Rob is an avid traveller and self-professed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, & travelling the world.
Road Trip Through the Scottish Highlands
First things first: The Scottish Highlands is an incredible place. Other-worldly, breath-taking, unbelievable...you name it. I'm fortunate enough to have been on several 'trips of a lifetime' and my Scottish Highlands trip was right up there with the very best of them. For 17 nights, I drove around in a campervan with a feeling of absolute freedom. You really can't beat it.
My trip around the Scottish Highlands took in much of the iconic NC500 route and also included a few days spent on the Isle of Skye, which can be accessed via a road bridge.
Organise Your Vehicle Ahead of Time
Our vehicle was a Toyota Estima Aeras, imported from Japan and rented from a small independent operator local to me. Before setting out, we configured the bed and put all of our travel belongings in the various storage areas so we had easy access as and when we needed them.
Make sure you do this before you set off on your trip! The last thing you want to be doing is arriving somewhere after a really long drive, when you're tired and hungry, and you have to mess about with figuring out how to put the bed together and trying to find things.
Don't Forget the Midge Spray!
Make sure your midge spray is always at hand and not buried in the bottom of a bag somewhere. Believe me, if travelling during midge season and arriving in the evening, do not step outside the vehicle unless you're protected from the midges! Thousands of them will be on you in a flash!
What to Pack for a Trip to the Highlands
Our campervan was fairly small, so we didn't want to overload it with too much luggage. We did, however, have a rooftop storage box, which came in really handy. Choosing what to pack can be easier said than done:
- Layers: You're going to the Scottish Highlands, so you need to be prepared for any weather—even in July.
- Food: One of the main things you'll want to plan is your meals. What are you going to eat for the duration of your trip? You'll be able to find places to eat on some days but if you want to really get away from it all then you're going to need to plan your provisions sensibly. (An icebox or battery-powered fridge is a good idea.)
- Powerbank and Charger: Take powerbanks and get a charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter. If you're getting away from it all then you won't want to be using your phone much, but I assure you that you will be using your camera a lot—how could you not! So you will need to keep recharging your batteries on the go.
- Camping Gear: We intended to do some wild camping so we also packed a tent, firewood and other camping gear.
Where to Sleep in the Van
Finding somewhere to park up for the night in order to sleep is pretty easy in the Scottish Highlands.
You can do most of your trip sleeping wild in the campervan if you like, as you'll almost always find a spot that you can claim for yourself. Be sure to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and be sensitive to anyone who may live in the area. Don't block gates, don't park in passing places, obey local rules and signs, leave no trace, etc.
We found some incredible places to spend the night in the van: overlooking amazing beaches; at the foot of epic mountains; at the head of deep valleys that stretched out to the horizon; and on the shores of deep lochs where otters keep you company.
Book a Campsite
However, from time to time you're going to want to book into a managed campsite so that you can shower, do some laundry and recharge your batteries (both for your devices but also for your body).
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It's worth booking ahead for these places, especially the further north you go, as the options can be pretty limited.
How to Navigate the Roads
Finding your way around the highlands is a breeze. Due to the sparse population and the mountainous terrain, there are few roads and little chance of you taking a wrong turn. We managed to get around without using any GPS or satnav system, but it's still useful to check the map every now again to take account of journey times, etc.
Plan for Extra Drive Time
One important point to note, however, is that many of the roads in the highlands are single track. And whilst the speed limit may be 60mph, you're likely to go no faster than 30 mph as you drive carefully around blind bends and frequently pull into passing places to allow the passing of vehicles coming in the opposite direction.
How to Visit the Islands
Visiting the islands—such as Harris and Lewis, Uist and Skye, for example—is made easy by the vehicle ferries operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. Book your tickets in advance. It's quite exciting lining up in your vehicle and driving on the ferry to sail to an island.
The Best Way to Visit the Isle of Skye
To visit the Isle of Skye, you don't need to take the ferry, as there is a road bridge across from the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. The bridge was built as an expensive toll bridge in 1995 but was made free in 2004. It gives easy access to all and as a result, you will find Skye to be the busiest part of your Scottish Highlands trip. You'll find a lot more people in cars on Skye than in the rest of the highlands, where you will mainly encounter campervans and motorhomes.
That's not to say that you can't get remote tranquillity on Skye because you certainly can. But expect the more well-known sites to be busy during the daytime.
A case in point is the Old Man of Storr. During the day, the car park will be busy and there will be a steady stream of people walking up and down the well-trodden path. The beauty of travelling in July, however, is that you get so much more daylight.
We did the walk in the late evening and took our tent with us. We had the whole place to ourselves and wandered around taking photos with our tripods until almost midnight—and it was still light! It was so peaceful. The only company was from a herd of cows who munched their way from one patch of grass to another.
Planning Your Itinerary
While we enjoyed every minute of our trip, there were certain things we might have done differently had we known ahead of time. To get the most out of your road trip around the Highlands, I recommend the following:
Allow Some Flexibility
Whilst I will certainly recommend planning your itinerary, I would also recommend that you allow some flexibility as you may find that you want to just go where the road takes you.
If you intend to use ferries and campsites then you will need to book in advance, but try to keep the days in between as flexible as possible.
Take Your Time
Don't rush would be my advice. There's plenty to see along the way and you're unlikely to see everything. But don't try to pack too much in; you need to make sure you have time to actually appreciate where you are and what's around you.
On our trip, we packed quite a lot in on those first few days. It was incredible but it all happened so fast. It was the second week of our trip when we started to slow down and just enjoy being in the moment.
In fact, the level of enjoyment continues to peak the further north you go and the more remote it gets. I'd say north of Ullapool was when things really started to get interesting and we felt like we were on another level! Savour that feeling and don't move on too quickly.
Enjoy It While It Lasts!
I can tell you from personal experience that once you leave the remote landscapes of the highlands, you will want to return immediately. For us, this happened when we got to Thurso—pretty much the first non-touristic populated place we had seen in what felt like a very long time.
We were gutted, as we felt like it was all over and we'd left it all behind. We were still in the highlands, of course, and would continue to be for the next few days as we made our way down the eastern side. But I'll let you in on a little secret—west is definitely best!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Clarke