What To Pack For Day Hiking In Scotland
It would be very easy for me to write up a basic list of hiking essentials for day hiking in Scotland.
I’m afraid it’s not as simple as this. Hiking equipment in Scotland is dependent on a couple of things – the main one being the time of year.
Before I delve into endless lists of what you’ll need for a day out in the hills in Scotland, let me just clear a few things up and give you a better understanding of what to expect.
Scotland is pretty far north, 56.5 degrees north to be exact. For those who have no idea what that means, you know the Icelandic clothing brand 65 degrees north? It’s called that for a reason! Those are its northern coordinates in case you hadn’t guessed.
My point being? Scotland isn’t far from Iceland, which is a stone’s throw away from the Arctic Circle. Yeah, it can get COLD!
And yes, I know the whole thing about the gulf stream and Scotland’s proximity to the Atlantic seems to spare us the long, brutal winters suffered by a lot of mainland Europe. This is great.
But the Scottish Mountains should be treated as a separate entity.
When you’re hiking on a glorious summer day in Scotland, it’s more like climbing ‘hills’. You feel utter peace and tranquillity. Throughout the winter months, these ‘hills’ turn into mountains.
The weather on these mountains can change faster than you take a slug of water from your hydration pack. You may ascend in beautiful wall to wall blue-sky conditions, only to find a white blanket on the summit obscuring all visibility. It can be as frustrating as it is relieving.
The rain and wind can also appear from absolutely nowhere. While there are certain weather forecasts which can prepare you, you should always go into a hike preparing for the worst at any moment.
I climbed up the Forcan Ridge last October and got absolutely roasted by the sun on my way up. 6 hours later, while descending the final ridge, I got engulfed by a blizzard and had to sit behind a rock as it abated. It only lasted about 15 minutes until the sun found its place again.
The seasonal weather transformation doesn’t have a fixed date – especially with global warming (or whatever you want to call it) having its say. There may be snow on Scotland’s mountains as late as June, or the mountains may stay clear of the snow until as late as December.
It really just depends. I always keep a close eye on the weather the days before heading out, but I’m also always aware that it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Changes do happen quicker than these things can update.
Let’s now jump into the whole point of this post – gear. The majority of your gear does depend on the conditions you’re heading out in. I’ve broken it down as best I can but remember, changes do happen quickly and brutally so it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.
I’ve written the following with the assumption you’ll be out for an entire day in the Scottish wilderness, not just an hour or two.
Basic Gear for Day Hiking in Scotland
Here’s a summary of what you need before I break it down individually:
- Waterproof jacket
- Waterproof trousers
- Base layer
- Lightweight hiking trousers/shorts
- Hiking socks
- Emergency whistle
- Head torch
- Foil blanket/Survival bag
- Small first aid kit
This is what you should use as your benchmark for a day out in Scotland’s mountains. It doesn’t matter if it’s the height of summer or the dead of winter, this is the bare minimum to take on any Scottish day hike.
One with a hood is advised. Rain is common all year in Scotland so a lightweight waterproof jacket should be one of the first things to go in your pack.
You should get one that’s breathable and lightweight to reduce weight.
Similar to above. The rain is often accompanied by wind, it then becomes driving rain which soaks you from every angle.
Ideally get some that have a zip or buttons at the ankle so they can easily pull over your boots. Try and get them on before the rain gets heavy, this saves the inside of your pack from getting wet.
This is the first layer over your skin and should be as breathable as possible. A moisture-wicking fibre such as wool is best – this acts by quickly drawing moisture from the skin so you don’t get cold as you sweat in low temperatures. Anything high in polyester also tends to have good wicking properties.
In summer I prefer to use a light synthetic t-shirt. In winter I’ll use an under-armour or ice-breaker base layer which is specifically engineered to keep your body warm in cold conditions.
I recommend carrying two, one lightweight and one slightly thicker. In winter months it’ll be on for most of the hike, in summer it’ll keep you warm on the mountain tops and is an easy layer to peel off as you get warmer.
