If you’re planning a nature trip to Scotland, you may be wondering: is the West Highland Way safe? In short, my answer is yes – it feels very safe, but you’ll need to take some precautions while you’re there.
I hiked the West Highland Way from Tyndrum to Fort William (about half of the trail) with a female companion in the spring of 2023. I would consider myself an intermediate backpacker, and I have experience backpacking, primarily in the mountains of Colorado in the United States. We carried our gear in our packs and planned to wild camp along the way.
I had a fabulous time walking the West Highland Way and relished the opportunity to spend some time in nature. Unfortunately, I wore boots that were not as waterproof as they claimed, nor were they sturdy enough to support me on the trail. I hiked from Tyndrum to Kingshouse with my pack, but had to use a baggage transfer service from Kingshouse to Fort William.
I’ll write more about the luggage transfer service in another post, but I used Ginger Routes and had a good experience with them. No one I spoke to had any trouble with their luggage transfer company, so it seems like you can choose whichever one has the best deal. However, the staff at the Kingshouse Hotel told me that AMS Scotland was the most reliable and reputable company that operates in the area.
Aside from my gear issues, I felt safe the entire time I was on the West Highland Way. The other hikers were calm and outdoorsy types, and a few of them struck up a conversation with me along the way. Overall, I felt comfortable on both the stretches where I hiked alone and those where I hiked with my friend.
Is the West Highland Way safe?
Overall, I felt very safe on the West Highland Way. The trail was located in a safe part of Scotland, so the towns and villages I passed through felt very peaceful. The West Highland Way trail was clearly marked, with wide paths and minimal junctures; it was easy to follow.
Before we arrived, I was most afraid of running into unsavory characters on the trail. Although my experience is by no means a guarantee for future hikers, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone I met seemed friendly and respectful. There were certainly hikers that kept to themselves, but I didn’t notice anyone acting creepy or invasive while I was on the West Highland Way.
My second biggest fear on the trail was being cold and miserable, as I knew the weather was likely to be cold and drizzly. Thankfully, my gear held up and I was only chilly one of my four nights while camping. I’d recommend that you bring plenty of layers and ensure that you have a warm sleeping bag to stay comfortable while on the trail.
My third fear was that we’d get lost, especially before I saw how wide and clearly marked the West Highland Way trail is, at least from Tyndrum through Fort William. I bought maps that covered the relevant trail sections and downloaded a navigation app to ensure that I’d be able to find my way to a town if I got lost.
Finally, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find suitable campsites along the trail. Luckily, there are campsites along the way at each major junction. You can camp in these areas if you’d like, or you can find a spot to wild camp in between stops on the trail.
In general, Scotland is a safe destination for travelers and your risk of being a victim of a crime is relatively low. The crime rate in Scotland has been falling for several years, reaching a low of 524 crimes per 10,000 people in 2021/22. Within Scotland, the Highlands are considered very safe, and your chances of being a victim of petty crime is very low.
Before you go, you can always check the United States Department of State site for current travel advisories and restrictions. This site offers information that all travelers can use, regardless of their nationality.
Although you’re unlikely to be a victim of a crime in Scotland, there are still dangers in the Highlands. The West Highland Way is set in a remote destination where the weather can change quickly, sometimes creating unsafe conditions. If there is ever thick fog along the West Highland Way, be cautious and consider sheltering in place if you lose visibility.
Safety tips for the West Highland Way
Here are my top safety tips for hikers and walkers on the West Highland Way.
Bring the right gear. A little extra planning before you hit the trail can help you stay safe and comfortable while you’re on the West Highland Way.
Keep your sleeping bag dry. If you’ll be wild camping, I would suggest keeping your sleeping bag in a trash bag or a dry bag in your pack while you hike to ensure it doesn’t get wet. A wet sleeping bag won’t keep you warm and can make for a miserable trip!
Do bring a map and know how to use it. Although the trail was generally well marked and easy to follow, you don’t want to get lost in this remote area. Bring a map and other navigation tools to ensure you’ll be able to find your way back if you wander off in the wrong direction.
Bring a high visibility jacket or other bright clothing to wear if you’ll be visiting during hunting season (August to February). You can find high visibility jackets for a few euros at stores throughout Scotland, but I’d start at Decathlon.
Don’t try to walk the West Highland Way in winter. Unless you’re a very experienced hiker with the appropriate gear, the best time to hike the West Highland Way is between April and October.
Don’t wander too far from the trail. The trail is well marked, but the areas near the trail are sometimes very wild and remote. You should be able to find camping within a quarter of a mile (400 meters) of the trail.
