Wild camping ban and a bloody big hill.
As is always the way after a restless nights sleep, when the time came to finally get out of bed I didn’t want to move. It took me a good 30 minutes to coax myself from my sleeping bag and squeeze my aching feet into my Solomons. The clouds rolled down the hills as I boiled up some porridge for breakfast and broke down my tent. While packing up I thought about the day ahead, I knew I would enter the wild camping ban zone and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Breaking camp took an age and it was past 9 by the time I finally got back on the road.
The first section of today was along a country lane, the tarmac road was hard on my sore feet. I walked quickly, keen to get to the next section which takes the West Highland Way across farmland. Before I could get that far, however, my progress was halted by an oncoming hiker who introduced himself as David. He skipped the niceties and asked from a few feet away, ‘How far you going?’ David looked a hiker through and through, with long legs, a small backpack, and expensive waterproof trousers, he stomped towards me with purpose. I realized that he must have done at least 10 of 15 miles already today to have come to this point.
‘How far are you going?’
I considered David’s question but didn’t know the answer. I wasn’t sure how far I was going today. Keen to wild camp but knowing that at some point I would enter a section of the Way which is subject to a wild camping ban, I wasn’t sure what to do. Having not been able to find much information online I was unsure where I would be spending the night. The wild camping ban zone would mean that I would either need to do 26 miles (to walk through the zone and come out the other side) or only 12 miles, not enough considering I wanted to get to Fort William in 5 days. I need to average 18 miles a day. It seemed there was no official campsite inside the ban zone, only a designated spot by Loch Lomond which required a permit that had to be booked in advance.
I told David my concerns about the wild camping ban zone and he proceeded to tell me different ways around it. His ways including buses I could take to leapfrog the wild camping ban and a shortcut down the main road which had the same result. He took his sweet time explaining my options, none of which were appealing to me. I hadn’t come all this way to skip parts of the trail, my goal was to walk it from end to end. I didn’t want to miss out a single step.
David, having decided where I would camp tonight, then went on to assess the rest of my efforts. He was impressed that I was hiking the West Highland Way alone, and this gave me confidence. Having felt the weight of my pack he went on to question me about the equipment I was carrying. My pack was small and light at about 7kg. I was carrying only the essentials and the lightest gear that I could afford. After 20 minutes, assured that I had everything I needed to survive, David finally said his goodbyes and went onwards with his hike.
It was great to meet such a keen and kind guy who wanted to impart knowledge on me. However, I was now running even later and was still none the wiser about the wild camping ban zone. I decided the best thing to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other and trust that it would all be okay!
Killer Conic Hill.
Day 2 has one of the West Highland Way’s biggest challenges, Conic Hill. Conic Hill is a steep, sharp 361-meter climb between Drymen and Balmaha. After a couple of miles of small ascents and descent, Conic Hill revealed itself. It’s a daunting sight. The Way dips down steeply before rising at a rather uncomfortable rate! The climb is steep but the path is well maintained. As I climbed, a runner passed me going in the opposite direction, I envied him. Firstly he was heading downhill and secondly he seemed so fast and agile, so light on his feet. My feet felt like blocks of concrete. A few minutes later the same runner overtook me, heading back up the hill. I was impressed but also wanted to trip him, bloody show-off!
Huge hill, huge disappointment!
As I neared the crest of the hill I realized that the Way doesn’t actually summit Conic Hill, it skirts around the side, about 50 meters from the top. Pretty disheartening after all that effort! I sat down to catch my breath and contemplate whether I had it in me to push to the top. I decided I didn’t, instead opting to annihilate 3 protein bars and a liter of water. The decent into Balmaha was sharp and rocky, the last part constructed of man-made steps which made my legs quiver. I was grateful for my walking poles, which I almost left at home.
Camping problems solved.
In Balmaha the Way makes across a carpark to the Loch Lomond Visitors Centre. I popped inside in the hope of finding more information about the wild camping ban. I was in luck and the helpful rangers gave me advice on where to camp. By all accounts the ban zone is not clearly marked, in fact, I never did see any markers noting it’s beginning or end. The rangers told me about a designated camping spot in Salochy, where for £7 per night you can ‘wild camp’ by the loch. This is the designated spot I had read about, where you need to book a permit in advance. That wasn’t the case, just rock up, pay and camp.
A few miles past Salochy there is a youth hostel at Rodannan which allows camping in the garden, however, this was closed due to flooding. I decided to head for Salochy. My mileage for that day would be low but I vowed to get up early and make up the miles the following day.
That sorted, I was now on the hunt for food. Balmaha has a pub and a small shop, the pub was busy so I opted for the shop. I bought a sandwich and a zesty drink and sat down on a bench to eat and rest my feet. My feet were stinking after the efforts of Conic Hill. Boots off, I assessed the situation; a couple of blisters and a swollen ankle. I covered the blisters with Compeed and strapped up my ankle with KT tape. I sat for a while and then stood to push on. My feet tingled after the rest.
The next miles to Salochy were slow, due to the unbelievable beauty of the place I was walking through! I couldn’t help but stop to take photos every few steps. Arriving at Salochy around 5 pm and wondered if I should keep going, I still had 3 more hours of daylight left. I felt cheated by the restrictions the wild camping ban was putting on me. After speaking to a ranger who told me that the next section had a steep ascent, I decided to stick to my plan and stop for the day. This turned out to be an excellent decision as the camping spot I bagged was the most perfect and awe-inspiring place I have ever slept.
A new friend!
As I pitched my tent I had company, a tiny robin sat on a tree stump and watched my every move. Once I was all set up the little guy came closer and we shared my dinner. I felt it was a well-rehearsed routine!
Deciding on an early night with a view to starting early the next day, I settled into my sleeping bag. After reading a few pages of Walking the Americas by Levison Wood I remembered my promise to stay present. I put my book away, unzipped the tent and sat by the loch in complete silence while the sun went down.
They were special moments.
Learning from experience, I donned every item of clothing I was carrying before I got back into my sleeping bag. Tonight I was as warm as toast. I fell asleep with a smile on my face and slept like a baby.
Are you planning to hike the West Highland Way? Drop a comment below if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to help you out.
If you missed day 1 of my journey (Milngavie to Drymen) click here to read it. Day 3 coming soon!