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10 Things to Know About Hiking in Scotland

By Meike van Krimpen, Content Editor
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1. Scottish Weather and Seasons

Autumn-highland-landscape

Experience the beauty of Scotland in October on our Autumn Highlands Tour

The most asked question we get is some variation of ‘when will the weather be best/what is the best month for hiking?’

The answer – we don’t know! No-one does. The weather in Scotland changes all the time. While the summer months are generally drier than the winter months, there’s no single one that is any likely to have less rain or higher temperatures.

What does change with the seasons is the scenery. It’s always beautiful, but you’ll see a different character to it depending when you’re here:

  • In spring (March to May) the hills are initially still brown but gradually come to life with colour as wildflowers, grasses and forests bloom.
  • Summer in June, July and August is extremely green and lush. The famous Scottish heather blooms purple at the end of August transforming the hills.
  • Autumn arrives in September and the colours reach their peak sometime around mid October.
  • Winter stretches from December to February. Though the days are shorter, the stunning snowy landscapes make it worth it.

Whenever you choose to hike you should be prepared for a mix of medium/cool temperatures, some rain and some sun. Yes, it can rain persistently but what you’ll often find are showers that blow through in a few minutes, with shafts of sun and rainbows enriching the scenery. When the clouds disappear and the sun shines for days (yes it does happen) it’s lovely and warm – even hot!

2. The Scottish Landscape – Where to go

Where in Scotland should you visit? The Highlands and Islands are home to most of Scotland’s mountains, and hence are where most people like to hike. But there is tremendous variation from area to area so one place is very different from another. We break it down into the following regions:

The West Highlands

Knoydart mountains

The stunning Black Cuillin mountains on Skye.

Scotland is a small country that boasts nearly 10,000km of coastline. The West Coast is the most famous and is home to hundreds of spectacular mountains, glens and lochs. This is classic Scotland, with high shapely peaks, stunning greenery and rich in coastal wildlife such as basking sharks, dolphins and otters.

The North West Highlands

Stac Polly in Assynt

Descending Stac Polly in Assynt.

The further north you go the wilder and wilder it gets. The towering mountains are more spaced out up here and you can explore landscapes made of truly ancient stone. The coast is a blend of rocky shore, sandy beaches and towering cliffs. Inland you can find vast empty spaces and quiet lochs.

Cairngorms & Centre Highlands

Steam train - Aviemore - Cairngorms

Waiting for the Steam train in Aviemore.

In the middle of the country the hills are wide and rolling, covered in heather. Perhaps not quite the drama and fame of the west coast but that’s made up for with beautiful ancient forests, rare wildlife such as osprey, red squirrel and pine marten – plus slightly drier weather! In late summer and autumn these areas really come into their own.

The Inner Hebrides

Spotting dolphins near Argyll and the Isles.

These are the Scottish islands that lie closer to the mainland than their cousins in the Outer Hebrides. They are astonishingly varied from jagged black mountains of the Isle of Skye to the gentle hills of Islay. The Small Isles just off the coast of Arisaig are a true Scottish gem and as different as they are beautiful.

The Outer Hebrides

Outer Hebridean beach

World-renowned beaches on the Outer Hebrides.

A world apart, the Outer Hebrides are a haven of wilderness on the Atlantic fringe of Europe. Unique landscapes including rolling green hills, blue lagoons and white sand beaches to die for. The weather is constantly changing, but when the sun shines you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven as you stroll through the coastal wildflower meadows.

Shetland & Orkney Isles

Orkney landscape

Walking around the incredible landscapes of Orkney.

Scotland’s ‘Northern Isles’ each have their own character, but in both places, you’ll find astonishing history from ancient times to modern, abundant wildlife and green islands bounded by dramatic shores. In springtime, they are a fantastic place to visit to find rare birds and enjoy the long, long daylight hours.

3. What are the trails like?

If you join us on one of our Green graded trips you’ll find that Scotland has plenty of beautiful hikes on straightforward and easy trails, grassy paths and delightful beaches. But you should still be prepared for walking off-trail and doing some easy climbs and descents. Scotland is never really flat and you’ll find that even good paths can be rough, wet and muddy in places.

Walking Trip Grades Explained from Wilderness Scotland on Vimeo.

On our more challenging trips we’ll be climbing some hills and doing more remote hikes. In that case you must be ready for rough ground – many so called paths and trails in the hills are just informal tracks that have been worn in over time. You need to be prepared for rocks, heather, water and some steeper terrain.

