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The West Highland Way is 96 miles or 154km. In this guide I’m going to cover the essentials that you need to tackle this famous path, including the route, what you need to take with you, when to go, where to stay, and some notable features to be aware of.
The West Highland Way (WHW) is a classic long-distance walk in Scotland, and it’s not for the faint-hearted or the ill-prepared. The route goes between Milngavie (just north of Glasgow) and Fort William. Along the way you’ll pass some of the finest scenery in Scotland.
I’ve done the route a number of times, most recently by bike. And, whilst it’s certainly possible to cycle the WHW it does add an extra layer of challenge to a challenge that is already quite, um, challenging. Reason being that the route was always intended to be a walking route. Whilst cycling it is certainly allowed and possible to do, the terrain can make for some tricky work on a bike. Around Loch Lomond (near the southern edge of the route) the path hugs the shore of the loch and you’ll be carrying your bike over boulders for miles on end. Later on you’ll be pushing your bike up climbs such as the Devil’s Staircase, before bunny-hopping your way over (what feels like) a million quite sizeable drainage channels on some of the descents. So, yes, it’s possible to cycle, but there are likely to be swear words.
Because I’m trying in vain to banish the memories of that cycle, this guide will focus on what you need to know, have, and do in order to hike the WHW. The clock’s ticking so let’s take a look.
West Highland Way route
The typical way of hiking the West Highland Way is to start at the Southern end, in the town of Milngavie, and then walking North over the 96-mile route to the Northern-most point, in the town of Fort William.
As part of the gear list below, you’ll see that you should always take a suitable map and compass with you and have the knowledge and skills to use them. Strangely, for such a popular route, there is no one single detailed walking map that covers the entire route. You can buy Ordnance Survey maps for each stage, but that means having to buy a total of seven separate maps! Much better value is to get the Ordnance Survey annual subscription and print off the sections you need for the walk. Pop them in a map case and they’ll stay dry.
The link here gives a useful map of the route. Leaving Milngavie, you follow quiet paths until the first climb up and around the shoulder of Conic hill, before dropping down to the shores of Loch Lomond. Following Loch Lomond all the way to its Northern tip at Inverarnan, you then continue through Crianlarich, Tyndrum, and Bridge of Orchy, before a steady climb up to Glencoe – my favourite part of the route! Continue through Glencoe to Kinlochleven, then it’s up the steep incline of the Devil’s Staircase before you start dropping down towards the end point at Fort William.
If 96 miles of hiking over rugged terrain feels like something that’s a little too easy for you (!) then there’s always the option to add in a climb of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, which is close to the northern end point of the route at Fort William. If you decide to do that, then I have a few accommodation recommendations for you as you’ll probably need a bit of a rest afterwards.
West Highland Way gear list
Assuming you’re staying in hotels and B&Bs along the route, and you’ll be walking it during the summer, then you’ll need to take the following items with you. If you’re camping then you’ll need a good sleep system and cooking setup. If you’re planning to hike the route during the winter, then you will need more specialist clothing and gear.
Walking boots – you need to ensure that these fit well and are comfy. If your boots are new, make sure you do some walks in them beforehand in order to break them in a little. Boots with leather uppers are my favourites, or you can choose ones with fabric uppers. If your budget will allow then I’d recommend getting boots with a Gore-tex lining
Waterproof jacket and over-trousers – even in the height of summer in Scotland you should always take a full set of waterproofs. It will rain! Get a shell jacket (that doesn’t have an insulated lining) to keep your top half waterproof. This kind of jacket allows you to add a variety of thin layers underneath in order to get your body temperature just right and not overheat. They also pack up much smaller and lighter than insulated jackets do.
