Considering a long walk in the Scottish Highlands? Here’s my top picks for gear to take along into this wild and lonely place.
In the summer of 2017, I set off from Central Station in downtown Glasgow and walked the Kelvin Walkway to Milngavie, where I hopped on the infamous West Highland Way for 96 miles to Fort William. After a few days off, and a summit of Ben Nevis, I continued north via the Cape Wrath Trail for over 230 miles. The latter was the most difficult trail that I’ve ever experienced, thanks to the ruggedness of the Highlands and the driving Scottish rain. Over the course of a month, I walked roughly 350 miles through one of the wildest places I’ve ever been.
I learned some important things while exploring the Scottish Highlands; it rains just as much as everyone says and they aren’t being over dramatic about it, and midges are literally the spawn of Satan that arrive in a dark cloud of fury and pain and will reduce you to tears when you have to pee in the middle of the night. Thankfully, I packed all the right things to get me through (somewhat) in one piece.
Here’s my top picks for gear while hiking in Scotland:
For my trek across Scotland, I left my usual Dirty Girl running gaiters behind, and instead opted for the full knee to ankle length Gore-Tex mountain gaiters. This turned out to be a very wise decision, as Scottish trails are notoriously muddy and riddled with ticks. In fact, when I was walking the Cape Wrath Trail, I discovered that the trail is that only in name, and more of a trudge through saturated peat moors. I was glad to have them; they kept water from rushing into my boots and mud from saturating my trousers.
What I used: Berghaus GTX Gaiter from Go Outdoors (UK)
2. Rain Gear
It rains a f*ck ton in Scotland, and yes, even in the summer. In the span of a month and during mid summer, I had 4 total days of sunshine with no rain. Rain gear is a must, in my opinion, to keep you sane. It’s up to you what you’re comfortable with, whether it’s full rain gear in the form of a jacket and pants, or something more minimalist, such as a rain kilt. I prefer the latter, paired with quick dry trousers and waterproof gaiters, as rain pants makes my bottom have feel like a swamp.
3. Midge/Bug Head Net
Any old mosquito head net won’t do here. Midges are the most feared creature in Scotland, for their ability to pass through a regular bug net and swarm their victim into insanity. There’s even a Midge Forecast, just to give you an idea at how much of a nuisance they are. They’re so tiny, they can pass through a regular bug net. Once a single female bites you, she releases a pheromone to attract the swarm. From that point, you’re doomed and might as well give in to your itchy fate. In addition to wearing long sleeves and trousers, you’ll need a special head net for protection from midges (it will protect your face from mosquitoes and other creepy crawlers as well). All outdoor outfitters in Scotland sell them, as well as some hardware stores, supermarkets and tourist shops.
What I used: Lifesytems Midge/Mosquito Head Net from Go Outdoors (UK)
These are for removing ticks, which as I mentioned before, there happens to be a plethora of in the wilds of Scotland. In the time I spent hiking in the Highlands, I was covered in ticks by the end of every day. However, I was fortunate enough to only have had a couple actually embed themselves in my skin. This was due to wearing long sleeves and trousers, and with gaiters up to my knees. At one point, I actually purchased a lint roller to remove the tiny bastards from my clothing before getting into my tent at night. After rolling myself thoroughly, the sticky sheet would be covered in nymph ticks; it was that bad. Know how to remove ticks, the first signs of Lyme infection and check your skin often.
What I used: The pair of tweezers that came in my Swiss Army Knife.
5. Hiking Trousers
I found long hiking pants necessary to protect me from the elements (wind, cold and sun) and from bugs (mosquitoes, midges and ticks). shop for a pair that is quick dry and allows you a wide range of movement. Remember, cotton kills! Find something made from synthetic materials, such as polyester and nylon, and be sure that you have comfortable movement in the knees and crotch.
What I used: PrAna Halle Pant
6. Water Filter
Scotland is full of water! But you’ll definitely need to filter it for drinking. There are loads of Highland cows, sheep, deer, rodents and other hikers roaming the hills and trails, so therefore there is poop in the water. Filter your drinking water at all times to avoid becoming seriously ill while in the middle of nowhere.
What I used: Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System
7. Extra Food
First, a bit of a back story: I found myself in a mountain valley just as a torrential downpour was moving in, and according to my map and guidebook, I had several river fords ahead of me in the next few miles. I had been warned that the rivers in Scotland can swell quickly when it rains, something that is referred to as ‘in spate.’ I stood on the bank of a river, watching the beer colored water rushing quickly by as the rain came down, and decided not to chance it. I made camp beside a ruined stone cottage and retreated into the safety of my tent while the storm raged outside. A couple of hours later, I needed water to cook dinner, so I made my way from the tent to the bank of the river again. The river had risen a good foot during my time inside the tent, and was too treacherous to cross. I had made a wise decision to ride it out, and took a day off on trail while the river continued to rise several more inches during the course of the storm.
