“Oh god, this really hurts. No, really. I think something’s wrong - my neck’s going to snap. I’m not doing this”. We were less than 1km into our highly anticipated fastpacking tour of the West Highland Way. 1km. Out of 167. This did not bode well.
After months of planning, rehearsing, packing and re-packing, we were finally actually doing the thing and had barely cleared Milngavie high street (the very start) before all my worst-case-scenarios seemed to be materialising. Despite whittling the packing list down to the absolute bare minimum, my pack seemed to weigh twice what it had during ‘rucksack carrying practice’ and the pain in my back, neck and shoulders was excruciating.
It was a late start to the first day as we’d had to take a taxi from Fort William (the end destination) to Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow and it was nearly 1pm by the time we’d been dropped off. After a quick dash to the conveniently located M&S (right next to the official start), we’d set off, picnic lunch on board, with the aim of clearing suburbia before eating.
After much moaning, strap-adjusting and picnic-related cajoling from Ian, I gritted my teeth and marched on another few km. We finally reached a suitable lunch spot whereupon I threw down my heavy pack onto the grass and swore in between bites of salmon and cream cheese brioche. I just couldn’t fathom how on earth I was going to make it through another 97 miles when the first 3 had been this awful. But as the famous M&S saying goes, that picnic ‘was no ordinary picnic’ and somehow, when the packs went back on, everything was suddenly, miraculously ok (cue eye-rolling from Ian).
Day 1 took us from Glasgow to Milarrochy Bay campsite on the shores of Loch Lomond via 35km of, to be honest, mostly quite uninspiring terrain. Low points included a path through a field by the side of an A road that went on, without change, for over 2 hours. But gradually we made our way through the flatlands and finally began to climb up through the Queen Elizabeth Forest park and on towards Conic Hill. Once the loch was in sight, things got a lot more interesting. We passed through the village of Balmaha in the final few miles and were greeted by scenes that looked more ‘French Riviera’ than ‘just North of Glasgow’. As the sun set over the golden waters of the loch, the well-to-do sipped wine in restaurant gardens and soaked up the last rays of the day, riding paddleboards in expensive bikinis. Sadly, we just stopped at the local shop for pot noodles and trudged on, more tired than expected, towards what we hoped would be our bed for the night.
We hadn’t booked a camp pitch (not knowing exactly how far we’d get during the day) and the later it got, the more I wished we had. We needn’t have worried as, much to our delight, we were told that the site had a policy of never turning away backpackers and squeezed us in despite the fact that the place was full. Suddenly things were looking up. The pack was no longer hurting, we’d got further in our first half day than expected and were made to feel like conquering heroes by the campsite warden!
Day 2 was the big ‘shores of Loch Lomond’ day, now also known as the ‘world’s most expensive burger’ day. Places to buy food were extremely few and far between (one hotel at Rowardennan, 5 miles in, and another at Inversnaid, 6 miles from the end). They could really see you coming and charged accordingly. We thought we might make Rowardennan for a late breakfast but the steep, boulder-strewn trail made the going slow and it was nearly lunchtime before we got there. £40 for 2 burgers and 2 cokes? It was either that or go hungry so it had to do. I’d thought we could stock up on food at the campsite but the shop’s culinary selection was restricted to a small array of biscuits and there are only so many Maryland cookies you can eat before needing something a little more substantial.
So, fed, watered and significantly poorer, we continued along the shores of the loch for the rest of the afternoon. You pass countless pretty little beaches, each scattered liberally with left over barbeque litter from the night before. The further away from the nearest road you got, the less rubbish you saw and after a couple of miles the scenery was restored to its natural, beautiful self. As you came within striking distance of the next patch of civilisation, it started again. Grrr.
After a hike up a hill and a descent through a forest that wove its way past the site of Ian’s infamous ‘benighting incident’ (see his write up ‘The Murdery Bothy’ on the Daring Deeds page), we finally made it to Beinglas Campsite. By this point, the rain had arrived and with it, huge swarms of midges. In full waterproofs, a suffocating midge net and a fair dose of grumpiness, we got the tent up and hung our wet clothes across the tiny washing line suspended from the roof. Thank god the campsite had a restaurant and that they could squeeze us in. A hot meal and a glass of wine later, we fell into a fitful sleep as the rain battered the tent and the midges got stuck into their own evening meal (us).
