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    Essential Guide to Canoeing the Great Glen Way

    By Emy MacLeod
    More by Emy

    What to Expect on the Great Glen Way

    The Great Glen Way is a classic canoe trail stretching across the Scottish Highlands from Fort William to Inverness. Linking Loch Linnhe to the North Sea via the Beauly Firth, the Great Glen Way is 117km long. It combines a series of waterways from the Caledonian Canal to Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.

    A Brief History of the Great Glen Way

    Great Glen Way Loch Ness

    Canoes on the banks of Loch Ness

    Seen as an engineering marvel, the Caledonian Canal was the vision of Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. Commissioned by the government to provide a route from west to east, the canal improves trade, communications and travel.

    The construction work commenced in 1803 and was completed in 1822. The Caledonian Canal is a man-made marvel, running for 22 miles and consisting of 29 lock gates. Neptune’s Staircase boasts the most gates (eight), followed by Fort Augustus with five. Each year,  a number of tourists visit these places to witness the lock gates in operation.

    Queen Victoria travelled the Great Glen in 1873, creating the Royal Route. Starting in Glasgow, journey along the River Clyde, then Crinan Canal, West Coast, and onwards to Inverness on the Great Glen Way.

    WWI heightened the usage of the route due to ships avoiding Scotland’s northern coasts, heavily patrolled by the German navy.

    Mechanised in the 1960s, hydraulics replaced the man-powered capstans used to operate the lock gates and bridges. These old capstans can still be viewed today as you pass through the gates.

    The Great Glen Way - A Canoe Classic

    Great Glen Way canoeing

    Though travelled for many years, 2012 was the official opening of the Great Glen Way as a paddling route. A variety of crafts from canoes and paddleboards to chartered yachts, commercial barges and working vessels share these waterways.

    Canoeing across Scotland is truly magnificent, though this journey is also a challenge. It is a physical trip where paddling and portaging for 5 days takes a toll on the body. The weather brings its own element of challenge. Paddlers shouldn’t forget the infamous Scottish midge which makes an appearance during the Summer months. However, being prepared in terms of kit, knowledge of your journey, and travelling with an experienced guide combine to make a trip of a lifetime.

    Below are some top tips to consider when paddling the classic canoe route the Great Glen Way with Wilderness Scotland.

    Packing for your Paddling Expedition

    Upon meeting the rest of your paddling group at the trip start and then packing your clothes, toiletries and camping equipment into dry bags and barrels can be stressful. Will it all fit in? Do I really need this on the trip? What have I forgotten?

    There are of course some essentials you must bring on the trip. This includes changes of clothes (mid layers, base layers etc), spare socks, toothbrush, water bottle, and thermal flask. Ahead of the trip, you’ll receive an equipment list detailing what you need to bring and what equipment Wilderness Scotland will provide. Expedition equipment is in addition to personal barrels. A couple of barrels will contain the kitchen equipment, and most importantly, the food for the trip!

    The art of packing everything into your barrels and dry bags will soon become second nature. You will be shown the best way to pack at the start of the trip. A small drybag for daily essentials like suncream, water, sun hat, etc. is good to have nearby in the canoe. For more details on packing a canoe and essential kit items please check out the video.

    Pace it - Don't Race it

    Loch Ness canoes

    Great Glen Way canoe

    As Emerson suggests, when canoeing the Great Glen Way at your own pace, giving you plenty of time to explore and immerse yourself in the wilds of Scotland.

    Paddling across Scotland while camping under the stars for five days allows you to experience the beauty of Scotland by water. Canoeing between the Great Glens of the Highlands, you’re surrounded by rugged mountains, thick pine forests and bodies of water. Everywhere, the history that makes Scotland what it is today surrounds you.

    The trip has designated wild campsites for each night. Some days include more paddling than others and the weather can affect the time it takes to reach these campsites. In some cases, there’s a possibility of changing campsites, though in such cases, you’ll be informed by your guide.

    During your epic journey, you’ll pass historic feats of engineering that created the Caledonian Canal. Paddle past ruined castles where Jacobite rebels took refuge. Gaze upon a memorial to a brutal Clan battle and look out for the famous Loch Ness Monster. Instead of speeding along, this is a journey meant for full immersion in the culture and history around you.

    Canoeing can be challenging especially if you’ve never paddled on a multi-day expedition before. It can be frustrating if it is only your boat zig-zagging along the canal whilst others maintain a straight line. But not to worry – your Wilderness guides are there to support you and help you increase your paddling skills.

    The first day is a relaxed start to the trip when you are getting to grips with paddling the canoe, learning the strokes and becoming comfortable on the water.

