The West Highland Way: Blisters, Baggage and the Walking Bug in the Scottish Hills

Back in  2017, my best friend set herself a “medal-a-month” challenge.  She was completing various running challenges and she decided that she wanted to incorporate the West Highland Way into her “medal” list.  She asked me if I wanted to come along with her and, without giving it too much thought, I eagerly signed on. A buddy holiday, a little walking, plenty pubs stops and some nice scenery; what could be better?  It was a fantastic experience but it was a whole lot more than those things.

I loved it so much that it really gave me the walking bug, it is probably a contributing factor as to why I ended up in the Italian Alps!

Enjoy amazing views every day on the West Highland Way
Enjoy amazing views every day on the West Highland Way

What is the West Highland Way?

It is the most popular long distance walking trail in Scotland.  At 96 miles (154 km) long, it covers a variety of terrain through the heart of the Scottish countryside.   It takes you along the banks of stunning Loch Lomond, across the vast open spaces of Rannoch Moor and through the dramatic Valleys of Glen Coe.  It is usually completed in a South to North direction, starting at Milngavie and finishing in Fort William.

Unless you are a very seasoned hiker, use the baggage transfer service

Organiser Extraordinaire, Susan, took charge of all the logistics for the trip.  She suggested we use one of the West Highland Way baggage transfer companies.

I lost count of the number of times we said we were glad we did.  Even some of the more seasoned hikers would jealously steal furtive glances over at us in the morning when we popped our lovely, light day packs on and they struggled with their humongous rucksacks.

It maybe seems like the “cheats” option but, be realistic, if you are not used to hiking with a heavy bag just don’t do it!  You do want to finish the trek, never-mind enjoy it along the way.

There were a lot of hikers that opted to book the baggage service after completing a couple of days and there were a few that had to abandon their attempt before finishing as a result of bags and blisters!

We used AMS baggage transfer and the service was excellent and, at £45 per bag, we thought it was well worth it.    They only offer the service from the end of March to Mid October, so if you are walking in low season you will need to suck it up!

You want to enjoy the views on the West Highland Way and not be worrying about bags
You want to enjoy the views on the West Highland Way and not be worrying about bags

Don’t want to camp?  Book accommodation early

Accommodation books up early.  I am not a brilliant advanced planner.  My friend Susan is. We booked our accommodation a year in advance!  Okay, so you don’t need to book as early as that, some of the places were not even taking bookings that far in advance, but do make sure you book early to avoid disappointment.

I have listed all the places we stayed in the Itinerary further down the page.

There are plenty campsites along the way,  but spaces to pitch even book up quickly so, unless you want to wild camp, you should also consider booking your space for this too.

For wild camping it is worth planning your stops in advance too as there are strict rules about where you can and can’t wild camp in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park section.

Get ready for the midges

Haven’t been to Scotland before?  What about the North/ West Coast of Scotland?  It is a beautiful part of the world but midges can be a real nightmare.

These pesky little blighters, around from about May to September, are at their worst in the height of the Summer.  Check out the various YouTube clips of midges doing their worst.

They come out in full force at dusk and dawn and, whilst it is not going to stop you doing the trip, it can be enough to make your walking experience pretty miserable.  

We were pretty lucky and the only place we experienced a full on onslaught was on our last night in Kinlochleven.  They were relentless. It would have been even worse if we had been camping, so campers you have been warned!

Make sure you cover up as much as possible with long sleeves and trousers, get a good quality midge repellent and consider a midge net too.  They look ridiculous, and I got a trouncing from Susan for buying one, but they could be a life saver (okay, well not literally, but you get my drift).

A midge net is really handy on the west highland way
Yup, I look like a prize idiot, but it does the job!

The sense of camaraderie is amazing – embrace it

What I love about being in the hills the most is the friendly, in-it-together spirit that there usually is.

The West Highland Way is a busy walking route so, if you are looking to get away from it all in complete solitude, then this is definitely not the walk for you.

If you are willing to embrace the social aspect and enjoy feeling the sense of community that comes with the trek, you will enjoy it all the more.

We met some great people, from all over the world, along the way and we have even kept in touch with some of them.