We awoke to torrential rain on Day 3 which thankfully eased an hour or so after setting off, leaving us with 35km of mostly easy trails over to Glen Orchy. After another eye-wateringly pricey lunch in Tyndrum, we ended the afternoon at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Having seen the double-drop forecast for that night (the one evening where wild camping was the only option), I booked us a room at the hotel as a surprise for Ian. I couldn’t even confess to him how much it cost, but I can tell you that for those few hours we spent in relative luxury, it was worth every penny. We dried out the tent and all our kit (I can only apologise to the housekeeping staff about the stench in the bathroom after our intensive use of the heated towel rail which dutifully dried everything from stinky trainers to socks that had been scrubbed in the sink). Glamorous it was certainly not, but we left the next morning, clean, dry and ready for our last 2 days.
Day 4 started with a beautiful trail that wound its way above the shores of Loch Tulla. Actually, I lie. The day started with a chat to some of the Bridge of Orchy wild campers who had suffered a night of sodden tents and relentless midge-attacks. Reassured once again that my extravagant purchase of the hotel room had been a good move, we continued up onto Rannoch Moor. Exposed to the elements, this section of the route would have been a real trial in bad weather, but the day we crossed, it was just a bit of a slog. The surface of the path is made up of sharp cobbles which felt harsh underfoot, but this section only lasted an hour or two before we were on the pretty single-track that led down into Glencoe.
We stopped for lunch at the ski centre and then continued up the valley, over the fearsome sounding ‘Devil’s Staircase’ (a short, moderately steep and not especially satanic half hour climb) before embarking upon the long, long descent into Kinlochleven. A somewhat industrial little town nestled amongst towering mountains but dominated by a large hydro-electric plant, it wasn’t the most picturesque of our overnight stops but gave us everything we needed (a campsite with superb showers and a well-stocked shop in the village) for a recharge before our final day.
The last leg of the West Highland Way was also the shortest but somehow, on weary legs, didn’t feel any easier. We had to climb up a steep, rock-strewn hillside before anything resembling running could begin. Once we were on the old Larigmor military road heading West, the going was much easier and after a couple of hours, we were on pretty woodland trails underneath the mighty Ben Nevis and knew Fort William was just around the corner. Be aware, however, that once you have reached the Glen Nevis road, there are still a good few km left before reaching the famous bench and bronze sculpture that mark the official finish at Gordon Square. This last section along the road was tiring and tedious but as we neared the town centre, I started feeling excited and when we finally reached the ‘finish line,’ I was thrilled that we’d done it.
So would I recommend it? If you’re a seasoned long-distance backpacker, used to technical terrain and true wilderness, this may be a little pedestrian for you. However, if you’re wanting to dip your toe into the world of A-B walks/runs that provide a reasonable challenge, without ever being too far from civilisation, then the West Highland Way is a real gem.
So, here are a few things I learned along the way that might be useful if you fancy giving it a go:
- As long as you’re used to hills, there are no major climbs. Conic Hill is tiring if it’s near the end of your first day and the descent into Kinlochleven is never-ending on tired legs, but it’s mostly an undulating route.
- Far from being something that needs booking way in advance (as I’d believed), baggage transfer is cheap, easy and bookable whenever you feel like taking the load off for the day (just call them on any morning and tell them where you’d like your stuff taking).
- Despite being mostly booked up in peak season, many campsites have a policy of never turning away back-packers as long as your tent is no bigger than 2-3 man.
- Trail shoes with decent cushioning (for the long, stony/cobbly land rover tracks) and a bit of grip (for the Loch Lomond boulders) are ideal. It won’t feel overly technical unless you never walk/run in the hills.
- Hiking poles are a complete lifesaver. When too weary to break into a run, the poles helped keep the walking pace brisk and took a little strain off the knees.
- Buy/take a midge net if doing the Way from June-September. Not so much for during the day’s trek, but vital if trying to put up or take down your tent in the wet. Also, remember to put midge repellent on each morning.
- There aren’t too many places to refill water flasks between Milngavie and Balmaha but after that, there are fairly regular natural sources. A filter bottle/flask means you can carry less and top up on the way.
- Take a little cash for the many ‘honesty box’ food and drink stalls along the way. These are unmanned and usually just outside someone’s house, offering things such as cold cans of coke and ice-creams.
- The pubs and cafes along the route are pricey and shops are scarce (the only ones actually on the route are in Balmaha, Tyndrum and Kinlochleven) but there are basic supplies at some campsites plus shops a few km off the route at Drymen and Crianlarich. If you’re trying to avoid spending a fortune on food along the way or don’t want to carry it all, some careful planning is needed.
- The entire route is so well signposted that you’ll barely need to look at your map as long as you don’t take detours.
- Spend 5 minutes before setting off each morning, patching up any sore spots on your feet and covering the rest in Compeed. You’ll be lucky to get away with no blisters but with a bit of care, the open-toed sandal season may not be completely cancelled afterwards.