Scotland’s West Highland Way is one of the most beautiful and popular long-distance hiking trails in the world. In this post, we answer all of the key questions about hiking this special trail.
Why is the West Highland Way worth hiking?
The West Highland Way impresses with its rugged natural beauty. The former military trail leads you deep into the Scottish Highlands and allows you to experience remote, wild natural landscapes. You will pass the endless water masses of Loch Lomond, wander through quiet valleys and even climb the “Devil’s Staircase”. The West Highland Way also ends in Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, Great Britain’s highest mountain.
Simply put, the West Highland Way is the greatest of Scotland’s Great Trails. It offers specular scenery that truly represents why the Scottish Highlands are famous all over the world. It is also one of the most legendary and iconic long distance hiking trails in the world. In addition, you will experience a special bond with the fellow hikers you meet along the route.
How long does a hike on the West Highland Way take?
With a length of 155 kilometers (96 miles), the West Highland Way is a moderate length long-distance hiking trail. Depending on your fitness level and preferred pace you can complete the route in a varied number of days. This also depends on how many photos of stunning natural beauty you like to take while hiking!
Many walkers will complete the full route in between 6 to 8 walking days with some even only taking 5 days. Thanks to the many small villages and towns along the trail, you have the option of creating many different route options and stopover locations. Hillwalk Tours offers three different levels of difficulty: Gentle, Moderate and Challenging. Within these levels, you can choose 4 to 10 day hiking tours completing either the full route or part of it.
When is the best time to travel?
Each month has its own charm on the West Highland Way. In winter, however, hikes in the highlands are only recommended for very experienced hikers. The appropriate equipment (sometimes ice ax and crampons) are also essential. Limited day light hours can also be an issue in the winter months.
Traditional, the B&Bs and luggage transfers companies start operating from late March or early April until mid-October. In April you will sometimes be enchanted by snow-covered mountain tops. May is a particularly popular month due to the flowering of the gorse bushes. In addition, the so-called “midges”, or small flies, are still slumbering as larvae in the bog at this time of year. These can sometimes be quite the little pests on windless summer days.
From June, the main holiday season also begins in Scotland so the number of hikers increases overall. July and August can often bring the nicest weather but the Scottish weather is famously unpredictable so this is never guaranteed. It is commonly said that walkers should be ready for “four seasons in a day”. Therefore, bringing clothing for all conditions is always essential. In early autumn the forests are a magnificent sight with their beautiful array of colours.
Hillwalk Tours offers West Highland Way tours for the full walking season every year. However, early booking is always recommended due to the popularity of this trail. Accommodation often gets booked out many months in advance.
Where does the West Highland Way begin and end?
The starting point of the West Highland Way is just beyond Glasgow, in a town called Milngavie. It ends in the highland town of Fort William. Milngavie is only 25 minutes from Glasgow by train and there is a regular service every day. The starting point is right behind the train station and is well signposted.
Fort William itself is framed by the waters of Loch Linnhe. The town attracts many tourists with it’s small cafes and souvenir shops selling local products such as homemade soap. The famous Jacobite Steam Train goes to Mallaig from Fort William so day return trips are very popular. This train is particularly famous as being the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter films.
There is a regular train service from Fort William to Glasgow. This is the most popular option and this takes about 4 hours with a number of services each day. There is also a regular bus service between Fort William and Glasgow which just takes 3 hours. Furthermore, there are also local private transfer companies who will taxi you to and from the route. These are often a good value option for groups of four or more. They are also as a nice way to get some additional local knowledge.
Fort William is also the gateway to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. So if you feel like hiking even more at the end of your hike, you can crown your adventure with an ascent. However, climbing Ben Nevis should only be attempted in favourable weather conditions. These include good visibility, low winds, bright and clear weather. Hikers should also be in good physical shape as it is a demanding climb and will need excellent navigational skills. This is in the event of bad weather unexpectedly affecting visibility which can happen on this unpredictable mountain.
How fit do I need to be to hike the West Highland Way?
It is important to assess yourself realistically and choose the level of difficulty and length of the route accordingly. The terrain on the West Highland Way varies, and this long-distance trail rises and falls regularly.
The terrain includes wide tracks in forests, twisty paths over moorland, hillside paths, undulating paths in trees, and field paths. The trail also makes use of some ancient and historic routes of communication. This includes military roads, disused railway tracks and drovers’ roads.
However, the route avoids the highest Scottish Highland mountain climbs and is within the capabilities of most walkers. One of the most difficult sections is the walk up the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. The terrain is the issue in this case whilst some other sections are very exposed. Total aggregate ascent over the whole route is approximately 3,900m. There are a number of sustained and quite steep climbs, especially near Glencoe. The highest point on the Way is the Devil’s Staircase at 550m. However, this is not as bad as it sounds with a gradual path leading up.
