So you’ve picked your route and it’s time to pack but what does one take on Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500? Granted you will be aware that the Scottish Highlands can face four seasons in one day and the summer months are blighted with those wee terrors, the midges, but never fear, this Scot is here and I have your back covered (literally) with our North Coast 500 packing list. If you are just starting your 500 miles road trip with this article, don’t miss our NC500 free guide full of itineraries and tips to get you on the road.
North Coast 500 Packing List
My top tip for what to pack for the NC500 is to have a suitcase/rucksack with the majority of your clothes and toiletries stored in, a smaller bag which you can add your PJs and ‘the next day’ clothes to, along with a day bag for the car, full of snacks and other road trip essentials.
The reason I suggest this three bag strategy is because when you only stay in accommodation on the North Coast 500 for one night, you don’t want to have to lug your full week’s bag in and out of the car each time. On one occasion our room was pretty small and our suitcase would have caused injuries as we stumbled in at 1am full of the ‘water of life’ (when in Rome and all that)!
We both travel with an 80-litre Vango Freedom rucksack, which has a 20-litre destatchable (by zip) day bag, great for taking on day trips and hikes. We didn’t need both 80-litres rucksacks for the trip, opting just for the one and two-day bags.
You may be sitting in the car for long periods of time while soaking up the Scottish Highland‘s 500 miles, so be comfortable. If, like us, there is a constant battle for the aircon to be on (Craig) and off (me, Gemma) a throw or large cashmere poncho is a recommended purchase for your road trip. They are also great for hiding bags under if leaving the car unattended or throwing over your shoulders on the NC500 stops when the sun nips behind the clouds and leaves a chill in the crisp air. They also make for epic pictures too.
–> Buy the official North Coast 500 guide online
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You won’t be surprised that at some point during your trip you are going to be faced with the Scottish summer: rain. I never travel without my Marmot Precip rain jacket because it is thin, light and folds away neatly into its own pocket. Pack a sturdy umbrella for evenings too. Never under estimate how hard our gales blow.
We always carry a waterproof bag cover for our day bags. We’ve visited too many countries where downpours can happen at any moment (yes, Thailand I am looking at you) and since we carry our camera and battery packs in our day bag, we need to ensure that they will still switch on after a rain attack. We can vouch for this Osprey bag cover.
On the whole, you will be jumping in and out of your car so footwear does not matter too much. There are paths to most beaches (some made of wooden slats), castles, and caves (Smoo). If you intend to hike, and I strongly recommend you do set aside two hours in Ullapool to do the short up and down the Stac Pollaidh, pack your hiking boots or shoes. Craig recently purchased a pair of Scarpa boots and I’ve been hiking in Salomon for years now. Both come recommended. For hikes, I always tape up my feet using Leukotape to avoid blisters, works a treat.
–> If you like to hike, check out the West Island Way on the beautiful Isle of Bute. Only a train and ferry ride away from Glasgow and can be completed in less than two days.
I prefer trek trainers/shoes because they are lighter and I have suffered from Achilles issues in the past (that dreaded day of the West Highland Way hike) so these Salomons are ideal because they do not touch my ankle but still offer sole support.
You need to wear shoes (not sandals) for Smoo Cave. If you are staying in hostels or camping, it’s advisable to take flip flops with you for the shower rooms. I swear by Havianas.
If you are camping you definitely want to carry a head torch with you. Don’t rely on your mobile phone for light since you cannot trust the battery not to run out. Non-campers, a hat comes in handy for hiding windswept hair, keeping your ears cosy up hills or even get a fancy one for those Instagram shots!
It’s incredible how much we rely on technology. Even on a digital detoxing three weeks in Cuba we still used our mobile phones every day for reading, listening to music and taking notes. It’s always wise to carry a charged mobile phone battery pack in your bag so you’re not left without any tunes! We recommend ; they are slim, reliable and economical. Be aware that you will be driving without of a signal for most of the journey. We describe how to use the free Google maps app to your advantage here. Take a note of your accommodation addresses and also telephone numbers. Carry some coins with you in case you need to use our iconic red telephone boxes!
