A year ago I began to think about walking the 96 mile West Highland Way in Scotland.
I’d read about it.
I’d seen photos of it.
And I knew it would be a good introduction for long distance trails for me.
Having done my fair share of hiking in Colorado and other parts of the US mountain west, I knew I would be prepared to tackle something like the West Highland Way.
And I was.
I had a wonderful 7 days of trekking across that part of Scotland — alone — as a solo female.
But I was prepared.
I had done my research.
And I had experience with hiking and backpacking in the mountains where the weather can get unpredictable.
Now with the walk behind me — and knowing what I’d done right and what I could have done better — I thought I’d put together a list of 10 tips for those of you looking to walk the West Highland Way.
Tip #1 — Do your research before you go
The number one thing to do is to be sure that this is the trail for you.
Read up on it so you know about the terrain.
Can you handle this?
You can walk these 96 miles in 5 days or 10 days — or somewhere in between.
7 days is the average.
Look at the maps and the websites that give you an idea of how many miles/kilometers you’ll be walking each day.
Then determine how many miles you think you can handle in a day.
Truly understand exactly what you are in for each mile.
And then figure out how many days you can walk it in.
Check on the weather at different times of year.
When can you go?
What will the weather be like?
Are you or can you be prepared for this type of weather?
Know what you are getting into.
Tip #2 — Determine HOW you want to do the West Highland Way
What does this mean?
Well there are a few different ways you can tackle this gorgeous and popular trail in Scotland.
You can be more like a backpacker and camp along the trail, taking all of your shit with you — sleeping bag, tent, food, clothing.
There are plenty of places along the trail to camp that have gorgeous scenery.
But if camping isn’t your thing then you can sleep in a hostel or bunk house or even a B&B or hotel.
You can still carry all of your shit that you need for the week or 10 days on your back and either book in advance or wing it and show up and hope for a bed.
I met folks that were carrying everything.
One guy had his places booked ahead of time.
One gal was winging it.
A third option is to simply carry a small day pack with your needs for the day (I’ll get to this further down the post) and have your bigger bag transferred to your hostel/bunk house or hotel.
These baggage transfer services are fab, though not cheap.
But your bag shows up about the time you do (sometimes before you) and you only have to carry a small daypack.
You can do this, but still set up your own accommodation.
Obviously with the baggage transfer service, you do need to book your accommodation in advance so they know where to take your big bag.
A fourth option is to use one of the companies out there that is a “one stop shop.”
In other words, they book your accommodation based on your comfort level and budget (bunk house, simple guesthouse or nice hotel), take care of your baggage transfer and offer you support along the trail should you need it.
You’ll get all your maps and guidebooks for the West Highland Way as well.
While it costs a bit more, the peace of mind is worth it.
Especially if you are walking on your own.
This was how I walked the West Highland Way.
And I’m glad I did.
I used a small company called Walkers Ways.
They were fab!
There are more choices available at this website.
Tip #3 — Determine how many days you’ll walk and what your budget is
So if you’ve done tips 1 & 2 then you can figure out how many days you think you can walk the West Highland Way in and how much it will cost.
Know your budget.
But also know yourself.
It might be worth it to spend a bit more to do the one stop shop method.
It might be worth it to have your own room and bathroom versus sharing at hostel-like accommodation.
By doing the research and knowing how you want to tackle the West Highland Way AND knowing your budget, then you can begin to put this all together.
Tip #4 — Have a good day pack (or big pack if you are carrying it all)
If you’re already a walker/hiker, you probably have a good pack or 2.
If this is a new thing for you, be sure to go some place like REI or some other outdoor gear store to get properly fitted.
I’m short so I love all the women’s packs and packs that come in sizes as they are sized for your torso length.
Small packs fit me better.
If it’s a day pack, make sure it’s big enough but not too big.
If you’re carrying all your shit then figure out how much you need and how much you can handle walking 14 or 18 miles a day.
Just be sure you’ve tried this pack out.
There’s nothing worse than carrying an uncomfortable pack for 5 or 6 hours a day.
Tip #5 — Know what to pack
I’m going to stick with the day pack method here since this is the way I walked the West Highland Way.
I like packs with water bladders.
It makes drinking water easier and — as a result — I stay better hydrated.
Water is your first must have.
Pack some food.
Now a lot of the places you stay along the trail will offer up a packed lunch for a small price.
I’m a picky eater, so I have my own food — energy bars, trail mix, dried fruit.
Next you want to have rain gear — pants and a jacket.
I also take a small, compact and lightweight umbrella.
You’ll have to have your personal items with you — money, credit cards, passport, phone.
