Preparing for the West Highland Way

This is my first blog about hiking, and I am overwhelmed at where to begin, namely because hiking, wild camping, wild swimming, being outdoors in any capacity (specifically in Scotland) is all I’ve been able to think about recently. Compiling these constant yearnings into a concise and readable blog will be a challenge, but that won’t deter me. Let’s get into it.

In late July / early August my partner Jillianne and I will be hiking the West Highland Way, Scotland’s most famous long-distance national trail. We will be documenting our hike in a video (which hopefully, will have the look and feel of a beaut, slow-burning independent film) and a series of travel journals that will be published on this blog. This will be our first multi-day hike ever, which is a wee bit intimidating, but our giddy banshee excitement to start outweighs any fear. If you’ve met us, you will understand what I mean by this.

What is the West Highland Way?

The West Highland Way is a 96-mile (154 km) walk that begins in Milngavie in North Glasgow and ends in Fort William. The walk is famous for its range of wild scenery, mountains and lochs it passes through, including the bonny banks of Loch Lomond and the rugged serenity of Glen Coe and Glen Etive. One of the reasons why the West Highland Way is so popular is because of its accessibility. You can get to the start and end points of the trail via public transport, and the route is relatively flat throughout, making it a majestic experience for people of all ages who have some hiking experience.

The Milngavie to Drymen leg of the West Highland Way, pictured above.

The trail is close to towns and villages as well, meaning hikers can choose to stay in hotels or bnb’s along the route or opt for more rustic wild-camping (we adore wild-camping, so we have gone for the latter.) If you want to take the weight of the world off your shoulders, you can even go with a luggage carrier service to transport your rucksack from one place to the next. This is a good option for people who have travelled from other countries to hike the trail and may have more luggage than people who have travelled, say, from Shawlands in Glasgow (yo, it me). Some people may think this is cheating, but honestly, who really cares?

All of these reasons make the West Highland Way a great choice for first-time multi-day hikers.

How have we prepared?

The West Highland Way has been on my bucket-list for the longest time now, and it feels really good to finally put the dream into action. I feel I could get to the finish line of the WHW on pure excitement and ecstatic energy alone. To aid our prep, we have been binge-watching YouTube videos and reading travel journals from people who have hiked it. We owe a big, grateful thank you to Athena Mellor, who solo-hiked the WHW in 2017, and whose information is always as helpful as it is inspiring! Athena, you probably won’t read this but in the rare case you do, your content has been invaluable to our West Highland Way prep and we think you’re amazin’.

Of course, our prep hasn’t stopped at consuming YouTube videos on the sofa. We have been physically training for the hike too. Jillianne and I have never been total 17-steps-a-day kinda slobs, but we’re far (far, faaar) from being the fittest outdoorsy people around. We do have some hiking and wild camping experience in Scotland, though. Last September we hiked our first munro, Ben Lomond (974 metres), and to be honest it was a bit of an ordeal. We started the hike quite late and had barely trained – two things I wouldn’t recommend AT ALL. A tough experience like this has meant that now, we know what to expect. We know that physically training our feet and our muscles to be able to do long hikes on different terrain is the most important way you can help yourself out – we want to actually enjoy the hike and eat up the whole experience, rather than cry with pain because we didn’t know what we’d got ourselves in for. Of course, we aren’t ruling out that we won’t cry with pain (especially on the Devil’s Staircase), but at least we have given ourselves the best chance of success.

Jillianne near the summit of Ben Lomond, at long last. September 2019

Over the past month, we have been packing our weeks with 3 mile, 5 mile, 6 mile, even 8.7 mile walks in our local area of Glasgow, building our strength up, stretching properly and testing our gear to make sure it all works. All whilst finding incredible walking places close to our home that we wouldn’t usually stumble upon. We’ve had a brill time doing it too and learning together. I’ve already noticed a huge difference in my body and its recovery time, which is a positive sign.

Our West Highland Way itinerary

We’ve gone for the seven day itinerary (see below), but you can choose to go for a shorter option (five days, six days) or longer, (eight days, nine days) depending on your fitness level and the time you have available.

As this is our first multi-day hike, we’ve decided we don’t want to push our bodies too much and suffer an injury which may prevent us from getting to the finish. It’s important to us that we enjoy the views without feeling rushed. We just want to have the best time on the trail, really take it all in, and have our heads in the clouds rather than looking down at our watches. This has always been our sort of vibe, and the beauty of the WHW is that you can adapt your hike to your vibe, your hopes and dreams, what you want to do.

Day 1Milngavie to Drymen12 miles
Day 2Drymen to Rowardennan15 miles
Day 3Rowardennan to Inverarnan14 miles
Day 4Inverarnan to Tyndrum12 miles
Day 5Tyndrum to Kingshouse19 miles
Day 6Kingshouse to Kinlochleven9 miles
Day 7Kinlochleven to Fort William15 miles
Our itinerary may change slightly, but this roughly what we’re doing!

When is the best time to walk the West Highland Way?

People generally walk the route between April and October, due to the high ground and colder temperatures in the Highlands in the winter months. In the summer the route can be busy and the midgies come out to play (Scotland’s no.1 tiny nuisance bug.) The midgies thrive in warm and wet evenings and they can be infuriating. But, with the aid of smidge repellent and a head net, and if you are clever in where you pitch your tent (away from water, and where there is a bit of breeze) midgies – ach, they’re alright.

We’re walking the Way in late July / early August, mainly because of personal circumstances and we don’t want to wait any longer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic over the globe, we don’t want to travel internationally until next year, when it is safer for everyone. So, it feels like the right time to stay close to home, complete the route and wild-camp without using barely any local amenities.

Misty Scottish mountains near Crianlarich.

Next up: WHW Gear List

In my next blog I’ll share mine and Jillianne’s gear list for the West Highland Way (something we are still finalising now) and after we’ve completed the walk (fingers crossed we do, all being well) I’ll let you know in a post-WHW blog if any of the kit will change for our next hike.

If you have walked the West Highland Way, what did you do? What was your fave moment? What would you do differently? If you are planning to walk the Way, let me know what your thoughts are. What are your plans? What are you most looking forward to? If you have no experience with any of this, come say hi anyway. It’ll be so nice to hear from you.

Sophie X

Published by sophiegracehollis

I'm a solid girl from East London, England, now living in Scotland with my partner, Jillianne. I like to read, write, travel and play scrabble by the fire. I graduated university three years ago with a degree in English Literature. Now my work focusses on queer poetry and a heavy sense of nostalgia. I am obsessed with sand dunes, oak trees, the sea.

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