The mountains of Scotland are without a doubt the most appealing and versatile hiking region in the United Kingdom. From the rolling lowland hills of the Scottish Borders to the tall peaks of the northern Highlands, from coastal walks and island circuits to breathtaking glens and remote mountain ranges – Scotland is a hiker’s paradise. But where to begin? This is a guide preparing and planning unforgettable walking holidays in Scotland in 6 easy steps.
Walking is one of the most rewarding modes of travel. Not only does the trail lead you far off the beaten track, but you also get to enjoy views that most regular travellers can only dream of. Reaching beautiful places on foot, out of your own strength and resilience, is one of the best feelings in the world. The sense of achievement and awe you will feel after a long day of hiking is impossible to outmatch.
However, walking holidays can be intimidating to plan. In addition to making up your mind where to go and which route to hike, you also need to figure out the logistics of accommodation, food, water supplies, additional transport needs and where to turn in an emergency. And while these things also apply for any other vacation you plan, consider that you are walking – so you will not only be moving much slower than on a road trip, your reach is also significantly limited.
Planning a trekking holiday is about preparing physically as well as mentally, crafting an optimised packing list and refining your quick-packing and survival skills. It is about being able to read maps in order to trace down water sources, plan a daily hiking route and find suitable places to stay overnight.
In short – it’s not an easy ordeal and I think that is why many people resort to packaged holidays where everything is taken care of. It is easy to come to the conclusion that walking holidays – at least those you plan yourself – are only for the most experienced adventurers out there. But do you know what? That’s not true!
Walking holidays are adventures from the beginning to the end and the planning stage is very much a part of that. Hiking in another country requires some meticulous planning and prepping, but that is really half the effort. Or don’t you think you would feel even more accomplished at the end of your trek if you knew you did it all by yourself?
This guide will help you to efficiently plan a walking holiday in Scotland and keep control over every element of your trip. After planning several solo and group treks in Scotland myself, I have refined the task to six simple steps – that is all it takes. Read on to find out what it takes to go trekking in Scotland.
Step 1: Choose where to hike in Scotland
Scotland might be made up of incredibly diverse landscapes and regions, but hiking is possible all over the country. Of course, the Scottish Highlands often steal the show, but you can also hike in the Scottish Isles, in the southern regions of the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway, in the east around Fife and Aberdeenshire and even within the city limits of Glasgow and Edinburgh! There is no shortage in trails for day hikes, multi-day walks or long-distance trails in any of these regions!
The first step in planning a walking holiday in Scotland is therefore to choose a region. Here are some questions that might help you make a decision:
- What kind of landscapes do you want to hike through? Do you want to see (or climb) tall mountains, or are lower hills, flat-ish moorland and coastal paths sufficient for your adventure itch?
- Do you have a car to get to the start points of hikes, or do you rely on public transport?
- How far from the city do you want to find yourself and how long do you want your walking holiday to be?
- What time of the year are you hiking? Is it midge season in the Highlands and can you avoid that somehow?
- How experienced are you and how easily do you want to be able to extract yourself (or be extracted) from the trail in an emergency?
The first question is really about your preferences – and I’m afraid there are no right or wrong answers. Only you know which experiences you want to include in your hiking holiday. I, for example, know that I need to at least see the mountains and walk through different landscapes every few days. After two days in the same terrain, I get bored – even if the terrain is gorgeous sandy beaches.
The majority of these questions though focus on your abilities and practical considerations – and with those, you have to be brutally honest. If this is your first walking holiday, you might want to start with a less challenging trail that offers easier access to facilities and additional support. The important thing is to find a trail that challenges you but is still feasible with your level of experience.
Here is an overview of some of the most popular hiking regions in Scotland to help you find a suitable area for you:
– Glencoe: The iconic valley of Glencoe in the Central Highlands is a top hiking area and offers plenty of trails for beginners as well as experts. In Glencoe you can find easy low-level walks, challenging mountain ridges and Munros and anything in between. Find out more about things to do in Glencoe here.
– West Highland Way: The West Highland Way is the most popular long-distance trail in Scotland and is a suitable trek for LD-beginners. It requires some endurance but offers many benefits such as easy access to public transport, plenty of infrastructures (shops, accommodation. restaurants) and even cheap door-to-door baggage transfers. Read more about my experience on the West Highland Way!
