Five Things I love about Backpacking Epitomized by the West Highland Way

Catherine is komoot’s London-based copywriter. She loves backpacking and recently explored Scotland for the first time. Turns out the West Highland Way is the ideal introduction to this beautiful part of the United Kingdom. Here’s why. 

There are five elements of backpacking that make me really happy. If I get all five things on one trail, I’m a super happy hiker. Against the odds (fickle weather, busy trails, and close proximity to towns), I discovered that the West Highland Way in Scotland epitomizes these five things.

The Way is an iconic long-distance walk with a lot of foot traffic. The route takes you northbound from the town of Milngavie in the western lowlands to Fort William, set amidst the mountain-strewn landscape of the highlands. I knew it would be good (places are usually popular for a reason), but I was wary of how busy it would be in August and didn’t quite believe that the UK had anywhere truly wild left. 

As it turned out, the route exceeded my expectations and then some, and on reflection sums up the five things I love about backpacking.

Self-reliance

Backpack on, enough food and shelter on your back for a couple of days, and your own body to take you forward. Backpacking may not have the same glamour factor as extreme sports like mountaineering or snowboarding, but I feel pretty badass knowing I don’t need anyone or anything else to be safe and happy. This kind of self-reliance isn’t possible everywhere due to wild camping restrictions, but Scotland, and more specifically the West Highland Way, is a great place for it. It’s wild and empty and camping is allowed. You’ll pass through many towns en-route, but a few kilometers out of town and that wilderness feeling is back.

Surprisingly beautiful scenery

One of the amazing things about backpacking is seeing landscapes reveal themselves slowly over the course of a hike. The West Highland Way is a case in point.

I’d heard Scotland is beautiful but I didn’t fully believe it until I got there. All I knew of the UK before arriving, was rolling hills and farmland. 

Walking the West Highland Way northbound means the Highlands reveal themselves to you gradually. My partner & I started walking through familiar-looking cultivated lands, slowly picking our way along the shore of Loch Lomond and then climbing slowly into the heart of the Highlands. Almost without realizing it, one day you find yourself walking surrounded by peaks wherever you look or walking through kilometers of inhospitable moorland.

Wild camping

I like camping. But I especially love camping when I get to choose my own spot, away from crowds of people, and in a location that is totally immersed in the surrounding nature. Because wild camping is permitted in Scotland, we got multiple opportunities to cowboy camp. 

We pitched our tent on the shores of Loch Lomond and woke up to the sound of water gently lapping the shore. We camped at the bottom of Glen Coe and woke up at the foot of an overbearing mountain, and we slept at the edge of a pine plantation, with morning views of the surrounding hills.

Morning coffee in the wild

Speaking of morning views…Unlike at home, creeping out of bed into chilly morning air is the best feeling. I love the jolt into “awakeness”. And I love how much more enjoyable a coffee can be after just such a jolt. Once you’ve settled into the morning, there are few things as lovely as taking time to absorb the nature around you, with chilly cheeks and warm hands as they grip your toasty cup. For me, this is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Walking (duh)

Most people are able to walk, which is one of the reasons I love it – there are minimal barriers to entry. You don’t need much money nor technical know-how, and nor do you need to be exceptionally fit. Just about anyone can walk! Once I start walking things become very simple. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other, at a pace that allows you to look around you and take in the surroundings. 

If ever there was a trail that epitomized the simplicity of walking, it is the West Highland Way. Amazingly beautiful but not very technical, most of the trail is old military road or well-marked paths requiring little concentration, so your mind can wander and truly relax. In that state of mind, you start to notice not only the details of the landscape around you – the insects and plants that bring nature to life, but you also get to go deeper into your own thoughts, often popping out of daydreams with a little more clarity on your own life. 

Camaraderie (bonus)

Being alone in nature is a strong theme in my backpacking life, but here is a chance to clarify that I like being out there with people too. I generally dislike crowds, but there are some benefits to walking a well-trodden path. One of them is the camaraderie of the trail. The West Highland Way is a bit like a walkers’ highway, the upside being that you end up chatting to people from a range of backgrounds. This isn’t usually a requirement for me but it was something I enjoyed on the West Highland Way.

Having done it, I now see why the West Highland Way is as popular as it is. It’s beautiful, friendly and accessible. It’s long enough to provide a bit of challenge without being so technical that you need specialist equipment. It really allowed me to ease into this backpacking trip and think about why I love hiking. If you’ve got this far in the blog post you’ll know the result of all that ruminating. 

You can see the full West Highland Way route Collection here. Want to read more backpacking content? Slovenia is an epic hiking destination, and we have a guide here that will make your planning for a hut to hut hike seamless.

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