The West Highland Way was not what I expected. Coming from an American backpacking background I am used to remote wilderness and being far from help…and very empty trails. I knew the WHW would be busy but I had predicted just how busy it would be, and the amount of trash those people would leave behind them when there aren’t garbage cans to put it in immediately.
Was I disappointed in the hike? No (other than the amount of toilet paper). Would I approach it differently next time? Absolutely.
While Scotland is remote and beautiful, and one of the last wilderness-type areas in the UK, it still isn’t that wild…you are almost never a day from anywhere. And that is the expectation I would change if I re-hiked the West Highland Way…or most other UK national trails; some of the more remote Scottish trails might be the exception. What the UK does have is an abundance of history and culture, and that’s something that I learned to embrace more on the West Highland Way vs the solitude of distant rugged peaks miles from the nearest dirt road (let alone a paved road or, God forbid, a town) that I am used to in Wyoming or Utah or Colorado.
The West Highland Way, or any popular trail for that matter in Europe, needs to be approached with very different expectations than those you often find in the US. You need to be okay with running into more people (who are often very interesting), tenting less (or at least “wild camping” less) and appreciating that you will run into unique and quaint towns a lot more often (which also, generally, means carrying a lighter pack as it easier to buy food every day or every other day).
So how would I approach the West Highland Way differently now I’ve hiked it? And how will I approach future UK (and some European) backpacking trips differently?
First, I’d carry less food. I am so used to backpacking in the US where you can plan a trip that can go for a week or more without crossing a road or seeing a town, and you need to carry everything with you…and I love that…it’s why I got into backpacking in the first place. But it is rarely something you will experience on most popular trails in Europe, and especially in England.
Pubs and quaint cafes in the UK and Europe are abundant; I often found that since I was on vacation I would rather eat a good meal that was local, and enjoy a local beer, vs eating the bland Ramen noodles I brought with me. British pubs are awesome and almost everywhere permits dogs; I love the atmosphere of chilling outside in the pub garden or inside watching local patrons…there are some good stories to hear from the locals. Pubs were one of the few things I missed about the UK when I was in the US.
Second, I’d mix up the wild camping and the campsites and wouldn’t plan on just “wild camping”. Just like the PCT or AT there is a hiker culture and mentality along the trail, and when you get done with a long day on the trail it is fun to talk with people who just walked the same section you did. Hikers are generally an awesome group of people and I met some amazing people while I was hiking…whether in the pub, those I chatted with on trail or those that helped me out when I was sick. I love wild camping and wouldn’t trade the few nights I had, but I also enjoyed the couple of nights I camped in campsites and could sit and chat for a while.
Third, I’d forget the Smidge. I brought it as my only midge deterrent as I heard it was AWESOME and it didn’t work. I bought a headnet on the second day which was a much better investment…lighter and infinitely more useful. I dumped the Smidge. Don’t underestimate the greater Scottish midge…ever.
Fourth, I’d change my schedule slightly. Again I was relying on my experiences of hiking in places like Wyoming’s Wind River Range where 12 miles a day was a good day, at least for me, with all the steep ups and downs (with views to match). I booked my only non-tent night for the night of day 5 but it was too far out; if I hadn’t gotten sick and ended up in the hospital I would have been there a day early. Seven days would be a good trip schedule for most backpackers in decent shape…six days for those in better shape or who are tight for time.
As a backpacker and camper who doesn’t rely (or always care for) paid-for campsites this would be my adjusted schedule to not push myself and still enjoy a relaxed pace, and also my reasons:
Day 1: Milngavie to just above Dryman/before Balmaha wild camp.
The great evergreen trees provide numerous protected great wild camps once you turn off the main road that leads to Drymen. This is such an easy section that 13 miles disappears easily. I started at noon and it meant the trail was mostly empty and devoid of two-legged traffic. It was a good lesson on starting to hike either early or late.
Day 2: Wild camp to 2nd wild camp past Rowardennan, beyond the camping restriction boundary.
The Rowardennan Hotal would be an easy stopping place for a quick, late lunch before finding a wild campsite. The permited site 1/2 mile south of the hotel was a good spot if you want to do dinner at the hotel, or started late, and not go above 15 miles but with hindsight I would push on past the boundary (after a good bite to eat) to where wild camping is permitted.
Day 3: Rowardennan (either wild camp or permit site) to one of wild camp or Beinglas Farm Campsite
Wild camp south of Doune Bothy or just past the ferry to Ardleish (I wouldn’t choose to stay at the bothy unless the weather was terrible); both offer beautiful lake-side camping spots; or one of the few pay-for campsites I would choose to stay and pitch up at was Beinglas Farm Campground at Inverarnen…food was awesome, facilities were great and it was fun to socialize with the other hikers.
Day 4: Wild camp/Beinglas to Tyndrum.
There seemed to be few good spots to wildcamp through this area but the 15/12 miles for the day, and being a little over the half way point, made Tyndrum a great stopping point for resupply and laundry/shower. Not as great as Beinglas Farm for the social aspect and food, but the staff were friendly and very helpful and it was an easy walk to town…and a very good burger.
Day 5: Tyndrum to wild camp on Rannoch Moor.
If I had one single favorite night of camping on the West Highland Way it was the night on Rannoch Moor; the views were stunning and I had the whole place to myself. I hiked in during the shower-prone afternoon where everyone else stopped at the Bridge of Orchy (a very short day from Tyndrum), the Inveroran Hotal or camped at Victoria Bridge, and had the most incredible location to set up my tent. I loved that I hiked, either in the afternoon or first thing in the morning, alone. I can’t recommend stopping here more…best sites are around Ba Bridge, Ba Cottage and the next bridge north.
