Since completing The Way we've had many conversations (both in-person and virtual) with people about our experience, and offered more than a few tips to people as they planned their own trip. So we've decided to compile a frequently discussed topics and advice list into one blog for folks to reference. We hope you find this helpful. By the way, if after reading this you want to reach out for clarifications and/or to ask more questions, please feel free to drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
And with that, here we go.
Preparing for the Journey
Harden Your Feet and Break-In Your Boots
First things first, you really (really) have to take training for this hike seriously. Whether you choose to carry your own packs for the entire journey (as we did) or take advantage of the sundry luggage services that are available for hire, you're still going to be walking a lot - which is kinda the point. So, start walking for distance (don't worry too much about elevations at first) well in advance of your trip, and be sure to use the boots you're going to wear for the walk. This will ensure that you both "harden" your feet and break in your boots well in advance of the trip. As best as we can determine from our reading - and our discussions with many WHW veterans - the most common reason for people bailing out isn't overall fitness levels, it's foot pain - especially blisters. It's worth noting that we encountered a number of people who bailed out along the way due to foot pain and blisters, so this isn't just gossip.
We started by walking for distance with light packs, then later switched up to our backpacks kitted out with what we'd actually be carrying on the journey. By the time we left for Scotland we were routinely able to walk 24 km (15 miles) in six hours (including some elevation work along the way).
Research and Plan
Take the time to research the Way itself, planning each stage carefully based on how many days you plan to take to complete the journey. (more on that further along) This will ensure that you have a good idea of what to expect of yourself in terms of endurance for each stage and more importantly it will allow you to plan for and book accommodations. On that note, unless you're planning to camp for the entire trip we highly recommend pre-booking accommodations well in advance as there are sections of the Way that have very limited accommodation options. There are a great many online resources to help you plan your journey. A good general guide can be found here. From there you can follow as many links as your heart desires to research the route.
All that said, the best thing we did in advance of the trip was to purchase the Trailblazer West Highland Way guidebook. (*the 7th Edition was published in 2019) Yes, an actual, for real, "old fashioned" book was our best resource - by far - for pre-planning the journey. And it's an invaluable resource during the hike as well. It's small, easy to carry, sturdy, and replete with 1:20,000 scale maps that make navigating the Way easy. And, most importantly, you don't need any kind of internet connectivity to read it whilst tramping the Way. (trust us, this matters) 'Nuff said; just buy the book :)
Endurance or Pleasure?
Really think about how long you want to take to hike the Way. There are lots of resources online that provide information about stages and the fitness levels required depending on how many days you choose to take to complete the journey. Some people choose the endurance approach and complete the walk in four (4) or five (5) days. While we understand the adrenaline rush, doing the Way in this amount of time should only be attempted by very seasoned, and very fit, hikers. Beyond fitness levels, anyone doing the Way in this amount of time is not able to take any meaningful time to appreciate the beauty of the natural environment that one encounters along the trail. Don't get us wrong; if you're in this for the adrenaline rush (and, let's be honest, the bragging rights) fill your boots with ten-plus hour days of brisk walking and really, really deep sleeps in-between stages :)
We took a different approach, doing the walk in nine (9) days; a length of time that some veterans of the Way call a vacation as opposed to a hike - lol. But that was our intent. We found this length of time allowed for a several quite challenging days fitness-wise, whilst leaving lots of time for photography and contemplation along the route. (see the detail of our stages in later blogs) It also left us with enough energy to tackle Ben Nevis at the end of the journey, which we considered as the cherry on top of the West Highland Way sundae.
Whatever length of time you choose to take, just be sure that it matches your fitness level and your interests. If you're a photography enthusiast, or a bit of a naturalist, we highly recommend taking the extra time you need to truly appreciate the beauty and solitude that the West Highlands have to offer.
This probably goes without saying, but be sure to take the time to think carefully about what you really need to carry along the Way. When you're putting on these kinds of distances weight matters, so be sure to pack carefully and train by carrying what you're planning to carry as much as possible in advance. You'll need good quality wind and rain gear (obviously) and lots of wicking socks (double layer if at all possible as blisters are not your friend) and Compeeds. (honestly, they're by far and away the best blister plaster money can buy) Also, get a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots with rugged soles. (boots with a metal shank are a good buy for this hike) The Way has lots of cobblestone and otherwise rocky, "rooty" terrain to trudge across and the pain inflicted by weak soles in your boots will override whatever small saving in weight that you might be counting on. Finally - and assuming you're not mad enough to hike the Way in winter - you'll need good, transition-season clothing. (even in mid- to late-May the weather can be fickle and being prepared is good) Pack a good camera (though if you really must rely on your smartphone we get it), trail food (nutrition bars like Clif and Larabars) and, if you're camping, lightweight but water/wind proof tent and sleeping gear.
Don't underestimate the impact of the midges on the timing of your trip. As a couple of Canadians who have seen our fair share of mosquitoes and black flies while hiking and camping, we were at first a bit skeptical about just how nasty these wee beasties can be. But the more we looked into the matter, and the more people we spoke with, the more apparent it became that we wanted to avoid trudging through clouds of midges on our journey. That's why we chose mid-May to begin our trek. Trees were in full leaf, flowers were abundant, and it was pre-hatching so we didn't have to worry (much) about midges. Generally hatching begins in earnest in early- to mid-June, with the peak "biting season" arriving in July. There's a lot of information online about this, so do take some time to check things out. There's even a Midge Forecast that conveniently is hosted by the company that sells the most often recommended midge repellent.
A few words about Glasgow
If you're coming from afar it's a good idea to take a couple of days to get over the jet lag in advance of setting out. We highly recommend getting some comfy accommodation in Milngavie (there are lots of options) and use that as your base to explore Glasgow for a couple of days. Milngavie is a suburb of Glasgow and there is regular, inexpensive train service from there to the centre of the city (*Note: you'll impress your Scottish hosts to no end if you pronounce Milngavie correctly - it's "mill-guy". Don't ask why. It just is).
Glasgow is often looked at askance in relation to Edinburgh which is, in our opinion, a shame. Glasgow is a fascinating city steeped in the history of Scotland's mercantile and engineering prowess, replete with fascinating museums, beautiful parks, fabulous restaurants, pubs and trendy bars and music spots. And best of all it's walkable while you take in the stunning Victorian and art-nouveau architecture, making it a great place to work out the kinks from a long flight and get the blood flowing in preparation for the real hiking to come. If you're interested in taking us up on this advice you can start your research about Glasgow here.
So, now that you're all prepared we're ready to walk you through our own journey along the West Highland Way. See you in the next blog post :)