North Coast 500: 29+ Things to Know Before You Go

Kylesku Bridge, blue sky, hills, Scotland_

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The 516-mile loop called the North Coast 500 has fast become one of the top things to do in Scotland. Thousands of national and international visitors are heading to the Highlands to drive from Inverness to John o’ Groats and back down again. When planning your North Coast 500 trip there are a few things you need to consider driving in Scotland and the NC500 itself. Here are my tips, as a Scot and travel lovers, so you can get the best out of the Highlands tour.

Warning; the following is very important information told with a bit of banter.

» Don’t miss our NC500 itinerary! Click here to read it

Planning Your North Coast 500 Trip

1. North Coast 500 is Popular, Like Rome Popular

One of the most visited cities in Europe is Rome. One of the most popular experiences in Scotland is the NC500.

Be prepared to be sharing the road with other cars, bikes and motorhomes.

Book your accommodation as soon as you know your route, or consider camping.

Applecross Inn Scotland, people sitting at lunch

2. It Rains

As they say, there’s no such things as bad weather, just bad clothing.

Pack sensibly. Get a decent waterproof coat.

Invest in waterproof hiking shoes or boots.

Rain can make you feel colder too, lots of layers are key.  We got very lucky most days… 

Stac Pollaidh, Craig, Gemma, Ullapool Scotland_

3. It Gets Dark

Regardless of how much stamina you have for the NC500, the sun will dictate how long you can stay on the road.

As darkness falls, you are best to get to your base for the night, whether that be a town or tent.

Look up, see the stars.  

Duncansby Lighthouse Rainbow Craig Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

4. Midges are not Myths Like Nessie

Midges are small insects with wings that nip the skin and leave a mark.

These bites can be itchy, some people swell up in reaction.

5. How do I Avoid Midges?

Travel during the low season, November to February, to avoid midges.

Obviously, no one wants to travel in the Highlands during that time so alternative arrangements are:

  • Avoid dusk.
  • Stay away from stagnant water.
  • Go to windy areas of the NC500.
  • Pack midge veils/hats.
  • Use Avon Skin So Soft US / UK

Oh wait, you think Nessie is real? Wrong! But haggis really is a wee animal that roams the fields. Keep your eyes open and camera ready.

6. There’s Limited 3G Never Mind 4 0r 5G

We are mostly accustomed to 4G coverage in Central Scotland but the further north you go, the patchier coverage gets.

It’s imperative that you pack a map and take note of your accommodation, tour details and breakdown information before you leave.

You can download maps before you leave your accommodation, just don’t go off the route or you’ll lose the data.

Download your music playlists too. Add these Scottish bands to a playlist for an authentic Scotland road trip:

  • Aberfeldy
  • Admiral FallowArab Strap
  • Aztec Camera
  • Bay City Rollers (rocked tartan trews before me),
  • Belle and Sebastian
  • Biffy Clyro
  • Big Country
  • The BlueBells
  • Camera Obscura
  • Lewis Capaldi (follow him on social media, very funny)
  • Edwyn Collins
  • Darius Danesh
  • Deacon Blue
  • Franz Ferdinand
  • The Fratellis
  • Glasvegas
  • Calvin Harris
  • Nina NesbittPaolo Nutini (hero fae Paisley)
  • The Phantom Band
  • The Proclaimers (of course)
  • Snow Patrol
  • Texas
  • Travis
  • KT Tunstall
  • The Twilight Sad
  • Siobhan Wilson

Invest in a battery pack.

Scotland flag, skyline, shadow Craig, Stac Pollaidh, Craig, Ullapool Scotland_

7. There are ATMs in Bigger Towns.

The first time I went to Ullapool I asked my friend if there were cash machine (ATMs) in her hometown of Ullapool. THREE, she replied. Questions like that annoy Highlanders apparently!

Jokes aside, bring ample amounts of cash (we accept Scottish and English notes, hint hint London) for the smaller shops that don’t accept card.

We use chip and pin and contactless for debit and credit card payments.

American Express is the least accepted card in Scotland. Always best to carry a backup.

Thurso Beach North Coast 500 Scotland_

North Coast 500 Roads

8. We Drive on the Left

Unlike many other European countries, we drive on the left in the UK just to make those single track roads even more challenging for international guests.

This means you need to navigate the gear stick and handbrake on the left-hand side too.

If you are bringing your own car remember to pack your registration, ownership documents, licence and insurance.

You have to be 18 to drive in Scotland, usually 21 to hire a car. You must have insurance.

As an ex Avis agent, I recommend getting the additional insurance to cover the excess. If you hit a deer, it leaves a mess (a customer actually did this when I worked at Avis, he was distraught for the deer and the bill).