Apart from the most popular routes you won’t find lots of signposts, handrails and fences. In Scotland you have freedom to walk largely where you please, but you’re expected to accept responsibility for yourself too.

4. Clothing and Equipment

Hill walkers preparing to hike in Scotland

It is good to be prepared and pack layers as the weather can change throughout the day

It’s essential to be properly prepared for hiking in Scotland. As we’ve said the weather can be poor and the trail can be rough. You should be properly clothed with warm layers underneath and waterproof layers on top – both waterproof jacket and trousers if it is raining. Good footwear is crucial and things like sneakers or trainers really aren’t suitable. At the very least you need walking shoes with a good tread, but proper waterproof walking boots are best.

For day hikes you’ll need a small rucksack to carry your spare clothes, lunch plus snacks and anything extra such as a camera. Walking poles are a popular choice and hats and gloves should always be in your bag except when it’s forecast to be warm and nice all day.

5. Food and Accommodation

seafood-scotland

Just a taste (sorry) of the delicious food you can expect to enjoy on one of our many trips

Once upon a time Scotland had a reputation for poor food. Those days are long gone.

With our clean coastal waters Scotland boasts some of the best seafood in the world. Scottish Salmon is a byword for quality and we also claim lobster that is the equal of anything available in New England. On land you’ll find all sorts of delicious ingredients too such as venison and trout. Of course, you can find plenty of veg in the shops, but the real treats are grown locally and served up with the best local ingredients in traditional style recipes.

You will also find accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. On our trips we prefer to use smaller, locally owned and managed establishments, but these range from alpine style lodges set by remote beaches to luxurious Highland lodges and grand mansion houses. Whichever you choose, you’ll be sure of a warm welcome, plenty of comfort and a good night’s sleep.

6. Do I need a guide?

guided-tour-hiking-scotland

One of our many knowledgeable guides leading the way

Whether you need a guide depends on which hike you’re choosing and how much experience you have, but once you hear about our guides you’ll certainly want one!

It’s having a guide that will really turn your adventure into the trip of a lifetime. You’ll have someone there to explain what’s around you – from the history and folklore to the names of mountains, plants, animals and some amazing insights into each of these. You’ll feel like a local in their company. And of course, many of our guides also individually have a particular interest that they can share with you to an expert level, whether that’s botany, history, Gaelic songs or ecology. Of course, they’ll be there to manage safety and lead hikes, and all our guides are qualified in their activity – often to the highest professional level. There’s no doubt that the Wilderness Group guiding team is the best in the country.

7. When should I plan? When should I book?

Travellers-walking-west-highland-way

A group of adventure travellers on our West Highland Way hiking trip.

We recommend booking your trip as far ahead as possible. Our trips have small group sizes for a more personal experience, but it means that trips can fill up a surprisingly long time in advance. It’s not uncommon for people to book a year ahead.

On some of our trips we may be able to accept a booking even up to the day before it starts if there is a place available. On others we will need to check if rooms are available, so at the latest we recommend you leave it no later the 4-8 weeks before you plan to travel.

8) Can I use credit cards in the Highlands and Islands?

Yes! Scotland is fully connected and you shouldn’t have any problems paying with cards even in quite remote spots. By all means, carry some cash just in case – but for most things, you won’t have any issues.

9. What about my cell phone?

cell-phone-camera-scottish-hiking

Your cell phone is a great way to take amazing photos of the beautiful Scottish wilderness

Cell phone coverage is generally good and improving all the time, but in the far flung places there are still black spots for some networks. On our guided trips we use a 2-way satellite communications system so we’re never out of touch with base, but if you plan on going alone then tell someone where you’re going, just in case.

10. Can I buy hiking supplies there?

It’s essential to have a good pair of walking boots, but remember to take them off when soaking your feet at the beach.

Of course a good pair of walking boots are a must – though it’s best to have them broken in first. It’s always smart to bring your supplies with you. But in case you forget an item, we’re amply supplied with outfitters for hiking and other sports here. In the cities, you’ll find major outdoor stores, as well as specialty stores in several Highland towns such as Fort William, Aviemore and Inverness. So if you need to pick up a pair of outdoor shoes or a new jacket, it should be easy. You can buy things like insect repellent, sunscreen and sunglasses almost anywhere.

Meet the Author: Meike van Krimpen

Having grown up travelling across the world I’ve developed an addiction to all things spice and to travel! When it was time to go to university I wandered off to Scotland for a new adventure and have not managed to leave yet!

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