– Glen Nevis and Ben Nevis: Scotland is home to the tallest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis – it is no surprise that it is also one of the most popular hiking spots in the Scottish Highlands. While the main route up Ben Nevis is fairly straightforward and thus seemingly beginner-friendly, it is also incredibly challenging because you climb from almost sea level to the rood of Scotland. Glen Nevis and surrounding mountains offer a plethora of trail for all levels to warm up.
– Loch Ossian: Hardly anywhere is more remote than Loch Ossian at the outer edges of Rannoch Moor. The area can only be reached by train and once you get off in the wilderness, it is at least 15 miles to the closest village. The loch is surrounded by Munros and smaller hills which makes for a prime hiking base. I actually visited Loch Ossian for a hiking trip – read more here.
– Cairngorms National Park: The mountains of the Cairngorms National Park are often overshadowed by the more famous Highland peaks, but they do in fact make for some of the most challenging and remote hikes in Scotland. There are longer trains here, but also plenty of day hikes for all abilities. It is also home to the UK’s longest linear walk without crossing a road – challenge accepted?
– Northwest Highlands: The mountains in the areas around Torridon, Kinlochewe, Ullapool and Assynt don’t need an introduction among avid hillwalkers in Scotland. They are as iconic looking as they are varied and include some of the most strenuous ascents in Scotland. However, there are also a number of long-distance trails in this area, some beginner-friendly, others only for experts.
– Loch Lomond & The Trossachs: This area close to Glasgow is a great hiking destination for anyone who is short on time and thus can’t stray far from civilisation. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is home to the southernmost Munros, but even the smaller hills in the area offer spectacular views. It is a great area for beginners and wilderness lovers alike. I highly recommend the area around Loch Achray, Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps. A great warm-up option is this hike up Ben A’an.
Of course, there are a lot more hiking regions in Scotland that I haven’t mentioned here and many long-distance trails in particular that cover regions that are way more off the beaten track (or run through several regions).
Once you have narrowed it down to a region or a few to chose from, ask your self the ultimate question:
- Do I want to do a multi-day long-distance hike or do I prefer having a home base and doing day hikes from there?
Most regions offer either option, but this might also be a question you ask yourself before narrowing down hiking areas.
Step 2: Plan your Daily Hiking Routes
Let’s assume you have decided on a hiking region for your walking holiday in Scotland. Congrats! On to step 2 – planning out your daily hiking distance, routes and breaks.
Finding suitable day hikes in Scotland
If you chose to have a home base (or several) and do day hikes from there, planning your daily hiking routes is fairly straightforward. Simply put in the research for suitable hikes in the area and plan your days. Bring the necessary map material and refresh your navigation skills (map reading AND use of a compass). Two great map publishers to look into are Ordnance Survey and Harvey Maps.
The platform Walk Highlands is a helpful resource that lists endless walks and hikes all over Scotland. It collects path descriptions and recent walk reports and includes useful information about terrain and grading and stats such as distance, average duration, ascent and grid references. If you are a Munro bagger, you can even create an account and start logging which Munros you have climbed.
Planning distances on a multi-day trek
However, if you want to do a long-distance hike for your walking holiday, planning your daily hiking routes is a bit more tricky.
Some long-distance trails in Scotland are so popular, they described in guidebooks – for example, the West Highland Way (book available here). Usually, these guide books offer different variations of a walk (for example, the WHW in 6, 8 or 9 days) and focus on one to describe the individual daily stages. If this is your first rodeo, I recommend you chose a trail that offers manageable daily stages and stick to those. However, if you are more experienced these stages might not match your time frame, your abilities or simply the speed at which you want to hike.
I had this issue with the Heb Way guidebook (available here). It described 8, 10 and 14-day variations of the trail, but I wanted to do it in twelve and thus had to come up with my own 12-day itinerary.
Some long-distance hikes like the Cape Wrath Trail have no set path and its stages are more loosely described in the guidebook. A stage might be over 30-40 miles long and the book suggests to spend 2-3 days on it – where you stop overnight is your decision.
So, how do you figure out how far you can walk and how long it will take you?
Measuring Distances for Hiking
Here are some tips and tricks for measuring distances and duration for multi-day hikes.
