If you’re planning to hike Scotland’s beautiful West Highland Way, you’ll need to make a plan for ensuring you have enough drinking water. This is especially true if you’ll be carrying a pack and wild camping, when you’ll need to carry, filter, or boil your water.
No one wants to get sick while on vacation or while exploring the great outdoors! So, take care not to accidentally ingest any nasty bacteria or viruses.
I completed about half of the West Highland Way and met plenty of other hikers on the trail. People had their own strategies for carrying and purifying water, but everyone was a little disgruntled about how hard the topic was to research.
When you start researching water along the West Highland Way, you might find some sources that simply tell you “not to worry about it” or even suggest that you drink the water directly from a stream without treating it. Having lived in Ireland for a few years, I was immediately skeptical of this advice because I expected that the water would be contaminated with animal waste.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase using one of these links, I may earn a small commission at no cost to you.
West Highland Way drinking water: Your options
There is animal and human waste all along this heavily trafficked trail, so I would strongly recommend that you not plan to drink the water without filtering or otherwise purifying it. Drinking contaminated water can be dangerous to your health, and might put you at risk of a giardia infection.
From my experience, and the tactics I saw from other hikers on the trail, you have four options for managing your water along the West Highland Way. You can bring a portable filter and pump the water as you go, you can fill your bottles at the taps along the way and carry it, or you can boil water as you need and/or use germicidal tablets.
Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages, and you can even combine them if needed.
Most expensive, lightest: Filter as you go
If you’re someone who likes to hike in the backcountry, you may want to consider a portable filter, like the MSR Trailshot. Water filters are generally reliable and last a long time, so you can use a filter that you buy for the West Highland Way on future trips.
I tried the MSR Trailshot after asking for advice in a local outdoors store in Cork, and I was impressed with it – though it’s definitely an investment. Another, potentially less expensive and easy to use, filter option is a LifeStraw or one of its alternatives. There are also models that are built into reservoirs or water bottles, so you can choose a style that will work for you.
This option allows you to carry less water overall, because you’ll simply need to fill and carry one water bottle at a time. If you’re a fan of fast-packing, this is definitely a tactic you’ll appreciate because you can simply stop and refill whenever you get thirsty – there are plenty of water sources along the West Highland Way, so there’s no need to fill and carry large reservoirs.
✅ No need to carry excess water – filter only what you need
✅ Water is ready to drink much more quickly than if you need to boil it or add tablets
✅ Can be combined with other methods – you could bring a LifeStraw as an emergency option if you run out of tap water
✅ Can be used on future trips – both in the backcountry and to destinations where it is not safe to drink the water
Portable filters can be expensive and sometimes tricky to maintain. I paid about €90 for my portable MSR filter (you can find one cheaper in the US), and it has a cartridge that will need to be replaced periodically.
Be sure to watch instructional videos about properly using, cleaning, unclogging, and troubleshooting the filters before you head into the wilderness. Here is a great video that explains how to use the MSR Trailshot.
❌ Filters can be expensive, especially if they rely on a pumping mechanism
❌ Water filters can clog or fail
❌ Filters will not change the flavor of the water, so it won’t always taste as good as tap water
❌ Not all filters are easy to learn, so always watch an instructional video and practice at home before you go out on the trail
Least expensive, heaviest: Fill water bottles in each town you visit
If you’re using a baggage transfer service, I would recommend that you plan to primarily fill your water bottle in each town you visit. Each of the stops along the West Highland Way, at least on the section I did from Tyndrum to Fort William, had places to fill water bottles.
I met a traveler who was utilizing this option to avoid having to filter or boil her water. She carried four liters and tried to fill them in the town she visited before stopping for the night. The traveler told me that she had been dumping the extra water out in the morning, if there was any, and carrying about a liter until she reached the next town.
This is certainly the most budget-friendly and convenient solution. You can fill water bottles for free at the inns or restaurants along the West Highland Way, and the staff are usually friendly and accommodating to walkers.
✅ You can fill your water bottles for free at the stops along the way
✅ The tap water is clean and safe to drink
✅ Tap water tastes great
✅ If you’re using a bag transfer service, this is probably the best option for you
This option takes the most planning in order to execute. You’ll need to calculate how much water you’ll need, where you’ll find it, and how you’ll carry it in your pack each day.
Plan to carry about four liters per person if you’ll be wild camping to ensure you have enough to cook your meals. You can dump out any extra water in the morning, but you’ll still need to carry nearly the full amount to your campsite in the evening.
❌ Water is heavy, and you’ll definitely notice the extra weight
❌ You’ll need to time your route and pace around obtaining water
❌ Reusable water bottles can be heavy (though you could always use plastic bottles)
❌ You’ll need to know ahead of time how much water you’ll need or you could risk running out
❌ Not all stops along with West Highland Way will be open at night, so plan to arrive during daylight hours
Cheap but inconvenient: Use germicidal tablets
If you don’t want to carry water, or if you want a backup option in the event you’re not able to reach a town, you can consider using germicidal tablets. Potable Aqua iodine-based disinfecting tablets have an interesting history – they were developed by Harvard University and the US Army in the 1940s and have been used by the US Military for over 50 years.
