7 Tips for Hiking the West Highland Way
Aye, Scotland ees a byoot, but mind thee of her temperament or yoo might be in for eh shochhhh. Ok, I won’t be writing this post in a terrible Scottish accent.
In May 2018 I set out on the 154km West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William. It’s not the longest long-distance walking path in the UK but certainly one of the most popular ones, and for my liking the perfect way to experience Scotland’s remote landscapes, which I had been quite dying to go to for approximately 6 years. As this was my first multi-day hike I learned a lot about the difference between walking for one very long day and pacing yourself over a whole week or more, and gathered some more helpful hints the novice Scottish hiker might find useful. So without further ado, here ye find my tips for the West Highland Way!
1. Structure your day
Just walking until ye can walk no more and then collapsing at the roadside may SEEM like the best way to push through your daily kilometres, but we quickly noticed this led to frustration between hiking partners (one person’s total exhaustion is another person’s OH COME ON NOW), too few breaks (meaning you’re ready for bed at 4pm), or too many (“Ooh I have to pee!” “Let”s have a snack!” “I KNEW I should have left my scarf on!”). The simple answer is: plan your breaks by structuring your hiking day. I like a 20 minute break every 1.5 hours, just enough to take my shoes off (more on that later) or have a drink and a snack. Every other break, so after 3 hours walking, we made sure we sat down for a good half an hour to rest, have some food and enjoy the view.
2. Air out your feet
This one came as a surprise to me as I don’t tend to get blisters from even the longest of day hikes, but multiple days of walking softened my feet over time and the LAST thing I wanted was to hobble through the Highlands. Taking off your shoes and socks and letting your pale and wrinkly (hiker feet really ain’t pretty) feetsies get some air is the best thing you can do for them on a multi-day hike to avoid blisters. Fresh air, pink toes? Hm.
3. Don't wear shorts :(
I love shorts. We all love shorts. However, ticks love Scotland, and tasty legs to bite into even more, and thus shorts and West Highland Way no good combination makes. Scotland has a high risk of lyme disease from tick bites, so avoid exposure by wearing long trousers. Wah.
4. Give your body what it craves
I’m a healthy sleeper at any time, and get a solid 8 hours a night. YES, this makes me sound like a grandma, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, ok. However, when I’m walking between 5-8 hours a day, spending the whole day outside breathing clean air and getting sun on my face, I sleep… 11 hours. Yes, ELEVEN. I’m pretty sure this is different for everyone, but during the West Highland Way Julia and I would regularly be asleep at 7pm and up again at 8am. It seemed a bit odd at first but after 2 days of blissful early nights we fully embraced it, because that’s just what our bodies needed. Same for food: our eating habits shifted to big breakfast, small snacks, big late lunch after the day’s hiking was done and a little snack before bed. As long as you’re making sure you’re drinking plenty of water and getting enough calories, do what your body tells you.
5. Have your luggage transferred
The West Highland Way can be incredibly unpredictable in terms of weather. I packed everything from rain gear to base layers, gloves, sunglasses and SPF, as well as a comfy outfit for B & B’s in the evenings. For this reason we chose to have our luggage transferred from each nightly stop to another, and it was a huge help. I’ve since walked the Malerweg carrying all my own stuff, but as this was my first longer hike I was really glad to carry a lighter day pack while walking.
6. Wear lightweight shoes and socks by God
Already a sworn convert to trail running shoes for hiking before setting off, I decided to take my Meindl boots for one last ride on the West Highland Way, as I’d heard of rocky sections along Loch Lomond where people recommended boots for ankle security. And once again, they were WRONG! By day 2 in boots I nearly flung them off the side of a very slowly climbing hill when I thought my feet were steaming they were so hot. Honestly, I still get goosebumps when I think about it. From that day on I wore trail runners and the thinnest hiking socks I had with me and was much happier. My feet were pretty puffy during the whole trip so less sock was really helpful, as well as the whole airing-out routine.
7. Deal with it: the Full English Breakfast
Sleep and food are two things I enjoy in large quantities while on a hiking trip (actually, most days). But along the West Highland Way I met my personal culinary Everest: the daily serving of a full fry-up. One of the absolutely loveliest parts of my West Highland Way experience was staying in little B & B’s along the route which ALL had delightful hosts, and ALL - bar none - served up a mahoosive cooked breakfast with beans, eggs, sausages, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms. On day 1 I loved it, by day 5 I was thought I might have a heart attack, by day 8 I was dying for something, anything, remotely healthy. But its chefs were simply too cute to turn down. If you’re brave enough to ask they’ll probably make you porridge though.