How to Plan a Trip to the Scottish Highlands

By Craig Neil
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The Scottish Highlands is a wild and mountainous region situated in the northwest of Scotland.
Although the region covers 9,906 square miles it’s home to just 600,000 people, making it one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe.

Visitors to the Highlands can immerse themselves in a landscape of serene lochs and towering mountains along with some of Scotland’s largest forests and a rugged coastline that’s rich with wildlife.

Discover how to plan a trip to the Scottish Highlands with this guide which covers how to travel, what the weather’s like, what to pack, and where to stay.

plan a trip to the Scottish highlands

Where are the Scottish Highlands?

When you visit Scotland you basically have three options for finding places to visit.

First, you can do what most people do and head to the big cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the latter playing host to the majority of the best tourist-friendly experiences that the country has to offer.

Second, you can go to the Hebrides islands and immerse yourself in their vast windswept beaches, and third, you can explore what I believe is the most beautiful part of the UK – the Scottish Highlands.

The Highlands are traditionally considered to be one half of Scotland, with the other being the Lowlands, and both areas are divided by the Highland Boundary Fault.

This fault line starts near the area of Helensburgh (around 40 miles north of Glasgow) and extends all the way to Stonehaven in the northeast, with much of the landscape west of the fault pushed up in an enormous rift.

Scottish Highlands

This fault line is the main reason why there are so many mountains in western Scotland, which couple with millennia of ice-age glaciers carving their way across the landscape has left behind the Highland’s famously high peaks and picturesque glens.

While the Lowlands are relatively flat, the Highlands are much more dramatic – think windswept moors surrounded by vast mountain ranges and you’ve pretty much got it – and they’re very sparsely populated, having one of the lowest densities of people outside of the great plains of Russia.

It’s not quite true to say that the Highlands follow the fault line in its entirety as the boundary turns north before it reaches the east coast and then arcs back towards the city of Inverness (the capital of the Scottish Highlands) in the area of the Moray Firth.

Everything north and west of this point (including the Orkney and Shetland Isles and the Western Isles) are also in the Highlands so I think you’ll appreciate it’s a pretty big area, and one that needs a lot of prior planning if you’re thinking of exploring it.

The Highland Boundary Fault:

Highlands Lowlands

The weather and the best time to visit the Highlands

If there’s anything that will have a big impact on your decision to visit the Scottish Highlands, it has to be the weather.

Unlike the cities where it doesn’t really matter which month you plan your trip for, in the wild and exposed Highlands you’ll always be at the mercy of the elements, so choosing to come here in winter could mean you’ll have a downright miserable time.

Scotland’s winters generally last from November to February, but with global warming it seems that Scotland is experiencing far milder temperatures than it once did.

That being said, once you head into the more elevated regions you’re almost guaranteed to experience 0 °C all day every day, especially in places like Braemar (officially the coldest place in Britain) where the lowest-ever recorded temperature was -27 °C (-16.6 °F).

Braemar in Aberdeenshire

Bear in mind that these temperatures plummet even further when you take wind chill into consideration. If you’re thinking of exploring the Highlands in winter, remembering the effects of wind chill can literally be a lifesaver.

To calculate wind chill, multiply the wind speed by 0.7 and subtract that number from the temperature, e.g. if the temperature is 5 °C and the wind speed is 10 mph, then 5 – (10 x 0.7) gives you a wind chill temperature of -2 °C which is a considerable difference caused by little more than a stiff breeze.

On a positive note, if the main reason to visit the Highlands in winter is for snow sports then you’ll be pleased to know that here in Scotland we have pistes that rival the alps at the Nevis Range, the Cairngorms, and Glencoe.

On average, there are 100 days of snowfall each year in the Highlands and due to the elevation the snow usually lasts until April (Scotland’s snow sports season generally runs from November to April).

This is also something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of driving in the Highlands in winter as many roads become impassable for days on end.

tour scotland in winter

If you do find yourself driving through snow, keep an eye on the snow poles on either side of the road as they give an indication of where the road is as well as how deep the snow is.

You’ll find more travel advice in this article: How to Tour Scotland in Winter which is a must-read for winter visits to the Scottish Highlands.

If winter sports aren’t part of your agenda I would have to say the best time to visit the Highlands are the summer months (June, July, and August) as they have the longest days, the least amount of rain, and the highest temperatures.

I’ve compiled a few averages in the table below which shows the differences in Highland weather between January and August.

