Travel in Scotland isn't cheap.
Unless you free camp.
Which you can because Scotland allows wild camping virtually anywhere that isn't fenced in or in a city. (Here's a handy guide to the rules.) What this means is that it can be extremely affordable to experience one of Europe's classic walking experiences, the 96 mile West Highland Way.
We completed this walk in 2019, and strangely enough we had a somewhat difficult time finding the information we needed on the route as people trying to do it on the cheap. So dear internet, this is the guide I wish we had before the trip - a dirtbag's guide to wild camping for free along the West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way is a really nice walk, and there are a lot of good reasons to approach it like most people do - booking accommodations ahead, walking about 10 miles a day, staying in inns, and paying someone to drive your gear between towns so you don't have to carry it. There are plenty of nice places to stay and eat, it's really great to have a dry room and a bed when the weather and midgies are inevitably terrible, and it's remarkably affordable to pay someone else to taxi your gear. I'm not against it. It's a nice way to live your life.
But accommodations book out months in advance, and they aren't cheap. If you're like us and prefer to both fly by the seat of your pants and travel on a budget, it is absolutely still possible to have a good full experience of the West Highland Way. Lots of people free camp the entire way (we did), and it is easy to resupply at groceries to keep your food costs down (we didn't) This requires zero pre-booking, and a frugal shopper could survive on $25 a day without much trouble, as long as they avoid booze and pubs.
If that's appealing to you, this is your guide.
If you want a comprehensive guide to the trail, this is not your guide. For that, go here, but read this post too, because it has a bunch of stuff that isn't on that official page, for some reason.
The only thing you need to know about free camping on the West Highland Way (but for some reason no one tells you).
First things first, there was really only one piece of information that we had trouble finding online before our hike, and it's the only thing that's really important: where are the no camping zones along the West Highland Way?
Most internet guides I found state that you can camp anywhere along the West Highland Way as long as you aren't in town, "with the exception of a section along the shores of Loch Lomond." This is true. You almost never have to think about where you're allowed to camp, because it's pretty much anywhere that isn't paved.
But for some reason, it is difficult to get internet WHW guides to give you complete information about that one important caveat - how long is that section along Loch Lomond where you can't camp, and at what point will you hit it on your hike?
First off, many guides make the blanket statement that "you can't camp along the shores of Loch Lomond." I am here to tell you that this is not true. Liars, they're all liars, and they clearly weren't free camping. The truth is that you can't camp along some of the shores of Loch Lomond that are in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, but you can camp for a fair amount of it. Here's a screenshot of the official National Park map. The little lined out portions of the map roughly between Drymen and Rowardennan show where you aren't allowed to camp.
For some reason there is no scale on this map, so for reference the stage of the WHW between Drymen and Rowardennan is typically listed as 14 miles, which would make you think that you will have to make a decently long push through this section if you want to free camp. But there are clear signs on the trail where the no camping zone begins and ends. It starts just north of Conic Hill, and ends just north of Rowardennan. By my estimate, the actual no camping zone was no more than 10 miles long (and likely significantly less - I believe it was about a 2.5 hour walk and our hiking pace is consistently about 3 miles an hour).
I don't know why this information doesn't seem to be prominently displayed anywhere else on the internet. Other than the standard Scotland wild camping rules linked above, this is literally the only unique thing you need to know about free camping on the West Highland Way!
The good news is that this section will likely not cause most free campers any real inconvenience, unless you are taking things very slowly, or you plan a big first day out of Milngavie. By my estimate, the no camping zone started about 13 miles into the trail, and ended by 22 - 23 miles into the trail. To deal with it on our hike, we camped in the forest just South of Conic Hill on our first night, then walked all of the way through the restricted zone on day two before camping along the Loch on our second night. Not a big day - maybe 12 miles - and not that hard of hiking. There are several paid camp sites in the middle of the no free camping zone. If (for instance) you want to hike more than 13 miles on your first day, but don't want to hike 24, you can and should book those ahead.
So that's everything you need to know if you're free camping. Pre-plan for what will likely be day 2 of your trip, and after that you won't have to think about where you're allowed to camp, because the answer is "pretty much anywhere."
Everything you need to know about water
There are lots of natural water sources. There are sheep everywhere, so you should filter if you use them. But you will likely not need to use any of them as long as you fill up your bottles in towns or pubs. There are lots of towns and pubs. We did not use any natural water sources the entire way. And I'm happy with that decision, because even when you filter, you can't get rid of the taste of sheep shit.
Everything you need to know about food
If you're here, it's likely that you don't want to break the bank on this trail. It's relatively easy to spend it up on food and drinks, but the good news is that it's also easy not to. If you want to avoid restaurants altogether, it'll be sad, but you easily can. It's not that long of a hike. You could carry all of your food from Milngavie if you really wanted to. But no need - you will walk through (or near) towns with full groceries multiple times along the trail.
