West Highland Way: a fun use of free time in Scotland?
May 2, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Scotland vacation: I have 4 days to kill between work events in London and Glasgow, and I'm considering walking part of the West Highland Way by myself. Is this a reasonable plan, or do you have a better suggestion of how to use this time (ie other long distance walks or other plans entirely)?

I'm heading to London later this week for work events, with my work commitment ending at the end of the evening on Saturday. I don't have to be in Glasgow for further work events until start-of-day Thursday, and I'm trying to figure out how best to use those vacation days, given my limited planning time. Reading previous mefi threads planted the idea in my head that it would be fun to take the sleeper train from London on Sunday night, arrive in Fort William Monday morning, and then hike the West Highland Way north to south for three days, returning to Glasglow by train late Wednesday night.

This site describes a 5 day trek for fitter walkers, so I thought it might be a reasonable estimate to do legs 5 (14 mi), 4 (20 mi), and a variation on 3 (13 mi). An initial googling suggested Inverarnan didn't have a train station, so I thought ending day 3 at Crianlarich (13 mi) would work.

I'll have business attire and laptop/electronics from the work part of the trip, so I'd be using a bag drop service for all but my daypack. I don't have any solo camping experience, so I'd by staying in hostel/hotel type accommodations.

So, is this a dumb idea, or something attainable and fun? Are the chunks of miles between days described above attainable? I'm a late-20s woman traveling by myself. I'm in good shape - I'm a long distance runner/marathoner and I love hiking, but hikingwise, I've always done shorter distances with lots of elevation change, rather than long distances like this. But I've run 20 miles in one go plenty of times, including in the last two months. How does a walk like this compare to my Northern California hiking sensibilities/skills?

Is this in general a good use of these vacation days, or should I save it for a time I can complete a whole long-distance walk? If you suggest scrapping this for other plans, any suggestions? I've combed past threads and guidebooks re: Scotland, but other suggestions never hurt. Things I like besides hiking: music (will be getting plenty of this via work on this trip), interesting food/cooking (i'm veg), bourbon/pre-prohibition era cocktails (i know little about Scotch whisky, though), cities, trains, feeling like I've completed something (however arbitrary - either completing a hike or sampling the 10 best macaron shops in Paris and documenting), photography, and art museums. I've been to London a few times so I'm not super interested in spending time there. I'll have one free day in Edinburgh at the end of my trip. I also have the opportunity to head back to the UK with boyfriend next summer, so I may save distilleries for that trip. Past Europe travels have included Berlin, Amsterdam (LOVE), Paris, England, Ireland, and Vienna.

Thanks for your feedback! Everything I've read on Thorn Tree suggests I need to book WHW accommodations far in advance, and I usually have more time/thoughtfulness when I plan my travel, so thanks in advance for help alleviating my travel worries/stress.
posted by soleiluna to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I haven't walked the West Highland Way but I did the Coast to Coast Walk of England in May of 2008 and it was awesome.

It was "lambing season" so there were tons of cute lambs along the route, which was extremely adorable. The summer break won't start until June, which means the B&Bs in the small villages in which you'd be staying are not yet overwhelmed by children or tourists. That was key to my satisfaction; I don't know if you'd care.

I found the sherpa (bag drop) service reliable and perfectly safe. I stayed in B&Bs with my dad rather than in hostels, but I understand that hostels are safe too - just bring a padlock. I think you're right not to camp - if (WHEN) it rains you will be happy to have a hot shower in a real building with possible access to a clothes dryer, depending on the place.

I found the days on the C2C walk that had shorter distances (4 hours of walking) with steep inclines (such as the wretchedly high Kidsty Pike) to be much more difficult than the longer days (9 hours of walking) of flat terrain. I can't think of a more appropriate time to say this: your milage may vary!

My "training" before the walk was minimal... I worked out on the stairclimber/treadmill/elipitcal machines every other day for half an hour in the months before the walk and whenever possible I would walk 1-2 hours at a time through Toronto. Walking on soft grass was much easier than walking on concrete sidewalks. If you are a long-distance runner who can do 20 miles in one go, you're way ahead of me. I think you are plenty fit enough and that the trip is attainable for you.

