A week in the woods

West Highland Way

West Highland Way

The West Highland Way is a long-distance hike that leads you over 154km (96mi) through the west highlands in Scotland. It’s a quite famous hike as it offers a variety of landscapes and is very beginner friendly due it’s many places to stock up your food supplies and the many hotels along the way. We, however, decided to pack tent and stove and go all in on this hike.

The West Highland Way (WHW) was my first ever long-distance hike. Before, I only went on day hikes or camping by bike or car but I never hiked with a big backpack carrying a tent, food and water. And, as it turned out quickly, I did not prepare well enough and made pretty much all the rocky mistakes there are. This long-distance hike report is from the summer of 2014.

Map

(I marked all our campsites on the map with blue markers)

Sections

  1. Milngavie to Milarrochry Bay Camping (37km)
  2. Milarrochry Bay Camping to Inversnaid Bunkhouse (17km)
  3. Inversnaid Bunkhouse to Tyndrum (30km)
  4. Tyndrum to Kingshouse (29km)
  5. Kingshouse to Kinlochleven MacDonald Campsite (15km)
  6. Kinlochleven MacDonald Campsite to Fort William (23km)

The original plan was to finish the hike in 7 days, but on the first day we decided that it would be a great idea to actually do it in only 6 days ;). We made that decision before it started to rain that afternoon and not knowing that we would have to hike a lot longer than planned that day, because it was forbidden to camp at the beginning of the hike back then. Since there are plenty of villages along the trail we could have stopped before, but we were already committed.

Day 1: Milngavie to Milarrochry Bay (37km)

The start of the West Highland Way is located just north of Glasgow in Milngavie which is easily accessible by train or by car. You will definitely bump into other WHW hikers there. Everyone is eager to stock up on supplies and taking pictures at the starting point. The trail starts off smoothly through a lightly vegetated forest, then leads you over farmland, passing by a whiskey distillery. You are always facing the peaks of the highlands ahead of you. We were lucky with the weather in the beginning with only very light rain and almost no wind but plenty of sun peeking through the clouds every now and then.

First views of Loch Lomond right after Drymen First views of Loch Lomond right after Drymen

It did not take us long before we arrived in Drymen where we wanted to camp in one of the dedicated “wild campsites” (farmers offering their backyard and facilities to hikers for some pounds). Since it was still early afternoon and the weather was nice, we decided to continue further until Balmaha. After Drymen, the path leads you through a forest before arriving at the foot of Conic Hill. Right when we could see Conic Hill through the forest we also saw heavy rain clouds coming towards us and the rain started right when we were starting the ascent. At that point we were halfway to Balmaha and decided it would not make sense to go back to Drymen and stop there, rather than pushing over the the hill.

Rain started pouring on top of Conic Hill but the view onto Lake Lomond made up for it Rain started pouring on top of Conic Hill but the view onto Lake Lomond made up for it

The peak of Conic Hill presented a great view onto Loch Lomond. Sadly the rain picked up even more on our way down to Balmaha which left us arriving completely soaked in the evening. It then turned out that there was no campsite in Balmaha and all hotels were booked out. A quick look in our guide book showed a campsite a couple of miles outside of Balmaha. So we started the last stretch of that day right when it started to get dark and when the rain was still pouring heavily onto our already soaked backpacks.

When we arrived at the campsite it was pretty hard to find a spot that was not completely flooded. Luckily, a wet ground was no problem for our tent. I bought it with the possibility in mind to pitch it on very wet Scottish soil. The campsite had excellent facilities so we were able to cook in a dry spot with a roof over our heads. We were completely exhausted and the simple pasta dinner tasted like the best thing we ever ate!

Day 2: Milarrochry Bay to Inversnaid (17km)

The next morning we had a giant breakfast which contained of ALL the cereals and milk we had brought. We did not anticipate at all the appetite that you get when hiking for almost 40km. It was also this morning that we started to mingle with other hikers for the first time. There was a group of 4 hikers (2 German, 2 English) that we bonded with immediately and we decided to start to hike together that day.

We started the morning hiking along Loch Lomond We started the morning hiking along Loch Lomond

It was beautiful to hike in the woods and shores right next to Loch Lomond and the sun also came out for most of the day. The trail was easier than on the day before but we both felt the exhaustion in our legs. Nedless to say, we took it a lot easier that day and made sure to take more breaks. Hiking with other people also really made it easier to forget the exhaustion.

Enjoying a hearty lunch at the shore of Loch Lomond Enjoying a hearty lunch at the shore of Loch Lomond

At noon we stopped for a lunch right at a stone shore with plenty of sun to dry our clothes. The other group decided to take a ferry to shortcut Loch Lomond so after lunch we were by ourselves again. Looking at all the clothes that were drying we realised that we packed way too many clothes for the hike. I brought 4 T-Shirts, socks for each day, jeans and two jumpers. I had no prior long-distance hiking experience, so I thought it would be like on a regular vacation where you change clothes very often. In the end I only used 2 T-Shirts (fast-drying ones) and three pairs of socks. The jeans I should’ve just left home since they never really dried and there was no opportunity to wear them.

