A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail

hiking the scottish national trail

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The Scottish National Trail is the grandfather of long-distance hikes in Scotland; it combines many existing trails, linking them to form one massive hike that runs the length of Scotland. In 2018 I was the first solo female to complete the trail in one go. I wrote this hiking guide to help anyone planning to hike the Scottish National Trail, including answers to the most frequently asked questions, descriptions of each section, advice on what to pack, and other helpful information.

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I stumbled across the Scottish National Trail while searching for long-distance hikes in Scotland, and as soon as I read about it I couldn’t get it off my mind.

The Scottish National Trail begins at the border of England and Scotland in Kirk Yetholm and concludes at Cape Wrath, Scotland’s most north-western point. It takes you on a journey through Scotland’s varied terrain, from the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, through cities and along canal towpaths to reach the rocky and wild heathery mountains in the Scottish Highlands. In total, it is 864 kilometers [536 miles] long, zig-zagging the length of Scotland.

The Scottish National Trail was devised by Cameron McNeish, a wilderness hiker and mountain walker who knows Scotland’s landscapes like the back of his hand.

My journey began in May; I estimated it would take 5.5 weeks to complete, and I finished it in 6.5 weeks thanks to the unpredictable Scottish weather. I hiked in every type of weather, including thunderstorms and a heatwave that lasted several weeks. That’s Scotland for you!

The Scottish National Trail was both the hardest and the most incredible experience of my life. I went into the trail not knowing what to expect; I had never attempted a long distance hike before, nor had I wild camped since high school. I’d also never been wild-camping solo before.

This hike isn’t for the inexperienced, and I learned many important lessons the hard way on the trail. I wrote this guide to help anyone who is planning on hiking the trail. I’m sharing with you the things I wish I had known before I set off, advice on what to pack, and all those helpful bits of information that are missing from other online guides.

Covid-19 notice: While I’ve tried my best to keep this article updated with the latest information, due to the pandemic some attractions and places mentioned in this article may be closed. Be sure to plan ahead, check what’s open before you visit and read my Covid-19 Scotland guide for more information on travel in Scotland.

Grab my Scottish National Trail eBooks

I’ve created two in-depth ebooks on weeks one and two of the Scottish National Trail. They are $14 USD / £10 each [you can purchase from any country- the amount will convert automatically when you purchase]. Also- 10% of each guide sold goes to charities that help protect Scotland’s wild places. Thank you for your support!

>> Click here to purchase them

Scottish National Trail map

scottish national trail map
Map of the Scottish National Trail

Scottish National Trail FAQ

How long is the Scottish National Trail?

864 kilometres / 536 miles.

How long does it take to hike the Scottish National Trail?

According to the website, it takes 5 weeks to complete. It took me 6.5 weeks to complete as I had to rest a few days due to a storm, and I walked for 6 days and then had one rest day. I would allow 6-7 weeks to hike the Scottish National Trail, as that allows for rest days and a few days’ leeway in case the weather turns bad.

How much does it cost to hike the Scottish National Trail?

I spent roughly £600 on equipment before the hike, and around £1500 on accommodation, food and activities during the hike. I was on a very tight budget, and wild camped five out of seven nights to keep my costs down.

When is the best time to hike the Scottish National Trail?

I started the SNT mid-May and finished it the start of July. This, in my opinion, is the perfect time to do the hike. You’ll start in the heart of spring, which is a particularly lovely time of the year in the Scottish Borders, and complete the hike just before the midges start to get bad. Midges are most prevalent in July-August and they hang around damp areas including lochs, burns and rivers in the Scottish Highlands. These wee bitey beasts appear in swarms and will make your hike tedious- so avoid the SNT in July and August if possible.

Which direction should you hike the Scottish National Trail?

You should begin in Kirk Yetholm and hike north-west to Cape Wrath. The hike starts out quite easy and gradually increases in difficulty as you walk further north. I wouldn’t recommend hiking it in the opposite direction- you want to save the best scenery for last!

How hard is the Scottish National Trail?

This was something that worried me when I started the trail. I had very little experience with long-distance hiking, and I’d never wild-camped solo before. The first week is easy to moderate, the second week is easy, and from week three the trail gets progressively harder. The final section from Mandally to Cape Wrath is the toughest section. You follow a trail called the Cape Wrath Trail, which is Britain’s toughest hike. While this section is hard, I feel the SNT builds you up to it. I coped with the entire trail pretty well, yes it was tough, but it was always tougher in my mind. At the end of each day, I would laugh at myself because it was actually way easier than I built up in my head.

