In Spring 2018 we will find out where the West Highland Way appears in the list of Britain’s Favourite 100 Walks, which may or may not feature yours truly, but for now I will just add my voice to the thousands before me and highly recommend this particular hike to beginner trekkers and seasoned backpackers alike.
Just leaving Kinlochleven on the final day.
I am recently back from doing the famous hike over seven days in early October. I did it with blogger friends Chelsea and Jenni, and had a great time with them (more about the actual experience another day). It was my first foray into the act of multi-day hiking, the first time as an adult that I have carried my life in a pack, and I had an absolutely amazing time. I loved the preparation before we went (despite all the stress I wrote about here), adored being on the trail day after day, and am left with that deep sense of personal achievement that only going on an adventure can provide.
The number one question I have been asked about this whole long distance hiking thing is “Why?”. I am sure people aren’t questioning my sanity, but rather wondering what it was about the West Highland Way that made me want to give up ten days of annual leave and head to Scotland. What was it about the West Highland Way itself that made me want to do it? And of course, did it live up to my hopes?
The old military road.
I have always said that the reason I wanted to hike the West Highland Way is because of the views. The scenery in this part of Scotland is simply stunning – it is dramatic, theatrical, wild, and, well, big.
Loch Lomond and Glencoe have always had a special place in my heart. I’ve seen both areas of the country from the road, from inside a car and from a motorbike, many times. I relish every opportunity to visit and, even if the weather is pants (technical term!), always feel something special when I’m surrounded by those hills and that moorland. Walking the West Highland Way, which takes in both of these places, was my opportunity to see these areas on foot and therefore from a new perspective. You can easily see them from the road, through your car window or by taking a short walk from a car park, but to walk for miles is to become part of the view.
And the views did not disappoint. How could they?! That sense of not just looking at but feeling like I fit in with the scenery was very special. With each step forward my soul widened and the dramatic backdrop found a way in. I definitely left a part of myself on Rannock Moor, but in return it gave me something back. As we travelled back south on the train and looked out of the window across the Glencoe area, I was no longer an onlooker, I belonged. And I know that feeling will continue for the rest of my life.
Yes, the views are the thing that make the West Highland Way high on a lot of people’s bucket lists. They are certainly the number one reason it was on mine.
Loch Lomond from Conic Hill.
It is fair to say that the West Highland Way is a beginner’s long distance hike. At 96 miles it sounds like a long way, and yes there are steep bits and technical bits, but all things considered it is an excellent “first time” multi day trek. It is accessible, easy to navigate, and the perfect step up from day hike to trek. This was hugely important to me when choosing where to hike; I might be ready for the most difficult expeditions one day, but this time I was looking for something that was actually achievable.
It is also very popular. Hundreds of people take it on every year, and one of the reasons for this is because it is one of those accessible adventures that open up the doors of expedition style hiking to more people. People like me. I know some people feel that popular hikes should be avoided, but it is popular for very good reason and I can see benefits resulting from its popularity.
First, there are always others walking the route. This adds to the type of adventure it is, in my opinion, allowing you to make friends with people who are experiencing the same thing, share stories and learn from them. It’s also great if you are travelling alone, as you can hike with others. Second, there are plenty of facilities along the way. While you feel as if you are in wild back country Scotland, you are never actually far from food, shelter, or help. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a significant hike, it definitely is one to be taken seriously, but is perfect for those – like me – wanting to take the step up from day hiker to trekker.
Smiling in the rain on Rannoch Moor.
Because the West Highland Way has hikers travelling along it almost every day of the year, it is also one for which you can find a lot of information to help you plan your own adventure. Guidebooks, YouTube videos and blog posts like this one mean you can research and prepare well in advance, learning from those who have done it before, and choosing which bits of advice to heed and which mistakes to potentially make yourself.
