Wild camping on the West Highland Way is possible every night of the walk, if you plan things carefully.
The West Highland Way is 94 miles (151km) long, starting in Milngavie (on the outskirts of Glasgow) and ending at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William. It was Scotland’s first long distance path and has since become very popular with walkers.
Recommended guide book: Cicerone’s West Highland Way.
The route offers a fabulous introduction to the Scottish Highlands and it traverses a very diverse landscape. It begins in the lovely town of Milngavie (pronounced Mill-guy) and rolling farmland, then takes you beside Loch Lomond, and onwards into the rugged Highlands. It crosses the vast expanse of Rannoch Moor, then Glencoe, before crossing the hills to lovely Loch Leven. The route enters Fort William via beautiful Glen Nevis.
The West Highland way is well marked on good paths and it avoids the high tops. The route is therefore within the capabilities of most walkers. It is well supported with pubs, hotels, campsites and shops, making this is an ideal first long distance hike. I would also recommend wild camping on the West Highland Way for first-timers, because if you can’t find a suitable wild camping spot there are campsites available.
If you wish to challenge yourself further, you can walk the 11 miles from the centre of Glasgow to the start in Milngavie on the Kelvin Walkway. You could also continue from Fort William to Inverness on the 80 miles Great Glen Way. I’ve written about possible additions to the West Highland Way here.
I walked the West Highland Way as part of my 1,200 mile Land’s end to John O’Groats + 3 peaks walk in 2019. It was a route that I have previously avoided as I thought it would be too busy, but in fact I loved it.
Day 1 (day 48 of LEJOG): Thursday 5th April 2019
I reached Milngavie and waited for a cafe to open at 9am. Another couple arrived who looked like they were also about to start the West HIghland Way. I felt pretty sore after yesterday’s mileage through Glasgow, and wasn’t sure how far I would get today. I definitely was in no rush for my breakfast, and more than happy to sit and wait.
The start of the West Highland Way was well-surfaced, easy going but very busy. There was a queue of people going out of town. I managed to overtake a few, but I was overtaken by more! There seemed to be an equal mix of male and female groups, most fairly young but some older walkers and a few single walkers. I met a middle-aged teacher at a surprise animal farm bar, who was on his first long walk. He gave me some useful information on the route, including the fact that there’s no camping allowed where I was planning to stop. This meant I would either have to walk 7 miles further past Rowardennan or break the law.
The path next to Loch Lomond was lovely, and this was a very enjoyable walk. The scenery had really changed since leaving Milngavie, and I can definitely see the attractions of the West Highland Way. I had always been against it purely due to its popularity, but if you are new to walking, I can see its appeal.
Unexpectedly, one of the toughest parts of the walk is up the side of Loch Lomond. The path is sometimes fairly rough going.
There were a couple of paid (but cheap) park-controlled areas you can camp in but I passed them and pushed on. As soon as I was out of the park I dropped immediately to the loch-side to camp at about 8pm. I put the tent up on the shingle, which was my only chance to wild camp.
This was an extremely high mileage day; I don’t recommend trying to walk this distance in a day. Stopping before reaching Loch Lomond would be a better plan, or using one of the paid loch-side sites.
I put the tent up, stripped off, and washed in the loch, which was absolutely freezing. As soon as I could, I got into my sleeping bag and started cooking tea to warm up. Only then did I realise that I had taken my pants down to the loch to wash them (my only pair, remember, if you’ve been following my LEJOG) but I hadn’t brought them back with me. I dived out of bed to find them, relieved that they hadn’t been washed away.
Day 2 (day 49 of LEJOG): Saturday 6th April 2019
My wild camping spot last night had been idyllic, right by the shores of Loch Lomond. I could hear the sound of the water rippling 4 metres away , but also the sound of very distant traffic – the West Highland Way follows a road most of the way. It wasn’t the total silence that is often found in remote Scotland.
I was late getting to my pitch last night, and still felt tired in the morning, so I left at about 8am. My pitch was well away from the path and I knew I was allowed to be there, so there was less of the usual urgency to be on my way. I was also more relaxed as I knew finding a camp site each night wouldn’t be as difficult as it has been on earlier stretches of my route.