    It is your trip. You’re on holiday so take your time, immerse yourself in nature, search the skies for birds of prey overhead. You’ll get to where you are going all in good time – remember, it’s not a race, but rather a journey. And what an amazing journey it is!

    Dining Al Fresco

    Great Glen Way canoeing

    Imagine waking up in the wild, a mug of tea or coffee in hand, while breakfasting by the quiet lochside. Enjoy a buffet-style lunch of fresh fruits, cheeses and meat platters in atmospheric settings. Envision dinner cooked on open stoves, fresh vegetables, meats and haggis under the open skies.

    Dining al fresco is a trip highlight whilst canoeing the Great Glen Way. Added to it is the pride of carrying everything you need for five days in your canoe!

    The food on expedition trips is an element that can bring a little uncertainty to some travellers. Those new to expeditions might not know what to expect – but not to worry, each night concludes with a delicious hot meal. All dietary requirements are catered for, including gluten-free, vegan/vegetarian, dairy-free as well as other allergies. No need to feel this will impede your trip.

    For an added element of the trip, embrace the full outdoor camping experience by being involved in meal preparation. Rest assured your guides will show you how to prepare a delicious meal on the stoves.

    Wilderness Scotland works exceptionally hard to ensure eco-friendly tourism and travel. During your trip, all recycling and waste are sorted and disposed of in the correct manner along the way. This ensures everything that can be recycled is done so. The outdoors have a “Leave No Trace” policy and your Wilderness guides will encourage you to consider your own impact on our surroundings.

    The Outdoor Loo

    For many people, the thought of going to the toilet outside is not high on the “to do” list. But when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

    The Great Glen Way has lock gate facilities and access to composting toilets en route so there are places to use with privacy. It’s important to note that these facilities are only available at certain locations along the route. This means there will be times when finding an appropriately hidden spot is the only option. Your guide will inform you of where these are so you can prepare yourself for the day ahead.

    A provisions bag is carried on the trip for when the outdoor loo experience has to happen. Along the way, your guide will remind you of outdoor toilet etiquette. Using the bathroom outdoors is something that will happen on this trip so hopefully, it won’t be too much of a shock.

    There are places to take a shower along the route. There is also always the option of taking a swim in the freshwater lochs of Scotland. Remember to pack a towel and your bathing suit.

    The Art of Portaging

    Great Glen Way canoe portaging

    What does portaging mean? To portage means carrying a craft overland from one body of water to another body of water. The Great Glen Way requires a number of portages along the route. Your guide will let you know which days have portages and their distances. Sometimes, you may be able to take the boats and kit through the lock gates. However, do not expect this all the time as it will depend on timings and boat traffic on the canals.

    Portaging sometimes carries a negative perception. For some, the thought of transporting heavy kit and boats a few hundred metres seems daunting and tiresome. It can be a physical strain on the body, especially during the later stages of the trip. However, it’s important to remember to enjoy your trip. It’s not a race so it’s perfectly okay to take time when portaging.

    The key to portaging is teamwork. Part of the group equipment includes canoe trolleys. Such trolleys transport the boats from the egress point to the new put-in point. Canoe trolleys will carry heavier expedition barrels as well. Taking breaks during the portages helps to keep your energy levels up. Portaging offers an ideal stopping point for a snack and brew by the water.

    Sleeping Under the Stars

    Campsite Great Glen way


    Sleeping in a tent and sleeping bag can be perfectly luxurious if you get them set up properly. Making sure your sleeping mat is fully inflated will give you a warmer and more comfortable nights’ sleep. An inflatable pillow packs easily into a barrel – an ideal luxury item to bring on the trip. The next best thing is your spare layers tucked into a dry bag or the hood of the sleeping bag.

    Spending your night under the stars after paddling during the day adds that ‘something special’ aspect to your trip. The Scottish Highlands are well known as great stargazing destinations. In fact, we have some of the largest expanses of Dark Sky in Europe. Due to lower levels of light pollution along the Great Glen, experience dark skies and witness shimmering stars, distant planets, shooting stars and perhaps a glimpse of the Milky Way.

    Canoeing the Great Glen Way is an adventure trip of a lifetime. Traversing the country by water, travel along the historic Great Glen trail. Paddle across open lochs, through sweeping glens and immerse yourself in the Scottish Highlands. Revel in the nature, beauty and history of the area whilst keeping some of those “must-have” comforts close at hand.

    Canoe the Great Glen Way

    Meet the Author: Emy MacLeod

    “It is my pleasure to be able to share Scotland with people from around the globe. To guide across the Scottish landscapes and share knowledge of nature, culture and history as a job is a privilege.”

    View profileMore by Emy

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