West Highland Way – a solo adventure

In November 2019 I walked the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William a walk of 96 miles. It was cold, below freezing most of the time, and I did not see anyone else walking the whole route in the whole 5 days. It was an amazing experience with great views, complete solitude and a variety of trails including forest trails, rocky trail scrambles and Loch side paths. I stayed in Hostels, camped and even had a night in a bothy. I carried all my food for the week – any cafes that I found open were a bonus. In this blog I will outline my day to day route, accommodation and food options so if you are also planning an adventure on the WHW it might give you some good information help you get started.

The start of the West Highland Way in Milngavie town centre

Day 1 – Milgavie to Drymen – 12 miles.

After spending most of the day getting trains to Milngavie, I was finally ready to start the walk at 3pm. I knew that this only gave me an hour or so of daylight and so had only planned to do the 12 miles to Drymen for the first day. Setting off from the station the route takes you through the underpass and the town centre to the start. The whole route is well signposted right from the beginning and even though I had a map I did not need to use it at all for the whole route. The main route marking is a thistle inside a hexagon.

From Milngavie I followed the paths out of the town and through Mugdock woods to the road at Easter Carbeth. It was starting to get a bit darker now so I put my headtorch on so that I could see and be seen. Although only a B road the cars were travelling quite fast along this stretch.

Back onto the track after the road at Easter Carbeth

A short track section then took me down onto the disused railway line which I then followed all the way to Gartness, from there I followed the minor road into Drymen.

Kip in the Kirk B&B and Hostel in Drymen

I had already pre-booked to stay at Kip-in-the-Kirk in Drymen. What an amazing place run by Frances who was there to welcome me with a cup of tea and a fresh scone. As I was the only person staying that night I was upgraded to a room which meant that I had my own en-suite shower room. I used the kettle to make hot water for my Firepot meal, had a shower and then settled down for a good nights sleep.

One of the Firepot meals that I enjoyed during my walk

Day 2 – Drymen to Rowchoish – 19 miles

After a lovely breakfast of coffee and bagel I set off at 7.45am just as it was getting light for the 19 miles to Rowchoish bothy. After a mile on the road it was then off along the trails through the working woodlands of Garadhban Forest.

The trail eventually emerges onto rougher ground and begins the climb up the iconic Conic Hill. Just before you start the climb there is a river crossing, I stopped here to finish my coffee and realised that this would also be a great place for a wild camp. I had hoped to get a good photo from the top but the winds were so strong I was in danger of being blown away. It’s not easy managing rough ground in windy conditions with a heavy pack on!

I then carefully descended the rough path down from Conic Hill into Balmaha where I hoped that a coffee shop would be open. I found the St Mocha Coffee Shop just as I got to the road where I ordered a coffee to go in my Lifesystems flask and a Sausage Bap. The coffee shop was lovely with a log burner and comfortable seating, unfortunately I did not have time to linger today but plenty of other people were enjoying the food and cakes on offer.

From Balmaha the route follows the scenic edge of Loch Lomond. This is one of the areas where you now have to purchase a permit if you wish to wildcamp between the months of March to September. There is clear signage for this and all you have to do is buy a permit online for £3. There are also campsites in Milarrochy bay and just before Sallochy but these were closed for the winter.

The picturesque Milarrochy Bay

By now the sun had come out and just past Sallochy I took time just to sit by the Loch and enjoy the experience of being out there.

A sunny moment of contemplation by Loch Lomond

Shortly after Rowardennan the route drops off the main forest track and onto a lower route following the Loch shore and into the deep dark coniferous forest. After a little searching in the dark and checking my position on the map I eventually found my accommodation for the night, Rowchoish bothy.

Rowchoish Bothy

Rowchoish Bothy is one of around 100 bothies managed by the Mountain Bothies Association. These are always open and free to use, to support the work of the Association you can become a member and also volunteer to help maintain the bothies. Users are requested to keep the bothy tidy, remove all rubbish and not to cut down wood to burn. It is good practice to leave dry kindling to enable the next user to start a fire.

The main room inside the bothy

Inside Rowchoish bothy is a fireplace, a large raised wooden area with a bench for cooking on and a large stone platform area at the back for sleeping. There is also a metal box to place food inside as apparently the local Pine Marten population are partial to any fresh food left lying about.

Getting the fire going – an important first job

I had brought with me a firestarter log and with a few bits of kindling left on the side I lit a small fire. Knowing that I would be unable to replace the wood kindly already left I was careful to just use a couple of small logs. (I will pay this forwards by adding firewood to the supply at the next bothy I visit).

With a small amount of warmth coming from the fireplace I then boiled up some water on my stove to make my dinner. On the menu tonight was Mixed Mash Shepherds Pie from ActivEat which was delicious. ActivEat Foods had kindly supported me with some of my meals for this walk and as a new company it looks like they are going to go far. The meals are tasty and full of great ingredients.

As I sat in front of the fire eating my dinner I thought about my options for the following night. I knew that I needed to get to Auchtertyre/Tyndrum which was around 22 miles walk. I could also feel how much colder the weather was getting and a check on the BBC weather app confirmed that temperatures were dropping to freezing and below over the next few days. I knew that all the campsites in Tyndrum were closed for the winter but I found that the Strathfillan Wigwam site in Auchtertyre was open and also did camping. Even better it had a communal kitchen area open to all. I made a plan, get up at 5am and out by 6.30am to give myself a chance to get to the campsite before dark.

Day 3 – Rowchoish to Auchtertyre – 19 miles

After a warm Red Berry Breakfast and a flask of Double Choc Mocha it was time to repack everything into my rucksack and get back onto the trail. The air was crisp and clear with the moon reflecting the light across the Loch along with the lights of Tarbet.