TIP: Get a Polartec fleece or equivalent for best insulating properties. Like all gear in close proximity to the skin, you want something that prevents heat loss and has high wicking properties. A decent cheap option is Craghoppers.
Lightweight Hiking Trousers/Shorts
These should be breathable and lightweight. Your legs should be able to move freely up to a stretch.
Jeans are NOT suitable for hiking! Unless you’re taking the dogs for a short stroll then avoid jeans at all costs.
TIP: If you use shorts, use repellent and check for ticks if you’ve been walking through overgrown areas. Lymes disease is not unheard of in Scotland so it’s always best to check yourself over. I often use a pair of trousers which have a removable lower leg, changing them into shorts.
Thermal socks are best in winter while normal socks will do for the summer. Wool socks are best because they keep your feet relatively sweat-free and warm.
Tip: Avoid cotton socks! They are notorious for hot spots and blisters.
Possibly your most important piece of kit, you won’t get far in the Scottish mountains without a decent pair of hiking boots.
Ideally, your boots should be lightweight, waterproof and comfortable with good ankle support. There aren’t many smooth paths in Scotland.
You don’t have to spend a fortune but the cheapest around often won’t last very long. Do your research, try on a few pairs and make sure you wear them in before heading out into the hills. Try and ensure that you clean your boots after every long hike.
Different boots cater to different types of hiking. Scottish mountains generally need something quite robust with moderate stiffness.
Winter hiking requires slightly more specific footwear, more on that below!
Another essential. In this day and age, it’s stupid to go out hiking in the wilderness with no means of communication. If you’re using GPS all day then you’ll definitely want to take an external charger.
I always record my route on Viewranger just for future reference but never make it a habit relying on your GPS, as hard as this may be. Map reading skills are a must.
TIP: Get a robust and waterproof case for your phone, especially if it’s a relatively expensive one.
This is something you maybe never think of but it could be a life-saver one day. Especially if you get into winter hiking. They can be bought on the cheap and take up no space nor weight so there are no excuses!
I absolutely always take a head torch with me. If I’m out in the Scottish summer then it’s something that usually stays at the bottom of my pack but it gives me peace of mind.
TIP: Carry spare batteries.
If you head out into Scotland’s mountains without one then, being brutally honest, you’re downright stupid. Weather can change for the worst in seconds and at least basic navigation skills are a must.
It’s easy to rely on GPS devices but what happens if you get lost and run out of battery? Be sensible, please.
This goes hand in hand with the compass. Ordnance Survey maps are hands down the best for exploring Scotland. Get yourself familiar with the map key and basic map reading skills.
Make sure you get a waterproof case – a soggy map is as good as no map.
It’s good to keep an eye on the time especially if you’re out at times of the year where daylight hours are reduced. I also like to check the weather beforehand and memorise the times it’s forecast to rain or snow.
Unless you’re going at a snail’s pace then you’ll burn a fair whack more calories than on a normal day. Energy-dense foods are what you should be going for.
Tip: Check what you have before you leave, if you think it’s not enough then shove in a couple more things. There’s nothing worse than that final 5-mile slog back to the car with your energy totally sapped.
Another absolute essential. As a general rule of thumb, I take a bare minimum of 1.5 litres. It’s almost always more than this, closer to 3 litres.
If you’re a super-keen hiker who hits the mountains regularly then you should definitely consider investing in a hydration pack.
Foil Blanket/Survival Bag
Okay, I’ll admit that this is possibly more suited to being an optional addition but I always take one with me anyway.
They are dirt cheap and could save your life should you get lost and have to spend the night out in the mountains. Remember, even in the summer the Scottish Highlands can feel like winter at night. Especially the higher you are.
Small First Aid Kit
You don’t have to take an actual kit, but definitely the basic essentials.
I’ll always pack some ibuprofen tablets and compeed plasters. If you’ll be out for days on end then a more extensive kit is advised. Try and keep it as small as possible.
How else are you going to carry all of the above?
