The West Highland Way winds through some of the most spectacular and varied scenery that Scotland has to offer. You’ll pass through green pastures, walk along the beautiful Loch Lomond, and take in incredible Highland vistas. While this incredible variety of landscapes undoubtedly has you excited for your adventure, it might also make you wonder how you’ll ever navigate the West Highland Way. Should you bring a map? Is the trail well marked? How will you find all the campgrounds you’re staying at?
This post will explain how we navigated on the West Highland Way, including which maps to bring, the tools we used, and even some custom resources for those using our Guide to Camping on the West Highland Way. Let’s get started.
Should I bring a map?
This is one of the questions we get most often from readers who are getting ready to head out on the West Highland Way. They’ve heard that the trail is very well marked, well maintained, and that hikers are rarely far from a road of town (all of which are true). However, our answer is always a resounding YES- you should bring a map with you on the West Highland Way!
As you’ll read below we relied heavily on our smartphone’s GPS features and a handy app that allows you to navigate even without cell phone service. It’s a great system and one we highly recommend, but we would have been out of luck if our battery died or a torrential downpour rendered our phones useless. In some situations, there is nothing more useful than an old fashioned paper map to help you find your way and ensure that you have a great West Highland Way experience. We recommend the Cicerone West Highland Way map booklet, a convenient booklet that includes the entire WHW in a pocket-sized book, or the West Highland Way Footprint Map, a more traditional folding map.
Now that you’ve got your maps safely tucked away in your pack in case of emergency, let’s get started learning how to harness the power of your smartphone to navigate your way to a successful West Highland Way walk!
Using your smartphone as a GPS
If you’re anything like us, you use your smartphone’s mapping capabilities on a daily basis. Whether it’s checking how bad the traffic is, consulting the bus schedule, or looking up the best bike route, apps like Google Maps provide tremendous value for navigating our world. These apps work by using the GPS location data that your phone provides, combined with a base map that shows you the surrounding context. You need both of these features (the GPS location + the base map) in order for the mapping app to be useful. Normally, your phone is able to source the base map information by utilizing an internet connection or cellular data. This works great in most situations, but won’t help you when you’re hiking along the shores of Loch Lomond without cell phone service. In that case, all Google Maps will be able to show you is this:
In order to use the incredibly useful GPS functions on our phones to navigate in more remote areas (like the West Highland Way) we have to solve the base map problem. The solution? GPS navigation apps that allow us to download base maps ahead of time. These apps allow you to select the area you’ll need to access and download the base map directly to your phone. Then, when you’re without cell phone service, the app will pull up the downloaded base map and be able to show you exactly where you are on the trail! Even though your phone is not connected to cell service or internet, the GPS will still work without incurring any “roaming” charges. In the next section I’ll show you exactly how to set up your phone to navigate on the West Highland Way.
Setting up your app for offline navigation
We used the Gaia GPS app, which is available on both Android and iOS phones. You’ll have to pay for a premium membership ($19.99/year) in order to be able to download and save maps, but this is well worth it for the ability to know exactly where you are on the trail. Here are the step-by-step instructions for downloading the West Highland Way base maps in Gaia GPS:
Step One: Choose your map source
When using Gaia GPS you’ll have your choice of many different map sources. Some show detailed city maps, others show cycling routes, and still others include long-distance walks such as the West Highland Way. For our purposes I’ve found the ‘Outdoors’ layer to be the absolute best for the West Highland Way. To select the Outdoors map layer simply select the layers icon in the top right corner and select ‘Outdoors’.
Step Two: Navigate to the West Highland Way and download your background map
The next step once you have selected the “Outdoor” base map is to download the area that encompasses the West Highland Way. This will ensure that you’ll have access to your base map once you lose cell phone service. To do this, you’ll want to zoom into the area between Milngavie and Fort William, and select that area to download. One of the great things about the “Outdoor” base map is that it already has the entire West Highland Way route shown, making your navigating that much easier! To download the base map data, follow these steps:
Navigating on the trail
The final step for navigating like a pro on the West Highland Way is knowing how to use the Gaia GPS app out on the trail. To view your current location, simply select the location button on the top menu. At this point your phone will activate its GPS, and if you have a fairly clear view of the sky, within a few moments it will show you exactly where you are by displaying a yellow arrow. You may need to move a few yards along the trail to ensure that the GPS system can locate you, but we didn’t have any major issues on our trip. Use this whenever you want to see how far you’ve gone, how much further you have left until your next stop, or if a fork in the road has you questioning the correct way. NOTE: The yellow arrow will not necessarily point towards the direction you are actually facing. This is important to remember when you are orienting yourself!
A note on battery life
One of the easiest ways for the app-navigation method to go awry is for your phone battery to die. I recommend two strategies to help prevent an unexpected dead battery from sabotaging your trip. The first is to ensure that you always exit the app before locking your phone. This will prevent the app from continually locating you, and thus draining your battery. You can also keep your phone on “airplane mode” to prevent it from wasting battery life while searching for cell service.
The second way to prevent a dead battery from causing problems is to carry a backup battery system. These are relatively inexpensive and are worth their weight in gold when you find yourself with a dying battery. I like the Anker PowerCore 20100, but any should do.
Check out our downloadable West Highland Way Campground locations!
As mentioned above, if you’re using this navigation method in conjunction with our Guide to Camping on the West Highland Way we want to provide you with some additional resources. Check out our post on How to find all of your Campgrounds on the West Highland Way to learn how to use our customized campground location data in the Gaia GPS app.
Be sure to read our entire series on the West Highland Way to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for your trip!
- Guide to Camping on the West Highland Way
- West Highland Way Logistics – Don’t forget the small details!
- 10 Essentials for the West Highland Way – The quick and dirty basics
- West Highland Way Packing List – Be sure you’ve got everything you need!
- West Highland Way Photo Gallery – Get inspired!
- West Highland Way Trip Report – Know what to expect!
- How to Find All of Your Campgrounds on the West Highland Way- Free downloadable GPS waypoints!