Location Max temp. °CMin temp. °CSunshine hoursRainfall mmRainy days
Braemar (Cairngorms) January4-23010516
Braemar (Cairngorms) August1891457012
Inverness (North Coast) January71407514
Inverness (North Coast) August19111356012
Crianlarich (Trossachs) January71409814
Crianlarich (Trossachs) August16111455211
Average weather in the Highlands

Midges in the Highlands

There’s one big problem with visiting the northwest of Scotland and it’s something that can ruin your entire summer holiday – Midges.

These tiny biting insects are prevalent throughout the Highlands where they like to hunt for food anywhere that’s damp on days that are cool and have wind speeds under 5 mph (8.05 km/h).

On their own, these 1-3 mm insects are nothing more than a minor irritation, but they swarm in their thousands and are irresistibly drawn to human beings whose blood is a rich source of protein for them.

If you get stuck in the Highlands where there are midges (an estimate of their numbers is 181 Trillion) you’ll find it can be an unbearable experience.

They tend to emerge from May to September, but that can change with a number of factors including how cold the preceding winter has been and how warm it is later in the year.

My advice to combat these biting horrors is to take a look at this article: Avoid Midges in Scotland, and buy a bottle of Smidge anti-midge lotion (Amazon).

Hiking Backpack

Essential gear to pack for the Highlands

A visit to the Highlands can be an unforgettable experience, especially if you head into the mountains where it’s possible to enjoy an all-day hike and not see another person all day.

If you really want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city then the Highlands of Scotland needs to be at the top of your list of places to go.

While these remote landscapes are undeniably beautiful they can also be deadly, with facilities that are few and far between, large areas of impassable bog and moorland, ridges with sheer-sided faces, and weather that can – and will – change to the extremes at the drop of a hat.

Obviously, you’ll have to pack extra gear in winter compared to summer, but there are a few essentials that you should keep with you at all times for no other reason than safety should you ever find yourself lost in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands.

Walking in Scotland

This is what I keep in my backpack as a minimum, even in summer.

Please note, the following links are Amazon affiliate links.

1: Backpack waterproof cover. You will get caught in the rain at some point in Scotland and there’s nothing worse than reaching into your backpack only to find a puddle of water at the bottom.

Prevent water from soaking your clothes and expensive gear with one of these cheap waterproof backpack covers.

2: Pac-a-mac. They’re not exactly the height of fashion, but foldable waterproof jackets are unbelievably handy for coping with Scotland’s changeable weather.

Roll it up and pop it in the bottom of your bag for those days when it’s too warm to wear a thick jacket.

3: Base layer. These thin long-sleeved shirts are designed for sports but I’ve found them ideal for; A – an extra layer to pull on top of my T-shirt if it suddenly gets chilly, and B – something to cover my arms if there are too many midges about.

Base layers roll into a tiny size and weigh next to nothing so it’s worth keeping one in your bag at all times.

Hiking Boots

4: Convertible trousers. As I already mentioned, Scotland’s weather is changeable throughout the year so you’ll find yourself constantly veering between being too hot or too cold.

One thing that helps enormously is wearing convertible trousers that have legs that can be quickly zipped off, thereby turning them into a pair of shorts.

5: Mobile phone with an OS Maps subscription. If you’re walking in the Highlands a map is essential for your safety.

While waterproof paper maps and a compass are still the best options, if you’re on a short sightseeing trip I highly recommend using your phone and the OS Maps app instead.

With the OS Maps app your phone acts as a GPS receiver and overlays your position onto a highly-detailed map of the Highlands, and it even shows you which way you’re facing.

scotland walking

What to pack for a winter visit to the Highlands

If you visit the Highlands in winter there will be a few additional items you need to take with you, primarily to keep you warm but also to keep you on track when snowfall covers the ground.

The following is what I’ve whittled my gear down to after years of exploring the Highlands in winter:

1: Wrap up warm with several layers of clothing, and wear a sweat-absorbing base layer along with a rain and windproof jacket.

You’ll lose a lot of heat from your head, feet, and hands so always make sure you have a woolly hat, gloves and thick socks to keep your extremities toasty.

2: I can’t overstate how important good-quality boots are in Scotland.

Get a pair that has good grips (Vibram soles are best) and is waterproof, and make sure they have supportive ankle protection.

I personally swear by Berghaus boots as although they’re a wee bit more expensive they last much longer than cheaper brands, plus they’re supremely comfy.

See my guide to the best waterproof walking boots to wear in Scotland for more information.

Hiking Boots Waterfall

3: Pack high-energy food and drinks to replenish the energy you’ll be burning to keep warm in the cold.