– Consider your abilities: I know I can comfortably walk about 20-22 km per day with a big backpack and full camping equipment; 25 is my upper limit – after that, I push myself too hard. When I plan my long-distance hikes, I take care that no daily stage is longer than that and I don’t reach my upper limit too many days in a row. I also like to sprinkle in a few shorter days to give my body some rest. You might be comfortable with more or less – experiment with some local walks and learn about your comfort level.
– Use macro-navigation skills: Map-reading is an essential skill if you plan a walking holiday – especially if you make up your own route or daily stages. Macro-navigation has to do with planning a route with the use of a map.
- First, measure the distance of your hike with a piece of string. 1 cm on a 1:25,000 map equals 250 m in the real world (1cm=400m on a 1:40,000 map; 1cm=500m on a 1:50,000 map). You can follow the outline of the path on the map (if it’s there) or trace a route that you think would work considering the terrain. The average speed of walking on flat terrain is about 4 km an hour. Say you measured your walk to be 20 km, that would take you about 5 hours.
- Look at the contour lines. Contour lines are the red lines on topographic maps and they indicate the elevation in 10m steps. From line to line there is a 10m elevation difference and you can see whether the terrain is ascending or descending by reading the numbers on the lines. The closer together the contour lines are, the steeper the terrain – if it is very steep, you will even notice contour lines disappearing (or skipping). For every contour line (10m elevation) add 1 minute of walking – up or down doesn’t matter – this is called Naismith’s rule. If your 20 km hike climbs a total of 400 m in elevation, that means adding 40 minutes – totalling at 5 hours and 40 minutes.
- Consider the terrain & weather. Finally, look at the terrain of your hike. There will be symbols on your map showing bogs and woodlands, you can look up whether the route is well-protected or exposed, so strong winds might impact your speed. Circumstances like challenging terrain or weather can slow you down considerably and the more issues you can anticipate, the better you can plan your daily route.
– Add time for breaks: When I hike with a full backpack, I like to take a break every 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I stop for just 5 minutes to take the backpack off and stretch my back. Some breaks are a bit longer – 10 minutes or so – and usually include a snack and taking off my boots and socks. Once a day, I stop for a longer break – 30-60 minutes – for lunch and maybe a little snooze or yoga session. Considering all these, my 20 km would probably take me about 7.5 hours.
Of course, these are just rough guidelines. You might walk faster or slower than average. You might have a higher or lower comfort limit than me, deal better with certain terrains, or want to challenge yourself by climbing more elevation.
Step 3: Figure out the Logistics (Food & Drink)
Measuring distances and planning feasible and achievable daily hiking goals is an important step of planning your walking holidays. But so is figuring out the logistics, such as places to stay, where to stock up on food and water, and where to treat yourself to a cooked meal every once in a while.
If your hiking holiday revolves around a home base, this is easy – simply book accommodation in the region you chose to hike in and research the area. You will probably stay in a village with a supermarket and restaurants, or you have a car to take you to a nearby town for supplies. If your home base is more remote – such as the youth hostels in Loch Ossian or Glen Affric, you will have to carry all the food you need with you, but you will still be able to cook or fill up water there.
Logistics on a long-distance trail is more complicated and this is where guidebooks and maps come in really handy again. Hiking guidebooks for Scotland usually include practical information about facilities and availability of supplies along the hike, and many hikes lead through towns or villages fairly regularly. Maps are handy to pinpoint villages along the route and match them up with your daily hiking routes. They are also useful for locating rivers where you might be able to fill up your water bottles along the way. However, always bring a small water filter – I use the MSR Trailshot.
I usually research as many options for supermarkets, village shops, restaurants, cafes and such things as possible. Even if I might not always need to use them all, I like being able to make quick decisions about detours or emergencies. I collect all the facilities on spreadsheets and on my phone in my Google Maps or I might mark them on my paper map.
You also want to think about which supplies to take with you on the hike – anything like snacks, tea bags, a camping stove or other things that you can’t find so easily on the trail.
Step 4: Sort out hiking-friendly accommodation
Every walking holiday in Scotland comes with two accommodation options: camping in a tent or sleeping in a real bed. On some trails, you might not get around bringing your own tent, while others are possible to walk without camping equipment. The West Highland Way has plenty of accommodation options along the way for example, and so does the Speyside Way!
