The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!

by Cazzy Magennis / Feb 03, 2021 /
Cazzy Magennis's picture

Toward the end of 2020, my boyfriend and I had the most wonderful time driving across almost all of Scotland. For 2 months, we explored the stunning coastlines and rugged mountain peaks. We spent all but a few nights wild camping, enjoying the calm and scenic countryside Scotland has to offer.

NC500 roads. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
NC500 roads

We experienced the full force of Scotland’s unpredictable weather, and got to enjoy close encounters with the fiery locals and the infamous Highland cows.

If you are considering a road trip to Scotland, then this is the guide for you!

 

The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!

Below, I take you through everything you need to know about driving and camping in Scotland, including how much it costs and the best places to visit. I’ll also share a few added vanlife tips and tricks to help you on your way. First up, though...

Why visit Scotland

1. The sites

In my opinion, Scotland is the most naturally beautiful country in the UK, and easily one of the nicest anywhere in Europe. Home to dramatic coastlines, rugged highlands, and lush open countryside, Scotland kind of has it all.

In the winter, you can even go skiing up in the mountains, something I hope to do someday soon! It’s packed full of history, with more castles than you could hope to visit in a lifetime, as well as thousands of lochs, each one just as beautiful as the last.

Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse

2. The people

Scottish people are incredibly friendly, and we found them to be extremely welcoming everywhere we went. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m Irish, so I share some sort of kindred Gaelic spirit with the Scottish, I’m not sure. But either way, we didn’t meet anyone we didn’t like there!

3. Wild camping

I’ll talk more below about wild camping in Scotland. But the fact that it is legal to wild camp in Scotland is a HUGE appeal for vanlifers, especially if you plan on spending more than just a few days or weeks in Scotland. You will save a fortune on accommodation.

Highland Coo. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Highland Cow

Best places to drive to in Scotland

Scotland is home to many wonderful places to visit. It’s impossible for me to list them all here. Instead, I will take you through my 5 favourite places in Scotland for vanlifers.

1. Fort William

Situated on the western coast of Scotland, Fort William is really popular with hikers looking to tackle Britain’s highest peak. But besides this, it’s the perfect place to base yourself for exploring the nearby regions of Glen Coe and Glenfinnan...the first of which is perhaps the most beautiful mountain valley in Scotland. 

Near Glen Coe. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Near Glen Coe

As you approach Fort William, I recommend driving through this valley; it is jaw dropping. Plus there are plenty of wild camping spots here, and also the chance to get your photo taken at the famous spot from the James Bond movie Skyfall.

Skyfall picture spot in Glen Coe. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Skyfall picture spot in Glen Coe

On the other side of Fort William, you have Glenfinnan, most widely known for the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is featured extensively throughout the Harry Potter series. You can visit the famous viaduct and enjoy watching the Jacobite train pass over (twice a day, most of the year).

Glenfinnan Viaduct. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Glenfinnan Viaduct

Or better yet, you can ride this train yourself! It’s not the exact one used in the Harry Potter movies, but is the closest thing to it. We paid for first-class seats and had the most amazing time riding through the gorgeous Glenfinnan countryside, crossing lochs and countryside all the way out to a seaside village called Mallaig.

We enjoyed a cream tea on the journey, and after, the train heads back to Fort William. I also recommend taking a day or two to drive out and wild camp in Glenfinnan. It’s home to a number of other film locations from Harry Potter, including the resting place of Dumbledore himself!

2. Cairngorms National Park

This is a large mountain range situated more in the centre of Scotland. As you’d imagine, it’s pretty hilly, and the roads through here are astoundingly scenic. If you visit in the winter months, then this is the best place to go for skiing, as there are a number of ski resorts dotted around.

If nothing else, I recommend wild camping for the night up by the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Resort, as the views are amazing. Two other must-see places here are Balmoral and Braemar, the first being the queen's royal residence in Scotland; you can visit the castle and grounds as a part of a tour.