With regard to water, bear in mind you should take 2 litres per person, per day, and each litre weighs 1 kg.

I take two bottles on my winter walks, one insulated Thermos flask for a cup of hot tea down the road and a tough metal water bottle to keep me hydrated.

4: You’ll need somewhere to pack all that equipment away so a backpack isn’t just handy, it’s essential.

The majority of people don’t need a top-of-the-range pack for short walks so if you’re only visiting the Highlands on a day trip you’ll be fine with any rainproof backpack costing under £30 from Amazon.

This article will help you choose a budget backpack – The 5 Best Lightweight Backpacks to Use in Scotland, which lists small backpacks that are perfect for a brief sightseeing tour of the Highlands.

5: Take walking poles. Not only will they help you balance on slippery surfaces but they’ll allow you to poke the ground in front of you so you don’t end up falling into a snow-covered hole.

Glencoe

6: Take a map and compass – and learn how to use them.

After a snowfall, the landscape can change dramatically and it’s easy to lose your bearings. The best maps by far are made by Ordnance Survey which sells a range of ultra-durable waterproof maps.

The main reason to use a paper map instead of a mobile phone app is that you never need to worry about battery life which is a serious consideration on a multi-day hike.

Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

7: Become familiar with your route before you leave and stick to it.

One of the main reasons winter hikers get lost is because they suddenly decide to take a different path and then find themselves unable to get back onto their pre-planned track.

If you want to keep costs down the Walk Highlands website is a fantastic resource for walking routes in Scotland, and Google Maps is very handy as a GPS – but make sure you have a power pack in your bag as a backup.

8: If you happen to find yourself lost in the middle of nowhere in winter there’s one thing that could mean the difference between life and death.

That ‘thing’ is Scotland’s network of bothies which are weatherproofed huts located in the remotest regions of the country.

Bothies are always unlocked and they’re free to use with the only requirement being that you leave them clean and tidy after you’ve used them.

I recommend getting this guidebook for finding bothies in the Highlands: The Scottish Bothy Bible.

Scotland Hotel

Where to stay in the Highlands

Visiting the Highlands is different to visiting the rest of Scotland for many reasons, not least because it’s such a vast area with towns and villages spread miles and miles apart.

In fact, Highland settlements are so spread out that some areas have fewer people than the Steppes of Russia!

That means tourists can have a wonderful time exploring the great outdoors in peace and quiet, but it also means it’s very difficult to find accommodation.

While you could pack a tent, you’ll have to brave the midges in summer and it will be absolutely freezing in winter. Camper vans are an option, but unless you already own one you’ll have to pay upwards of £1000 per week for a rental.

That leaves hotels and B&Bs which are probably best for the majority of people travelling to the Highlands.

hotel room

Because there are so few of them and because they’re so popular, it’s very important to book your accommodation well in advance in order to secure a room, and from personal experience I suggest booking at least 6 months beforehand if you’re planning a summer trip.

One thing to be aware of is that hotels ramp their prices up in the tourist season and even more so during the school holidays so by planning a little you could save 50% or more by simply adjusting the weeks of your stay.

The following is a list of more tips that will save you money when booking your next hotel in the Highlands of Scotland:

1: Although the cheapest time of year for hotel rooms is winter, in some places like Inverness the prices will ramp up again the nearer you get to Christmas due to the Christmas markets and festivals.

If you’re after a cheap winter holiday in the Highlands check the prices in early January when hotels are desperate for business.

hotel room

2: Two suggestions for saving money on chain hotels like Marriott are to book via their own website which is often cheaper than price comparison websites, and join their loyalty points scheme while you’re there.

Most of these schemes build points for each stay which you can later redeem for rewards such as a free meal in the hotel restaurant or a free overnight stay.

3: Hostels are by far the cheapest option for cheap accommodation in Scotland and the days of sticky carpets and cold, dingy rooms are long gone.

Most even offer single rooms with an en-suite bathroom these days. In Inverness take a look at Bazpackers, and in Fort William I recommend Ben Nevis Inn Rooms.

4: Another alternative for cheap overnight accommodation is to find a Groupon deal. The only thing to bear in mind is you’ll likely have to book well in advance so Groupon isn’t much good for an impromptu overnight stay.

5: Airbnb is a fantastic option for the budget-conscious traveller and there are some real bargains to be had, plus you can cook your own meals which saves even more money. A recommended alternative to AirBnB is Vrbo.

