|Hike Facts||Recommended Map & Guide|
|Estimated time||5 days|
The West Highland Way is a 153 km walking trail in Scotland. Up to 36 thousand hikers walk the trail every year. I said walk because the trail is actually more about walking than hiking.
Because the trail can get really busy during the main hiking season (March – September), I decided to do a sneaky thing: I walked the West Highland day in November. It took me 5 days. I met a total of two hikers in 5 days of walking.
I decided to try a slightly different format to this article than my usual and structure it around FAQs. Let me know what you think!
How long does it take to walk the West Highland Way?
Good question Michal (little FAQ joke for you). It depends how fast you want to go. Most people take between 5 – 8 days but you can easily spend 2 weeks walking it. There are many amazing mountains you pass along the way like Ben Lomond or Ben Nevis which you can climb if conditions allow. If you decide to stick to the trail, 5-7 days seems reasonable to me.
I took 5 days for the trail and I found it the right amount time. That means I averaged just above 30 km a day. The terrain is easy, mostly on forest roads or paved trails so 30 km is not that much on this type of terrain, especially if you’ve been careful to pack light, which I had (more on packing light in another article coming soon).
Where does the West Highland Way start and finish?
It goes from Milngavie to Fort William.
Milngavie is a small town north of Glasgow. You can get there by train from Glasgow Central Station or Glasgow Queen Street Station. The train leaves every 30 minutes and the ticket costs a few pounds.
Fort William, together with Inverness, are the two main centers of the Scottish Highlands. Fort William is full of outdoor shops, restaurants and hostels. It’s well connected with rest of the country. There is a train going a few times a day back to Glasgow and even all the way to London. The sooner you book the ticket, the cheaper it gets. I booked it a week in advance and it cost me £10.
When to hike the West Highland Way?
Weather-wise, summer is the best time of year to hike the West Highland Way in this cold part of the world. But unfortunately as far as crowds and midges are concerned, summer is also the busiest time. Up to 36 thousand hikers hike the trail every year so if you choose to hike in one of the summer months, you’ll be sharing the trail with a lot of people.
Due to the reasons above, May and September are popular months to hike the West Highland Way. The weather is usually stable, the snow has either not yet arrived or gone already, and the midges are on holiday.
I chose to hike the West Highland Way in November, not due to a serious amount of thought and planning, but because an opportunity arose that coincided with a rare weather window of clear skies. But I was lucky and it’d be safe to say that November – February is the off season for the trail and it wouldn’t be recommended to walk it in these months normally.
But the good thing about hiking outside of the summer months is that bothies will most likely be empty, there is a good chance you’ll have the trail to yourself and you can legally camp along Loch Lomond (from March – September you can’t wild camp along the lake). On the other hand, most of the services will be closed and the weather will be challenging and unpredictable.
If you decide to hike the West Highland way in the winter, please watch this video to get an idea of what the weather could easily be like.
Can I wild camp on the West Highland Way?
This is a very sensitive issue in Scottish hiking community. Scotland has got one of the most welcoming wild camping laws in the world called the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. It basically allows you to wild camp almost anywhere you want provided you’re not right next to a road or a trail and you practice the leave no trace principal.
Now for the bad news. Because Loch Lomond is a very busy area and people were not camping responsibly, wild camping has been banned for most of the area. From March to September wild camping is restricted in certain areas (see the National Park’s website for more information).
However, the parts where camping is banned can be walked in a day. Just plan carefully to avoid the banned areas, respect the environment and local communities and you will enjoy wild camping all the way through.
What gear to take on the West Highland Way?
This is a big question and it depends a lot on your personal preferences and how much you’re willing carry. I’ve written a separate article on what I took with me which can be used as a baseline to start with.
To sum up: If you want to camp, you’ll need a good sleeping system. That means a stable tent that can sustain Scottish weather (heavy rain & strong winds), backpack, sleeping bag and a sleeping mat.
