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Scottish National Trail: Ultimate Guide to Your Thru-Hike

Scottish National Trail: Ultimate Guide to Your Thru-Hike

Ever dreamt of hiking through the Scottish Highlands?  The Scottish National Trail travels from the Borderlands through the Highlands to Cape Wrath in the northwestern corner of Scotland.

My partner and I thru-hiked the epic adventure of the Scottish National Trail in 2019 and fell in love with Scotland.  I loved the sheer starkness of the craggy peaks to the stinky bogs. 

The Scottish National Trail uses the wide network of Scotland’s Great Trails to cobble together a 535-mile footpath that runs from the south to the north.  Thus, you’ll get a taste of many long-distance walks in Scotland.

I’ll walk you through everything you need to know before starting your own thru-hike on the Scottish National Trail…come along for the ride!

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Scottish National Trail Map & Basic Info 🗺️

While the Scottish National Trail runs from the southern Borderlands through the Highlands, it does not go directly.  As you can see from the map above, it certainly meanders across Scotland.

It pieces together pre-existing trails otherwise known as Scotland’s Great Trails.  It adds either some of its own trail or cross-country in between these pre-existing routes to create the larger Scottish National Trail.

The gpx track is from The Walking Englishman’s website and I added in points of interest.

You see marked locations for grocery stores, some accommodations (not all), stores to get canister fuel, and nearby distilleries.

It’s also extremely helpful to get a local SIM card for your phone. US carriers charge outrageous amounts for overseas data. You can get one once you land if your phone is unlocked or you can purchase an eSIM ahead of time and reload as needed.

Scottish National Trail FAQs

Scottish National Trail in the Highlands with a creek.
Scottish Highlands
How many miles is the Scottish National Trail?
The Scottish National Trail is about 535 miles or 865 kilometers.
How long will it take to hike the Scottish National Trail?
This will take most thru-hikers 4-6 weeks.
Do I need a Visa for the UK coming from the United States?
No…as long as you stay for under 3 months in the same year.
What direction do most people hike?
Either is completely doable. However, it’s mostly hiked northbound. That way, you start in the more urban half and then get more remote.
Where can I camp on trail?
You can camp anywhere within reason. You have the right to roam which includes wild camping. However, you cannot camp in a town or right next to someone’s house (without permission). See more below.

Difficulty Level 🟦

Three thru-hikers hiking along the Scottish National Trail.

As a thru-hike, I would rate the Scottish National Trail as Intermediate.

🥾 No 500+ mile trail is easy. 

The Scottish National Trail just takes a little more planning than others for those coming from the United States.

Things that make it harder than other trails are:

  • No SNT-specific trail markers 📍
  • Cross-country elements
  • Lack of a crowd-sourced navigation app (like Far Out) 📲
  • Bogs are next-level stinky

Things that make the Scottish National Trail not terribly difficult as a thru-hike are:

  • Frequent resupply options (biggest carry was 4.5 days) 🍞
  • A large amount of trail (as opposed to cross-country)
  • Bothies give you a reprieve from the wet weather ☔️

Navigation

Topographic maps/paper maps with a red trail and a bothy circled on the Scottish National Trail.
Paper Maps

📍 We used the tried-and-true method of Gaia GPS and Paper Maps.

Digital Maps 📲

Gaia GPS – Before leaving, we downloaded a GPX file for the Scottish National Trail from the Walking Englishman.  Then, we imported it to the Gaia GPS app and downloaded offline base maps around it.

Google Maps – We uploaded the GPX file to Google Maps as well.  Here, we downloaded them for offline use as part of our resupply strategy.  From the comfort of our van, we pinned grocery stores, gas stations with food, hostels, and B&Bs for use on trail. *This proved very helpful.

Paper Maps 🗺️

OS Maps Ordinance Survey Maps are the British version of USGS Maps. I used a 7-day free trial of OS Maps to import the Scottish National Trail gpx and make PDF maps around it.  With that, I saved the PDF maps to a thumb drive and took them to a print shop to have them printed out double-sided on high-quality paper.

I believe you can also do this on CalTopo now, although you couldn’t in 2019. 

Resupply Options

Three hikers eating a snack together.

Resupply options are plentiful on the Scottish National Trail.  Although, they are skewed more heavily in the south and get further apart in the north.

You’ll have access to a town every 1-2 days from the England/Scotland border until you get off the West Highland Way just north of Glasgow. 

🥦 As a vegan, I could find enough to eat between these stores.  I made it through with no mail drops.

See the google map above for the stores we located for resupply. However, some points and stores we labeled as more emergency stores and canister fuel locations.

Here’s a list of common stores with food in them.  The stores with the most food will have 🍞🍞🍞 and the stores with the least options will have 🍞.