General tips that you might already know:

-Bring a few pais of socks and some extra t-shirts in your day pack. Changing into a dry pair of socks and a dry shirt after a few sweaty hours is extremely refreshing.
-Bring lots of Bodyglide and bandaids (or similar anti-chafing product) if you are at all prone to blisters.
-Dress in layers.
-Bring a good quality rain jacket.
-Bring lots of water (I used one of those "camel packs" that contained 4L of water and it was perfect.)
-Bring lots of high-calorie food (we ate a LOT of cheese sandwiches, Mars Bars and other chocolate bars with peanuts in them and were still hungry at the end of the day)

I think 4-5 days is a perfect introduction to walking tours of Britain. After you complete it, you could look at the 2-3 week jaunts.

I'm sorry that I'm not able to give feedback specifically on the West Highland Way or on travelling plans but I hope this has helped you feel that YOU CAN DO IT! :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:38 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh also to allay your fears re: fitness: my dad was 60 when he did the walk and he wore a knee brace due to a recent injury. He was able to complete all but 2 days of the 14-day journey.
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:40 PM on May 2, 2011

Best answer: Similar situation last Easter. I flew from London to Edinburgh, rented a car and drove to the Isle of Skye. I stayed in a hostel and a B&B and hiked around for a couple days. No hikes I took were over 5 miles and I used the car to get from spot to spot. I stopped by the Wallace memorial to check it out and hike as well. Great views. Stopped along the way in Fort William, Oban, Portree . . but Skye is amazing. The geology and landscapes are amazing. The Storr, Uig, Quiriang and everything on the Northeast part of the Isle are amazing.

Downfall is you do need a car. Scotland is pretty unaccessible by train. I would do it again in an instant. I was by myself and found the people to be very friendly. I would never worry about crime, it's a very safe place. Don't underestimate the driving times. It's slow going and you'll constantly be stopping for scenic views.

Here is an amazing hostel on the Isle. If you are lucky you'll happen in on a folk jam session.

Talisker is also on the Isle and it's my favorite whiskey. The tour is small and authentic.

I heard the sleeper trains were overrated and when I was there, EasyJet from London was far cheaper and quicker. Keep in mind you'd burn almost 2 days dealing with that train. I'd say maximize your time in Scotland and fly.
posted by patrad at 2:23 PM on May 2, 2011

Best answer: The scenery in that part of the world is just the best. You're doing it at a good time of year: it'll be light _very_ late into the evening while you're there, the sun not setting until after 9pm and the light lingering long after that. There'll be no racing to get to the hostel before it gets dark, in other words.

The rain gear is definitely necessary, however--it might stay in your bag the whole time, but the weather is changeable enough that you want it nearby.

Re patrad's comment: Skye is indeed amazing, but I'd say it's a bit too far out of your way if you need to start in London on Saturday night and be back to Glasgow by Thursday morning. The lower end of the WHW is a better idea. Or you could have three days' fantastic walking on the Isle of Arran--less than an hour on a suburban line train from Glasgow to Ardrossan Harbour, then an hour on the ferry to Brodick. You're never more than 50 miles from Glasgow but it feels like another world.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:33 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update for future question viewers: I did indeed end up hiking the northern portion of the West Highland Way! I took the sleeper train to Fort William and started there so I could see the most scenic sections with my limited time. The train was meh in terms of exciting trains, but it got me there while I slept.

I hiked Fort William to Kinlochleven (15 miles) the first day, and Kinlochleven to Bridge of Orchy (22 miles) the second day. The weather was decent the first day -a mix of sun and drizzle, but the second day was total downpour awfulness. The very north part of the second leg (the first ~6 miles south from Kinlochleven) were really challenging given the weather. The following day I was supposed to do another 13 miles then take the bus back to Glasgow, but my boots were still drenched from the previous day and it was still really rainy so I went to Glasgow one day early.

Distance and fitnesswise, I did pretty well. The 22 miles day was probably too ambitious given the weather, but it would have been manageable for me if it were clearer out.

Cranberrymonger's items-to-pack list was spot on - I used all of those items every day while walking, and the second set of dry clothes totally saved me on the downpour day.

Things I would do differently next time:

1) Buy even better rain gear - I had a raincoat and quick-dry clothes, but gaiters, a better raincoat, and a better set of long underwear would have been awesome.

2) In early May it wasn't crowded at the hostels. If I hadn't booked ahead, I would have had more flexibility with when to end each day.

Overall, I had an amazing time hiking this by myself and I want to go back and do another multi-day trip ASAP!
posted by soleiluna at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, this book was super useful. The maps were insanely detailed.
posted by soleiluna at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting an update!
posted by superfish at 4:30 AM on August 20, 2011

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