Basically, what causes this to occur is the fact that all of Scotland is pretty much made up peat moss. As you probably already know, peat moss is super absorbent, like a sponge. Since it rains a lot in Scotland, that peet is already at max capacity with water. When it pours, that water has to go somewhere. When the rain water enters the rivers, they are in spate and too dangerous to cross.
The moral of the story is this: I had planned on taking five days to do that particular section. With the day off to avoid the storm, it took me six. Thankfully, I had a spare packet of ramen and a few snacks to get by with. Ramen weighs nearly nothing, and the villages in the Highlands are far in between, so hitching a ride to grab a meal may not be an option. Be prepared to spend an extra day in the bush to ride out bad Scottish weather.
8. Trekking Poles
The terrain in the Highlands is rough, but that’s what makes it so special! You’ll be climbing up and over mountains daily, crossing peat bogs, fording rivers and slogging through greasy mud. Trekking poles will help keep you upright in all these conditions. I found them especially helpful when trying to find solid patches to step on when crossing peat bogs, and for scooting adders out of my path (I wish I was joking).
What I used: Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles
9. Map and Compass
On some Scottish trails, you may need some orienteering skills. This means reading a map, using a compass and taking a bearing. Many trails cross estates and go un-maintained due to the extreme conditions. Know your abilities before you set out.
Scotland is gorgeous; it has dramatic mountains, castles, rustic villages, quiet beaches and loads of wildlife! You’ll want a quality camera for taking photos. This doesn’t mean you have to haul a huge DSLR camera; I used my cell phone. Do yourself a favor, however, and get a waterproof and shock proof case for whatever you choose.
What I used: Samsung Galaxy S7
Gear VS. the Trails
While most of the gear on this list will be put to good use on the West Highland Way, some of it isn’t completely necessary. Extra food, a water filter, and a map and compass aren’t must-haves for this trail. The West Highland Way is a relatively easy thru-hike, with crowds of other hikers who will seem more like tourists. Food is never far away, whether it’s a small grocery store, café or pub. To be perfectly honest, I was shocked at the amount of services that cater to hikers on this trail; anything from picnic lunch deliveries and luggage transfers, to full accommodations so you’ll never have to sleep on the ground. That’s right, you literally have the option of carrying no gear whatsoever. Not exactly my idea of ‘roughing it,’ but to each their own.
The list I created is more geared towards those who are looking for a real wilderness experience, such as the one I found on the Cape Wrath Trail. My path crossed with other thru-hikers conquering some equally challenging routes, such as the 470 mile Scottish National Trail, and the 80 mile Skye Trail (Isle of Skye). There are many long distance trails in Scotland in which a hiker can find rugged mountain terrain and pure solitude, just be certain that you’re prepared for it.
Additional Trail Information
Right to Roam
Many trails in Scotland pass through private land, called estates. These are massive stretches of privately owned property. Scottish law says that you can roam freely over this land, so long as you respect it. At times the estates will ask that you avoid certain areas during deer hunting season (this is big money for them). This concept is pretty foreign for North Americans, and I was honestly uncomfortable with it at first. Walking across someone’s land is unlawful where I come from, so it was strange and felt really intrusive for me to simply trudge across and camp on an estate. I felt at ease more when I met some of the game wardens and other estate employees, who were really kind and helpful, and genuinely seemed interested in what I was doing. What you’re doing is okay, so long as you’re not a jerk.
More information on the Land Reform Act of 2003.
The Scottish Bothy
Scotland is known for its Bothies; rustic shelters for hikers to rest in, dry out and escape the weather. They are usually free, but some ask for a donation that goes to its upkeep. They also usually don’t have running water, electricity or toilets. Most of the Bothies are situated on private estates, who are kind enough to offer them to weary hikers. They are maintained by either the estate itself or The Mountain Bothy Association, which runs off of donations. You’re allowed to sleep in them, and they can be a welcome refuge from the rain. They should always be respected, and hikers should never leave food and garbage behind, as it attracts rodents. Many estates ask that you limit your stay to 48 hours, and bury your poop several hundred feet away from the shelter and nearby water source.
Check out The Mountain Bothy Association for more information.
Hiking in Scotland is a challenging and joyful experience that I can’t recommend enough! Also be sure to treat yourself to a full Scottish breakfast if given the chance, including the haggis, and have a pint from the pub for me when you go!
Cheers, and Happy Trails!
P.S. Interested in reading up on more gear? Check out my gear review for The John Muir Trail here!