It was a nice walk on an undulating foot path in the trees, with views through to the loch and the mountains beyond. I passed a few campers within half an hour of setting off, but there were very few possible camping spots initially on the trail. After about an hour, or 2-3 miles, there were a few more options. However, there were already full when I passed them. Wild camping here is quite popular.
I made it to the hotel near Inversnaid, which was a big posh hotel in a gorgeous setting. The place was very busy, but all they offered for breakfast was a bun with two sausages in it and a pot of tea. Sitting there resting for an hour made up for this slightly, as I was feeling the mileage of the past couple of days. The path has also been quite strenuous in places.
Once I left the hotel, the rain got heavier. I stopped when I came across a bothy. Coffee and olive bread in the dry was a treat, and it meant I could burn my rubbish in the fire.
The route then left the loch and followed the river, until I found a campsite bar at Beinglas Farm (Inverarnan). This was another very welcome break. I enjoyed a great Lamb Madras with a pint!
From leaving here, it was better, more level walking by the river. I passed the Falls of Falloch which were pretty good. There were still people looking at them at 6.30pm.
I camped shortly after this (7pm) as it looked difficult further on, and I had found a nice spot by the river. Everywhere was pretty wet and boggy. There was some road and railway noise, but this is unavoidable as the West Highland Way shares the same valleys as the transport. I felt a lot better that evening after the curry – it’s amazing what difference decent food makes. It was also great to camp with a dry tent.
Day 3 (day 50 of LEJOG): Sunday 7th April 2019
The day started dry, but overcast with a cold breeze. I had coffee and fruit bread for breakfast, working on the principle of eating the heaviest things first. Plus that is all I can stomach first thing!
I had wild camped in the open by the river last night, and the breeze was good, so I had no issue with condensation. By 7am I was on the move again. I made it to Tyndrum by 10.55am. That 5 minutes was important – it got me a cooked breakfast and coffee at the Real Food Cafe before breakfast service stopped at 11am. I needed it, too, as I was struggling today; the paths weren’t as rough as yesterday, but there were still some stiff climbs. I had no worries about wet feet, though, as the path was well surfaced.
The track remained easy going all afternoon, through big, long open valleys (with the road and the railway running through too). I stopped at the Bridge of Orchy for fish and chips and a beer, but the prices were horrific so I won’t be going here again.
Moving on from here was hard going on a rough stony track, but it did get nice and remote with good views. The trail also lost the road and railway line, which was lovely. I made it to the Loch Ba bridge and saw a good wild camp spot. I put the tent up, filtered some water and soon a lovely couple came past and asked if I minded if they camped nearby. There was plenty of room, and he had heard this was a good spot – I really should have read up more on this walk, then I’d know these things.
I had a nice chat with them, and it turns out he was also called Mark, and from King’s Lynn (about an hour from me), now moved to the Lake District. His partner was from Scandinavia and spotted that my boots were a bit different straight away. We had a good conversation about the down sides of GoreTex boots! I would have happily chatted for longer, but it got pretty cold.
There was no mobile signal here, which was the first time since I set off that I had no contact with home. More happily, it was the second night running that I had put up a dry tent, which was great considering the weather had been quite damp. I was in a breeze again so hopefully the tent would be fine in the morning. Night time temperatures had also been warmer, at around 6 or 7 degrees. As I fell asleep, I was considering the mileage for the next day. I needed to do a long day if I could to get closer to Ben Nevis. Otherwise it would mean climbing it with the crowds and missing the shops once I got down, as they would be closed.
Day 4 (day 51 of LEJOG): Monday 8th April 2019
Awake and making coffee at 5.30am, and away at 6.15am, as soon as it got light. It was a gorgeous morning with a bright red sun coming up. The valley opened up ahead of me as I went over the pass to Rannoch Moor. I passed two herds of deer, which was lovely (and later a coach load of tourists, which was not). A group of youngsters were in the car park, and they asked me directions to the top of the mountain. I refused to tell them, saying that they shouldn’t go up there without a map at least.
I descended from here to the Kings House Hotel (I had passed the Glencoe Ski Centre, but I was too early for the showers and cafe). The hotel didn’t have a clue what they were doing for walk-in walkers at breakfast – I could easily have eaten and left without paying. However, the views from the panoramic windows were the best I’ve ever seen and it was a nice place. I managed to get a shower here, which was cold but better than nothing and no limit on the water. A good start to a long day.
