Hiking the West Highland Way has been on my bucket list since I first learned about it in 2015. I had a failed attempt to hike the Way in 2016, and I’m sad to say I have another failure to add to the list this year. So what went wrong?
First of all, let me just say that I should have known better, prepared better, and okay, maybe even trained a little. It’s not like I’m a stranger to long hikes, strenuous exercise or wild activities. I’ve biked 70 miles in a day in Lithuania, conquered the Tough Mudder, climbed mountains and once upon a time I ran three marathons without proper training. This time I can only chalk up my failure to silliness.
Where is the West Highland Way
As the name implies, the hike passes through the Highlands of Scotland. There is also an East Highland Way (not well established and hardly even known) that continues on from where the West Highland Way ends.
The West Highland Way starts in the Glasgow suburb of Milngavie (pronounced mull-guy…don’t ask) and runs 96 miles north to Fort William, halfway up the west coast of Scotland. It passes through numerous towns including Drymen, Balmaha, Inverarnan, Tyndrum, Inveroran and Kinlochleven. I was originally told that 100,000 people hike the trail each year, but I can only imagine that number refers to hikers on the West Highland Way. I went during the “high” season and there were sometimes hours at a time when I didn’t see another soul on the trail. Of course, we could also all have been hiking the exact same speed, but I think that’s highly unlikely.
While the trail starts off on a well-maintained path as it leaves Milngavie, that doesn’t last. The first fifteen miles are quite easy, traveling over the fields and remaining fairly level. The first big incline is at Conic Hill, located beside Loch Lomond on the fault line which marks the beginning of the Highlands. You’d think the trail remains level as it follows the banks of the lake, but there are a few ups and downs. Yet that section is nothing compared to the trail after Inverarnan at the top of Loch Lomond. They’re called the Highlands for a reason. Towards the end of the hike, one of the segments is called the Devil’s Staircase. Let’s just say this hike is not for the faint of heart.
Preparing for the West Highland Way
I usually spend a good portion of my time hiking, running or just walking around the cities I visit. This year was a little different. I spent the winter in Edinburgh writing in my blog and working on a novel. With temperatures below freezing most of the time, I didn’t get in a lot of outdoor activities. There’s no better way to say it than that I got soft. I walked a ton around Edinburgh from place to place, as the city is small enough to skip the buses. But I wasn’t used to a backpack, nor did I have a good pair of broken-in boots.
If you’re planning to hike the West Highland Way, I would recommend getting used to walking at least 3-5 hours a day. If you plan to hike the way in 5 days as I did, each day will be closer to 8 hours of hiking. You can stretch it out to 8 days, in which case it’s more like 5 hours a day, depending on your pace. Buy a good pair of hiking boots (which are definitely waterproof) and spend a few weeks breaking them in. Also, get used to some hill hiking. If you’re in Edinburgh, I’d recommend Arthur’s Seat at least once a day, and maybe some hikes in the Pentlands.
In order to pack for the West Highland Way, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to hike the trail. There are three primary methods of packing. The first would be the easiest, staying at hostels, B&Bs or hotels along the way and using a transport service for your luggage each day. This costs about £45 ($58) per bag. The second way would be staying at pre-booked accommodations and packing minimally, taking your backpack with you on the trail.
The third way to hike the trail, and the way I went at it, is to pack for camping, taking your tent, sleeping bag, possibly a gas stove, rations and all your clothes for the hike (keeping in mind it’s almost impossible to complete the hike without at least a full day of rain). I had another traveler say they wanted to hike the trail with me, so I packed for two people, including a two-man tent, a portable stove and enough food for two people to last 5 days. At the last minute, the other traveler pulled out, leaving me packed with more gear and food than I needed.
At least I didn’t have two sprained (and possibly fractured) ankles as I did the first time I tried to hike the trail!
Day One – Milngavie to Conic Hill
Starting in Milngavie
After couchsurfing with a friend in Glasgow, I got the early-morning bus up to Milngavie. At 9:30 a.m. precisely, I began the hike. The weather was warm and sunny; a blessing for the hike. I had my large REI Grand Tour 85 backpack on with all my camping gear and clothing, and the detachable daypack hanging on my chest with 5 days worth of food (for two people). I’d say all my gear weighed about 30 pounds, which was about 50% more than I should have been carrying.
I was absolutely beaming as I set out on my journey. I remembered the trail well from my first attempt and didn’t even slow down as I hit the first few hills. By 11:45, I had already walked nearly 7 miles. I only wish I had seen the man with his ocelot from my first hike, even if he was just there to collect donations.
Lunch at The Beech Tree
My first stop was at the Beech Tree Inn. They have a large yard with a couple dozen tables, one of which I used to make a pot of butternut squash soup. It was really nice to be able to get warm food on my hike. The Inn allowed me to clean my pot in the bathroom sink, although they weren’t thrilled about it. As I was leaving, I saw a sign telling hikers they were not allowed to cook or eat their own food in the Inn garden. Oops! Another minute down the trail I found where they had set up a picnic area for hikers to use.