Braemar is a smaller castle, but still very impressive and with a fascinating history. The town of Braemar is wonderful. I recommend checking out the Bothy Cafe, a quaint cafe with lovely views out back overlooking parts of the town and the mountains beyond.

Bothy Cafe in Braemar. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Bothy Cafe in Braemar

3. NC500

One of the biggest reasons vanlifers visit Scotland is to drive the NC500, an epic 500 mile round trip journey looping around the northern coast of Scotland. Most people seem to start and end in Inverness, but really you can pick it up anywhere.

beach on NC500. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Beach on NC500

In my honest opinion, I think the route is a little overrated, and would only recommend doing it outside of peak tourist months. Otherwise, you will spend the entire journey nose-to-tail in traffic on tiny roads that simply aren’t built to cope with the number of campervans that head there.

For us, the biggest highlights of the NC500 were John O' Groats, Inverness city, and Loch Ness. But the most picturesque and enjoyable parts are probably on the western coast. The northern coast is much more barren and windswept, but equally as impressive in its own way.

John O' Groats. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
John O' Groats

4. Isle of Skye

We LOVED the Isle Of Skye! For such a small island, it is hard to imagine just how much there is to see and do here. You could drive around the whole island in a day, but I strongly recommend spending at least 3-5 days. 

Isle of Skye coastline. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Isle of Skye coastine

Highlights of the island include:
● Hiking the Old Man of Storr
● Walking through the Fairy Glen (ideally at sunrise)
● Swimming in the Fairy Pools
● Visiting Dunvegan Castle
● Hiking the Quiraing

Old Man of Storr. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Old Man of Storr

If you can afford it, I also recommend spending a few nights at the Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse Cottage. It’s located on its own private island on the southern end of the Isle of Skye. We spent 3 wonderful days in this delightfully renovated cottage, listening to howling winds attacking the cottage whilst curled up by the fireplace. Absolute heaven.

Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse

5. Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park

Located not far north of Glasgow, this is like a haven for vanlifers. All throughout this area are wonderful wild camping spots, be them in the forests or right beside Loch Lomond. In terms of surface area, it is the largest lake in Great Britain.

Loch Lomond view from Ben Lomond. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Loch Lomond view from Ben Lomond

To experience it fully, I recommend hiking up Ben Lomond. It is a 5-6 hour round trip hike that offers impressive views of the loch on a clear day. You can drive around most of the Loch, so we spent 3 days here just taking in the sites and enjoying the peace and quiet of the area.

Another great place to visit in this area is the Three Lochs Forest Drive. It’s a national park in itself, with a one-way road system winding its way past pristinely managed views. The best part: you can spend the night wild camping in the park. We stayed at this spot here, and it offered the most unforgettable views for sunset, as well as sunrise.

Three Lochs Forest Drive. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Three Lochs Forest Drive

The ultimate Scotland road trip

If time isn’t an issue, then I recommend taking time to visit all of the places listed above. We spent about 2 months in Scotland on our recent road trip and managed to see almost everything we wanted.

Inverness. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Inverness

Unfortunately, Covid and personal reasons forced us to leave. But based on our journey, I would say that somewhere between 3 and 4 months would be a great amount of time to see everything in Scotland, whilst driving just a couple hours most days.

The rest of your time can be spent enjoying the incredible sites on offer. The most straightforward way to road trip all of Scotland is to pick a coast and just keep following it around until you find yourself back at the border with England!

Bridge in the Highlands. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Bridge in the Highlands

Many of Scotland’s best sites are on or near the coast. But you will of course need to head inland at different points. It’s also worth pointing out that Scotland is home to more than 900 offshore islands!

Most of these are far too small to visit, but it is possible to catch a ferry over to a number of them for some added mini road trips.

Some of the best include:
● Shetland - In the summer months, they get almost constant daylight here because it's so far north.
● Isle of Mull - Home to the famous town of Tobermory, with colourful houses lining the seafront. This was the set for the kids television show Balamory.
● Orkney - This collection of islands is home to a number of ancient sites dating back more than 5,000 years!
● Isle of Arran - This is widely known as “Scotland in miniature” because its landscape imitates that of Scotland, complete with highlands, glens, and rolling fields of green.