It was a steep climb and descent into Kinlochleven and Kinlochmore. I found a pub for a sit down, and realised that my Teko socks had given up. The insides had started to feel rough. I took them off to have a closer look at them (the pub was deserted), and the bar staff were straight over telling me that there was a rule about no bare feet. Not the smell? I had just washed them in the shower!
The West Highland Way is definitely best walked from south to north, as the scenery just gets better and better. It was really dramatic here and will continue to be tomorrow, with views of Ben Nevis, dropping into Glen Nevis and ultimately Fort William.
The sun had been out all day today which meant my solar panel had charged my Flip 10 power pack fully. At no point had I set the solar panel directly facing the sun, so it was never ideally placed to charge it. I was happy it had as it meant I could half charge my phone (it has a big battery). The phone has never got below 50% on the whole trip and it has been essential for my camera, GPS and checking in with my family
I finally wild camped next to a gorgeous river with views of the next day’s target – Ben Nevis. It didn’t look too far away and was totally clear, not a cloud in the sky. I had walked further than I expected today, which put me in a great position for tomorrow and also left time for shopping.
Day 5 (day 52 of LEJOG): Tuesday 9th April 2019
It had been blustery in the night. My forecast from two days ago showed light winds, so I hoped it would settle later. The upside was that I had no condensation and I loved the novelty of dry gear.
I set off by 6am with my head torch, following a good path through old woods. It led me into Glen Nevis by the Youth Hostel and camp site, ready to climb Ben Nevis.
The campsite in Glen Nevis is a good place to stop for the night and drop all your camping gear. You can then walk into Fort William or climb Ben Nevis with a lighter pack.
Climbing to the summit of Ben Nevis is not strictly part of the West Highland Way, but is recommended if the weather’s OK.
I started the climb at 8am, and reached the summit at 10.45am. There were no other people at the summit when I got there, and I was wearing just a T-shirt. No wind, bright sunshine and amazing views.
The climb had been dangerous and I quickly realised I should have had crampons on. The snow was frozen solid and very slippery, and I had seen two men leaving the summit before I got there with ice axes and crampons on.
I climbed it fully loaded because I was descending to Fort William a slightly different way, and didn’t want to back track to the campsite. It was a hard climb loaded down with a full pack.
The descent was better. The sun had softened the snow so I could get a good grip. Half an hour down and I passed a family just putting their crampons on for the ascent. I then started to meet a few people, some asking if they were going to need their crampons, and how far was it to the top!
I made it down to the Ben Nevis Inn at 1pm for a well earned pint. It was a nice place but a bit pricey, I couldn’t charge my phone, and I didn’t feel particularly welcome. So I decided to move on to Fort William to eat. I was aiming for a pub there that I like, The Crofter, that I hoped would be better value too. Scotland is quite pricey, especially compared to Wales.
The Crofter was immediately welcoming, even bringing my beer to my table. The prices were way less so that was good. I celebrated my final peak by having starter, main and pudding, which I decided was OK at these prices and the first time on the trip that I’ve ordered three courses. The path up Ben Nevis had been rougher than I remembered, and I was feeling the climb. My ankles were throbbing.
After my meal, I walked the entire length of Fort William high street and only found a couple, including Cotswolds Outdoors worth shopping in. I was reluctant to go in, as I knew I could get a discount there, but I didn’t have any of my cards with me. I needn’t have worried – they gave me the discount anyway by checking my spend history. They also made me very welcome and I had a great chat with people who really knew their stuff. Highly recommended.
I bought new socks, three dehydrated meals and two breakfasts, so perhaps I will eat better in the mornings. All I had eaten so far today was one pasty and a few chocolate chewy bars.
Walking and wild camping on the West Highland Way was very interesting and varied. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are plenty of places to stay and buy food along the way, so you don’t need to leave Milngavie with a heavy pack. You shouldn’t need to carry too much water either, there are numerous places to fill up or rivers to filter water from. The paths were good and well signed. I think this is a really good first long distance hike.
I found the walk busy to start with, probably because I started at peak time. Everyone was super friendly though. But we all soon spread out and after the first day, I didn’t see many people at all. The wild camping was not particularly easy, though, as there’s not that much flat ground and it tended to be overgrown. There are enough well placed camp sites that are well worth using.
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