Camping on Conic Hill
The next 13 miles were fairly uneventful. I made a short stop in Drymen around 2 p.m. for a snack with some other hikers I had met on the trail. Other than that, I didn’t really take any breaks. The clouds had moved in and a couple times it started to sprinkle lightly on me, but otherwise the weather was kind. The temperature went up to the high 50’s, which was perfect for keeping me cool on the hike.
There were quite a few hikers on the trail with me, but not as many as I would have imagined for a Friday in May. The West Highland Way supposedly gets upwards of 100,000 hikers a year, which would theoretically average out to several hundred a day. However, I’ve come to assume that this figure probably includes people coming to hike a few miles of the trail in the morning for their daily exercise.
By the time I made it to Conic Hill, the wind had picked up significantly. Conic Hill is the last part on the trail before you reach Loch Lomond, which is a no-wild-camping zone. Unless I wanted to pay for one of the campgrounds along the lake (which were most likely sold out), I would need to spend the night on the hill. I chose a flat spot right at the peak and started setting up camp.
As soon as I pulled the tent out of my bag, the rain started. In the couple of minutes it took me to set up my tent, the rain had turned into a downpour and I was soaked to the bone. Luckily my REI Grand Tour 85 backpack came with a “duck cover” or waterproof covering, so my stuff was relatively dry as I crawled into my tent. Using the stove within the tent wasn’t really a smart option, so I had a dinner of dried meat, crackers and brie. I didn’t want to use up the battery on my phone, so I went to sleep to the sound of heavy wind and rain on the tent, planning to wake up early to resume my hike.
Day Two – Conic Hill to Doune Byre Bothy (Almost)
A Sunny View of Loch Lomond
Sunrise was at 5:11, but I slept in until nearly 8. The morning was beautifully sunny (with a little bit of morning mist), and I took several photos of Loch Lomond. Breakfast was a steaming pot of porridge with honey and nuts, and cold stream water. I love how even the hilltops in Scotland have running streams, as if the water just materializes out of nowhere. All flowing water in Scotland is safe to drink, even though the water is tinted black from the peat it flows through.
As I packed up my tent, I noticed the stakes had nearly pulled up from the wind overnight. I had used a military tarp to cover the tent and one corner had come free. Thankfully the tent had stayed dry. Sadly, I missed packing the small cover for the vent hole in the top of the tent.
By 9 I was back on the trail. I navigated carefully down the stairs to the village of Balmaha. The final stair was more slippery than the rest, and my foot flew out from under me as I stepped upon it. I crashed down, sliding in the mud. Thankfully nothing was broken or sprained. I just had a think layer of mud on my pants and backpack, which I would be able to wipe off when it dried.
No Lunch at Rowardennan Lodge
I reached the Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel by 2:30 p.m. It was 8.5 miles from Conic Hill and my pace had slowed down a bit. There are a couple of steep hills along the riverbank which have several dozen steps you have to climb up. By the third hill, I was ready for a break, but I pushed the last couple miles to the hostel so I could have a nice place for lunch while I charged my phone. I had stayed at the hostel two years earlier and found it quite comfortable.
When I reached the hostel, I was told I couldn’t charge my phone there without paying a full £5 ($6.50) for use of the showers, kitchen and common room (where I could charge my phone). Basically, it was all or nothing. Further, the hostel refused to let me cook or eat my food on their grounds (cooking was due to the law forbidding all stoves in the Loch Lomond National Park). I had already passed the public picnic areas a couple miles back and I didn’t want to spend the time showering and cooking in the kitchen so I opted to move on, having another cold meal of dried meat and nuts.
Bears and Goats
My pace continued to slow down. The next landmark was Inversnaid Hotel, another 7 miles up the loch. I didn’t get there until 7 and even considered booking a room, but everything was full. My target was a bothy (abandoned farmhouse) at the top of Loch Lomond. Sunset was at 9:19 p.m. and I didn’t know if I would make it by then. There were several people camping along the way, and I was constantly tempted to join them.
At 8:35, I had a freaky surprise. Far down the trail ahead of me, it looked like a black bear was standing on a wall eating fruit out of a tree. I was fairly sure there weren’t any bears in Scotland, but I couldn’t figure out what else it would be. It was definitely black and standing on two legs upon the wall.
As I neared, it turned out to be a black goat balancing on his hind legs on the wall as he ate leaves from the tree. Several more goats were grazing around the wall. They ignored me as I got near. Another goat jumped up on the wall, wanting some of the tree leaves for himself. With me standing just a few feet away, the two goats on the wall got into a fight, bashing their horns into each other. I was a bit leary as I walked past them, thinking they might choose to headbutt me instead of each other. They were neither fearful nor aggressive as I passed.