Friends from the USA, we don’t have ‘turn right on red’ to Craig’s annoyance.

Remember to always wear a seatbelt. It’s the law.

Bealach na Bar Road North Coast 500 Scotland

9. Animals Drive on Either Side

While rush hour isn’t really an issue on the NC500, animals can be!

Be patient with cows, sheep, birds and deer on the NC500 roads.

Highland cow, blue sky, green grass, Scotland

10. The Speed Limit is 60 MPH for Cars

Unless stated otherwise.

Single-track roads, which dominate the Scottish Highlands, have a speed limit of 60 miles per hour (MPH) for cars. For motorhomes, it is 50 MPH. However, it is unlikely that you will be going at this pace often during your trip.

In built-up areas, the speed limit is 30 or 20 MPH.

Signposts will tell you which speed is the law.  

Around the rest of Scotland, motorways/dual carriageways are set at 70 MPH for cars, 60 MPH for bigger vehicles.

Local police have toyed with a “pan-Highland road safety plan” to teach visitors how to drive carefully on our roads.

Tractor Road North Coast 500 Scotland_

11. Zebra Crossings Mean Stop

Zebra crossings are black and white stripes on the road.

If someone is at a zebra crossing we let them walk over. It’s as simple as that.

12. Our Roads are ‘A’ Roads

Forget 70MPH motorways, the Highlands is home to the single track road. That means the road has one lane!

You need a bit of patience and the ability to move over on the NC500.

There are passing places dotted around the roads, use these to pull in if you see a vehicle coming. Give the oncoming driver a wee wave or flash of the lights if they let you pass.  

Remember, these roads are for locals too. They need to get to work or to the local shop so be considerate. Here’s an image of the infamous Bealach na Bà, more on it below. 

North Coast 500 Tours Scotland

13. The Roads Get Dark

Naturally, in rural areas we don’t want our roads polluted by lights, we need to be able to see the stars!

If you are caught driving to your destination in the dark, only use your full beam when there are no other vehicles on the road.

If at a passing place on a single track road, dim the headlights to just sidelights to avoid blinding the car who is passing.

Thurso Campsite Campervan North Coast 500 Scotland_

14. We’re Roundabout Daft

We love roundabouts in Scotland. Our news towns are jam-packed with them. In Glenrothes, if Fife, there are more roundabouts than people.

Roundabouts are circles we drive around. They tend to have three to five options for leaving. Always approach the roundabout on the left and signal if you are going left or right round.

15. Bealach na Bà is Not a Sound You Make When You Sneeze

Crazy road! Crazy views!

It all starts with a red and blue sign.

Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle) is a winding road that peaks at 2053ft (625.7 metres) offering views of Wester Ross, the whole of Skye, and the Islands of Rum and the Outer Hebrides.

Larger caravans and motorhomes must use an alternative route. If your van is bigger than a VW T5 conversion respect the rules.

Bealach na Bar Sign North Coast 500 Scotland_

16. The North Coast 500 isn’t Wasn’t Actually Signposted

There are now brown tourist NC500 signs around the Highlands.

You will see lots of Highlands attractions with brown signs t00.

The local towns and villages will be signposted so look out for where you are going next.

Rosemarkie Scottish Highland NC500

17. You Don’t Have to Drive!

Hire a tour guide to do it for you. NC500 tours start at one to four-day trips so you can decide which suits your needs best. 

» Click to read about the North Coast 500 tours in full

18. Zero Tolerance for Drink Driving

In Scotland, there is a zero-tolerance for drinking and then driving. This includes during a p*ss up and the next morning.

Plan to partake in the water of life? Invest in a breathalyser to check the next morning fumes before setting off.  

Beer bottle, shieldaig, Scotland, village, sea, cars, houses

19. You Can’t Use Your Phone While Driving

That means no calls, texts or changing tunes.

Best to have a portable phone holder.

» Read next: our road trip packing list

20. People Sh*t on the NC500 and That’s Not Cool

Seriously, hang back at your accommodation for an hour if you know your coffee induces your morning dump.

I was disgusted to hear from a local ranger that visitors on the NC50 are doing their business by the side of the road.

In Scotland you get fined for not picking up your dog’s poop, I am guessing the same goes for human faeces? Be a decent person and use a loo.

Most gas/petrol stations have public toilets. As do leisure centres and tourist visitor offices.

John o Groats Boat Houses North Coast 500 Scotland_

21. Petrol Gets Expensive

You won’t be surprised to hear this but gas/petrol is expensive in the Highlands so ensure you fill up in Inverness.