Tesco 🍞🍞🍞

You can find just about anything in a Tesco.  Tesco is similar to a Walmart, but not owned by it.  You’ll see not only groceries, but also clothing here.

Sainsbury’s 🍞🍞🍞

Sainsbury’s is a large grocery store chain.  You’ll get a similar vibe in Safeway, Kroger, or Albertsons.  You can find almost any food here.

ALDI 🍞🍞

Same as in the United States.  ALDIs run heavy on the packaged deal-food and you never know exactly what you’ll find.  But you can usually find something to eat.

SPAR 🍞/🍞🍞

SPAR stores vary drastically.  Some have a lot more food options than others.  The options usually correspond to the number of people in the town.

Co-op Food – Town Name 🍞🍞

Co-ops are small grocery stores that have many options, but not everything.

Londis 🍞 This is a glorified gas station.  Here, you can find junk food.  Good for extra food or snacks.

Thru-Hiking Food That’s Hard to Find

Views on the Scottish National Trail

One MAJOR thru-hiker food that we just could not find was protein bars.  In major cities with Tesco, we could find some cliff bars, in all the old flavors only.  When we did find them, they were outrageously priced.

🎒 We brought our first food carry with us and we had our normal bars for the first 100 miles.  For the next 435 miles, we adapted.

In that way, the Scottish National Trail forced us outside of our normal resupply foods to find other snacks…like Haggis flavored chips (surprisingly vegan!) 🥔

If you’re big on specific bars to eat, you may need to find a local contact for them or figure out if you can mail drop through the Royal Mail.  If you pre-book B&Bs, you might be able to ask if they’ll hold a package for you.

Canister Fuel Options

Three thru-hikers camping together in Scotland on the Scottish National Trail.
Cooking Dinner on the Scottish National Trail

You CAN find canister fuel in Scotland.  However, you can’t find it often.  We ended up using the larger 8oz canister instead of the 4oz that we usually use to ensure we never ran out.

👩‍🍳 That being said, you can find canister fuel (at least in 2019):

  • 📍Cotswold Outdoor in Edinburgh
  • 📍James Bayne Fish and Tackle/Calendonian Country Wear in Callander
  • 📍Tiso in Aviemore (off-trail, hitch)
  • 📍Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports in Fort William or Inverness (off-trail, bus-able)

What’s a Bothy?

A bothy in Scotland on the Scottish National Trail
Bothy Life

A bothy is a repurposed structure to shelter hikers and bikers.  They are somewhat similar to shelters on the Appalachian Trail, however, they have significantly more history.

🏠 Each bothy used to be something else – a home, a schoolhouse, a barn, a cabin, you name it.  Most have 4 walls, often a fireplace, and at least a shovel for a bathroom. The Mountain Bothy Association maintains over 100 bothies in Great Britain as a volunteer organization.  If you thru-hike the Scottish National Trail, please consider donating for their upkeep.

“Wild Camping” in Scotland and the Right to Roam

Tarp and bug net in Scottish Highlands on the Scottish National Trail.
Camping in the Scottish Highlands

🚶‍♀️The Right to Roam allows for recreational access across public and private land with basic rules. 

It became a law in 2003 and has since added clear regulations to keep both recreationists and landowners happy. After implementation, Scotland created the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

🚮 The CORE tenets are respect and leave no trace.  This translates to: Don’t be an asshole.

Right to Roam allows you as a thru-hiker to pass through private land for agriculture or grazing.  However, you must walk on the outside of fields next to the fence so you don’t damage any crops.

This extends to not only caring for property but also the environment.  Remember the basics: pack it in, pack it out.

⛺️ As for wild camping, you may camp anywhere within reason.  This means that you should not camp within view of someone’s house, in the middle of their farmed field, in town, and keep away from historic sites, roads, and buildings.

It limits your camping stay to 2-3 days in one location – not a problem for Scottish National Trail thru-hikers.  And it stipulates that you remove all traces of your camp including your tent imprint.

A Note on Bogs, Midges, TICKS, and Highland Coos

Deer tick on a q-tip.
Deer Tick on a Q-Tip

Two things I heard all about but didn’t quite get until we got there were bogs and midges. 🦟

For starters, you have to plan your camping spot where you can find solid ground.  A few campsites we used were on the most solid ground we could find.  We destroyed a piece of Tyvek over the 5 weeks on trail. 💦

And DEFINITELY have a bug net and head net!  🦟 Midges are next-level annoying.  I think I would have hated the Scottish National Trail without a bug net.  100%.

🤯 I was NOT expecting deer ticks. We noticed that we had to perform tick checks each night in the tent, just like the Appalachian Trail. Ladies…be careful where you squat. We saw the most ticks in knee-high grass next to the trail or dirt road and on super sunny days.

Lastly, make sure you keep an eye out for the classically cute Highland Coos (Cows)!

