This post was originally published on All Women All Trails, an online community of dynamic women sharing their experiences in the outdoors.
Rarely a day goes by when I’m not thinking about future trips and outdoor adventures. I often check Southwest and Google Flights for deals and am subscribed to email lists like Airfare Watchdog, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Cheap Flights. The Points Guy is another great travel resource and he often posts when airlines are offering deals. So one day I happened to be casually checking Google Flights to see what the fares to Scotland looked like. My husband and I had traveled there in April of 2018, and had such an incredible time. A small peek at flights could never hurt anyone. Sure enough, I happened to be looking during a two day fare sale where flights were literally half what we’d paid 5 months earlier to fly into Edinburgh. Naturally, I called my husband and said, you want to hike the West Highland Way next year? His response was less than enthusiastic, but at the same time, I think he knew…there was no way he was getting out of this.
Our flights were booked in September of 2018 for the end of April 2019. I knew nothing about the West Highland Way (WHW) aside from postcards I’d seen at a gift shop in Fort William. This was a “ready, fire, aim” situation with these flights. Upon quick research, I learned the trail is 96 miles long and travels into the highlands from Milngavie, just 6 miles outside of Glasgow, into Fort William, which sits at the foot of Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. Typically the trail is completed in 5-7 days, which makes it a very reasonable excursion for anyone who works full time and doesn’t get a ton of paid time off each year.
There are many tour companies in Scotland who will book your entire WHW trip, including accommodation, baggage transfers, and any other needed transportation such as trains and buses. For those of you who are planners and want to save some costs along the way, I’m going to focus on the steps we took to book the entire trip ourselves.
Social Media Groups
Some Facebook hiking groups provide excellent information where hikers and walkers can ask questions and get feedback from people who’ve already walked the trail. I found this very helpful and informative, and would suggest joining one or all of the West Highland Way groups on Facebook.
Maps & Navigation for the West Highland Way
- If you don’t already have one, obtain a guidebook as soon as your flight is booked. There are many, many options for guidebooks on the WHW, so it’s likely you’ll be fine with several of the options available. The one I decided to go with is by Charlie Loran and can be purchased HERE. I do believe this has been updated as of 2019, so be sure to look for the seventh edition. What I liked about this book is that it includes information on places to stay in each town, camping locations, distances between each segment, time estimates, gear needed for the trip, conservation and nature info, wildflower ID photos, and detailed maps that include lots of helpful notes for every step of the way.
- Download the Guthook app on your phone. For those of us used to hiking on long trails in the U.S., Guthook will be a familiar friend. You can either download the entire UK Trailblazer Guides package for $24.99, or just the WHW map for $5.99.
- Download the maps.me app on your phone. If you want a backup navigation option just in case, maps.me is my go-to. Some friends who are world travelers told me about this app years ago and I’ve never looked back. maps.me is an offline map resource, so you need to make sure to download all maps for the regions where you’ll be traveling beforehand. It’s primarily for driving, but trails are also visible on the map and I’ve used it countless times to double check my location or get myself back on track while hiking. Users have the ability to save locations by starring them on the map so they can easily be found later. The app does take a bit of getting used to and is not as user friendly or detailed as Guthook, so I would suggest practicing with it before taking a trip.
Accommodation Along the West Highland Way
For those hiking the WHW there are a number of options for places to stay which will fit into every budget. Hostels, bunkhouses, and campsites are an economical choice for those on a tight budget. For anyone wanting to sleep in a plush bed at night after grabbing a pint and a warm meal at the pub, there are some lovely hotels, inns, and B&Bs along the way. These will cost more, but also make this trail appealing for anyone who doesn’t want to rough it in a tent every night.
Due to the fact that I was booking this trip less than a year out, I worried about being able to find accommodation in some of the towns we would pass through. Many of the villages are small with only a handful of places to stay. First and foremost though, I had to figure out our schedule and decide which route we’d be taking. Below is our daily planned mileage and accommodations. This does not include midday stops or side trails off the WHW.