Most of the trail avoids summiting mountains and uses passes, so you won’t be running up and down hills every day! The most you’ll ascend is around 800m in a day- but only on a few different days. As long as you’re reasonably fit, do your research, carry the correct gear and break in your hiking boots beforehand- you’ll be fine!

What about carrying water?

I carried two 1-litre bottles on the trail and I found it easy refilling them. You’ll hike through towns and villages right up until the section from Blair Atholl into the Cairngorms National Park. During this section, I refilled my water bottles in the rivers. I also drank river water throughout the Cape Wrath Trail section. Highland water is delicious! I didn’t carry water purifying tablets with me, and I didn’t get sick from drinking any of the water [except once when I drank questionable water at a hotel!]. If you want to carry water purifying tablets, that’s up to you, but if you don’t make sure you check there aren’t any dead animals lying in the river 200 meters upstream and don’t drink from rivers with low water levels. Fast running, deep rivers are much safer to drink from.

How do you get to Kirk Yetholm?

I was living in Edinburgh before I started my hike, and the easiest way to get to Kirk Yetholm from Edinburgh is by bus with Borders Buses. I had to change my bus in Kelso as there wasn’t a direct bus to the village. Tickets are cheap, and you can purchase them via their website.

How do you get back to Edinburgh once you finish the trail?

Cape Wrath is very remote, but there is a minibus that transports hikers from the Ozone cafe at Cape Wrath to Durness once a day. Visit the Cape Wrath website for more information and to book the bus. I recommend spending a night or two in Durness. It’s a lovely village by the sea, and Smoo Cave is a must-see! From Durness, you can catch the Durness Bus to Lairg station, and then you can catch the train to Inverness.

I had a few hours to kill in Inverness before my train back to Edinburgh, so I visited the Culloden Battlefield. I highly recommend visiting if you have time- its a humbling way to complete the Scottish National Trail.

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Kinlochbervie, towards the end of the trail

Why I hiked the Scottish National Trail

There were many reasons why I decided to hike the Scottish National Trail, but here are the three main ones:

1. To explore Scotland the way my ancestors did

I’ve always been passionate about my Scottish family history and while it is difficult to know exactly what it was like to live like my ancestors back in the day, I wanted to get as close as possible to experiencing life as they did.

For me, this meant exploring the Scottish Highlands by foot.

As a result, I learnt an incredible amount about the landscape and what life would have been like sleeping under the stars in the Scottish Highlands.

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Visiting my 5x grandfather’s grave in the Scottish Highlands

2. To reconnect with myself

I work full-time as a travel blogger, so I am constantly connected to some type of device. I wanted to go back to basics, immerse myself in nature and deepen my connection with myself.

This might seem like a drastic way of reconnecting with myself, but I wanted to push my mind and body. I can honestly say the things I learned about myself and the skills I developed on the trail will be with me for life. I learned some of the most important life lessons on the SNT, and I am so grateful for the experience.

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Wild camping by Lochan Fada

3. To raise money for Cystic Fibrosis

I decided to hike the length of Scotland for another very good reason. My goddaughter, Olivia (6, at the time of my hike) was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) when she was born. CF is known as the hidden disease and is the most common life threatening genetic disorder affecting New Zealand children.

There is no cure for CF, but the gene that causes cystic fibrosis has been identified and doctors are working to find ways to repair or replace it, and medications to treat CF complications.

Half of the funds I raised (£1030 in total) went towards Olivia’s treatment costs. The remaining half went to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to care for families living with CF.

I know Olivia will have many challenges ahead of her, and I wanted to be someone she could look up to. I wanted to show her that your body can do amazing things, as long as your mind is strong. For me, the Scottish National Trail was 80% mental strength, 20% physical strength.

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Reaching the coast at the end of the Scottish National Trail

Route descriptions

Week 1: Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh

The first week of the Scottish National Trail has you hiking through the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh. This first section is an excellent warm-up of what is to come. It combines sections of the walking trails of St Cuthbert’s Way, the Southern Upland Way, and other smaller regional trails. It is pleasant walking through farmland and old Roman roads, and there is lots of history to see along the way. Highlights include Melrose Abbey, Dere Street [an old Roman road], and a section through the Pentland Hills Regional Park.