One girl was walking it as part of a Lands End to John o’Groats challenge.  She was walking the length of the UK, 874 miles (1,407 km) in total!

At the end of the day walkers will meet up in the pub to trade stories about their day, show off their blisters and collectively curse the midges.

It is also lovely that there are quite a few honesty boxes, with snacks and drinks, that have been placed along various parts of the West Highland Way.  There was one on the route up the Devils Staircase – that would have been some effort to get it up there. There was also one on our first day that was outside a rural home.  It was full of homemade cakes and had lemon water available – such a lovely touch.

The honesty boxes on the west highland way are lovely
This honest box was so lovely, full of homemade goodies and treats

Blisters can wreak havoc

I was lucky, apart from one infected big toe, I didn’t get too many blisters.  Susan, on the other hand, had a nightmare of a time. After day one, she already had a couple and then, by the end of the trip, her feet were in a sorry state.  I am sure she would say that it did dampen her spirits a bit along the way and it would have been an even more enjoyable experience if she had not had to contend with these everyday.

My advice:  Make sure you break your boots in really well.  If you have bought your boots for the trip, make sure you have been out for multiple decent hikes in them beforehand.  

Make sure you have good socks and test these out beforehand too.  Two pairs, or a lined pair are recommended.

Make sure you have a supply of compeeds, plasters and some painkillers too.

Try using Vaseline and rub this generously between your toes before setting off for the day.  We didn’t do this but heard from lots of people that this is really effective.

There were a few people that had to abandon their trip because of horrific blisters.  

Day one of West Highland Way and Susan already had blisters
End  of Day 1 and Susan had blisters already

Can you do this trip with a dog?

Not all multi day treks are dog friendly.  I would say the West Highland Way is, but only if you have a dog that is very fit, used to long mountain walks and enjoys being in a bustling atmosphere.

There were a few dogs completing the trip whilst we were walking.  One little Westie was loving it and even had his own little rucksack.  There was also an older Ridgeback that really struggled. His owners had underestimated the difficulty of the walk and by day two he was very tired and lame.  I don’t imagine they would have finished the walk, for the sake of the dog, I hope not anyway.

So, be realistic and fair to your dog.

Also, be aware that you will likely have to camp, at least some of the way.  There are a few, but not too many, dog friendly accommodation options along the route.

You are also going to have to carry your dog’s food supplies.  The couple with the big Ridgeback had an extremely heavy bag as a result and were considering the baggage transfer.

During lambing season there are restriction with regards to access around the Conic Hill area so you should double check this too.

Dogs can come on the west highland way
Having a well earned rest after a hard day

Our West Highland Way itinerary

We choose to do the walk over 7 days, it is usually completed in between four and ten days.  Neither of us, at that time, were seasoned walkers, we didn’t really do any training and it was our first multi-day trek.  Blisters aside, it was perfectly doable, but allowed us to enjoy some down-time at the end of the day and we didn’t feel that we had to race to our end stop everyday.  Most days we didn’t walk for longer than 6 hours.

I was blown away to hear that the fastest completion of the 96 mile West Highland Way was done in just over 14 hours by Paul Gibbin in the 2015 Ultra Race – Wow!

Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen (12 miles/ 19 km)

Save yourself from embarrassing yourself with the locals, don’t make a rookie error and pronounce Milngavie as it looks.  It should be “Mill-guy” .

This was, by far, the easiest stretch of the route, lulling you into a false sense of security!

We were lucky enough to have Susan’s obliging hubby Andrew drop us off, but the route does start at the train station in Milngavie and there is also a train station in Fort William if you want an alternative mode of transport.

Walking through lovely Mugdock Country Park, the route is relatively flat.  We stopped at the Beech Tree Inn in Dumgoyne for a wee refreshment and sat in their lovely garden space, despite the damp weather conditions.

The views on the way out of Mugdock Country Park
The views on the way out of Mugdock Country Park

We reached Drymen ahead of time and committed the cardinal sin of trying to check into our B & B early.  The owner was very accommodating though and we had a night of luxury in the Shandon Farmhouse B & B.  At £85 for the night, it was more expensive than we had budgeted, but there were limited options available in Drymen.   It was a bit of a treat, complete with a lovely full cooked breakfast the next morning. For doggy traveller, it is dog friendly too.