Using the guidebook and looking online, I immediately started booking our hotels for each night. One thing I did not know and hadn’t accounted for is that the Pre ’65 Scottish motorbike trials will be taking place in Kinlochleven just as we are walking through. A few days later in Fort William, the Scottish Six Days Trial will be starting the day we finish the WHW. Honestly, I was devastated when I found this out.
My first thought was that the peace of nature would be destroyed with the sounds of dirt bikes whizzing past us as we all tried to use the same path. Realizing that this trip was happening no matter what, I needed to re-frame this story in my mind in a positive way. I forced myself to remember that we are going to another culture that has different views about land use. The mindset of conservation and wilderness is an American concept, which other parts of the world have started to embrace over the past couple of decades. For example, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, which the WHW traverses, was only established in 2002. However, Scotland’s unique view of the land also makes it an ideal place for people to wander and explore. Statutory Access Rights are as follows:
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly. These rights are sometimes referred to as ‘freedom to roam’.
Due to the trials, finding a place to stay in Kinlochleven was nerve wracking. Every single place I looked up was fully booked the night we’d be there. I started thinking about staying in another town and getting transportation there and back, but the logistics of that would have been tricky. Finally, after a glass of wine and another panicked online search, I found a small B&B called the Bank House Bed & Breakfast. Somehow, they were literally the only place in town with a room left and I can only imagine it was due to a cancellation.
Luckily Fort William is large enough that there were still several options available in spite of the trials. The only other town on the way that was almost completely booked was Rowardennan, most likely because it’s small with few options for hotels. We will be at the Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel which is situated right on the banks of Loch Lomond. We were able to get a private room and I purchased the breakfast option when booking.
Baggage Transfers on the West Highland Way
Another very appealing aspect of the WHW is that you are not required to carry a heavy pack as you traipse through the highlands on the way to your next pub. It’s possible for some people to have an authentic backpacking and camping experience, which would drastically reduce the cost of this trip. However, many folks opt to have their bags transferred from place to place so they can enjoy the walk with nothing more than a daypack on their back. European slack packing! Baggage transfers typically run £40-50 per bag per person for the entirety of your trip. Some popular transfer companies include:
- AMS Scotland – £45 per bag full route, £30 per bag partial route.
- Travel-Lite – £45 per bag, but price does vary depending on the number of bags.
- Ginger Routes – £40 per bag.
- Baggage Freedom – £40 per bag.
- If you fly into Glasgow, you will need transportation to the start of the WHW in Milngavie. A bus, train, or taxi will take you there. I would suggest looking into each and deciding what suits your needs based on timing and cost.
- At any point on the WHW, you might decide that you’d like to stay in a different town, or be forced to if accommodations along the trail are full. We decided to skip staying in Kingshouse in favor of staying at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe because, having visited before, we were completely in love with the scenery in that area. This meant finding either a bus or taxi from the Glencoe Ski Centre. The buses are far and few between, so I decided it would be worth it to shell out the £50 roundtrip for a taxi. I started looking in January to book a reservation for early May, and most of the taxi companies were already booked on that day. Thank goodness, I was able to find one and reserve our seats in a shared cab. Booking ahead is extremely important!
- Once you finish the WHW, there is the option of a bus or train back to Glasgow. We will be taking the train from Fort William to Glasgow Airport, which will require several changes on both buses and trains. Our hotel for the last night is a very short walk from the airport. I would suggest booking your trips on Trainline because tickets become available much earlier than they do on the Scotrail website. I paid the fee to have physical tickets mailed to us because mobile e-tickets are not available for use yet at the station we’ll be traveling from. At this point I’m not sure how long it will take us to walk the miles we’re doing each day, so in case we miss the hours of operation for the ticket counter, we’ll have the tickets in hand and be ready to go.
I’m so excited for this trip and can’t wait to see how all the details fall into place. Sometimes the best laid plans end up changing due to unforeseen circumstances, but hopefully this experience on the West Highland Way will be a memorable one we’ll treasure for years to come. Now, the focus will be on gear and how to efficiently pack everything we’ll need for the hike into a 60L duffel bag. Not to mention leaving space for a bottle or two of Scotch whisky!