These little tablets make your water bacteriologically safe to drink in about 35 minutes, killing giardia and bacteria. The pills are very small, and they’re sold in a bottle that’s only about the size of your thumb. They’re affordable, easy to use, and great to have in cases of emergency.
This option is very budget-friendly, easy to use, and takes up almost no room in your pack. The germicidal tablets cost about $10 and can treat 25 quarts of water. I like to pop a bottle of these tablets in my pack whenever I travel so that I’m prepared in case of emergency.
✅ Great as an emergency backup
✅ Bottles and pills are very compact, so they easily fit in a first aid kit or backpack
✅ Kills giardia and bacteria
✅ Budget friendly
✅ Unlike boiling water, there’s no need to stop and wait for the tablets to kick in. Simply add the tablets and continue walking until the water is safe to drink.
Germicidal tablets need to sit in the water for about 35 minutes before the water is safe to drink, so this process isn’t any quicker than boiling. Further, the tablets are only effective against giardia and bacteria, so they won’t offer protection against cryptosporidium or viruses.
The tablets also give the water a strong, almost metallic taste, which can be unpleasant. Germicidal tablets are sometimes sold with neutralizing tablets help with the flavor of the water, but the water will still have a vaguely chemical taste.
❌ Germicidal tablets have an unpleasant taste
❌ Water is not immediately ready to drink. It takes about 35 minutes for treated water to be safe to drink.
❌ You probably won’t want to cook with this water because it would change the flavor of your food. Boil your cooking water instead.
❌ Not effective against cryptosporidium
Cheap but inconvenient: Boil water
If you don’t want to carry water, or if you want a backup option in the event you’re not able to reach a town, you can consider boiling your water. Boiling is an effective way to disinfect water before you drink it, and will kill disease-causing organisms like viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Be sure to bring your water to a rolling boil for at least one minute and up to three minutes if you’re at altitude. Though it’s not technically required, I always boil my water for several minutes to be sure it’s safe.
This option is very budget-friendly and effective. Assuming you’ll be boiling water anyway for cooking, there’s very little additional cost to boil your water.
✅ Low cost
✅ Very effective, even if the water has particles in it
✅ Does not alter the flavor, color, or odor of the water
✅ Easy to do, provided you are comfortable setting up your travel stove
Boiling water is cumbersome and time consuming, as you’ll need to pull out your stove and heat the water.
❌ You will need to carry a stove, pot, fuel, and matches in order to boil water
❌ Water is not immediately ready to drink. It can take a while to bring the water to a boil, and afterwards it will need to cool to a safe temperature before you can drink it.
❌ You’ll need to fully stop walking and wait while water boils then cools, slowing down your walking progress
What about hikers who will not be wild camping?
If you’re not planning to wild camp, I would recommend that you bring a reservoir or large water bottle and plan to carry whatever water you’ll need for that day’s hike. Because you won’t need to carry water for cooking, you won’t need nearly as much as those who are wild camping.
I would still personally bring a small bottle of germicidal tablets in case I found myself in an emergency situation, but this isn’t strictly necessary. The way I see it, the tablets cost only a few dollars and weigh almost nothing, so they’re easy enough to pop into a water bottle if you truly need them. Most likely, though, you’d never use them.
Which water filter to use?
If you decide to filter your water on the West Highland Way, you have several options to choose from. Filters range in price, usually starting around $20 and going up from there. There’s no need to have a serious, high volume water filter for the West Highland Way trail. You won’t need to carry more than a day’s worth of water at a time on the trail, and many people just filled a small personal water bottle as they hiked.
After visiting my local outdoors shop in Cork, Ireland, I chose to purchase a Trailshot from MSR. This small filter is lightweight and portable, and you use your hand strength to pump the water. The MSR Trailshot is tested to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards and NSF protocol P231 to remove 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.9% of protozoa and particulates.
I was very impressed by this little filter! I had shied away from purchasing a water filter in the past because I know that they break and can be unreliable, but I didn’t have any issues on the West Highland Way.
Lifestraw or similar
I hiked the West Highland Way with a friend and she used a Sawyer mini filtration system while on the trail. The Sawyer filter is a slightly cheaper alternative to the better known Lifestraw product line. While I didn’t use a Lifestraw on this trip, I have used them in the past and considered bringing one on the West Highland Way.
If you don’t hike very often, consider searching for a filter that can sit unused for a few years without degrading. This way, you’ll be able to rely on it in a year or two when you do your next backpacking trip.
Not recommended for the West Highland Way: Steripens
Steripens work by sterilizing the water with ultraviolet radiation. They’re great for some types of travel because they don’t change the taste, color, or odor of the water, and they treat all types of waterborne pathogens.