Don’t drink the stream water without filtering or purifying it. The water in the streams along the West Highland Way is very likely to be contaminated. Use a filter, germicidal tablets, or boil water before drinking.
Tell a trusted family member or friend your intended route and keep them updated as you hike. This way someone will notice if you get lost, and they’ll have a better idea of where to start looking for you. Plus, they’ll get to see all of your great pictures along the way if you send a few photos!
Safety gear to bring with you on the West Highland Way
Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of the safety gear you’ll want to bring with you when hiking the West Highland Way.
Map and basic knowledge of navigation
Although the West Highland Way trail is well marked and easy to follow, you’ll want to be sure that you have a map, a compass, and basic knowledge of navigation.
The All Trails app also has each of the sections of the West Highland Way. If you plan to use All Trails, I would suggest that you download the relevant sections so that you’re able to access them even when you don’t have connectivity.
Waterproof outer layer
The Scottish Highlands are known for being drizzly and rainy, so you’ll definitely need gear to stay dry. At minimum, I’d recommend bringing a high quality rain jacket, a rain cover for your pack, and waterproof shoes. Rain pants would also be useful, but so long as you have quick drying pants you can probably get away without them.
Decathlon would be a great place to pick up some inexpensive rain gear in Glasgow or Edinburgh. You can find high quality (though less budget friendly) gear at Cotswold Outdoor, which also has a shop in Fort William.
Water filter or germicidal tablets
I would strongly advise you against drinking directly from the streams along the West Highland Way. The water is likely to be contaminated with animal and human waste, and you could get ill during or even after you’ve left the trail. The easiest solution is to bring a small bottle of germicidal tablets that you can dissolve in your water to kill any pathogens.
The tablets are very small and come in a bottle that’s about the size of your thumb. It takes up almost no room in your pack, lasts for years, and could really help you in a pinch. I’d strongly recommend that you take germicidal tablets on the trail if you can. You may never need them, but in my book it’s worth the piece of mind. (I take them on most of my trips, as I once had a water filter fail me in the middle of the night in Colombia.)
Cell phone with an international data plan
A cell phone with a decent international data plan is an essential piece of equipment, especially if you’re not great at reading topographic maps.
My mobile provider is Three and I had enough service to make calls and send text messages for most of the trail. There were dead spots, especially along the sections from Kingshouse to Fort William, but they never seemed to last long. If you were to get lost or need to update your loved ones on your itinerary, you’d likely be able to reach them by phone.
Tick removal tweezers
I was surprised at the presence of ticks along the West Highland Way trail and had to remove one for another traveler. In case you get bitten, I’d recommend bringing a pair of tweezers or tick removal tool with you on the trail. Be sure to check yourself for ticks as often as you can, preferably at least once a day.
The ticks I saw were small enough that you could easily mistake them for a freckle.
First aid kit
I’ve hiked for years with a first aid kit, but the West Highland Way trail was the first time I actually had to use it. From the tick removing tweezers to the moleskin to the antiseptic wipes, I was grateful to have a fully equipped first aid kit in my pack.
The kit I had was similar to this one from REI, but you could even make one yourself if you wanted to assemble it.
Cloudy day or not, you’ll want to pack (and wear) sunscreen along the West Highland Way. I learned the hard way when I left my bag for transport in Kingshouse and wasn’t able to retrieve my sunscreen for the day. Even when the forecast was cloudy all day, I found that there were sustained periods of sunshine that burned my scalp and left me wishing I had some sunscreen in my day bag.
For your comfort and safety, ensure that you have enough food while out on the West Highland Way. Compared to many other trails, this is comparably easy to do along the West Highland Way because there are opportunities to buy groceries and prepared meals at the major towns along the hike.
If you’ll be staying at the inns in town, you can keep your food supplies to a sack lunch and a few granola bars. Still, you’ll want to be sure that you have enough to eat so you’re able to stay fueled as you hike through the highlands.
Solid hiking boots that fit you well and will support your feet
This was the biggest mistake I made when planning my hike along the West Highland Way. I wore boots that were too flimsy for the rocky, rough terrain and they left my feet covered in blisters (I still have them as I’m writing this).
If you’re planning to use a baggage transfer service, you could probably get away with hiking in running shoes or less substantial shoes. The trail is not technical, so you won’t need to do much – if any – scrambling. Whatever shoes you choose, be sure that they offer some protection from the hard yet uneven rock surface of the trail.
