As a travel writer I’ve been to over 100 countries and have been lucky enough to get out on hikes on six continents. I honestly reckon that Scotland’s very own West Highland Way is right up there as one of the finest walks in the world.
I’ve done the whole route and also lots of sections at different times. Recently I went back with my young family to share the West Highland Way experience with them.
Many people dream of doing the West Highland Way, but think it might be too hard to organise or just too tough. Well it needn’t be difficult to set up and you can cut it up into chunks to suit you. So what are you waiting for? Get your boots on and join me now as I answer the five big West Highland Way questions.
Where do I start?
All good walking experiences start with good planning. So get hold of a decent map – the Trailblazer guide is great and it comes with a good waterproof map. Sit down with a wee dram and look at how much ground you can realistically cover per day.
Most reasonably fit walkers can manage the entire 96 miles in a week with seven days walking. If you can allow a bit longer you can take it a little easier or also tackle a few of the mountains that tempt en route too.
If you only have a few days I recommend tackling the more northerly sections of the Way. The scenery only turns Highland after Tyndrum. The most spectacular sections for me are across Rannoch Moor and then from Kingshouse in Glencoe across the Devil’s Staircase, as well as the last long section from Kinlochleven to Fort William.
What gear do I need?
Having the right gear is utterly essential, not just for comfort, but safety too. You need the basics like a decent waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, a warm hat and decent gloves. Proper walking boots are for me the most crucial piece of kit – get your boots wrong and you will get blisters and waterlogged feet.
I always get my boots from Scottish outdoor gear specialist Tiso. Their stores not only have well trained staff, but they have rock mock-ups too so you road test your boots as it were and see how they feel on steep inclines and on uneven surfaces. Although the Way is generally easy to follow I’d recommend taking a compass (and the knowledge of how to use it) along with the aforementioned waterproof map.
Where should I stay?
Hotel accommodation en route tends to be expensive on the West Highland Way and trailing a tent along can be backbreaking. This is where Scottish youth hostels come into their own.
A number of excellent youth hostels are strategically placed along the Way at Rowardennan on Loch Lomond, Crianlarich on the edge of the Highlands, at Glencoe just off the Way and finally approaching the finish in deeply scenic Glen Nevis.
These youth hostels not only offer a comfortable place to sleep, but you can enjoy cooked meals there, self cater, dry your boots and get to meet lots of other hikers. Swapping stories with other likeminded souls at the end of a long day makes it all worthwhile for me and you will pick up some good tips too.
Can I walk the West Highland Way with my kids?
That is a big question, a question I asked myself this summer as I set out with my eight and five year old daughters. And the answer for me is…yes! Getting the right gear here is utterly essential and we spent over an hour in Tiso exhausting the lovely staff trying on all our gear! So we set off safe in the knowledge that my girls would stay warm and dry.
The secret to enjoying the Way with kids I think is flexibility. We tried to be realistic and work in short sections for the girls, with opts outs by train, bus or taxi on hand. The girls absolutely loved it and actually asked for more walking.
My eldest Tara was outraged I didn’t think she could manage the notorious Devil’s Staircase and insisted she came with daddy. It turned out to be probably my favourite day of the trip as we tackled the climb then meandered in the high mountains hand in hand.
I also found the girls added a lot in other ways such as focusing my attention more on plants and flowers I might normally just bash past. The girls were fascinated by butterwort and sundew, two carnivorous plants we saw regularly en route.
Why should I walk the West Highland Way?
This is the million dollar or rather zero dollar question! The glory of the West Highland Way comes to you free. Just get on the trail, follow the waymarks and off you go.
There are myriad other reasons I can think of too – to get fit or to gain a real window into some of Scotland’s more remote corners relatively easily. Then there are the walkers you meet en route, many of whom become friends. And lastly, and I don’t see why after hiking 96 miles you cannot allow yourself a little pride, to be able to say you have hiked one of the most glorious long distance walking trails in the world. Happy walking!
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.