There are so many ways to take on his hike. You can see it as an expedition, carrying your own bag with camping gear and food and everything else. You can carry a large pack with sleeping gear but stay in camping pods or hostels. Take a slightly smaller bag and make use of the hundreds of B&Bs, along the route. Or reduce the stuff on your back to a small day sack and pay someone else to carry your bag between stops, using whichever type of accommodation you fancy.
It’s also a flexible route that can be sped up or slowed down to meet your needs. So it in five or six or seven or eight days in a row, take a whole summer of weekends to do it, or just do the section that looks most interesting to you personally. You could even take the bus or train for part of the route, because no-one says you have to walk it all. The beauty of the West Highland Way, the thing that makes it accessible, is that it’s your hike and any way you choose to do it is the right way. Whatever anyone tells you!
We chose to hike the West Highland Way in seven days with no rest days, carrying our own gear. We camped some of the time (and so carried camping gear), had a couple of huts booked for the middle nights, a hotel at the end, and played the rest by ear. We followed the route mapped in my guidebook and on OS Maps closely, choosing not to deviate into towns or for other attractions along the way. We walked the whole way, didn’t give in to the temptation of the transfer service (although it was very tempting!), and while we didn’t camp as much as we thought we would for a couple of reasons, we were pleased about having our tents and sleeping gear on our backs and definitely rose to that part of the challenge.
View from my tent on Loch Lomond shore.
Walking the West Highland Way, or doing any long distance hike, is a huge commitment, and so the fact that it is easily accessible and comes with a whole host of facilities does help. Like most people who enjoy adventure, I had to take annual leave from work that wouldn’t then be available to spend time with family, had to spend money on gear, food and accommodation, and I had to spend time in the run up making sure I was physically and mentally ready for the adventure. Going on any kind of adventure like this is time and money heavy. Choosing the West Highland Way offered me an accessible long distance hike to dip my toe in the water of trekking that wouldn’t break the piggy bank of time or resources.
The most taken photo along the West Highland Way; cottages on Glencoe.
There are a few things that I heard many times as I was planning to walk the West Highland Way. I am sure those who said them were not actually trying to put me off, but they did make me wonder whether this particular hike wasn’t a real trek at all. I thought I’d mention a few here and tell you about my experience.
It is busy in the high season, a long line of people as far as the eye can see.
We did the West Highland Way in early October and while we definitely were not on our own on the trail, it certainly wasn’t the long line of hikers we’d been told it might be. We bumped into the same people a few times, which was nice, it’s good to make new friends especially when you’re all going through the same experience. But we were never in a queue, not by a long way, no-one held us up, and some days we didn’t see anyone all day until we’d finished hiking and were hunting out dinner.
Accommodation is expensive and not very good.
I didn’t find accommodation overly expensive, although I did end up spending a little more than anticipated due to not camping as many nights as planned. We did our research ahead of time, booked where necessary, and when we just rocked up hoping for a hut and a hostel bed, we didn’t pay a lot (camping would have been cheaper, but needs must). To give you an idea, camping cost us £5 a night, a hostel cost us £20 each, huts cost us £15 each, and our B&B at the start was a bargain at £37 each including a huge breakfast. You can of course spend less, wild camping is free, and more, there are a couple of expensive hotels on the route if you fancy it. As far as standards go, some of the showers were a bit rubbish, but generally speaking we got what we expected and more.
Water crossings on the final day.
It will rain. A lot.
Yea it does that in Scotland. And to be honest unless you are heading into the desert, where you still might end up in a heavy rain storm, if you are walking for a week it is likely you will experience rainy weather at some point. During our seven days we had about eight or nine hours of rain. There was one very heavy rain storm that meant I got totally soaked, and a couple that weren’t actually that heavy but were accompanied by strong winds as we were walking across moorland, but the rest of the time it was just drizzle or short showers. It wasn’t cold at all during the week, and we even had blue sky and sunshine for some of every day. When hiking, especially long distance, you just have to go properly prepared for the weather, and deal with whatever it throws at you.
