Who hasn’t dreamed of backpacking in Scotland? To many of us the idea is irresistibly romantic. Climbing rocky crags and wandering through heather-dotted highlands in the land of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson? Backpacking in Scotland may not be quite what a trek through this country was two hundred years ago, but it will still be a wonderful experience filled with breathtaking beauty.
There are four major official long-distance hiking trails in Scotland. These paths are well-maintained and well marked, and ideal for a visiting backpacker. They are:
• The Southern Upland Way—From Port Patrick to Cockbunspath, this 212 mile path was Britain’s very first coast-to-coast walking trail. Expect to take 10 to 20 days to walk this path, depending on your hiking speed and how much time you want to take to enjoy the trail. You can camp by the side of the trail (see our section on informal camping below); just make sure you leave no trace when you move on. Open fires aren’t allowed along the Southern Upland Way unless you’ve been given specific permission from a landowner.
• The Great Glen Way—A path from Fort William to Inverness, the Great Glen Way is 73 miles in length and can be covered in anywhere from four to six days. Though the path travels through some remote areas, it is well maintained and well marked with waymarkers and timber towers.
• The Speyside Way – This trail approximately follows the course of the Spey river, from the mountains to the sea (or vice versa if you take it the other direction), but it is not a strictly riverside course: sometimes you’ll be farther, sometimes you’ll be closer. The landscape varies widely. The course takes approximately 5-6 days, and there are plenty of villages along the way where you can spend the night or buy food and supplies. From Aviemore to Buckie, this course is 65 miles.
• The West Highland Way—From Milngavie to Fort William, this trail takes about six or seven days to walk. It may be especially lovely in Spring and Autumn, but there will also be more foot traffic during those times. In winter it is best attempted only by an experienced backpacker, as it is 95 miles over varying topography and some sections, like Blackmount and the Devil’s Staircase, may become tricky in bad weather.
Aside from these, of course, there are many other trails—both day trails and long distance—which you can discover if you do backpacking in Scotland for a longer time. If you’re fairly good at navigation and can handle bad weather, nothing will hold you back.
You are allowed to camp in non-designated wild areas in Scotland, but there are some rules. Your backpacking group has to be small, you have to be traveling lightweight, and you can’t stay in any place for longer than two or three nights. Don’t camp in fields, and stay away from buildings, either personal property or historical artifacts. Don’t disturb wildlife, and don’t disturb any deer stalking or grouse shooting that might be going either. It’s also very important that you leave no trace of our campsite. That means you take any trash you make with you, and you eliminate all traces of your fire and your tent’s footprint before you leave the area. Leave the place you’ve been camping in looking exactly as it did when you first set foot there.
It’s important those backpacking in Scotland are also aware that there are also rules against camping on the east side of Loch Lomond during the spring and summer; from March 1st up until the end of October. This means you can’t pitch a tent, but it also means you can’t sleep overnight in your vehicle or even outside unless you’re at an official camping ground.
But for the rest—the road is yours, and you can have lots of fun with your new found vagabond life, camping wherever the whim strikes you. Backpacking in Scotland is a grand adventure, so start planning your trip now!