Level: Easy-moderate

Week 2: Edinburgh to Drymen

Week two is a welcome relief for your body- or is it? You follow the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals for most of the journey, which makes navigating very easy however the canal walking can be repetitive and a bit tedious. Wear insoles for the hard terrain. You’ll also pass through historic towns and villages, see people who live in houseboats on the canal, and walk the first section of the West Highland Way. Highlights include Linlithgow Palace, the Falkirk Wheel, and Callendar House. You finish the second week in Drymen, just north of Glasgow.

Level: Easy

Week 3: Drymen to Pitlochry

This next section takes you through part of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and vast farmland. This is when the trail starts to become a little quieter and you get a taste of some pathless trails. You’ll walk part of the Rob Roy Way before catching a glimpse of the Cairngorms National Park. Highlights include Aberfoyle Old Parish Church and Burial Ground, the Iain Burnett Highland Chocolatier and the charming towns of Aberfeldy and Pitlochry.

Level: Moderate

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Looking out to Loch na Sealga on the Scottish National Trail

Week 4: Pitlochry to Mandally

This section begins with a three day wild hike through the Cairngorms National Park and you will encounter your first river crossings. You will also have next to no phone signal while in the Cairngorms, however the terrain is mostly flat and there are some good, clear 4×4 tracks to help guide you. The rest of this section is fairly straightforward and you will have the opportunity to walk a small section of the Great Glen Way. Highlights include the Ruthven Barracks, the views of Loch Ness from the Corrieyairack Pass, and Invergarry Castle, which is a slight detour from the trail but well worth it!

Level: Moderate

Week 5-6: Mandally to Cape Wrath

The final stage of the Scottish National Trail is the toughest as you take on the Cape Wrath Trail through the Scottish Highlands. This section also has the most dramatic scenery. There are very few trails in this section, meaning you will need to know how to navigate with a map and compass. The terrain can be trying, but the rewards of the scenery are worth it. You will have fewer restocking points during this section, and I recommend a diversion to Ullapool to restock and rest at their fantastic campground. Highlights include the section from Inchnadamph to Loch Glencoul, the spectacular Great Wilderness, wild camping at Sandwood Bay and staying in several bothies.

Level: Difficult

hiking the cape wrath trail section
Hiking a section of the Cape Wrath Trail where the scenery really unfolds

Accommodation on the Scottish National Trail

To save money, I wild-camped 4-5 nights per week. I spent my days off in accommodation so I could recharge my phone and battery pack, and occasionally when I felt like sleeping in a real bed, I booked accommodation spur of the moment.

Here is my list of accommodation that I stayed in and recommend. Most of it is cheap and affordable, but there were a few occasions where I splurged on a nice hotel as a treat.

Full disclosure: I was gifted stays at The Border Hotel, JustB City Retreat, Pitlochry Youth Hostel, Torridon Youth Hostel and Durness Smoo Youth Hostel in exchange for my photography services. I enjoyed my stay at all of these places, and highly recommend them! I wouldn’t promote anything on my blog that I wouldn’t recommend to my friends and family, and I only work with brands I know and trust.

Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts

Hostels

Campsites

A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
The Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm

Scottish National Trail packing list

Here is everything I carried in my pack during the Scottish National Trail. I had to switch out a few things week to week, and I’ve recommended the equipment I used where possible [I’ve since upgraded some of my kit and recommend some different brands now].

Equipment

  • Good hiking boots. I purchased Scarpa Terra hiking boots for the SNT and highly recommend them. For men’s sizes click here, for women click here. I also own the Scarpa Mistral boot which I also love!
  • My hiking pack is The North Face Terra 65L. 65 litres was a good size for me, although you could probably use a 55L pack if your gear is small and lightweight [mine wasn’t!]. This pack was great, it lasted the entire hike without breaking down. In fact, it’s still going strong in 2021!
  • Mountain Warehouse 2 Man Backpacker Tent. This is the tent I used and it lasted me really well and even held up in a storm! It’s also super cheap. I’m 5’5 and 65cm and it fit me well.
  • Good quality self-inflatable mattress. I tried using a traditional pad but it was really uncomfortable- go for an inflatable! This one is fantastic.
  • A lightweight sleeping bag that is heat rated for whatever season you’re planning to do the hike.