Relaxing with a beautiful view and great weather Relaxing with a beautiful view and great weather

After a couple kilometers we met another group of hikers who were hiking at a similar rhythm to us and we continued together along the shores of Loch Lomond. Several hours in, it started to rain heavily again and we found shelter in the Inversnaid Hotel where, of all people, we met the group of hikers from the morning again. They also got caught in the rain after leaving the ferry. Since it did not stop raining, we all camped at the Inversnaid Bunkhouse which has a tiny campsite with great facilities and warm, comfy food. It felt great to warm up with the entire group in the bunk house after all the rain.

Day 3: Inversnaid to Tyndrum (30km)

Inversnaid Bunkhouse has a small but ideal campsite Inversnaid Bunkhouse has a small but ideal campsite

The sun woke us up early the next morning and it kept shining onto us the entire day. It was probably the best day on our hike. We started out with the German / English crew onto the last section of the hike that goes along Loch Lomond. There were more and more hills on the trail now and it really felt like we finally arrived in the Highlands. The north of Loch Lomond was even more beautiful than what we had seen of it the prior days and we were looking forward to finally reach the mountains.

Wading through the marshland with great views of Loch Lomond and the mountains ahead Wading through the marshland with great views of Loch Lomond and the mountains ahead

Ascending into the mountains after Loch Lomond Ascending into the mountains after Loch Lomond

After a lunch stop in Inverarnan we said goodbye to the other group who had to take a break in that town due to injuries. We were only alone for a short time, because we met an older hiker right away. He agreed to hike together for some time but he did not want us to feel like we had to walk slower for him. He said that while he was pretty much running next us and we had a hard time to catching up with him. His name was Collin and he was a real Scottish shepherd. It was perfect to hike with him because he taught us so much about the flowers and animals along the path.

Looking back through the valley Looking back through the valley

We decided to hike together until Tyndrum and he told us that he always stops there to get his favourite dish: Cullen Sink, a rich potato soup with smoked Haddock. The second half of this section provided us with nice hikes through the hills with great weather. On top of that we also saw the Hogwarts Express, the actual train from the Harry Potter movies which rides through the Highlands a couple of times per day. We were completely caught off-guard when it arrived but it was a pretty magical moment seeing it.

Reaching Tyndrum late by road Reaching Tyndrum late by road

Even though we did not want to hike for that long again, Collin kept motivating us to push through with him to Tyndrum. Sadly we arrived just 15 minutes too late at the restaurant that served his soup. However, we found a great pub that had enormous pizzas which was an equally good alternative for us. We pitched our tents together just outside of Tyndrum, next to, what we only found out the next morning, what seemed to be an abandoned graveyard 👻.

Day 4: Tyndrum to Kingshouse (29km)

In the morning we were greeted with even more mountains In the morning we were greeted with even more mountains

Colin was already gone when we woke up the next day. He was much more of a morning person than us 😅 This section of the hike was again dominated by green hills and a lot of up and down. It started with several miles of mostly level hiking on the foot of several hills. An easy start after the long day before. After passing Bridge of Orchy the path got more challenging going up Black Mount and then passing several lochs and moors. Again very typical Scottish landscape that did not grew old on us.

IRN Bru tea time on our way to Kingshouse IRN BRU tea time on our way to Kingshouse

Gloomy weather before arriving at Kingshouse Gloomy weather before arriving at Kingshouse

We expected bad weather on this section from what we heard from other hikers but apart from some drops of rain and fog on the hills we were actually fine. The last bit that day was a long descent into the valley of Kingshouse. Kingshouse is a hotel in the middle of nowhere, literally the middle of nowhere. There is a small road in the valley but there are no other houses in sight for several kilometres. After what seemed like an eternity descending into the valley, we finally arrived at the Kingshouse campsite (free!). There, we were greeted by a very happy Colin who arrived there an hour before us.

The campsite at Kingshouse, right next to a creek The campsite at Kingshouse, right next to a creek

It's not uncommon to befriend some of the local wildlife at the campsite It’s not uncommon to befriend some of the local wildlife at the campsite

We pitched our tent next to the many other tents right behind Kingshouse. The campsite is right next to a creek and there are many deer about at all times. A magical place to arrive to after a long hike. While the main hotel is not open for hikers without reservations, Kingshouse has a special pub-like backroom dedicated to hikers. There they serve gigantic dinners and a variety of whiskeys. We spent the evening eating, drinking and talking with our friend Colin and his daughter (who joined him there to finish the rest of hike together with him). It always surprises me how easy it is to get caught in deep conversations with people that you just met that day. Must be something about the hiker’s nature…

Day 5: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (15km)

View on the mountains right behind Kingshouse View on the mountains right behind Kingshouse

Fellow hikers on their way to Kinlochleven Fellow hikers on their way to Kinlochleven

Again, Colin had already left when we woke up, even though we had set an early timer that day. We really wanted to be up early for this section. It’s not a long section but definitely a tough one. The first major hurdle on this section is the devil’s staircase. After descending to Kingshouse’s valley the day before we now had to go back up the mountain on this steep zig-zag path that just did not want to end. To be fair, the days before we had walked faster than we had anticipated and our untrained bodies were not ready for hiking such long days. So this steep incline took us quite a while to finish.