Full markets are available in the following towns, with mileage listed from South to North:
Of course, if you're like us, you will stop in a pub every time you get a chance and spend a ton of money on weird Scottish food and cold Scottish beer. We stopped into a pub or cafe at least once a day on our seven day hike, and often more. Food was almost as easy as camping, but we did typically think at least a couple of meals ahead so we wouldn't end up under-caffeinated or hangry between pubs.
Lots of sites give nice food recommendations and availability along the way, so I won't reinvent the wheel. I like this post from Mac's Adventures.
Our personal favorite restaurant was actually a small cafe that we passed on the first day around lunch time, called Turnip the Beet. Scottish pub food is decent, but gets a bit monotonous, and this place had delicious, fresh, and affordable food (and was owned by an ultra runner so it made us feel at home). The only place that stood out as pricey was the restaurant at Kingshouse, which was great, was in a spectacular location, and lets hikers sleep just outside the door, so we didn't feel too put out by the cost. Other than that, cool little pubs from the 18th and 19th centuries make for great ambiance for afternoon beers all along the way.
A Day in the Life of a Wild Camper: Our trip, for reference
The standard West Highland Way experience is to get up, have breakfast in town, pack out a lunch, hike about 10 - 15 miles between accommodation that's been booked ahead, eat dinner and drink a bunch of beer when you arrive at your destination. That routine fits well with a seven day/seven stage journey along the lines of the one outlined on the official WHW page, with stages broken up at Drymen, Rowardennan, Inverarnan, Tyndrum, Inveroran, and Kinlochleven. That leaves you with a shortest day of 9 miles hiking, and a longest of 19, with a hearty breakfast in town every morning, and beer, hot food and a warm bed at the end of every day.
Because you can't camp in town, free camping requires a little bit different of a routine, so It's worth talking a little about ours for reference.
We took the standard seven day routine and shifted it just a bit. We also took seven days, but we camped just after Drymen, a few miles after Rowardennan, Just after Inverarnan, in a field near Bridge of Orchy, outside the pub at the free public camping at Kingshouse, and in a field after Kinlochleven. Our days were actually closer to consistent mileage, with hikes between 12 - 18 miles a day.
We didn't have the luxury of a bed in town, so the routine that worked for us (with a few exceptions) would typically be to get up, make our own coffee and maybe have a snack, eat breakfast when we got to a village or pub, hike through the day until we hit another pub, and hang out there until after dinner. At that point we'd hike 1 - 3 more miles out of town and set up camp shortly before sunset, sleep, and repeat. We weren't staying in town at night, but we were enjoying its luxuries as we passed through. To me, the most pleasant time of the day to walk is dusk, and sunset over the Scottish countryside makes for a pretty damn pleasant ambiance when you're setting up your tent, so it made for a really nice experience. I'd recommend it.
A few other miscellaneous notes:
We hiked in May and had incredibly good weather - no rain at all until the last day, and very few midgies. This made the hiking experience really great. You will definitely not have the same experience. The biggest challenge for the average wild camper will likely be persistent rain and/or midgies, but I do think you can still have a really pleasant hike, because there are so many good places to stop and dry out. For us, pubs were nice because we like beer and sitting, but for an average soggy, midgie-tormented hiker, they will make great shelters to wait out the storms.
There are also two shelters along the way on Loch Lomond - called Bothies. We didn't stop at either, beyond peeking our heads in. They weren't that appealing on the hot, sunny days that we passed them, but they'd probably be nice places to stop and sleep if it were raining. They're first come, first served, and they do fill up, I hear.
You don't need a map. The trail is really well marked. I downloaded .gpx files for my smart phone, but I'm not sure that I ever used it other than for planning and general curiosity. There are lots available for free. Here's one. Probably not a bad idea to have if things somehow go sideways.
There are plenty of paid campsites along the way if you prefer that sort of thing (or if, unlike us, you decide to take a shower at any point.) This site runs through the options helpfully. Received wisdom is that it's better to pre-book these sites as well, but our experience was that they typically were taking walk ups.
We stayed in Airbnb's both before the hike (in Milngavie) and after (in Fort William). Milngavie is a suburb of Glasgow, and we found it relatively affordable. Fort William is a tourist and outdoor town, and we found it relatively expensive. You can definitely find free camping a mile or two outside of Fort William towards Ben Nevis, but it would be a bit harder to do the same in Milngavie as it is basically in the urban sprawl of Glasgow. It's worth noting that Fort William is a very easy place to spend money. It's a great little town, but also the most expensive stop on the trail if you're planning to spend time there recuperating afterwards.
This is clearly not a comprehensive guide to the West Highland Way, but it is, I hope, all of the peripheral information that is needed for someone who wants to free camp the whole way, and hike the trail on a budget. Google is full of more comprehensive guides - both paid and free. For some reason none of them contain some of the key information here, so I hope this helps all you internet readers. The West Highland Way is great. You're going to love it.
PS - If you like this post, you'll probably also like The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's our new book about living an adventurous life on the cheap and doing things like hiking around Scotland when you don't have much of a budget to work with.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.