Clothing

  • Crocs/sandals for the evening
  • 2x T-shirts
  • 2x pairs of hiking pants
  • 1x pair of shorts
  • 1x pair of waterproof pants
  • Waterproof shell. I love my RAB Waterproof jacket
  • Lightweight fleece
  • Lightweight down jacket
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Merino wool socks x3 pairs
  • A buff

Everything else

  • Superfeet insoles to relieve the pressure off your feet.
  • ViewRanger app. For navigation I used the ViewRanger app which costs £25 for one year and comes will all of the ordnance survey maps in the UK. You can also download these to your phone for offline use. Note: it’s important to carry a paper map or print out just in case your phone malfunctions.
  • Compeed plasters. These plasters saved me on day one! I’d spent a month breaking my hiking boots in but I still got blisters. I was only able to continue walking thanks to Compeed. These plasters act like a second skin, and they won’t rub off in your boots. I never hike without them!
  • A book about Scotland for when you’re tucked up in your tent at night. Here are some books about Scotland I recommend.
  • I took my Sony Mirrorless camera with me on the hike, It’s lightweight and takes fantastic photos. I bought two kit lenses with me: this 18-50mm and this 70-210mm.
  • Hard-copies of the maps you need [I switched these out week to week]
  • Compass
  • Diary and a pen
  • Head torch
  • Battery pack
  • Phone charger
  • Baby wipes
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Bar of soap
  • Comb
  • Bug spray. I recommend Smidge as it repels both ticks and midges.
  • Tick remover
  • Muscle reliever gel
  • Sunblock
  • Microfibre towel
  • 2x 1 litre water bottles
A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Everything I took with me on the trail

My Scottish National Trail hiking guides

scottish national trail ebook guides

When I was researching the Scottish National Trail I was disappointed in the information available, so I decided to write my own series of guidebooks.

The marketing around the SNT seemed to die off shortly after it was launched, and I only found a small handful of men who had completed it before me. No one I encountered on my hike seemed to know about the trail, as every time I mentioned the SNT they just thought I was doing the West Highland Way!

There is no official guidebook for the SNT either, which makes planning even more difficult. My hope is that my guides will address this gap.

Each of my guidebooks include:

  • packing lists
  • wild camping locations
  • accommodation close to the trail
  • restaurants, supermarkets, places you can restock food
  • historic attractions and interesting history along the trail
  • day-by-day descriptions
  • alternative routes that I took
  • lots of other helpful advice that you won’t find online

You can download, print, or save a copy to your phone for easy access.

My guidebooks are updated annually, and once you purchase them you will get these updates for free.

>> Buy Scottish National Trail Guide: Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh [Week 1]

>> Buy Scottish National Trail Guide: Edinburgh to Drymen [Week 2]

Other helpful posts I’ve written

I’ve also written some other helpful blog posts about the Scottish National Trail

If you found my posts on the Scottish National Trail useful you can buy me a virtual coffee here to say thanks!

Sandwood Bay in the northwest highlands
Reaching the coast: Sandwood Bay

I also shared my journey on Facebook and Instagram. You can search for my social media accounts using the keyword ‘Scottish National Trail’ on my Facebook page or #ScottishNationalTrail on Instagram.

I also documented my journey on my YouTube channel – so check that out too!

If you stop by any of my social media accounts, make sure you say hello! I’d love to hear if you’re planning on hiking the Scottish National Trail and follow your journey.

I’m writing a book

I am currently writing a book about my journey, which I am hoping will be out in 2020/2021. So many amazing things happened to me while hiking the Scottish National Trail, and I’m excited to share my story with you.

You can sign up below to receive an email notification when my book is released.

I wish you the best of luck on the trail. I hope you love it as much as I did!

Yvette xx

PLANNING A HIKING TRIP IN SCOTLAND?

Hostelworld is the best place to book hostels

For booking hotels, I recommend comparing prices with Booking.com and Expedia

Need to get somewhere remote? I recommend booking car hire with Auto Europe

Check the Scotrail website for train times

Always take the correct OS Survey map with you

Shop my favourite travel guides on Scotland

Read my other articles about hiking in Scotland

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ABOUT YVETTE

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Hello, I’m Yvette and I’m from New Zealand. In 2016 I left home to travel the world; I met my husband after hiking the length of Scotland, and now we live in a wee Scottish village with our pup, Angus. I’m a full-time blogger and travel Scotland for a living! Read more about me here.

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DISCLOSURE

Disclosure: Wayfaring Kiwi is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. See my disclosure page for more info.