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 a 1-2 week hike 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 and farmland of the Scottish Borders, through cities and down canal towpaths to reach the rocky and wild heathery mountains in the Scottish Highlands.

It 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. And so 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.

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

Hiking the Scottish National Trail FAQ

I’ve compiled a few of the questions I’m asked most frequently about hiking the Scottish National Trail. If you’d like me to answer a question for you, leave me a comment!

Scottish National Trail map

scottish national trail map
Map of the Scottish National Trail

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 allocated myself 1-2 days off per week. 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 5 out of 7 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 prevelant 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 do you get to Kirk Yetholm?

The easiest way to get to Kirk Yetholm from Edinburgh is by bus. I had to change my bus in Kelso, and I have explained which buses you need to catch in my Scottish National Trail guide for week one.

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.

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

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. 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

My Scottish National Trail hiking 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 guides.

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.

My guides are regularly updated, and if you have any more helpful advice to add, just leave a comment on one of my posts. Here are my guides:

>> My diary of the Scottish National Trail

>> Scottish National Trail Guide: Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh

>> Scottish National Trail Guide: Edinburgh to Drymen

>> 10 bothies I stayed in on the Scottish National Trail

>> What happened after the Scottish National Trail

If you found my guides 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

Scottish National Trail packing list

Here are just some of the things I recommend you pack when hiking the Scottish National Trail. I’ve recommended the equipment I used where possible.

  • Good hiking boots. I wore Scarpa Terra’s for my hike and highly recommend them.
  • The North Face Terra 65L hiking pack. This is the pack I used and it fit everything I needed and more importantly it lasted the entire hike without breaking down.
  • 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, but if you’re taller than me I’d suggest getting a bigger tent.
  • Self inflatable mattress. I tried using a traditional pad but it was really uncomfortable- go for an inflatable!
  • A lightweight sleeping bag that is heat rated for whatever season you’re planning to do the hike.
  • Waterproof gloves.
  • Merino wool socks.
  • A buff.
  • 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 Scottish history for when you’re tucked up in your tent at night. Here are some books about Scotland I recommend.
A Guide To Hiking the Scottish National Trail
Everything I took with me on the trail

More information about hiking the Scottish National Trail

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 YouTube – 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. Until then if you’re looking for some adventure inspiration, check out these inspirational adventure quotes..

PLANNING A HIKING TRIP IN SCOTLAND?

Hostelworld is the best place to book hostels

Airbnb is another affordable alternative to accommodation in Scotland

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: 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.