Wild camping vs campsites

Wild camping in Scotland

In my opinion, one of the best reasons to visit Scotland is the fact that wild camping there is legal. Not only does it save you a lot of money on campsites, but these camping spots are often located in the most breathtaking places, offering the chance to wake up in locations campsites simply can’t imitate. 

We spent nights camped everywhere: in forests, above lochs, by the sea perched over cliffs. So long as you have access to electricity, water, and cooking equipment, then I recommend wild camping as much as possible.

We still stayed at campsites for a few nights during our time in Scotland, but only when we needed to make use of facilities, like emptying waste water, giving batteries a better charge, and cleaning clothes. Plus, it’s always nice having a high-pressure shower once in a while!

Finding wild camping sites in Scotland is relatively easy. To find them, we used apps Park4Night and Camper Contact. On some nights, we simply used Google Maps to find locations that looked relatively remote with space; other times, we just came across great spots during the day.

Campsites in Scotland

Compared to elsewhere in the UK, campsites in Scotland are actually quite a lot cheaper...perhaps because wild camping is so popular that they know they can’t afford to rip people off like they do in England, where wild camping is illegal.

And based on our limited experience of campsites in Scoland, it seemed like the facilities were perfectly up to scratch with what you would expect. Some campsites offer basic amenities, like electric hookup, water fill points, waste facilities, and showers.

Others can be more extensive, with play areas, swimming pools, and entertainment complexes. If you want to relax and take your vanlife experience a bit more slowly, then it could be a good idea to book up for a few nights–or even a couple of weeks–at different campsites and use them as a base to explore from.

For finding campsites, here are a few good websites to check:
Campsites
Pitch Up
Camping and Caravanning Club

How long do you need to spend in Scotland?

If you want to see absolutely everything, then you’re going to need at least 3 or 4 months in Scotland. If you’re a full-time vanlifer, working and travelling at the same time, then why not spend 6 months there?! 

It’s perfectly possible, with access to countless wild camping spots, and facilities to top up your water and empty your waste. If you are looking for a shorter trip to Scotland, then all I can say is spend as much time as you can.

With just 1 or 2 weeks in Scotland, you could head up the Highlands and experience the infamous NC500 road trip, at the same time seeing places like Loch Ness, as well as Inverness city and countless castles all along the drive.

Culzean Castle. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Culzean Castle

Or my second recommendation would be to stick to the western coast. Be sure to visit Glen Coe, Fort William, Glenfinnan and the Isle of Skye. All of this could be done in a week or two, and is where Brad and I have many of our favourite memories.

Cost of road tripping Scotland

Here is a weekly breakdown of our costs of travelling Scotland in a van:
● Food - £30
● Accommodation - £15 (less than one campsite per week)
● Water - Free (fill up points across the country)
● Electricity - Free (if you have solar/split charge relay)
● Gas - £10 (for Autogas/LPG refills)
● Attractions - £20
● Fuel - £70
● Laundry - £8 (either at campsites or machines at petrol stations)

Other costs to factor in include ferries, eating out, any campsites you want to stay in, and expensive tours. But typically speaking, if you want to experience vanlife in Scotland on a budget, you will probably be looking at around £150-£200 per week. 

So, if you are living/travelling full time in your van then it’s a pretty cheap way to live...especially if these costs are divided by two of you.

Our campervan. From The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!
Our campervan 

Hiring a campervan in Scotland

There are dozens of campervan rental firms in Scotland. I can’t recommend any exact ones, as we converted our own campervan that we used to road trip Scotland. If you need to hire one, then I recommend booking one as far in advance as possible.

For busy seasons, these firms often sell out months in advance. In terms of costs, it all depends on what size camper you go for. There are firms that offer smaller campers, with foldaway beds and typical camping cooking equipment. These would be cheaper and best suited for those who aren’t as confident driving a bigger van.