We have a new addition to our travelling family – the JBL clip for UK JBL speaker for U.S. This wee babe is waterproof and clips onto your bags so you never have to go without tunes again. Make sure you download your Scottish playlist to your phone from Spotify before you set off as you won’t have 4G in the hills (or the villages at times).
Here’s a list of our favourite Scottish bands (or alternatively search for @Craigarmit on Spotify and download his Scotland album)
- Camera Obscura
- Belle and Sebastian
- Paolo Nutini
- The View
- Orange Juice
- Siobhan Wilson
- Franz Ferdinand
- Talking Heads
- The Twilight Sad
- Primal Scream
- Big Country
- The Jesus and Mary Chain
- Calvin Harris
- Deacon Blue
- Annie Lennox
- and of course – The Proclaimers (500 miles…)
— The North Coast 500 is one the UK’s most scenic road trips so you don’t want to forget your camera and an extra battery.
If you are staying in hostels and carrying expensive electronics, you may want to consider investing in a PacSafe net. We travelled around 16 countries using this device and luckily had our belongings untapped. To use you put your beloved things in your day bag, wrap the safe net around the bag, pull it closed, attached to a non-moving structure like a bed frame or radiator and padlock shut. You’ll also need a padlock. Go for one that is TSA approved and thin enough to actually use in freaking lockers! This padlock is recommended by many backpackers. Pop a throw (that useful item again) over you bag and away you go to enjoy the sunset and/or craft beer.
If you are taking part in any of the water sports around the North Coast, pack a waterproof bag for your phone and camera. Don’t be like Craig at Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua, stuck between a rock and a hard place, literally, with his phone in his hand and very deep water in the way.
Medical and toiletries
Kid you not, I was a little red in the face after hiking up Ullapool’s Stac Pollaidh. Silly me for not using my reliable factor 60 La Roche-Posay. Pack some sunscreen you just never know. Don’t forget your sunshades too. Store a first aid kit like this, it takes up little room in the car but could be a lifesaver, there will be times when you don’t see anyone else for miles.
Let’s get to the main issue in Scotland; midges. Midges are winged insects which nip the skin (all over) and leave angry red marks. They like the summer time but hate wind. There’s no way to 100% prevent midges attacking, and they come with friends (swarms of them) but you can use products such as Avon Skin So Soft and Smidge to repel them. Even if you are not camping it is advised to spray some around dusk time. They attempted to eat us alive just hopping from restaurant to bar.
In Scotland, we have a zero tolerance for drink driving. This also impacts on the next morning so be sure that the designated driver is not on the whisky too late into the wee hours the night before or even better, stay a couple of nights in one location and give them time off. If you are heading to the NC500 distilleries on the east coast you might want to purchase a cheeky wee hipflask before you go. They make for great gifts too. Prone to a heavy head? Try these hydration tablets, works a treat (recommended by a medic we met travelling).
–> Our North Coast itinerary is free and jam-packed full of tips and images
Road trip gear
Along with your throw, hat, shades and first aid pack you’ll also want to buy snacks. There are small shops in many of the villages. Inverness, Ullapool, Thurso, Wick, Tain and Dingwall have large supermarkets. Lidl is your cheapest option which can found on the east coast (there is only a Tesco on the west coast in Ullapool). Food is 1/3 more expensive in restaurants and cafes than in the central belt of Scotland. Businesses have to pay more and logistics make food transportation more difficult naturally. Take a bottle like and ask your accommodation to fill it up for you, saves you money and the environment!
For the romantics amongst us, don’t forget your picnic cases (this is cute but ridiculous to carry, this one is more reasonable) and collapsable cups for the fizz (non-drivers). If you are thinking of proposing, I know a few nice spots; send us a message! Oh, I adore a good love story.
North Coast 500 Packing Guide checklist
- Rucksack/suitcase/day bag
- Picnic/cool bag
- Rain cover for day bag
- Walking boots
- Flip flops
- Mobile phone battery packs (+phones)
- PacSafe Net
- Waterproof bag
- Factor 60 face cream/suntan lotion
- First aid kit
- Midge repellent
- Hydration tablets
What to pack for the NC500
Come rain, shine, hanger and hangovers you are now equipped for the best 500-mile drive of your life! Naturally, this road trip-packing guide can be adapted for other driving holidays too.
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