Scottish National Trail Compared to Thru-Hikes in the United States

Two backpackers posing with a good view on the Scottish National Trail

While similar in many ways, the Scottish National Trail has a different vibe than thru-hikes in the United States.

1️⃣ First, the southern third of the trail is fairly urban, especially between Edinburgh and Glasgow.  This section reminded me more of the Caminos de Santiago in Spain and Portugal.  During this section, it’s helpful to have town clothes.  When you go to a B&B or hostel, you actually need other clothing.  It’s not as hiker trashy as the US.

2️⃣ Second, the food you can find will differ from the United States.  They just don’t eat protein bars like we do.  We relied more on nuts.

3️⃣ Third, the bogs in the Highlands are something else.  Since they are literally made of rotting plant matter, when you sink in, your feet stink.  And it’s a special stink.  Never have I ever ruined a pair of darn tough socks faster than on the Scottish National Trail. Our sandals did great though!

Overall, you’ll feel more like you’re thru-hiking as soon as you leave the West Highland Way behind going northbound.  That’s where you begin to get more remote.  When you leave Pitlochry, it will get even more remote. 

➡️ Finally, if the fairly urban portion just doesn’t sound like your vibe, look into the Cape Wrath Trail.  The Scottish National Trail uses over half of it, but you can start in Fort William for the full trail.  It also has in-route options, cross-country, and yes, bogs.

Transportation to/from the Beginning and End

You can use public transportation to get to both the southern terminus and northern terminus.

📍 Southern Terminus: Fly into either Edinburgh or Glasgow and use 1-3 buses to get to Kirk Yetholm.  The Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm is the official start of the Scottish National Trail.  It’s an extra 2.5 miles or so to go to the England/Scotland border. 

From Edinburgh:

  • 🚍 Borders Bus 51 and 67 to Kelso OR 🚊 ScotRail to Kelso
  • 🚍 Local Bus 81 to Kirk Yetholm

From Glasgow:

  • 🚍 Megabus 900 to Edinburgh
  • 🚍 Borders Bus 51 and 67 to Kelso OR 🚊 ScotRail to Kelso
  • 🚍 Local Bus 81 to Kirk Yetholm
View toward Cape Wrath in Scotland with the Altantic Ocean
Walking to Cape Wrath

📍 Northern Terminus: Once you hike to Cape Wrath, you have two options: the minibus to the ferry or walking to the ferry.  You’ll want an extra day of food in case the bus is full and you have to walk it.  The lighthouse is privately owned and has a café open only for when the bus arrives.

You’ll likely need to find a place to stay in Durness since most buses leave in the mornings. Here is a list of places to stay in Durness, Scotland.

From Cape Wrath (Reverse to get to Cape Wrath):

  • 🚍 Minibus to Ferry Dock
  • ⛴️ Ferry to Keoldale
  • 🚶‍♀️ Walk to Durness
  • 🚍 Bus 805 to Inverness
  • 🚍/🚊/✈️ Inverness to Edinburg/Glasgow/London

Other Long-Distance Hikes in Scotland

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 The Scottish National Trail pieces together bits of these trails:

St. Cuthbert’s Way – Starts in England and goes over the border into Scotland. 62 miles.

Southern Upland Way – Crosses the borderlands mostly east/west. 210 miles.

John Muir Way – Footpath that includes some canal towpaths. 135 miles.

Forth & Clyde Towpath + Union Towpath – Flat paths next to canals.  Urban Flat walking. 63 miles.

West Highland Way – The most popular hike in Scotland ending on their tallest mountain. 94 miles.

Rob Roy Way – Travels through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to Pitlochry. 80 miles.

East Highland Way – East/West including the Cairngorm Mountains. 80 miles.

Great Glen Way – Canal flat walking. 72 miles

Affric Kintail Way – East/West route between lochs. 46 miles.

Cape Wrath Trail – The most like a US thru-hike.  Scottish Highlands in a nutshell. 235 miles.

Scottish National Trail Final Thoughts 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Scottish National Trail views.
Views for Days!

If you’re in the United States and looking to branch out into international thru-hikes, the Scottish National Trail is perfect!  At just over 500 miles, it packs a big punch, allows you to camp, and has amazing views.

If you’re in Europe and you want a big hike that’s not too far, the Scottish National Trail has all the elements of a hearty thru-hike! 👣

Either way, if the Scottish National Trail is not on your list, it should be. 

From stunning scenery to repurposed bothies to deeply cold lochs, the Scottish National Trail gives you a beautiful window into life in Scotland. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Drop Bear (Siobhan)

Tuesday 12th of December 2023

This is concise and fabulous, thanks.

mandyredpath

Thursday 14th of December 2023

Thank you! It was such an AMAZING trail, it's hard to say anything bad about it...other than the midges!

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