If you’re travelling as a larger group or family, then you can pick up a 4 or 6 berth campervan with static beds and proper camping equipment, like showers, an oven/hob, and toilet. Just head to Google and have a search–you should be able to find something to suit you perfectly!

When is the best time of year to visit Scotland?

There is a running joke (mostly truth) about how bad the weather is in Scotland. It is almost impossible to predict what the next day will be like. Even in the summer months (June-August), expect plenty of rainy days; it’s just the way it is. 

In my opinion, I would say the best time to visit Scotland is in the shoulder months of April-May & September-October. The weather will be colder on average than the summer, and you are likely to get a little more rain (depends how lucky you are).

However, the biggest reason to visit at these times is that you get to avoid the summer onslaught of tourists. In 2020, this was a particularly big issue, with thousands of campervans literally inundating Scotland...so much so that there were not enough places for people to wild camp and littering/waste dumping became a huge problem. 

During our visit (October-December) we saw hardly any other campervans for weeks at a time. It was incredible. It was as if we had the whole country to ourselves!
On our next visit to Scotland, I’m keen to go even more extreme and visit in the winter months, when Scotland gets heavy snowfall. There will be hardly any other campers around, and we’ll get to hike and ski to our heart’s content!

The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!

Vanlife Scotland: Other FAQ

How do you get WiFi signal?

Despite most of Scotland being very remote, we had surprisingly good phone signal almost every night. I recommend picking up a sim card with enough data roaming capacity to suit your needs. 

As we work full time, Bradley and I each have a 150gb/month contract with O2. It costs us roughly £12 a month each, and is great not just for Scotland, but also any other country in Europe. We then connect to the internet on our laptops by creating a hotspot on our phone. You can find a 4G connection in most wild camping locations, though certainly not all of them.

Other good sim providers in Scotland are Three and EE. It might be best to head to a local store and pick up a sim if you are flying into Scotland.

Where do you fill up water in Scotland?

I recommend using the Park4Night app as your main source of free water fill up points across Scotland. There are a number of places to do so, including:

● Petrol stations
● Harbours
● Campsites
● Cemeteries

It really does vary and depend on where you are. 

Is vanlife safe in Scotland?

I can honestly say that we felt 100% safe throughout our entire journey through Scotland. Even when wild camping in the middle of nowhere, we never felt uneasy and never had any problems.

Of course, you should follow common sense safety principles like you would when visiting any country, including:

● Be respectful to locals and don’t vandalise or litter
● Don’t overstay your welcome by free camping in the same spot for weeks
● Lock all valuables away and keep out of obvious sight, if left in your van
● Don’t walk around late at night on your own (be that in a city or up a treacherous mountain)
● If you are hiking in the wilderness, make sure someone knows where you are, or you have a phone for emergencies

The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!

Final thoughts on Vanlife Scotland

Whether you are just looking to visit for a week or two, or are just looking for a country to road trip slowly for a few months, I highly recommend Scotland. We fell in love almost immediately! What we loved so much is that you don’t need to visit certain places to have a great time.

Instead, it is the “in-between” moments that are so memorable–the long drive up and down windy roads, through mountain passes, and besides vast lochs. It is also well suited for campervans, though be prepared for some narrow roads and tricky passes.

If you have any more questions about what it’s like to road trip Scotland, just drop a comment and I’ll be happy to help where I can!

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The Complete Guide to Vanlife Scotland: Costs, Routes, & Everything Else You Need to Know!

 

Cazzy Magennis is one half of the blogging duo over at Dream Big, Travel Far. During lockdown in 2020, they converted their own campervan and are now on a mission to drive the whole way around the world. Scotland was their first adventure on this epic journey.

Find their socials at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKBS9LMn7kxX655G0axkuLg
http://instagram.com/dreambigtravelfar
https://www.facebook.com/dreambigtravelfarblog

All photos courtesy and copyright Dream Big, Travel Far