We had a fantastic pub dinner in the bar side of the Clachan Inn.  It was delicious and there was a busy, cosy and friendly atmosphere.  Great end to day one!

Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan (14.5 miles / 23 km)

For me, this was one of the toughest stretches.  My knees are not the best and the long downhill stretches and uneven paths put a lot of pressure on them.

It is a beautiful section though, with lots to see.  There is a short, steep climb up Conic Hill and you are rewarded with amazing views down to the village of  Balmaha and Loch Lomond. We enjoyed a pack lunch in a sheltered spot at the top of the hill.

The views at the top of Conic Hill
Spectacular views of Loch Lomond at the top of Conic Hill

This is probably one of the busiest parts of the walk as there are lots of day trippers.

There is a long descent down into Balmaha, and then an uneven path leads along the banks of Loch Lomond to Rowardennan.  By the end my knees were suffering,to say the least.

We stayed at Rowardennan Youth Hostel and this was a highlight for me.  It is a beautiful old, brick building and it sits right on the edge of the Loch.  It is a really tranquil spot and we enjoyed sitting on the edge of a jetty with a cool drink and our feet dangling into the water- perfect. Their Spag Bol was pretty tasty too!  The Youth Hostel isn’t dog friendly but the nearby, expensive, hotel is.

Rowardennan Youth Hostel
Rowardennan Youth Hostel – beautiful building, amazing location

Day 3: Rowardennan to Inverarnan (14 miles / 22 km)

This part of the route follows along the East shore of Loch Lomond.  There are views of Ben Lomond and this is also the spot where you can find Rob Roy’s Cave, the alleged hide out of Rob Roy McGregor, a Jacobite Outlaw that became a folk hero.  It was also believed that Robert the Bruce also used this as a hiding place.

Susan and I were not all that enthused with the history lesson at the time, our legs were sore!

The path is described at this point as “undulating” .  Basically, that means it is very rocky, uneven and twisting – it is a tough section and, because there is a lot of woodland there are not the open vistas that we had gotten used to.  We were glad once it was over!

We stayed at Beinglas Campsite in a little camping cabin.  These wooden teepees are basic and you do need your own sleeping bag but, at £40 per night, they are good value and comfier than camping.  The onsite pub serves really tasty food too.

Views at Beinglas Campsite
Enjoying amazing views at Beinglas Campsite, with a well earned beverage

Day 4: Inverarnan to Tyndrum (12 miles/ 19 km)

Moving away from Loch Lomond now, we headed back into more mountainous terrain.  This was probably one of the gentlest parts of the route. Good job, as Susan’s blisters were not the best by this stage!

You can take in great views of the Munros Ben More and Stob Binnean as you head towards Crianlarich.  If you are looking for a scenic place to stop, I would say Crianlarich is not the place. You then head through a prolonged area of woodland before coming into some farm land with views of the surrounding hills.

The tracks are well maintained and much of it is on the old military tracks.  No “undulating” paths today.

We stayed at Tyndrum By the Way Campsite in one of their little hobbit huts.  Tyndrum is a busy stop off point for day trippers, but the Campsite is set back from the main facilities so it was a peaceful spot.  Our hut was £45 for the night and this one even had a kettle and a tv – luxury!

Day 5: Tyndrum to Glencoe Ski Centre near Kingshouse (17 miles / 27 km)

This was our longest walking day.  Some people choose to split this section, stopping at Inveroran, but we opted to push on as it is not one of the most difficult sections.

We stopped at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel for a wee coffee, the midges were out in force here, and then pushed on surrounded by some amazing views before coming down to the Inveroran Hotel.

From here you are introduced to the vast expanse of Rannoch Moor.  On a cold day you need to be wrapped up tight and on a hot day cover up and slap on the sunscreen, it is very exposed for a long period of time.  It is beautiful, although if it can be bleak in colder conditions. The path is an old military road so it is easy underfoot, even if it sometimes does seem never ending.