Right before reaching the top we had a quick snack break and turned around to take in the great views onto Glencoe. The entire day we hiked with great views until we started the descent onto Kinlochleven which should mark our stop for that day.

Sun and clouds providing us with a stunning atmosphere Sun and clouds providing us with a stunning atmosphere

Resting at MacDonal campsite in Kinlochleven Resting at MacDonald campsite in Kinlochleven

A shorter day than usual but a well-deserved “rest” day. When we arrived at the MacDonald Campsite we met the English / German hiking group again who made their way to Kinlochleven partly by bus and smaller hikes. They seemed very beaten up but when they saw us they lit up again and we spent the evening together.

Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William

View on Kinlochleven after hiking up the mountains for a couple kilometers View on Kinlochleven after hiking up the mountains for a couple kilometers

On our last day of hiking we wanted to make sure to start with a great breakfast. We cooked up pretty much everything we had left over in our bags. The day before we found a great spot at the campsite right next to a lake and we were wondering why no one pitched their tent there. Well, we found out pretty quickly why. That morning we got attacked by clouds of Highland midges. Many people had warned us about these special kinds of mosquitos that only exist in the Scottish Highlands but we were lucky to not have encountered them before. They do bite, but their bites don’t sting much and go away quite quickly. The worst thing about them is the fact that they are super tiny and come in clouds that eat surround you within seconds. Luckily we could cook in a little shed, safe from the beasts.

Great valley on the final stretch Great valley on the final stretch

The almighty Ben Lomond The almighty Ben Lomond

That big breakfast gave us the required energy for the last section up the mountains, through valleys, alongside moors with stunning views on various munros. The weather was great again, no wind, the sun was shining. As if Scotland wanted to show itself from its best side on our last day.

We made itttt!! 🎉 We made itttt!! 🎉

Hiking into Fort William felt great, even though people give you the looks for showing up in dirty hiking clothes. It didn’t matter to us. We felt accomplished and we rested up in the sun in Fort William that afternoon. Our train left later that day and it took just 3.5h to get back to Glasgow. 3.5h by train for what took us 6 days by foot ;)

Learnings

This being my first long-distance hike, I naturally made many mistakes. The first one being that I packed way too many things. I probably did not think about it too much before, because why else would I have started the hike in jeans and brought so many extra pairs of clothes. It is totally fine to not wear fresh clothes every day. It will only take you a day or two to get used to it but it is totally normal.

Another thing I learned was to get yourself familiar with your gear before you start the hike. In our case we had troubles setting up the tent at night with heavy rain pouring down on us because we had never really set it up before. Try to set up your tent at least once before you start and you should be good ;)

Same goes for your backpack. You should find a comfortable setting before you start, otherwise you will spend days fiddling around with it which can be very tiring. Best seek for help in an outdoor shop, the staff there usually is pretty helpful.

Boots! Yes, boots! Bring boots that are worn in and that you feel comfortable in. This was probably my biggest problem on the hike. I had bought boots just before the hike, the same ones that I usually bought, but I did not wear them in before. So I had very bad blisters from day one on. Whenever I buy a pair of boots now I make sure to wear them for a couple of days during the week or I use them on day hikes. You really don’t want to increase the risk for blisters on such a long hike. It is probably not possible to 100% prevent them, but at least you’re minimizing the risk by bringing good shoes.

Research

As for all famous Scottish hikes, the best source of information for the West Highland Way is walkhighlands.co.uk. There you will find detailed section descriptions with images and exhaustive lists of accommodations along the trail. As it turns out, this hike is probably one of the best equipped hikes in Scotland and for every sections there are plenty of options to refill your water, to re-stock food and to stay at over night (hotels and campsites). Each hike on that website has a little forum where people share their experiences and tips and tricks which I found really helpful (even though I should have read them more carefully ;) ).

In addition to the website I bought a book with maps which seemed to be the go-to book for the trail. I saw so many other hikers with the same book while hiking and I can recommend it a lot. It’s “West Highland Way” by Charlie Loram. The maps are hand-drawn which at first seemed silly to me but they turned out to be very exact and the times and distances always prove to be correct. On top of that it has great descriptions of the landmarks, the towns, the trails’s history and all accommodations.

Written by Jan Monschke, an avid hiker living in Berlin, which is way too far away from the mountains.

Published on: September 19, 2017