when the day on the trail gets hard or too long to bear. We usually had our most intellectual debates walking down, kind of to forget about the pain walking downhill caused our knees…
What to pack for the West Highland Way
My no. 1 advice for staying warm and keeping up the spirits (pun intended): a hip flask filled with single malt whisky.
The most important piece of equipment to bring when hiking the West Highland Way is of course a good pair of hiking boots. I recently replaced my trustworthy, but worn-out hiking boots with a brand new pair of Zamberlan Ultra Lite boots. Hiking with new boots comes with a great risk of blisters and worse, but the Zamberlan boots surprised me with a perfect fit, even though I only managed to take them out for two little walks prior to hiking the West Highland Way. The wrong footwear can cause an early end to any hiking adventure, so make sure you have suitable and worn-in footwear!
Just as crucial is a good backpack with hip belts (I use the Osprey Tempest 30 daypack*). My friend had brought her regular daypack from home, and while it’s more stylish on photos, her shoulders were considerably sorer due to the distribution of weight on her back. Sometimes practicality counts more than style…
As tiny as it is, the dreaded Scottish midge can ruin your hiking holiday. In advance of the hike I purchased the specifically developed midge repellent Smidge* and thought it worked extremely well. If you decide to camp, consider investing in a midge net* to protect your face (mind that a mosquito net does not work for midges).
Scottish blogger Nicola gives great advice on how to survive the Scottish midge.
Places to eat: Vegan food on the West Highland Way
Hiking the West Highland Way as a vegan is absolutely doable. I generally prepared my breakfast (musli with coconut milk) and packed my own lunches – many hostels offer packed lunches for walkers, but vegan options are a rarity.
We were particularly surprised to stumble across an adorable artisan cafe, Country Mumkins, on our way from Crianlarich to Tyndrum, which was located a few minutes off the trail in an old church. Remote as it seemed, they even fixed up a soy latte for me – the last I should have until reaching Costa in Fort William…
Dinner, however, was surprisingly easy to sort as most pubs we ate in along the way (Crianlarich, Bridge of Orchy, Glencoe) had a vegan(-isable) option available. Surprisingly, Fort William was the hardest town to navigate, but even there the staff at The Grog & Gruel was very accommodating and helped me choose create a vegan meal.
There are no shops between Tyndrum and Kinlochleven, although there is a tiny shop with snacks and fruit at the West Highland Sleeper bunkhouse in Bridge of Orchy, and you could do a detour to the shop in Glencoe village if necessary.
Where to stay on the West Highland Way
We stayed in hostels all the way, which is cheaper than B&Bs and more comfortable than camping. However, it is advisable to book several months in advance, especially if you’re hiking the West Highland Way from May onwards.
For our first night, we chose the SYHA Hostel in Crianlarich. It is right next to the train station and in walking distance to nearby pubs serving food. However, there are also self-catering facilities! We had a room with three single beds, out own sink and shared bathrooms just down the corridor. As per usual with hostels of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, the hostel was clean, all facilities in great condition and the staff really helpful.
Our next stop was the West Highland Way Sleeper bunkhouse in Bridge of Orchy, which could do with an upgrade (and cleaner showers). Still the uniqueness of sleeping in the middle of an operating train station won me over. It is also the only budget accommodation in Bridge of Orchy, apart from camping.
I was happy to return to the Glencoe Independent Hostel in Glencoe for our next night. The village is slightly off the trail, but since the bunkhouse at the Kingshouse Hotel is currently undergoing renovation (due to re-open in 2019), there is no other option than making your way to Glencoe. I spent a cosy October night at the hostel a few years ago and was not disappointed this time around. We stayed in a 4-bed dorm with shared bathroom and self-catering facilities.
Our favourite hostel along the way was definitely Blackwater Hostel in Kinlochleven. It is located in beautiful surroundings and has great self-catering facilities while also being nearby the restaurants in town. Nearby, you can even go for a refreshing dip in the icy cold river behind the hostel!
In Fort William we stayed at Muthu Hotel (previously, West End Hotel), a traditional highland hotel that could do with a bit of modernisation and more generous vegan breakfast options. The hotel’s location & views however, as well as the exceptionally helpful reception staff easily make up for that. We had a triple room with a bathtub – there is not more you could ask for after a long-distance hike!
What’s the best guidebook and map?
Throughout the hike, we relied on the West Highland Way guidebook by Charlie Loram as well as a West Highland Way map by Harvey. The map was great to get an overview of each day’s distance and terrain – we frequently checked it to get an idea of where we are and how long we had to go.
The book provides detailed descriptions of the trail and lots of practical advice – it’s a great resource when preparing for your trip. The only thing I would add is that the book’s estimated walking times (even with the suggested 20-30% added on for breaks) must have been calculated for very fast walkers. It usually took us longer than suggested in the book, even though we didn’t take extensive breaks.
If you can, I would recommend bringing both, a guidebook and a map.
How fit do you have to be for the West Highland Way?
The West Highland Way is a physically and mentally challenging walk. That said though, you neither need particular hiking experience or navigational skills, nor expansive physical preparation.
It is a great long-distance hike for enthusiastic beginners like myself and comes with perks such as B&Bs and pubs along the way, affordable luggage services, and plenty of drop in/drop out points accessible by train and bus.
So, yes – you can do it!
Budget for hiking the West Highland Way
Depending on your budget, you can go all out or do the hike on a shoe string budget. We paid between £14 and £30 per night per person in the hostels which all included bedding. In pubs we spent around £15 per meal per person including an alcoholic beverage. Luggage service costs about £45 for the whole Way.
I hope my photos, stories and advice have convinced you that hiking the West Highland Way is worth the trek (another pun?!?). Most visitors cover the distance from Glasgow to Fort William in something like two hours by car, zooming by some of the most beautiful landscapes Scotland has to offer. Hiking the West Highland Way is a unique way to see the country and makes for memories that will last a lifetime!
Disclaimer: We were provided free luggage transfer by Walkabout Scotland and free accommodation in Fort William by Visit Scotland. All opinions are my own.