10 Tips for Walking the West Highland Way

I often begin writing or talking about long distance walking with a quick introduction to my first EVER four days of walking on the West Highland Way. It was day 0, the Alpha, my hatching as a distance dragon.  Given the circumstances (last 4 days, before first 3) it seemed almost dishonest to write about it since I have never walked it in one go. The fact is though, that I have done and redone it, or most of it, in subsequent visits to Scotland, because it is still one of the most beautiful, satisfying and ultimately accessible long distance walks in the country.  I have since gotten over my embarrassment, so you can read about my walks, the last four days, and the first three. For this post, instead of getting all descriptive on you, let me give you some tips to help you on your journey.

Be prepared. I could do the full list of what you need in your backpack (ruck sac if you are native) but many people cover that. This is more general, but still essential advice

  1. What I mean is be prepared to walk and be comfortable in whatever conditions are thrown at you. In a pre-planned walk along the West Highland Way, all your accommodations are booked in advance, according to your route; a day off can be disastrous. Also, I do not fly across the big pond (Montreal to Glasgow) to stay home if it’s raining or cold. Plenty of warm and waterproof layers are a must. If you are having your luggage transferred (a reasonable option on the West Highland Way), you can bring as many clean changes as you like, within reason.
  2. Also, I want to be damn sure that I have the best footwear for me. So here is what works. I spend far too much time harassing outdoor store employees, walking around the store (or at home) in one of each boot until I find the one that feels most comfortable (and I do buy from the store…play nice).  That doesn’t mean that no adjustments were necessary along the way, but my boots are solid, and do the job every time I put them on. So apart from specifying boots for many consecutive walking days, I offer no brand names because each foot is different. I walked the WHW in walking shoes, in walking boots and although my feet HURT after eight hours (of course they will) I never got a blister. I also ALWAYS walk in two pairs of socks, regardless of the weather – sometimes leaving home with 19 pairs (more socks than clothes). Correction, I did get blisters, HUGE ones, from walking too far in my flip-flops at the end of a day, or in my very comfortable city sandals the last day of my Montreal Perimeter Walk.
  3. Leave from Glasgow: If you are planning the full-on full route, know that the start of the trail is minutes by train or bus from the heart of Glasgow. Given the suggested breakdown of the trail, Milngavie to Dryman is a relatively short day of walking. By all means, stay overnight in Glasgow before starting the journey, there is a ton of accommodations, all the resources necessary to do last minute hiking shopping and to get the food and snacks for your first day.
  4. Do the last bit first. If you only have a few days, do the final days of the trail. Not only because that was what I did; it was a suggestion from a kind women at a self-guided travel agency. I was trying to be reasonable on my very first walk. What if I hated it? Had no stamina? Was confused and unable to navigate? I was heading out alone, never having visited the country so I had reason to be a little anxious. But it was absolutely brilliant. A relatively easy first day (starting at Ardlui), and than the second, right into those amazing highlands. That was the ‘hour I first believed’.

    Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy

  5. Do only one day. If that’s all the time you have, it is fairly easy to do a single section of the hike and return to your starting point by public transit. The buses are frequent and reliable, and the best bits, (Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy, BoO to Kings house, Kinlochleven to Fort-William), are a nice half day walk. This is how I did my repeats, while doing other work, or on a ‘rest’ after another grueling 7 day trail.
  6. Walk alone, or not: I have tried walking with people and on my own on these long distance expeditions. I am much happier alone or with a very close relative/friend. Particularly on the West Highland Way, which is very well marked, navigation is rarely an issue. But that might not be you. There are definitely group hikes available, many reputable company’s (including mine!!) which are set up to take groups. There is also the very popular ‘self-guided’ option, where the agency will look after all your bookings for the 7 or 8 days (I do that too) and provide you with clear, step-by-step walking instructions and maps.

Be alone, but not lonely:  I walk alone a lot because I am selfish. I want to walk at my pace, according to my non-scientific but actually reasonable calculations of breaks and starting times. It’s my party and I’ll do what I want to. But I am also not a loner; I like people in general, like sharing walking stories and finding out what others do. Here are two ways for single travelers to get their people fix.

Dunx, Hugh, Kenny, Colin and moi!

  1. May I join you? This is a line that works well in hostels, restaurants and trail pic-nic tables.  But it takes some practice. The first time I did it, I was on a solo camping vacation, had just finished a half a bike ride (I still had to go back), and hadn’t spoken to a human in days. I think I repeated my opening line 20 times in my head, before approaching two men in my age and activity range and asked if I could sit with them.  This is way easier in a hostel because, on the West Highland Way, you’re usually in the same boat (on the same trail?). That said, it is still kind of nerve wreaking to say ‘may I join you’ to complete strangers. Fun fact; so far, no one has said ‘NO’, and most often it has led to shared meals, walks, or excellent conversations about the trail, adventures, and everything in between (how about that royal wedding!!??)
  2. The pub: The classic finish; at the end of a walking day, go into a pub, sit at the bar, and order yourself a pint (or ginger-ale, Perrier whatever). You will be having a conversation in about 10 seconds. You will meet a new person, probably their mates and/or spouse, and find out some important news of local significance. Not necessarily talking about life-long friendships, but a pleasant hour or so passed in reasonable company.  This is particularly helpful when staying alone in a hotel, or BnB, but can also be key when travelling with a companion; always helps to get a little new blood in the mix.  (note: results may vary outside Scotland or the UK)
  3. Take the time. While you do want to capture the beauty of your walk with phones and/or camera’s, you also want to take the time to just see. This advice is harder to follow on difficult days, in crappy weather (hard to stop when you are exhausted, cold AND wet – forgive yourself in advance). But you are in one of the worlds most beautiful landscapes. So while planning and keeping to your schedule is important, appreciating where you are is paramount. You will love your photo’s and accomplishments, but your memories of that perfect grey mountain against the blue sky, of the Ben from any angle, and the first view into achingly beautiful Glencoe will be burned into your heart if you take just a few minutes to let it.
  4. There is no number 10. I know, 10 is a nice round number, it reads well as a byline. But I ain’t got 10. I’ve got a gazillion ideas of how to make this a great experience, but only by putting one foot in front of the other, can you or anyone formulate the questions and discover your own answers to how this is done. I would be more than happy to help you; plan your trip, lead your group (send me an email; frances@selfpropelledtravel.com) but you’ve just got to DO IT (to quote Nike-who do not sponsor me in any way, although if they want too…).

Let me know how it goes.

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