6: Even cheaper than hostels and Airbnb is pitching a tent. It’s legal to pitch your tent wherever you like in Scotland as long as it isn’t on privately-owned land, but make sure you abide by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

If you need help to find a suitable tent check out this article: The 5 Best Tents for Summer Camping in Scotland.

Tent Scotland

7: As already mentioned, Scotland has lots of bothies – so use them! Although they’re not exactly up to hotel standards they’re completely free so check out The Mountain Bothies Association for more information about them.

Another great resource is The Scottish Bothy Bible which you can buy on Amazon.

Where to stay in Fort William

  • Victoria House B&B. Lochy Bridge, Lochyside, Fort William, PH33 7NX. Full Scottish breakfast, free parking, non-smoking rooms, pets allowed, free WiFi, family rooms, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, full Scottish breakfast.
  • Alexandra Hotel. The Parade, Fort William, PH33 6AZ. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, restaurant, facilities for disabled guests, free WiFi, family rooms, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, bar, very good breakfast.
  • Ardrhu House Fort William. Ardrhu House Onich, Fort William, PH33 6SD. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, beachfront, restaurant, facilities for disabled guests, free WiFi, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, good breakfast.
Inverness

Where to stay in Inverness

  • Chieftain Hotel. 2, Millburn Road, Inverness, IV2 3PS. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, restaurant, free WiFi, pets allowed, family rooms, bar, superb breakfast.
  • Culliss House B&B. Culliss House, 15 Culduthel Road, Inverness, IV2 4AG. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, free WiFi, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, exceptional breakfast.
  • Heathmount Hotel. Kingsmills Road, Inverness, IV2 3JU. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, restaurant, pets allowed, family rooms, bar, superb breakfast.

Where to stay in Braemar & Cairngorms

  • Braemar Lodge Hotel. Glenshee Road, Braemar, AB35 5YQ.  tea/coffee maker in all rooms, bar, breakfast.
  • The Gordon Guest House. Station Square, Ballater, AB35 5QB. Non-smoking rooms, free parking, free WiFi, exceptional breakfast.
  • Hilton Grand Vacations Club at Craigendarroch. Braemar Road, Ballater, AB35 5XA. Swimming pool, spa and wellness centre, non-smoking rooms, restaurant, facilities for disabled guests, free parking, bar, breakfast.

Where to stay in Crianlarich

  • Best Western The Crianlarich Hotel. Main Street, Crianlarich, FK20 8RW. Free parking, non-smoking rooms, pets allowed, free WiFi, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, bar, very good breakfast.
  • Inverardran House Bed and Breakfast. Crianlarich, FK20 8QS. Free parking, free WiFi, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, exceptional breakfast.
  • Craigbank Guest House. Main Street, Crianlarich, FK20 8QS. Free parking, free WiFi, tea/coffee maker in all rooms, superb breakfast.

Out About Scotland recommends searching for great deals on quality Scottish Highlands hotels and B&Bs with Travel Supermarket.

Glenfinnan Jacobite Train Carriages

How to get around the Highlands

Getting anywhere in the Highlands takes much longer than it does when you’re in the main cities, purely because it’s such an enormous region and everything is spread so far apart.

That being said, you have a few options when it comes to actually getting to the Highlands so don’t let yourself be put off by its remoteness.

Flights to the Highlands

If you’re an international visitor you’ll arrive in Scotland at one of our main international airports depending on where you’re coming from – most likely Aberdeen airport (Address: Dyce, Aberdeen, AB21 7DU), Glasgow airport (Address: Paisley, PA3 2SW), or Edinburgh airport (Address: Edinburgh EH12 9DN).

Once at these hubs you have the option of continuing your journey inland by train or car or booking an internal flight from Aberdeen or Glasgow, with the former serving Orkney and Shetland and the latter connecting to the Western Isles.

The infrastructure between these airport hubs is excellent and you can take a train from Edinburgh and be at Glasgow in less than an hour, so flying into the capital city and ending up at remote islands like Barra and Tiree is remarkably easy.

You’ll find everything you need to know about travelling to Scotland by air in this article: The Complete Guide to Scotland’s Airports.

Using trains in the Highlands

The Jacobite Steam Train

Scotland has a love/hate relationship with its train network, mainly because the services are generally overpriced and subject to frequent delays, but they can be an easy way to get to the Highlands if you do a bit of planning before you set off.