Giving Up Before the Bothy
My phone died just after sunset. I knew the bothy was still a mile or two ahead of me, and my feet were killing me. I had developed a couple blisters around Inversnaid and every step I took sent pain shooting up my legs. I was walking on the sides of my feet to keep the pressure off the tender spots, and my pace had slowed down to a crawl. As twilight darkened into night, I realized I wouldn’t make the bothy. The trail was becoming rockier, and traversing such in the dark was dangerous.
Finally, I came across a field on the banks of the loch where several dozen other hikers had pitched their tents for the night. I knew the bothy couldn’t be that much further ahead, but I didn’t feel I could take another step. I found my own patch of ground and pitched my tent. There were only patchy clouds above me so I didn’t bother to put the tarp over the tent. All I could think about was getting my shoes off and passing out in my sleeping bag.
Sleeping in the Lake
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I awoke to the sound of rain pelting the tent. I was also very, very cold. And wet! Not only had the rain come in through the vent hole at the top, but the rain had also driven it through the canvas walls of the tent. I wouldn’t be surprised if some had also seeped through the plastic floor. Basically, I was sleeping in my own small lake. Not only was my bag sitting in that lake and slowly soaking up all the water, half my sleeping bag and my pillow were also in the water. With the rain coming down outside, there wasn’t a lot I could do but try to pull myself into the small part of the sleeping bag that was dry and force myself to get some more sleep before sunrise.
Day Three – Doune Byre Bothy to Failure
Reaching the Bothy
I woke up miserable the next morning. I probably hadn’t slept more than a couple hours. My clothes were soaked, and I had nothing dry to change into. Thankfully the rain had stopped, but that was a small comfort.
I packed up the tent and set off again. The trail went up a short hill, and there was the bothy, not half a mile from where I had spent my miserable night. There were a few people still inside making breakfast and enjoying the warm, dry room. There had been room for me to sleep the night before if I had just been willing to push ahead another 10 minutes. It was a horrible feeling to know I had given up so close to my target.
When I had started out on the trail two days earlier, there had been many other hikers around me. As I made my way through the beautiful countryside, I hardly saw another soul. Either I was walking at the exact same pace as everyone else (unlikely) or I was on a part of the trail not many people traversed in the morning. I met one person coming toward me and two more going in my direction, but those two quickly outpaced me. I added loneliness to my list of discomforts.
Lunch at the Drover’s Inn
It took me three hours to hike the four miles to Inverarnan. I’d stopped at the Drover’s Inn just outside of Inverarnan a couple times on road trips in Scotland and knew they had delicious food. The inn is full of taxidermy animals, including a rearing bear which is the first thing you see as you enter.
Needing something warm that wasn’t porridge, I went off my budget to order a bacon burger and fries. It was divine! I stayed there some time to charge my phone and battery pack. I looked at the trail from Inverarnan. Following Loch Lomond, the trail had remained relatively level. Once I left the town, I would be properly in the highlands. I’d be hiking up and down hills and mountains. The blisters on my feet had spread to cover a significant portion of my soles. The thought of continuing nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Throwing in the Towel
As I left the Inn, I made up my mind. It was time to throw in the towel and give up on my second attempt to hike the West Highland Way. I had made it nearly halfway in just over two days. With a proper pair of hiking boots and less gear on my back, I have no doubt I could have completed the hike in my intended five days. I toyed with the idea of using the luggage delivery service, but that wasn’t in my budget. With a heavy heart, I walked across the street and stuck out my thumb to hitchhike my way up to Fort William where the trail ended.
Plans for Hiking the West Highland Way in the Future
There’s not much left to say beyond the promise that I’ll be back to complete the trail for real. Unless I’m in some distant country next summer, I fully plan to complete the hike in 5 days in the summer of 2019. By then I’ll have a good pair of hiking boots, and now I know exactly how much and what gear to take with me. I’d love to have a hiking partner with me, but I won’t be counting on that. Then again, it would be great fun to put together a whole team to hike the West Highland Way with me. I’ll just have to find others crazy enough to do the hike in 5 days, averaging 20 miles a day across the highlands. Any takers?
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If you’re visiting Scotland but hiking the 96-mile West Highland Way isn’t really your thing, here are some other activities you might enjoy.
- A Day of Adventures with Nevis Range in Fort William, Scotland
- What It’s Like to Take the Hogwarts Express in Scotland
- Is a Day Tour from Edinburgh to Loch Ness Worth It?
- Edinburgh Excursions: Spending an Afternoon at Go Ape Peebles
- 10 Activities for The Perfect Day Trip from Edinburgh
- Explore the Isle of Lewis and Harris to See Scotland’s Best
- A Cruise is the Best Way to Explore Loch Ness
- My Amazing Week on the Hebridean Hopper with Haggis Adventures
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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