I always pack extra clothes because the weather can change in a heartbeat.
If I’m wearing both a short and long-sleeved shirt and then a jacket or vest over that, I usually pack the extra jacket or vest, then have another long-sleeved shirt in my pack.
I take a hat and gloves.
And always take extra socks in case these get wet.
Nothing is worse than wet feet!
Be sure you have a camera with you.
Of course, for so many folks, that’s your phone.
I always had my phone charger with me too.
It may sound silly but I knew I would be close enough to a town every now and again that if my phone needed charging, I could charge it.
Don’t forget your packet of information — maps, guidebook and phone numbers.
It’s always a good idea to have tissues or toilet paper — for the calls of nature in the middle of nowhere or to blow your nose.
And be sure to have a plastic bag to put your trash in.
If you take medication, be sure to have what you need for the day with you.
Lastly you definitely want to take some kind of first aid kit with you.
You may need to treat blister or bug bites.
I usually take something for blisters and learned of Compeed along the walk.
I also take hydrocortisone cream for itchiness, antibiotic ointment for cuts, a pain reliever (ibuprofen) for aches and pains, antacid tablets for tummy ailments and Benadryl in case of an allergic reaction.
A few band aids are always a good idea as is sun cream for those days when the sun comes out.
Get small travel sizes so it won’t take up much space.
And I always always always have my Swiss Army knife.
I saw people with packs smaller than mine.
And I saw folks with day packs larger than mine.
So we all have our comfort level.
But my belief is it’s better to have a bit more than you need as you are definitely “out there” on certain sections of the trail.
Tip #6 — Be prepared for bad weather
I got so lucky when I walked the West Highland Way.
I didn’t see a drop of rain.
Yes this is very unusual for western Scotland.
But I was ready for the rain with rain gear.
Have an idea of each part of the trail.
Know where you might seek shelter should the rain get too heavy.
There are some sections of the West Highland Way that are very exposed where there really isn’t any shelter.
Be sure to know where those are.
Have a plan for what you’ll do if the weather gets nasty.
It might be wise to stop at a sheltered area when the skies begin darkening rather than get caught in an exposed area once the rain comes.
Tip #7 — Know a bit about map reading and orienteering
This is my fail.
I’m not good at reading topo maps or using a compass.
I rely heavily on signs.
As a result I have the ability to get lost.
Fortunately the West Highland Way is very well posted.
But there were a few spots where — I know if had better orienteering skills — I would have felt better about where I was headed.
And as I think about walking more long distance trails, this is something I will learn.
It’s the one thing I want to be better at.
That being said don’t be afraid to ask someone if you’re on the right track.
The folks along the trail are quite friendly.
Which leads us to tip #8…
Tip #8 — Be open to meeting people along the way
This is the greatest gift of the West Highland Way – the camaraderie of the walkers.
I wanted to walk alone and spend most of my time alone.
But I was open to meeting my fellow walkers.
And I did.
Some days I met a lot of folks along the way that I chatted with briefly.
Sometimes I hardly met anyone.
And some days I walked for a bit with someone before going out on my own again.
On the last day I decided to walk with 3 men I had met earlier in the week.
And it was a wonderful decision.
I walked 6 days pretty much alone.
And on that final day I chose to walk with 3 men of varying ages and walks of life.
It was a fabulous way to end my time on the West Highland Way.
Tip #9 — Stop and smell the heather
More than anything, don’t rush.
The West Highland Way is jam-packed with stunning scenery.
Drink it all in.
Don’t walk so quickly that you forget to “stop and smell the roses.”
Or in this case – stop and smell the heather.
I’m not sure if heather smells but it is plentiful along the trail.
I think there are some folks that race through this.
But I did see so many folks really taking their time and enjoying the gorgeous nature that they were surrounded in.
Tip #10 — Celebrate your accomplishment
And lastly, be sure to celebrate when you finish.
Pat yourself on the back.
Tell others what you did.
I met a lovely Scottish couple at a hotel bar at happy hour the day I finished.
I was using the laundry facilities.
So while I was washing and drying, I bought a wee dram and sat outside to celebrate.
I chatted with this couple and told them of finishing the West Highland Way.
They ended up buying me another wee dram as a congratulations.
Bask in the glow of what you did.
Because not everyone can do what you just accomplished!
Please be sure you are in reasonable physical condition.
While I saw all sorts of shapes and sizes on the trail, I do think it pays to have some moderate amount of conditioning.
My regret is that I didn’t get out on rockier terrain prior to walking the West Highland Way so my feet were a bit beat up.
Had I done more training on rougher trails, I think I would have avoided a few blisters!