The midges. Oh the midges!
Definitely the most common negative thing we heard about the West Highland Way; being over on the west of Scotland and often by water, midges can be a real problem in the summer months. We chose October to hike for exactly this reason; by autumn the beasties have pretty much disappeared, and the ones that are left are really rather lazy. I got a couple of bites on my head (in my hair – itchy!) when I sat and ate a granola bar from an honesty box by Loch Lomond, but other than that we were not bothered by flying biting things. If you go in summer then I’m sure a head net is a vital piece of gear, and I bet that’s very uncomfortable when camping by the Loch, but choose your timing wisely and you won’t find any more than you might in the rest of Great Britain.
The majority of the trail is solid underfoot, including a rocky military road which goes on for miles and miles.
The military road is indeed long, and hard, and rocky, there is no denying that. For this reason you need decent cushioning in your socks and shoes. Poles will also help you step properly and keep your knees from wobbling too much. But the road takes you through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen and makes the longest day of the hike quite doable. I didn’t mind it, apart from one section when it was raining and the moss covered stones on the road became rather slippery; I just had a to slow down a bit. Seeing the road stretch out for miles in front of you can make the task at hand feel endless, but at the same time when you turn around and look back you can see how far you’ve come and that is a wonderful boost.
The old military road.
It is super simple to navigate and you’ll likely leave your map in your pack.
We read the guidebook each night before bed and checked over the map to see what the terrain would be like, but apart from that we hardly consulted the maps at all. Navigation was very easy, my compass stayed in my bag, and we didn’t get lost or take a wrong turn throughout the hike. I don’t think difficult navigation makes a “better” adventure, the West Highland Way is enough of an adventure on its own and not having to worry about which way to turn just made it less stressful. (More about navigation here.)
The Way ends with two miles along roadside footpath through a town centre which is not befitting of a wild adventure.
It does. And it isn’t. This is the exact reason we planned to hike up Ben Nevis the day after we finished the hike; it seemed a much more fitting end to the adventure. But unfortunately the weather was not kind and the Ben had to wait. I know why they’ve done it; finishing in the town means people like me are more likely to stay in the town and spend money. It’s just a shame as you leave the ruggedness of Scotland behind and end up in the grey and dirt of an urban landscape after such a long time surrounded by the natural world. I have to say I do kind of like the Weary Walker, it’s a nice place to have a photo at the end of such a long hike, and I didn’t mind that our hotel was around 20 paces from the end point which does make being in the middle of Fort William very convenient.
West Highland Way finger signposts.
Why the West Highland Way?
The charm and drama of the West Highland Way more than makes up for any potential negatives. You will be absolutely blown away by the views; the scenery is simply spectacular. This part of Scotland deserves to be explored, and the West Highland Way is an excellent way to do that.
The West Highland Way is a super popular hike for a reason. And I am not afraid to add my voice to the masses and say I think it’s a great long distance hike for anyone wanting to go on one. Yes, there are plenty of others to choose from here in Great Britain and across the world, but it really is a good one and deserves to be noticed.
The fact that the West Highland Way offered a huge amount of flexibility, and that there is a vast extent of information available from all kinds of people, meant that choosing to hike this one was just very sensible. Not only did it have all the views I was hoping for, but it was also reasonably easy to get to the start and home from the end, offered me stress free navigation, had a variety of easy and more technical terrain, and plenty of accommodation options.
If you are looking for your first – or next – you should definitely consider it.
Stopping to take in the view.
Oh, and a word to those who are planning their own West Highland Way adventure, in whichever way you fancy. Please (please, please) be kind to the environment and your fellow hikers by leaving no trace. Especially if you wild camp. Be careful where you camp, take your litter home, bury your personal waste properly, and be respectful of the wildlife.
I am planning more West Highland Way blog posts, naturally, but if you have any questions about the hike or my experience please do give me a shout.