Due to the high volume of walkers, some parts of the trail often become badly eroded. However, a considerable amount of work is routinely undertaken to maintain the route. It is always worthwhile going on some day trips leading up to a long distance hike. These will help to get your stamina and climbing legs in shape.
How high are the costs?
In general, prices in Great Britain are often higher than in many European countries. However, you can regularly benefit from the favorable exchange rate between the pound and the euro.
Here you can find our current offers for hiking tours on the West Highland Way. These includes B&B or hotel accommodation, luggage transfer each day (meaning you will only need to carry a day pack with you on the trail), and any transfers required to and from the trail.
In addition, you will need to factor in costs for the journey to your start point and from your end point, a packed lunch each day (available from a local shop or your accommodation) and evening meals during your tour.
Tipping in Scotland is quite informal and mainly only used for food services. This includes restaurants and cafes where it is commonplace to leave a 10% – 15% tip if you feel you’ve enjoyed the service.
Tip : Go to pubs for dinner. There you can not only enjoy the company of locals and fellow hikers, but the prices are lower than in restaurants and the range of food is normally good and of a high standard.
What do I need to bring with me when hiking the West Highland Way?
Our Hillwalk packing list will help you to not forget any useful little things for your hiking trip on the West Highland Way. In addition, core items of clothing like waterproof jackets and over-trousers, base layers, fleeces, warm hat, gloves and wicking socks are all essentials (even in the summer).
In terms of footwear, we recommend you bring comfortable, waterproof, lightweight shoes or boots, that provide good ankle support and offer good grip on rock, grass and mud. Remember that the trails in many of our regions, but especially along the west coast of Scotland, can become quite wet and muddy, after periods of rain. Gaiters to cover your upper boot and lower leg are also always handy to have.
Tip: Make sure to stuff your boots with some rolled up balls of old newspaper to soak up any excess moisture.
Walking poles are not essential but a common sight on the route and if you normally use them while hiking, we would certainly advise to bring them. Furthermore, they can really help to ease the pressure on your joints, especially if you are taking on more challenging daily hike lengths or worried about the difficulty of the trail.
Are there laundry services along the West Highland Way?
In terms of laundry services, most accommodation providers don’t offer a formal laundry service but they are normally happy to facilitate you if this is really required. Many also provide dry rooms which are very helpful for drying jackets, trousers and boots if it’s been wet on the trail.
How bad are the midges on the West Highland Way?
Midges can be an issue on the trail mainly in the summer months of June, July and August. They won’t cause you to get sick but their bites can be itchy. They also tend to favor some walkers over others but this is not due to personality but actually certain chemicals in their skin. Breezy days can often solve the issues of midgets and they are normally worse near sun rise or sun set but it’s best to carry a midge repellent with you. Another effective method is to ensure that your skin is covered using long sleeves and trousers.
Tip: Especially for a hiking trip to Scotland in summer, it is worthwhile to have a head net with you. This protects you from these midgets which can cause a lot of annoyance if you are not prepared for them.
Do I need to use a compass or GPS to navigate the West Highland Way?
In general, the signage on the West Highland Way is excellent, so the risk of getting lost is relatively low. In the main season, you will also meet plenty of other hikers along the trail to help you find your way if required.
Nevertheless, we recommend having a map and an overview of the stages with you. If reading maps is new territory for you, you will find tips here on how to use maps correctly on hikes.
When taking a trip with Hillwalk Tour, you are provided with a map, waterproof map case and our bespoke detailed turn-by-turn route notes as well as 24/7 support in case you need any help.
In terms of mobile or cellphone reception, you will generally be able to pick up a signal in most places along the route. However, there will be some remote areas where you will not be able to get a signal. Vodaphone is generally considered to be the network provider with the best mobile signal converge along the route. It’s also always useful to know that if you have “Emergency Calls Only” signal, you will be able to call the emergency number 112 for free using the network of an alternative provider that you phone is picking up.
Will I find ATMs along the trail?
ATMs (cash machines) are not available in every location along the West Highland Way but they are available in Milngavie, Drymen, Tyndrum, Kinlochleven and Fort William. Additionally, if you have a debit card, you can often get cash through the ‘cashback’ system at some shops and pubs when you make a purchase with the card (just ask for ‘cashback’).
Many restaurants, shops and pubs accept cards but do not rely on this. Therefore, it’s best to ensure that you have sufficient cash with you for expenses in between these towns.
To read about some of the highlights of walking the West Highland Way, read our West Highland Way – Trail Highlights blog post.