At first glance, it may seem like a lot but really it isn’t. Most of the things above occupy very little space and don’t weigh much at all.
Rucksacks are never waterproof so make sure you pack the things you need to stay dry in plastic bags. Alternatively, get a waterproof cover.
I don’t tend to use these but if you often find yourself wading through knee-deep bog water then it could be worth the investment.
External Phone Charger
Especially advised if you’re going to be using your GPS for extended periods of time.
I always take one just in case – it’s another one of those things which could prove to be a lifesaver.
If you’re hiking in Scotland then you really should take a camera! I mean, who doesn’t want pictures of some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery?
I recommend getting a waterproof case for it. If not then at least keep it in a plastic bag in your rucksack.
These offer several benefits such as stability, improved power, less knee impact during descents, and aiding balance.
I never bother with them right now but I can well imagine that when I’m a veteran hiker they’ll come in very handy!
Honestly, you never know.
I once turned up at the Glen Affric Car Park with no money and was greeted with a fee for parking. Literally, in the middle of nowhere. Luckily the machine was broken and I got away with it, but I’m sure it catches a lot of people out.
Don’t take much, just some coins and maybe one or two notes for emergencies.
Essential Summer Additions (April – September/October)
Because Scotland’s seasons often merge into one or two, I’ll keep this post simple by referring to summer and winter hiking.
I’ll call summer April – September/October, and winter October/November – March. Be aware that it’s not uncommon for snow to be on the mountains until May and from as early as October in Scotland.
A day out in the hills often means plenty of exposure to the sun, even in Scotland. And yes it is true that you get burnt easier the higher up you are.
This is great if you get fed up with sun cream streaming into your eyes as you sweat.
Just make sure that at the end of the day you’re not looking like a panda!
An absolute must in the Scottish summer months. The midges are relentless, especially early in the morning and later in the afternoon/early evening.
If you’ll be out in the midges for prolonged periods then you should definitely consider getting a midge net.
Essential Winter Additions (October/November – March)
Winter hiking is a totally different ball game and actually deserves its own detailed post but I’ll at least include the equipment you’ll need.
Never head out into the Scottish Mountains in the winter without a decent level of hiking experience. They can be unforgiving and conditions can be akin to those in the Arctic.
Thermal Gloves and Hat
No brainer. There are a few different types of gloves you can get but for the Scottish winters stick to the insulated and waterproof type.
Any woolly hat with decent ear protection will do. The warmer the better!
Long johns, you ask? They’re basically thermal underwear which cover the length of your legs under your hiking trousers.
Make sure you get wool, not cotton.
Stiff Soled Boots
These go hand in hand with crampons and are suited to climbing up steep and icy terrains.
While not necessary for more moderate hills, if you’re hitting some Munros in real wintery conditions you want to be as prepared as possible.
Again, only really necessary for the really alpine winter conditions. Certain locations in Scotland, for example the Cairngorms, are notoriously treacherous in the winter and similar to conditions experienced in the Arctic.
I like to go for a buff which can be quickly converted into a balaclava if necessary. Make sure you keep it tucked into your t-shirt/fleece for optimum effect.
Again, this is only for the experienced and brave winter climbers. I don’t recommend heading out in crampon-worthy conditions unless you’re a keen winter climber.
Same as above. An ice axe is an incredibly useful, and essential, tool for winter climbing but one needs to be familiar with the various arrests – especially the self-arrest.
So there you have it. I’ve listed out the absolute essentials for general day hiking in Scotland as well as seasonal additions.
If you’re going for a hiking weekend or a trek for several days then a bit more is needed – although not a huge amount more. I’ll look further into this in a future post.
Remember to take into account my initial section on ‘understanding Scotland’. It’s never a simple case of having the same gear per season.
Scotland can be as unforgiving at times as some of the world’s most treacherous mountain ranges. Certain things you may never need, but it’s better to air on the side of caution. Respect the hills and keep in mind that overprepared is always better than underprepared.
Thanks a lot for reading and please leave any questions/comments in the box below! 🙂