Day 6: Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven.
Waking up to something so different from the night before was what sold me on spending the night on Rannoch Moor…it was worth it. There are few camping choices in Kinlochleven and I had originally planned to wild camp beyond the town. The campgrounds have tough ground that doesn’t like tent stakes much. There are several good camping spots just as the trail leaves the road out of the town (and still near to the pub/hotel) or further up the hill (with several good water sources). The only reason I chose a campground was due to my illness being an issue…I would choose to wildcamp next time, in either place mentioned above. If I was to pick a campsite I would definitely go with the place with the view along the loch again at the MacDonald Hotel vs the Blackwater Hostel along the road.
Day 7: Kinlochleven to Ft William. No advice here…just finish the trail. However, getting up early and having the whole valley to myself at 5am was pretty awesome….I would highly recommend an early start every day if you prefer to experience the trail without the rabid hordes.
I carried more clothes on the West Highland Way than I have ever carried on any trip. Scotland’s weather is more changeable than anything I have ever encountered in the US and while I barely needed my down jacket and my extra fleece I was glad I had them as I did use them when the sun disappeared. With the abundance of water (or easy access to refilling bottles) an extra layer of clothes wasn’t an overwhelming weight. I was also extremely glad to have a waterproof rain suit (pants and jacket) AND a poncho for me and the pack. I wouldn’t carry a pack cover again unless the forecast was 100% chance of rain, in which case I wouldn’t be out backpacking.
I picked a great time of year to do this trail and got pretty decent weather and fewer midges than in summer. If hiking this trail, or any other Scottish trail again, I would certainly pick the shoulder seasons again. This does mean avoiding Conic Hill with the dogs in April and May, but it was worth missing just to be able to do the rest of the hike with them.
Recommended Stopping Places…for food and/or beer:
Drymen: While I didn’t even go near Drymen I heard a lot of recommendations for The Clachan Inn from many people.
Balmaha: The Oak Tree Inn sits is a great place to stop for lunch or a pint…or both. The location is gorgeous and the beer is good. A tea/coffee shop sits onsite also for those less inclined to have a pint while hiking (who are you weird people?) or when it’s too early for beer…yes, there is such a time.
Rowardennan: The Rowardennan Hotel had good food, good beer and a lovely beer garden if it’s warm enough and there aren’t too many midges with amazing views over the loch. A good place to stop for lunch but the hotel is expensive and the only other option is wild camping or the youth hostel.
Inversnaid: There is only the hotel that is easily accessibly. Sadly I was there right before I got sick but the food did look good. Be prepared to ditch coats, boots and packs in the mud room before entering.
Inverarnen: The Drover’s Inn across the river is worth checking out for a drink but the restaurant/bar at Beinglas Farm (apparently) has the better food, not to mention lots of other campers/hikers to socialize with…definitely a place where the “hiker trash” gathers. Of the three of us who ate there together not one person had a negative thing to say about the food…and it all disappeared fast.
Tyndrum: The Tyndrum Inn has some great food and decent wine. I didn’t care much for the atmosphere in the restaurant (maybe I was too early as I was the only one there) so would choose to eat in the bar next time. A little pricey but the service was good.
Bridge of Orchy Hotel: Stopped for lunch and had an amazing bree and grilled onion pannini…was amazing. Great food, dog friendly, good local beer and not too expensive. Definitely worth stopping at for lunch, or dinner before camping at Victoria Bridge.
Glen Coe Ski Resort: A well-located cafe just off the trail. Food was okay but pricey for what you get. Good stopping place for breakfast if you camp on Rannoch Moor, or a cup of tea if coming through later in the day.
MacDonald Hotel, The Bothy Bar: Great views but not much of an outside beer garden. Dog friendly and again the food was pretty good (although I don’t actually remember what I had). A good place to socialize with locals or other hikers and close to a couple of wild camping spots.
Many people hike this trail hut to hut style and have their bags transfered each day by utilizing one of many baggage transfer companies. It is not something I chose to use. I didn’t want to be restricted on where and when I would be stopping for the night, not to mention that doing that turns a backpacking trip into a series of day hikes, at least for me. So much of what I love about backpacking is that it ISN’T day hiking, not that I don’t enjoy day hikes…I just much prefer backpacking…it’s a mental thing.
However, I did use one of the services for a resupply box and my shuttle back to Milngavie. Would I use this approach again? Yes. It worked great to have the dogs’ extra food, and some shampoo and my phone charger etc shipped to the middle point. Since I drove to Scotland, having a dog-friendly ride back to the car was essential so we didn’t have to deal with the delay of public transport. I wouldn’t ship as much of my own food next time for the same reasons as I wouldn’t carry as much food. I can’t speak highly enough of Baggage Freedom who went out of their way to work around my needs.
One final word: PACK OUT YOUR TRASH. I can’t stress enough how ugly and disappointing it was to see so much toilet paper on and near the trail, not to mention the one place I saw the plastic applicator from someone’s feminine product right next to the trail. Some places on Rannoch Moor, back in the trees, looked like a trashed nightclub restroom at 2am; either carry a mini trowel and bury the toilet paper or pack it out in a ziploc bag. It isn’t rocket science and it’s all about respect for the land, and for others.
These are the thoughts I had after hiking 96 miles of Scotland’s most famous trail; I’m sure there are more so please share your thoughts, experiences and recommendations below.