Rannoch Moor
Views across Rannoch Moor

The facilities at Kingshouse are, at the time of writing, not available.  We chose to stay in a camping cabin at Glencoe Ski Centre anyway.

Of all the places we stayed, this was my least favourite.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the facilities to be honest, especially given it was the Ski Centre.  The Cabin is just plonked down on the edge of the busy car park and the bathroom facilities were not particularly clean.

We did have fun going up the chairlift on what was a freezing cold day though!

The chairlift at Glencoe Ski  Centre
A bit blowy on the chairlift at Glencoe Ski Centre

Day 6: Glencoe Ski Centre to  Kinlochleven (11 miles / 17.5 km)

Our shortest and penultimate day – “Thank God” said Susan, whose feet were now in tatters!

It was a bit of a damp, dreary start but, at least, that kept the midges at bay.  

A bit wet at the Devils Staircase
Still smiling!

This is the day when you have to tackle the “Devil’s Staircase” , the highest point on the trek at 548 m (1798 feet).  It is a steep climb and we were not afforded any views at the top because of the weather but the fact that this was the shortest day kept us going.

At the top of the Devils Staircase on the West Highland Way
At the summit of the Devil’s Staircase

It is a long descent down into Kinlochleven but, once we were down there, we were meet by my parents (who were going to do the last day of the walk with us) and Susan’s hubby and her two kids, so we got a much needed boost.

On the descent from the Devil's Staircase we were treated to a rainbow
On the descent from the Devil’s Staircase we were treated to a rainbow

We stayed in one of the cabins in the grounds of the Macdonald Hotel.  It is quite a small campsite and they don’t really have enough bathroom facilities for the size of the site, but the cabin was comfortable, cosy and good value at just £32 for the night.

Views from Kinlochleven
Views from Kinlochleven

The midges were at their worst in Kinlochleven, I even resorted to using my midge net for the first time, much to Susan’s amusement.

Day 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William (16 miles / 24 km)

The final day and we had my parents with us for some extra company.  Susan was initially relieved to have a change from my endless random prattle, only for it to be replaced by even more of the same from my Dad!

We had extra company on our final day of the West Highland Way
We had extra company on our final day 

There is a steep climb out of Kinlochleven but, don’t despair, it soon evens out into Lairigmor (The Great Pass), a Valley that has amazing steep mountain views all around.  After walking through some forested paths, Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest summit, comes into view. This is when you know you are on the home stretch – yay!

Heading down into Fort William was a bitter-sweet feeling.  I loved the experience. I had just come through a tough divorce and spending time with a close friend, pushing myself physically, enjoying the scenery and the sense of kinship with fellow walkers had all been such a positive experience.  It was also lovely having my parents there for the last section and then to be enthusiastically greeted by Susan’s family at the finish line too.

There were a few tears, some obligatory photos at the walker statue at the finish line and a well earned stop at a nearby pub.

The finish line of the West Highland Way in Fort William
A family reunion at the finish in Fort William

We met up with some fellow walkers and enjoyed reminiscing.  The perfect end to the perfect trip; forgetting about the blisters, sore knees and midges of course!

Our completed West Hihgland Way Passports
Susan organised for us to get West Highland Way Passports that we could get stamped
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  • Thanks for the detailed report .
    I hope to do some hiking on and around Rannoch Moor in September.
    I’ve heard that ticks, including some that carry Lyme disease , can be a problem. Did you have problems with ticks ? Did you use any preventative measures?
    A difficult but important question: In NZ there are always trees around when walkers are ‘caught short’ … what is the accepted practice for women especially in such exposed areas?

    • Hi Christine. Sorry, I only just spotted your comment now. I hope you have a wonderful time. Rannoch Moor is a beautiful place. I hope the Scottish weather is kind to you. Ticks can be a bit of an issue on the West Highland Way route but, unless you are hiking off the well-trodden paths and going through deeper heather, ferns and undergrowth, they shouldn’t impact majorly. If you do find a tick though they can be easily removed with a tick twister tool. Inexpensive and easy to find online too.

      • Thanks so much. I am looking forward to the walk. And the ‘lack of tree/doing a wee’ issue? Just have to hope for the best, perhaps?

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