The West Highland Way is the most iconic long-distance trail in Scotland, and one of the best hikes in Europe. The walking season starts early in spring and pushes late into the fall. But, if your calendar is wide open, there are a few months that would be great to steer toward.
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Avoid the Midges
If you are not from Scotland you may not be familiar with the Highland midge and how annoying a creature it is. Besides the obvious impact of temperature and rain on your great outdoor adventure, midges are one of the few major factors you need to take into account when you’re planning your West Highland Way hike.
Midges are gnat-like insects that live in almost every habitable corner of the earth, but the Scottish midge is particularly famous. Midges are numerous in the Western Highlands and they really like to bite.
Though their infamy usually surpasses their actual impact on hikers and holidaymakers, it’s always best to avoid the high midge seasons. In the average year, they are at their worst in July and August.
Strictly speaking, their numbers don’t depend on the time of the year, but on the weather conditions in a given year. For instance, you may see swarms of them in spring if the conditions are particularly warm and damp.
If your calendar is really flexible, pay close attention to the forecast and head to the Highlands when the weather is cloudless and dry.
Generally, midges aren’t a big nuisance if you have the right insect repellent, if there is rain or wind, or if you are walking.
Due to the lack of midges, quieter trails, and cooler temperatures, April can be a good time to walk the West Highland Way. However, the weather is usually quite unpredictable this time of year. While blustery days are more typical, April can also be warm and sunny.
If you go in April, you may spot some snow still lying on the hills, but you may also encounter cute baby lambs along the trail.
If you want to hike the trail in spring but also enjoy the benefit of drier weather, it’s best to wait until May. This is the lowest rainfall month in the Highlands and the weather is more predictable.
The midges are yet to become intolerable and the flowers are blooming in their full glory. Unsurprisingly, May is one of the busiest months on the West Highland Way.
But, if you don’t like crowds, don’t let this fact deter you from walking the trail in May. You’ll often feel like you are the only hiker on the West Highland Way, thanks to its winding route. Each time you spot a fellow hiker, they quickly disappear behind the next corner.
Moreover, there are only so many accommodation options along the West Highland Way. Even though there are some campers on the trail, this significantly limits the maximum number of hikers.
Furthermore, the campsites, guest houses, and hotels are spread out along the trail, with the exceptions of a few towns. So, you won’t see large groups of people all leaving at the same time.
Last but not least, almost everyone walks the trail south to north. You don’t need to worry about encountering a stream of people coming from the opposite direction.
Accommodation is busier between late April and the beginning of June. It is especially busy during the Easter holidays. If you want to have access to first-choice options, it’s best to start making arrangements in the fall before.
June offers almost all the advantages of May but without the packed inns and B&Bs. Just make sure you don’t pick the weekend of the West Highland Way Race.
In July and August, both tourists and midges arrive in large numbers. Although the weather during these two months is pleasant and warm, it brings out the worst in midges.
They can be quite annoying around dusk and on drizzly days. You should really take notes of this if you plan on camping. Make sure to stock up on midge repellent sprays because you won’t be able to hide behind closed doors and windows when they come biting.
The tourists that come in July and August are generally not interested in hiking, so there aren’t many of them on the trail. But the town streets are crowded, especially on the weekends. The stark contrast from the serene trail may leave you flabbergasted.
Most inns and hotels are fully booked during these two months, so be sure to book accommodation well in advance. Fort William is especially busy this time of year.
If you can’t stand crowded towns, but still want to explore Scotland in the summer, do know that there are plenty of other long-distance hiking trails in Scotland. Many of them are not so busy this time of year. You can also check our guide about the best time to visit Scotland.
The midges and the crowds begin to subside come September and October. If you enjoy solitude, a slow pace of life, and peace and quiet, you will love walking the West Highland Way in the fall.
The hills, the woods, and the meadows look absolutely mesmerizing this time of year. Vivid fall colors are at their best towards the end of September and into early October.
However, the weather becomes much more changeable again. While the temperature is still reasonably mild, you can expect to encounter stronger winds and heavier rainfall.
Your daily hikes will be shorter in late October because daylight will be shorter. After all, the Scottish Highlands are at the same latitude as the Alaskan Panhandle.
While it’s possible to walk the West Highland Way in the winter, it isn’t recommended. Even by Scottish standards, the weather conditions are harsh and freezing this time of year. On top of that, many shops, services, campsites, hotels, and B&B are closed. Have a look at some of the alternatives to the WHW if you want to walk in the winter.
If you are one of those adventurers who like to push themselves to the limit, you should only consider walking the West Highland Way in winter if you are a fit and experienced trekker with great winter navigation skills. You must be properly prepared and fully equipped to walk the trail in the winter. I also recommend checking out my ultimate guide to winter hiking.
Festivals and Annual Events
When you are planning your outdoor holiday in the Highlands, you should also factor in annual events and festivals that use all or part of the West Highland Way.
Ben Nevis Race
Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in Great Britain. It is located near Fort William, where the West Highland Way ends. If you time your hike right, you can watch the spectacular Ben Nevis Race.
Each year, rivers of hill runners ascend and descend the Ben Nevis mountain in ludicrously short times. The event takes place on the first Saturday of September.
Altra West Highland Way Race
First hosted in 1985, the West Highland Way race is one of the oldest ultra-marathons in the world. Each year, the event starts on the third Saturday of June, at 1 AM, and ends at noon the following day. Entrants run from the Milngavie Railway station to the Nevis Centre in Fort William. Each participant has 35 hours to finish the race.
West Highland Way Challenge
This is another famous ultra-marathon that uses the whole trail. It is very similar to the aforementioned Altra Race, the only major difference being that it takes place on the last weekend of May.
Scottish Six Days Trials
The Scottish Six Days Trial is a motorcycle trials competition that uses the parts of the West Highland Way that stretch between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William. The event usually takes place over the first week of May.
During the event, it can be difficult to find accommodation, especially in Kinlochleven. You can walk the West Highland Way while the event takes place, but you should expect some disturbance.
What to Wear
Even though the weather is more predictable during the warmer months, the Highlands can always throw all four seasons at you in a single day. Even in summer, a clear and sunny afternoon can easily be ruined by sleet and hail. See my packing list for the WHW.
Both quality hiking shoes or hiking boots will work, but boots may be a better option since they can get boggy. To reduce the chances of getting blisters and running into problems on the trail, make sure to break in your footwear before you start your walk.
Convertible hiking pants are a great choice for changeable weather. You should also dress in multiple lighter layers. When it gets too warm, you can simply remove the outer layers. Wearing breathable and moisture-wicking inner layers is also highly recommended.
A pair of trekking poles can be of great help on steep sections, especially if you are carrying a heavy backpack. To ensure maximum protection from midges, you can also bring a midge net hat such as this one by Lifesystems.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.