The West Highland Line is particularly recommended because it’s extraordinarily pretty along much of its route – whether you’re travelling from Glasgow to Oban where you can then catch a Calmac ferry to the Hebrides islands, or Glasgow to Fort William where you can step on board the Jacobite steam train which runs to the northwest fishing town of Mallaig.

If you’re intending to use the train you really should experience this route to Mallaig as it’s absolutely beautiful and has, in fact, been described as one of the greatest train journeys in the world. You’ll find out more about it in this article: A Guide to the Jacobite Steam Train.

While these routes are very scenic they can also be a huge pain in the wallet so I recommend getting a rail travel pass to save money.

The Spirit of Scotland travel pass offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either 4 or 8 days and you’ll find stations in most towns in the Highlands.

Alternatively, the Highland Rover travel pass gives you four days of unlimited travel over eight consecutive days and it also gives you 20% off ferry services to Orkney and Shetland – which can be useful if you’re planning to head to the far north during your holiday.

You can also book tickets with The Trainline (my preferred option) which usually saves at least 1/3 compared to purchasing tickets at the station.

Using a car in the Highlands

convertible car

By far the most convenient form of transport in the Highlands is a car, but if you’re travelling here from overseas it can also be the most expensive.

Hire car costs can be extortionate once you add on fuel (we have some of the highest fuel prices in Europe) and insurance (likewise), but there are ways you can keep your costs as low as possible.

Unless you’re travelling in a big group I suggest getting as small a car as is practical, and you’ll find something like a Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa will whisk families around Scotland’s narrow roads economically, safely, and comfortably.

My top tips for getting a hire car in Scotland are to think seriously before splashing out on collision waiver damage (it’s often a rip-off), go direct to a rental company like SIXT or Hertz instead of using a rental car broker, and don’t get conned into taking out a load of vaguely-worded insurance you probably won’t need.

Once you’re out on the open road you’ll find the scenery is gob-smacking and being able to pull over onto the roadside whenever you like is definitely a bonus, but there are some downsides to driving in Scotland.

Car Scotland Mountain

First and foremost I strongly advise you to not drive in the Highlands in winter if you’re an inexperienced driver as weather conditions can change at the drop of a hat and a road that started off clear in the morning can be buried under a thick blanket of snow in the afternoon.

That, coupled with the fact that many roads are winding and single track can make for treacherous driving conditions.

On the other hand, visiting the Highlands in summer when it’s green and lush gives you the ingredients for a perfect road trip, especially if you head to the far north and experience one of the greatest road journeys in the world on the North Coast 500.

I think it’s safe to say there are more than enough places to visit in the Scottish Highlands that you could easily spend a two-week holiday there and never get bored, and it makes a great alternative to spending a summer break in the busy cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Resources

If you want to discover more great attractions in Scotland check out this page: Tourist Map of Scotland.

If a visit to the Highlands is combined with a love of the TV series Outlander you might find this article handy: Where Are The Best Outlander Tours in Scotland?

If you’d rather avoid the places where everyone else goes read this article: The Best Non-Touristy Places to Go in Scotland.

Fallen in love with the Highlands? Then you’ll enjoy this article: A Guide to the Most Romantic Places in Scotland.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where are the Scottish Highlands?

The Highlands are traditionally considered to be one half of Scotland, with the other being the Lowlands, and both areas are divided by a geological boundary that follows the Highland Boundary Fault.

This fault line starts close to the area of Helensburgh – approximately 40 miles north of Glasgow – and extends all the way to Stonehaven in the northeast.

What are the most popular attractions in the Scottish Highlands?

Glencoe and Bidean Nam Bian. Ben Nevis in the Nevis Range. Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. The Cairngorms National Park. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Eilean Donan Castle. The Glenfinnan Monument. Duncansby Head.

How do I tour the Highlands by train?

The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to Oban where you can catch a Calmac ferry to the Inner Hebrides or you can take the train from Glasgow to Fort William.
You can then step on board the Jacobite steam train which runs to the northwest fishing town of Mallaig.

What towns and villages should I visit in the Highlands?

Applecross sits on a peninsula in Strathcarron and is notable for the Bealach na Ba pass which is one of the highest roads in the UK, reaching 2,053 feet at its highest point.
Braemar is best known as the home of the annual Braemar Gathering and Highland Games held in September.
Glencoe is a popular destination for hikers and it’s a great starting point for treks into the surrounding Glencoe mountains.
Fort William is the starting point for the Jacobite steam train. The town is known as the outdoor capital of the UK.
Fort Augustus is located on the southernmost tip of Loch Ness and is the main hub for exploring the loch after Inverness which is located to the north.

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