I brought a Steripen on my trip to South America in 2018 and used it on tap water without incident until it, very unluckily, broke late one night – so I wished I had brought a backup. Steripens are battery-powered, but they aren’t particularly efficient so they can be expensive to operate. Plan to bring several batteries to keep your Steripen working.
Because Steripens work best on clear water, I wouldn’t recommend that you use them on the West Highland Way unless you have a way to clarify the water first. The water that you’ll find on the trail is sometimes very cloudy, so there’s a risk that the pen won’t be able to fully sterilize the water.
How frequently will you pass streams?
When I visited in May, it felt like there were multiple stream crossings nearly every hour, so I doubt you’d find many stretches where you’d walk for more than an hour or two before you’re able to filter water. These stream crossings did vary a lot in terms of the amount of water available and its cleanliness, but there’s no doubt in my mind that you’d find suitable water within an hours’ walk of nearly any point on the trail.
FAQs: West Highland Way drinking water
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about sourcing and managing your drinking water while hiking the West Highland Way.
How do you get water on the West Highland Way?
You can either get water from natural sources like streams and lakes, or by visiting the cafes and restaurants that are placed periodically throughout the trail. Some towns, like Tyndrum and Knocklieven, have shops where you can purchase plastic water bottles and other gear. Other towns, like Kingshouse and Inoveran, only have a small cafe and/or restaurant (but no shops).
To be safe, I’d recommend that you head off on the trail with all of the gear you’ll need, including small germicidal tablets that you can use in case of emergency. Always read the instructions for your tablets carefully before using.
Will the hotels and inns along the West Highland Way allow me to fill my water bottles?
In general, the hotels and shops along the West Highland Way were very hospitable to walkers and hikers. They often offered to fill our water bottles or had open access sinks that we could use for this purpose.
What is giardia and why should I care about it?
Giardia or giardia intestinalis is an infection of the bowel by a protozoan parasite. You can become infected with giardia by drinking contaminated water or through direct contact with an infected person. The symptoms of giardia include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bloating, and flatulence.
Anecdotally, I’ve talked to people who have gotten giardia and they said it was a very unpleasant illness. They were bedridden for up to two weeks, and said that the symptoms were very uncomfortable. For this reason, I am very careful to never drink or even brush my teeth with water that might be contaminated.
If you want to learn more about giardia, check out episode 31 of This Podcast Will Kill You.
Is there giardia in the United Kingdom?
There are a handful of laboratory confirmed cases of giardia in the UK each year, but most of them are associated with travel.
Your risk of getting giardia while traveling in Scotland is very low, but your risk increases dramatically if you’re drinking untreated water. Because giardia is transmitted through human and animal waste, you’ll always want to avoid drinking directly from any water sources that may be contaminated. Given the highly trafficked nature of the West Highland Way and its use for agricultural purposes, any natural water source you encounter could be at risk of giardia contamination.
Is it safe to drink water from the tap in Scotland?
Yes, it’s perfectly safe to drink tap water in Scotland. So long as the water is coming from a sink, you can drink it without worrying, even in rural areas. Most cases of giardia are associated with travel, so there’s no need to filter or clarify tap water in the UK.
Is the stream water clear?
With a few exceptions, the water along the West Highland Way was not very clear. In many places, the water seemed to be tinted brown, likely from the organic matter in the area.
There was a decent amount of sediment in the water along the West Highland Way, so you’ll want to choose a stream that is moving fairly quickly. If you can, keep walking until you pass one of the clearer streams, where the water will taste better. Because the water tends to be tinted or have sediment, it’s not recommended that you try to sanitize water using UV light, like from a Steripen.
Where can I buy water filters if I’m already in Scotland?
There are several great outdoors stores in Scotland, so don’t worry if you’re already in the country. The most budget-friendly outdoors store is Decathlon and you’ll find the best selection of high quality gear from Cotswold Outdoors. There are some boutique outdoors stores in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Fort William, too, but I’d start with Decathlon or Cotswold if you can.
If you’re traveling from the US, you’ll almost certainly find better prices on Amazon or at REI. Between the conversion rates and the VAT (taxes), you can save money by bringing the gear you’ll need with you on the plane. However, don’t worry too much if this isn’t possible – you can still find what you need!
Final thoughts: West Highland Way drinking water
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to managing your drinking water on the West Highland Way. You’ll have to decide for yourself and your itinerary if you’d rather carry your water, filter, or boil it while on the trail. Whatever you do, be sure that you take steps to ensure that your drinking water is safe for consumption and free from potentially harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
If you’re worried about having enough water to drink, you can always carry an extra water bottle so that you have a reserve. Likewise, you can always toss a bottle of germicidal tablets in your bag if you’re worried that other filtration methods might fail.
Whenever I thought of it, I liked to fill my water bottle with filtered tap water at the stops along the way. It simply tasted a little bit better than the stream water along the West Highland Way.