There are numerous campsites along Scottish trails, but thanks to The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 you can also wild camp almost anywhere you like. What makes a good wild camping spot? Proximity to running fresh water (a river or a burn), flat ground, few rocks and no bog, at best a sheltered position from the wind and of course a good view!
I walk you through my preferred camping equipment for multi-day treks in this packing list for long-distance hiking, so let’s focus on the key elements of hiking-friendly accommodation. Here are some of the things to look out for when booking places to stay during your walk:
– Drying room: Imagine you spent a wet day on the trail and your boots are soaked. You want your accommodation to have a drying room. Whether it’s a budget-friendly hostel, a traditional B&B or an upmarket country hotel, ask if they have a dry room available to dry out your wet equipment.
– Packed lunches: Many places to stay along popular hiking trails in Scotland offer lunch packs for walkers. They usually have to be ordered in advance and are not necessarily vegan-friendly, although if you ask, the hosts might be able to get some vegan snacks and sandwiches for you!
– Hiking information: I love asking locals for advice, especially when it comes to the best hikes in the area. A good walker-friendly accommodation has knowledgable staff, folders and brochures with trail information for the area and maybe maps you can borrow during your stay.
– No minimum stay: Chances are high that you will only want to stay for one night if you are trekking long-distance, so look for accommodation that does not require a minimum stay of 2 or more nights.
Extra bonus points for any accommodation that has spa or sauna facilities, offers guided hikes, sells first aid supplies or snacks in a small shop or offers overnight laundry service.
Step 5: Pack the right equipment
I mentioned my long-distance hiking packing list above, so if you are looking for a detailed guide for what to bring on a multi-day trek with wild camping, check it out.
Many people think hiking and trekking is all about having the best, lightest, most expensive gear – but depending on your route, hiking does not actually require you to make such huge investments to get started. I have a lot of hiking equipment, but I accumulated that over the years. In the beginning, all I had was cheap hiking boots, a few outdoorsy outfits and an old backpack I found among my brother’s stuff. Everything else came over time.
Here are some of the bare essentials you need to prepare and pack for your walking holidays in Scotland.
– A good backpack: Depending on the duration of your hike and the style of accommodation you booked you should choose a backpack anywhere between 30 to 65 l. If you are staying in accommodation and you have a larger bag transferred from door-to-door, all you need is a daypack that fits spare clothes, a waterproof layer, a packed lunch and a first aid kit. Staying in accommodation but without bag transfer, a 40 l backpack does the trick – it fits everything you need for a week and doesn’t weigh you down too much on the trail. If you bring your own camping equipment, a 65 l pack will allow you to fit everything inside and avoid having gear dangling outside your backpack. An indispensable feature of a good hiking backpack is a hip belt – it makes a huge difference when hiking for several days in a row!
Here are the three backpacks I use depending on the occasion:
- Vaude Skarvan 65+10 or Astrum 60+10 for treks with camping
- Deuter Futura 40 for hikes without baggage service
- Osprey Tempest 30 for day hikes
– Sturdy hiking boots: What kind of hiking boot you should wear on a hiking holiday, depends a lot on the terrain. Many people prefer light-weight shoes on multi-day treks, especially if the terrain is not too challenging. However, I swear by my sturdy Zamberlan boots which protect my ankles and cushions the soles of my feet.
Make sure you break in your hiking boots before you take them on a walking holiday and if you plan to hike with a heavy backpack, break them in wearing a backpack too.
– Maps and compass: I cannot stress this enough – if you go on a self-guided walking holiday in Scotland, bring and know how to use a compass and maps. If you are not sure how to use them, stick to paths that are waymarked and busy with other hikers who you can join or ask for help. If you’d like to learn navigation skills, do a course. I did a training day with Girls on Hills and learnt so much about navigation!
I’m also a big supporter of actual paper maps – even if they add to the weight of your pack. I know, Ordnance Survey has a great app which is good for easy low-level navigation, but what if our battery dies, your phone gets wet or you drop it? You can keep your maps dry by using a waterproof map case.
Step 6: Know how to stay safe on the trail
Safety is a huge concern when it comes to hiking in Scotland. The Scottish Highlands might not be a massively tall mountain range, but their northern location means that they are no less unpredictable than places like the Alps or the Rockies. Here are some of the things to consider in terms of mountain safety in Scotland.