Warm, windproof and waterproof clothes are essential but you don’t need hiking boots with ankle support, trainers are more than adequate.
If you’re lucky and your weather is dry and warm, you can blame me in the comments.
What food do I need to take for the West Highland Way?
There are enough cafes, restaurants and small shops along the West Highland way that you shouldn’t need to carry too much food with you. However, this is assuming that you are walking in the summer and shoulder seasons when cafes are restaurants are open.
Drymen, Tyndrum and Kinlochleven all have good sizes stores which are ideal for resupplying all year round if you get caught out with cafes and restaurants being closed. In general, if you’re wild camping, you shouldn’t need to carry more than 2 days’ worth of food with you.
Do I need to treat the water on the West Highland Way?
First of all, there are many cafes, restaurants and campsites where drinking water can be obtained. But I wouldn’t want to rely on this exclusively in case you get caught out in hot weather.
When it comes to drinking stream water, there are people who say you don’t have to treat it before drinking as long you drink from fast moving streams. However, I did treat the water from the streams and I advise you to do the same.
Scotland is basically one big pasture and I’ve seen sheep sometimes at the top of 1000m mountains. The WHW is a popular trail that people travel great distances to walk, likely bringing with them giardia and other lovely microbes. Also, the trail stays at a low elevation so you have no idea where the water is flowing from.
Do you really want to take the risk of getting diarrhea and ruining your hike just because you couldn’t be bothered treating or filtering the water?
My recommendation is to take a water filter, I use Water Squeeze filter which is really small and you can drink water immediately from the stream.
Do I need a map on the West Highland Way?
If I was a mountain leader, I’d say yes, a compass and map and enough knowledge to use them are essential on the WHW. If you were my experienced pal asking for friendly advice over a pint of Guinness, I’d say “nah bro, it’s marked better than toilets at Heathrow Airport”.
I think a good compromise would be to use your smartphone like that from Refurbished iPhone Melbourne. The app Mapy.cz displays the route from the start until the end. Just install the app, download maps for Scotland, make sure your phone is charged and you should be alright. The app and the maps are free. If you keep your phone on airplane mode and don’t take a million selfies, it should hold its charge for a few days and then you can pit stop in a café to recharge.
Even though the trail is well marked, I enjoy taking a map and a guide. I simply enjoy reading about the towns and mountains I’m passing. If you’d like to know what guide to take, check out my article: West Highland Way Maps & Guides: Which one to choose?
West highland way baggage transfer – is it possible?
Yep, it sure is, and there are many companies offering it. It goes against my philosophy or self-sufficiency though so I’ll transfer your question to Google this time.
Is it worth hiking?
Do you have another question about the West Highland Way in mind?
Just ask in the comments and I’ll definitely answer them. Happy Walking!
It seems that in order to download maps i need to a
Sigh up.. ?
You may need an account, yes. It’s free
Thank you Michal! Great post. Was going to hike the SWCP in England but 14 days of rain forcast made me look up to Scotland! Do you think it’s doable with minimal preparation? We do have all the gears for camping ready. I will certainly download the maps from mappy!! Thanks again!
Yes, doable with minimal preparation if you’re all self sufficient and fit and prepare to camp 🙂
hi there, we’re a family of Canadians hiking from rowardennan to crianlarich — just three days. our outfitter has told us to carry 2L of water per person per day. but in Canada (where we’re hiking in wilderness areas far from farms and roads) i’m used to carrying 1L and a pump, which i’d prefer to do on this part of the WHW if safe. given that much of our walk is through lowlands near agricultural areas, is it safe to rely on filtered water from streams or should we listen to the outfitter and double our carrying weight?
Hi Rob! I was carrying 1 litre and I was fine. Though, I have to say that I was happy to drink from the streams (after treatment). My policy was “always refill when you come to a good source” and I was fine. Of course, it’s always safer to have more water but honestly – where to carry 1 litre than in Scotland, one of the wettest places in the world? Enjoy the hike 🙂