My preferred type of overtrousers are the ones that zip most of the way up each leg. This allows you to get them on and take them off without removing your boots every time. In showery conditions this can be very handy
Warm mid layer – For the layer underneath your jacket you have a couple of options, one being a down jacket and the other being a microfleece. My personal choice is a down jacket though I also wear fleeces regularly. I’ve got more details about both types of mid layer here
Warm baselayer – they used to be known as vests, but now we’ve gotten all fancy and starting calling them baselayers! If you don’t have a stock of vests any more, then I’d suggest a baselayer made from merino wool as they don’t get stinky and need less washing than cotton or synthetics
Walking trousers – these should be comfortable to wear and have be roomy enough to move freely in as you’re walking. These are my favourite
Hat – I find that a beanie type of hat works well as the bobbles on bobble hats often get caught in the hood of a jacket
Gloves – my favourite glove type are ones that can be used with touchscreens (for the inevitable selfies at the start and finish points) and are waterproof
Walking socks – I have a drawer full of different types of hiking socks that I’ve tried through the years. Funnily enough though I only ever go for one sort when I reach into the drawer – my Darn Tough merino wool socks. Extra comfy and I’ve never had a blister whilst wearing them
Comfortable rucksack – try not to go too big as you’ll just end up carrying more gear with you. 20-30L I find is ideal for carrying what you need. Go for a rucksack that has both a chest and waist strap as these prevent the shoulder straps from digging into your arms over a long period of hiking
Food, water and a hot drink – don’t be fooled by the availability of food and drink in either Milngavie or Fort William. Much of the route passes through remote areas where there isn’t a handy source of either. Take what you’ll need for the day and make sure you have some extras of both just in case. Plus some emergency snacks in the calorific-form of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake – it’s amazing
Wide-brimmed sun hat – like this one
Local map and compass
As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t a single walking map that covers the entirety of the WHW. Rather than buying 7 separate OS maps, I’d suggest getting an OS subscription and printing off the sections you need. You’ll also need a compass to go with your map and I’ve got some recommendations here
Torch – this is a great torch
Emergency whistle – like this
Basic First aid kit – like this
Survival bag – an essential
Comfy evening clothes
West Highland Way Baggage Transfer
If the above sounds like a lot of kit to carry with and you’d prefer to travel as light as possible, then there’s always the option of using a baggage transfer service. There are a number of companies offering an excellent transfer service along the route. Two that get a great reputation are AMS and Travel-lite. Both are based in Milngavie at the southern end of the route and can carry your bags whether you’re doing the route from the North or South.
West Highland Way merchandise
Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, “Route, Gear list, blah, blah, blah. SHOW ME THE MERCH!”
West Highland Way accommodation
There are plenty of options at most points along the route. So it really depends on how many days you want to do the walk over (and therefore how many night’s accommodation you need), and what sort of accommodation you want (hotel, B&B or campsite). Here are some of my favourites at the key stopover places on the Way.
Ardoch House Boutique Hotel – hotel and campsite
Bridge of Orchy accommodation
Blackwater hostel – rooms, glamping and camping
Fort William accommodation
West Highland Way best time to go?
If you’re familiar with Scottish weather you’ll know that it can rain, or indeed snow, throughout a lot of the year. That being said, there are some times when you’re more likely to get better weather, whilst avoiding the crowds and, more importantly, dodging some of the infamous local wildlife.
In short, the best times to do the WHW are May to early June and late August to September.
May to September gives the best chance of encountering good weather – although because you can get bad weather at any time you should take plenty of waterproofs and thermal clothing. In the height of the summer (June to mid-August) the route can get crowded with hikers. This might not give you the serene Highland experience that you’re looking for and those other hikers will also be snapping up all the available accommodation.
Another reason to avoid doing the WHW in mid-summer is that there are likely to be tiny flying beasties, known as midges, pestering you every step of the way. Midges are common on the West Highland Way and are unpleasant to have to deal with. Crowds of them will descend on anyone within range and they are particularly bad near lochs and rivers. You can ward them off to some extent by using a midge repellent, such as this or keep them at bay by covering exposed skin, such as your head with one of these midge nets.
West Highland Way highlights
In between the midges and the hard graft, you might be wondering if the West Highland Way is worth it?
Everyone has their own opinion, obviously, but everyone that I saw at the finish line in Fort William (and there were quite a few) had a big smile on their faces. And there were plenty of smiles throughout the hike too. The WHW is a big challenge and you’ll feel a massive sense of achievement once you complete it. Will you do it more than once? Maybe. Will it inspire you to go on and do more adventures like this? Probably!
In my view, the West Highland Way is an absolute must-do. It’s a hike that takes in some iconic scenery from the wild beauty of Glencoe to the snow-clad summit of Ben Nevis and the Nevis range.
It’s also a fantastic experience to start a hike on a stretch of pedestrianised street in a town just outside the biggest city in Scotland, then head north and finish in a town that is firmly in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.
Whatever way you decide to tackle the route, whether on foot (hurray!) or on a bike (beware!) it will be a journey that will stay in your memory for a lifetime.
p.s. make sure to say ‘Hello’ to the statue at the Fort William end of the route when you finish. The statue’s name? The “Man With Sore Feet”.