What is it
The West Highland Way (or WHW) is a 96 mile (154km) route through some of the most stunning mountain scenery Scotland has to offer – who could pass on that?
It all starts in Milngavie, at the very edge of Glasgow’s urban sprawl, before heading north through glens and over moor and hill to the finishing point at Fort William, below Ben Nevis. You can walk it the other way but because the southern sections are less strenuous, most say it is best to begin with this part and build up the stamina as you go.
Most people complete it in eight days but the ultra-fit can be quicker. If you’re carrying wild camping gear, you may want to add in a couple of stops, after all, why would you want to rush through some of the world's best landscapes?
Why wild camp the WHW?
It goes without saying that the views along the WHW are best admired while outdoors – common sense eh? Well if that ‘s the case why spend nearly half of the 24 hour day indoors (although a cosy pub can sometimes be nice for an hour or so)?
The best way to make the most of this adventure is to wild camp – look out on gorgeous sunsets, sunrises, and star-filled skies in between. And, you are away from crowded campsites full of guys who think they can play the guitar but can’t, barbecues that are really smoking raw meat rather than cooking it, and the nocturnal sound of snoring from all around.
In a nutshell you can camp anywhere you like in Scotland (with one quite big exception – see below). For those that like things all official – the Scotland Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 means that if you follow the Outdoor Access Code even private land can be camped on.
This doesn’t, however, mean you can pitch up on someone’s lawn or in a field of potatoes (not sure why you would want to do that but you get the point...it’s that common sense thing again).
One BIG thing to bear in mind is that there are bylaws in place in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park (bottom half of the WHW). These mean that in some places you either need a permit or have to go to an official campsite. So, you need to plan ahead.
A more natural hazard is the sometimes inclement weather (you are going to a northern climate) and the dreaded Culicoides Impunctatus or Highland Biting Midge, particularly on still evenings. Pray for a good breeze and strong sunshine, or pack some repellent – some say Avon Skin So Soft is best, it has also been claimed that eating Marmite on toast regularly for a few weeks before you set off makes you smell unpleasant (to the midges at least).
Planning a WHW wild camping trip
So, you’ve packed your rucksack. Twice. Repacking after realising that not everything fits, deciding second time around that the hip flask was probably more important than the blow-up pillow, and now you’re all ready to go. But go where exactly? And when?
First things first, food. The West Highland Way is blessed with many places you can stop for provisions. In fact, on most days you will be able to buy food at the end of the stage. But not always make sure you plan ahead.
The when is relatively simple as well - stick to warmer months unless you are used to extreme sub-zero conditions or have a penchant for the hardcore (and suitable gear). May and June are often said to be the best months for weather in Scotland, along with September. Be aware though that the Scottish Midge season will be in full swing, and while they prefer lower ground you will still have to deal with the little biting blighters - help is at hand though!
The where is something a wild camper does not need to worry too much about. But it is a good idea to know where you plan to stop. An itinerary sounds a far stretch away from the vibe of a ‘go with the flow’ adventure (and also something teachers used to have on school trips) but a rough plan is always a good idea – especially with the camping bylaws in force at the start of the route.
The typical route breaks the WHW into 8 stages:
Milngavie to Drymen
A low-level, gentle stage in the foothills of the Highlands, a perfect warm-up.
12 miles/19 km
Drymen to Rowardennan
Another fairly easy day but with Conic Hill which will start to test the calf muscles but give great views over Loch Lomond.
15 miles/24 km
Rowardennan to Inverarnan
A bit tougher underfoot as the Bonnie Banks are actually quite rocky – look out for a cave used as a hideout by Rob Roy.
14 miles/22.5 km
Inverarnan to Tyndrum
Easy terrain as you walk through glens surrounded by soaring mountains, and pass the halfway point at Crianlarich.
12 miles/19.5 km
Tyndrum to Inveroran
A steep start to the day but then a wonderful stroll beneath Beinn Dorain to a quiet end – the feeling of remoteness rises.
9 miles/14.5 km
Inveroran to Kingshouse
The great expanse of Rannoch Moor is crossed, unforgettable wilderness before the jaw-dropping Glencoe comes into view
10 miles/16 km
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
A tough day including the Devil’s Staircase, a zig-zag climb up to the WHW high point (550 metres)
9 miles / 14.5 km
Kinlochleven to Fort William
If your legs aren’t aching now, then you’re bionic, or the whiskey from last night still hasn’t worn off. There is a steep bit of climbing and then a grand descent to Glen Nevis and the finishing point.
If you've the energy top off your hike with an ascent of Ben Nevis - be rude not to!
15 miles/24 km
But always pace yourself and if you need a shorter day, get the map out and plan one.
You’re here to enjoy the wilderness, soak up the stunning views, and embrace the solitude, not to set any records, so take your time. You don’t want to end up pushing it too hard to meet arbitrary targets only to find yourself having to hitch the rest of the way to Fort William due to injury or exhaustion. Embrace the slow down.
Where to wild camp on the WHW
How many places do you want? During the first half, in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, if you want to avoid official camping grounds you may need a few detours at the end of the day. Check the official guidance but the camping management zones effectively stop road and lochside camping. So, clamber uphill a couple of hundred metres and enjoy a sunset over Loch Lomond or the soaring mountains above Crianlarich and Tyndrum.
Once up past Bridge of Orchy the choice is endless. Remember the common sense thing and avoid being too close to paths, fields, etc. then pitch up in the corrie below Beinn Dorain, above Bridge of Orchy, on the top of Rannoch Moor for such big sky views you won’t want to fall asleep. As you near the end it can be special to camp at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, but this can be popular so choose a pitch wisely.