FAQs about safety on the West Highland Way
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about safety along the West Highland Way.
Can a beginner do the West Highland Way?
Yes, I’d say that a beginner could absolutely do the West Highland Way. If you’re not sure how quickly or long you’ll be able to hike, I would suggest that you keep your trail sections as close to 10 miles (or under) per day so that you avoid overextending yourself.
I would strongly recommend that you choose your hiking gear with some expert help from the staff at REI or a similar local retailer. Ensure that your boots fit properly, are waterproof, and will provide enough support for the rocky trail.
Is the West Highland Way safe for women to complete solo?
I spent two days hiking with a solo woman hiker on the West Highland Way and I personally hiked the longest day alone. Her experience, along with my brief solo experience, lead me to say that yes, the trail is safe for women to hike alone.
This is a bit of personal preference, but I would recommend that you plan to camp near other people, either those you meet along the way or in the clusters near the major trail stops.
I wouldn’t have reservations about completing the hike solo if I were planning to stay at inns along the way and use a luggage transfer service. In fact, I considered doing the trail again solo many times while I was still hiking!
Wild camping as a solo female traveler
If I were going to hike the trail alone, I would feel comfortable generally but I’d take precautions when choosing a campsite. I would recommend that you explicitly ask to camp with other women or a larger group between trail stops or otherwise set up your camp near the trail stops (Tyndrum, Kingshead, etc.). The other women on the trail were incredibly friendly and inclusive, and I imagine it would be easy to find companions who wouldn’t mind if you set up your tent close to them.
How hard is it to walk the West Highland Way?
I would personally consider the West Highland Way to be an intermediate hike. If you hike south to north, the inclines are generally gentle (and brief, when steep) with a few extended declines. The footing is rather rocky, often composed of large stones.
Although the inclines are relatively gentle, the hike is very long. Prepare for many hours of walking each day, which can be hard if you haven’t trained much for the trail.
Are there toilets on the West Highland Way?
Actually, yes, there are toilets along the West Highland Way. Basically every trail stop will have public toilets available, and I saw a few portable toilets along the way. Even though there are toilets available, I wouldn’t necessarily count on each one being available. Bring supplies to manage waste on the trail to ensure that you’re able to Leave No Trace.
What is the best time of year to walk the West Highland Way?
April to October is the best time of year to walk the West Highland Way. The peak summer months of July and August are often swarmed with midges – small flying insects that are known to irritate even the most zen hiker.
I wouldn’t recommend that you walk the West Highland Way in the winter months unless you’re an experienced hiker with the appropriate gear to manage the ice and chilly temperatures.
Do I need walking poles on the West Highland Way?
This is a matter of preference. I don’t like to hike (or snowshoe) with poles because they irritate my hands, but I have often hiked with others who prefer to use them. If you’re not sure if you’d enjoy hiking with poles, I would suggest that you do a few training hikes with them. After a few hours, you’ll probably have a good sense of whether or not you’d appreciate having them with you on the West Highland Way.
Do I need a water filter on the West Highland Way?
You will need some way of filtering or purifying water along the West Highland Way, unless you plan to fill bottles in town and carry them with you. The area near the West Highland Way trail is contaminated with both human and animal waste, so I would strongly recommend that you not drink directly from the streams.
If you’d like to fill your water in town and carry it with you, I’d still recommend that you carry a small bottle of germicidal tablets to use in case of emergency. These pills will kill most pathogens in the water and render it safe to drink in case you lose the trail or have some other sort of emergency.
Do you need hiking boots for West Highland Way?
If you’ll be carrying a pack and opting out of the luggage transfer services, I would strongly recommend that you wear hiking boots. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this post, the footing of the trail is rather tough and unforgiving, which can really wear down your feet if your shoes are too flimsy.
That said, if you’re just carrying a small day pack your feet won’t have to support the extra weight of a pack. In this case, you’d probably be happy enough in a pair of trail running shoes so long as they fit well.
Final thoughts: Is the West Highland Way safe?
As a hiking trail, the West Highland Way is very safe and easy to navigate, but it comes with inherent risks. Although you’re unlikely to be a victim of a crime in the Scottish Highlands, you’ll want to take care to prepare yourself for the remote nature of the area.
This trail is suitable for both beginners and more experienced hikers, largely because of its relatively flat terrain. Ensure that you bring all of the relevant equipment you’ll need for your hike, including your own navigation tools.
In short: if you’re prepared for the remote environment and have the gear you need, you should feel perfectly safe along the West Highland Way!