– Respect the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Scotland has some of the most progressive and generous access legislation in Europe. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 basically grants everyone statutory access rights to most of Scotland’s outdoors – in other words: you can walk and camp (almost) anywhere you like. However, this only works if people stick to a code of conduct that rests on mutual respect, care and responsibility. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code website explains how to behave responsibly and safely in the Scottish outdoors – whether that’s during walking, camping or other outdoor activities.
– Prepare accordingly: Always check local weather forecasts, try to speak to locals about your planned route(s) and look up route descriptions/reports from other hikers. Also leave your details with your accommodation or a friend, especially but not only when you hike solo. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. You can download templates for hike sheets here or here.
– Navigation skills: The weather in the Scottish mountains can change rapidly – sunshine one second, hail and fog the next. Not every hike has a clearly defined path and of the existing paths, only a few are signposted. For these and other reasons, it is essential that you have confident navigation skills. If you plan a hiking holiday in Scotland – whether you walk long-distance trails or bag Munros – you have to brush up on your map and compass reading skills.
That said, there are trails like the West Highland Way where there are plenty of sign-posts and clear trails for anyone who doesn’t know how to navigate. It would be hard to get lost here, but it is always useful to carry a map and compass for emergencies!
– Proper equipment: Once, in the Italian Alps, I saw a woman walking up a loose rocky mountain trail in high heels – yes, high heels. Needless to say, in order to stay safe in the Scottish mountains, always bring the proper equipment. Wear sturdy boots, carry waterproof layers (even on a sunny day), bring plenty of water and high energy snacks, and pack a headtorch, a whistle, a first aid kit and an emergency shelter.
– Solo hiking: All the above is true for group hikes as well as solo hikers. I hike alone a lot and like to think that there is nothing wrong with heading outdoors by yourself. I tend to take extra care though when I hike by myself. I frequently take breaks to check in with my surroundings – is the weather getting worse, would I feel comfortable finding my way back, do I know my exact location etc. I am also more careful with regards to things like climbing fences, jumping off steps, handling my knife or other potential hazards.
– Acting in emergencies: If you have an emergency on the trail, such as a bad injury, you should know how to react and how to call for help. In case of an injury, treat it as good as you can. Use your navigation skills to identify your location on the map and calculate the grid reference. If you are in a group, it is advisable that someone stays with the injured person, while someone else descends to get help. Once you reach a phone (or reception) dial 999 or 112 and ask for POLICE, MOUNTAIN RESCUE. Use your emergency whistle and your head torch to draw attention to yourself. The emergency signal is six blasts on the whistle or six flashes with the torch.
There are many cases when calling Mountain Rescue might cause unnecessary cost or effort though. Imagine for example you get trapped in bad weather – it is not always recommended to call mountain rescue right away. If you packed the proper equipment, such as an emergency shelter and plenty of snacks, you might be able to wait out the storm by yourself and descend when it is safe again. Mountain rescue is doing a fantastic life-saving job – make sure that you only call them in an emergency. Here are some questions to consider before calling.
Being prepared for emergencies and taking precautions to stay safe on a walking holiday in Scotland is necessary to ensure that you can fully enjoy your vacation – and come home in one piece!
Planning itineraries and travel routes have become second nature for me – but I know it’s not everybody’s forte. Especially with walking holidays, it might sound easier to resort to a package holiday where someone else plans everything for you – all you need to do is pack your hiking boots and get yourself to the destination of your choice. But those packages can be expensive and feel impersonal (unless it’s a guided tour). They can also give you a false sense of security as in case of an emergency, your in-depth knowledge about the route would come in handy.
Only planning your own hiking routes can give you this kind of knowledge. And as you saw in this post – it only takes 6 easy steps to plan an unforgettable hiking trip to Scotland!
If you feel overwhelmed with route options, choosing between hiking packages or organising everything yourself, get in touch with me – I’d love to help you plan your self-guided walking holiday in Scotland!
(Even though I promise not to do all the hard work for you – we will plan your route together and I want you to feel as well-prepared as if you had one it by yourself!)
Get in touch and let me help you plan a trip that is 100% YOU!
[Please note that I will not be able to assist with trips for May/June/July 2019 as it is too short notice.]
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