Initially the route follows the forest trail through to the hotel at Inversnaid. After this the trail becomes rocky as it follows the shoreline of the Loch, this was quite hard going for a while and I began to think I would never get to the end of Loch Lomond!

The rocky steps that the path becomes towards the end of Loch Lomond

Eventually I did make it to the end of the Loch and then followed the tracks to Beinglas farm. This is another campsite but closed at this time of year, it did however have an outside water tap so I was able to fill up my bottles. In the summer time there is a cafe open which offers both breakfast and lunch/dinner options.

After Beinglas the route then follows the River Falloch and past the Falls of Falloch a popular local beauty spot usually visited from the A82 on the otherside. From the trail it actually felt more remote even though the noise from the lorries on the A82 made it quite clear how close they were.

Shortly after this near to Derrydaroch there is a short diversion where a bridge has been washed away by flooding. The cottage at Derrydaroch and the bridge just after have also been damaged but that bridge is still usable by pedestrians.

After passing under the railway line and the A82 the route then becomes an easy walking trail. After a few miles you could leave the trail to visit Crianlarich for food and accommodation but I continued along through the woods,passing a few more wild camping spots, to the campsite at Auchtertyre, arriving just as it was getting dark.

My tent at 5am – crisp with frost!

Day 4 – Auchtertyre to Kingshouse – 22 miles

I was right, it was a cold night, I estimate around -5 deg! I was so glad for my warm sleeping bag (Alpkit pipedream 400). I slept in just my thermals and was lovely and cosy. The difficult part was getting up at 5am and putting my feet into my frozen boots. I stuffed my frozen tent back into it’s bag and then made use of the communal kitchen to make some hot food and drink for my breakfast.

The best bit about these early starts was seeing the snowy mountain tops light up as the sun started to rise and colour returned to the world.

I knew that today and tomorrow promised the spectacular mountain views that I was waiting for. After passing through Tyndrum, and buying some lunch supplies from the Green Welly Stop, I set off along the Old Military road towards Bridge of Orchy with the snowy top of Beinn Dorain in the distance.

From Bridge of Orchy the trail climbs over Mam Carraigh before descending to the the road and the Inveroran Hotel. From here the trail picks up the Drovers Road to cross Rannoch Moor and into Glencoe.

As you can see from the photo the trail is easy to follow and there are plenty of places to wildcamp. Across the moor Ba Bridge and near to Ba Cottage seemed to be the main places which offered flat places to camp. I actually saw quite a few people out along this section of the route including a group on a bikepacking tour heading south.

I had decided as I crossed the Moor to check out options for either wildcamping near to KingsHouse or to see if the KingsHouse Hotel bunkhouse was open. As I got closer and the evening got darker and colder I began to really hope that the bunkhouse was open. Luckily for me it was and I was able to book a bed, although I did feel a little out of place in the very smart hotel reception!

Dinner this evening was again from ActivEat and I have to say the Sweet Beef Noodles was one of the tastiest dehydrated meals I have ever eaten. I found myself scraping around with my fork to get out the last few bits and wishing I had two of them. Thinking about how much I was eating on the trail I realised that I was massively under on calories. I was carrying 1500 calories of food per day in the form of 2 dehydrated meals and a bag of snacks. My plan had been to top up each day by visiting cafes along the way, however, this being November very few places are actually open. So far I had eaten extra in Balmaha on day 2 and Tyndrum on day 4. I needed a plan for tomorrow to try and replenish a few more calories.

Day 5 – Kingshouse to Glen Nevis – 22 miles

Another early start and I set out into the darkness around 6.30 am with the bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor looming ahead. As the light from the sun gradually lit up the area I could see the wee white bothy that features in so many Instagram pictures. This was a surprise to me as I have always thought that this bothy was in the middle of nowhere!

From this point I turned towards the north again and began the slow climb up the Devil’s Staircase followed by the long descent into Kinlochleven. I remembered this section well from crewing a friend (Brian) on the West Highland Way race back in 2015 only at that time it was night. Poor Brian had not slept for 2 nights and all he wanted to do was lie down on the ‘soft’ rocks and go to sleep! This time I was on a mission, I knew that the IceFactor in Kinlochleven would be open and I also knew that they had a cafe. I wasn’t disappointed and before long I was tucking into baked beans on toast with two sausages and a large coffee to follow.

It was then time to tackle the last stage to Glen Nevis through the Lairig Mor once again on the Old Military Road. At Blar a Chaorainn the track then becomes forest trail through a working forest, most of which has been logged. It feels a bit bleak at times but it is just a crop being harvested and there are plenty of areas of new growth too

The Old Military Road through the Lairig Mor

Eventually, after rounding a few corners, Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis came into view. With the sun now setting it looked spectacular with its snowy top and golden flanks. It was easy to spot the path heading up into the saddle where the path turns for the summit at the Lochan. The snow also highlighted Five Finger Gully and it is easy to see how people might get themselves into trouble if they take the wrong route down from the summit.

Ben Nevis in the light of the setting sun

After a long day of walking (and a slightly achy left hip) I eventually arrived to a warm welcome at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. This is a modern hostel with contemporary open plan communal facilities and finally I found a few people to chat to.

The following morning, after a full cooked breakfast, I walked the final 3 miles into Fort William and to the end of the trail.

“Man with sore feet”

I sat for a few minutes on the bench next to the sculpture known as “Man with sore feet” and reflected on my journey. It had been quite a challenge managing my kit, dealing with the cold weather and making decisions along the route. I have had plenty of time to plan future blog posts including one reviewing dehydrated meals and another considering positive mental health. Overall though the great thing is that I have gained even more confidence through my solo adventure and can’t wait to start planning the next one.

Looking a little tired at the end of my solo adventure.

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