It is best to use a petrol/gas station whenever you are half full to avoid any awkward breakdowns.

Food is more expensive than in the central belt but we encourage you to buy local and support the locals living in the Highlands.

Unlike in our cities, petrol stations are not open 24/7.

Campervan Cromarty Bridge Road North Coast 500 in Scotland_

22. Petrol or Diesel?

Double, triple check which type of fuel your hire car or motorhome takes. If you use the wrong fuel it will cost you a bomb and your NC500 trip will be delayed for a good while.

23. There’s No Right Way Round

This is the most popular question about the NC500 – which way do I drive it?

It doesn’t matter whether you go clockwise or counterclockwise. Some think that east to west is best because they prefer the west coast scenery but that’s a personal choice.

If you are doing a side trip to Orkney (east) or Isle of Lewis and Skye (west) you are best to arrive with plenty of daylight so factor that into your decision.

North Coast 500 Map NC500 route Scotland

North Coast 500 Accommodation

24. Accommodation Sells Out

The curse of such an easy muse for social media shares is that the NC500 is really freaking popular. 

With popularity comes booked out accommodation. Make sure you book up as soon as you know your route or bring a tent in case you can’t get anything. 

» Don’t leave it until last minute: here’s our NC500 accommodation guide

John o Groats Lodges North Coast 500 Scotland_

25. Bed and Breakfasts are Just Lovely!

I know it might seem a strange way of holidaying but staying in a local’s house and having a breakfast chit chat in the morning is really really lovely. 

Traditional bed and breakfast owners have been in the industry for years and have the best stories about the area! Go on, ditch the hotel for one night and try a Scottish B&B. 

Cooked Breakfast River Bothy Cafe in Berriedale North Coast 500 Scotland_

26. Wild Camping Isn’t Really Hot Right Now

Unzipping your tent to wilderness each morning does sound delightful, but there is a Scottish Outdoor Access Code when it comes to wild camping in Scotland.

The rules state you can’t camp near your vehicle which becomes problematic for those doing the NC500 with a car.

Wild camping is noising some locals up so read the code carefully and commit. 

Ardvreck Castle, beach, sea, grass Scotland_

General NC500 Tips

27. The Beaches are White and the Water is Turquoise

No sarcastic tone or hidden joke here. The North Coast 500 beaches are impeccable. You just have to hope you get the weather. The Universe to cruel!

» Thinking of camping or taking a motorhome? here’s our list of campsites

28. There Are Lots of Hikes

Pack your hiking boots and hit the hills. The NC500 has lots of lovely hikes including Stac Pollaidh at Ullapool.

What a great way to stretch the legs after a morning on the road.

Stac Pollaidh, Craig, Ullapool Scotland_

29. Dogs Can NC500 Too!

There is lots of dog-friendly accommodation on the NC500 so our fur babies don’t have to miss out of the fresh air and long walks.

Hotel, fire, dog sleeping

30. Langoustine is Awesome

Try it at the Applecross Inn. I saw a tourist ask how to eat them so I asked too. The staff were happy to explain.

There’s lots of delicious food to try on the NC500. Support local.

Langostine, Gemma, Applecross Inn Scotland

31. Drones are Often Restricted

Check the signs, locals are growing tired of bad drone behaviour. Droney no dae that. 

Final Words

So that’s the North Coast 500 in a nutshell! I hope you found our tips helpful while you plan the trip of a lifetime (or the year anyway). 

This road trip loop really is an awesome way to see some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. 

North Coast 500 Guides

We’re NC500 daft! Please check out our free guides to help with your planning:  

Other Scotland guides:

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North Coast 500 Planning Tips

Did we miss anything?
Tell us in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “North Coast 500: 29+ Things to Know Before You Go

  1. Gary says:

    Great information here, really good work.

    I have a LWB VW Crafter converted camper (17.4ft) I’m planning on doing it in, I am a very good driver and can easily reverse down tight roads without any issue. Looking at pictures the bealach na bà looks narrow, will my van actually fit or will I need to take the less scenic route?

  2. Michelle says:

    Hi Both. Really helpful info, but I wanted to know how many bridges you drive over (phobia) and if any part of the journey is cliff driving – or very close to water? Have autism also so need the detail🙂 Appreciate if you could advise. Thanks

    • Gemma I Two Scots Abroad says:

      Hi Michelle! Good question. I can definitely recall Kessock Bridge which takes you from Inverness over to the Islands, a bridge just outside of Cromarty on the east coast (Black Isle) and another Kylesku Bridge on the west coast close to Ullapool.

      If you plan to drive from Edinburgh you’ll meet a number of other bridges such as the Queensferry Crossing which connects the city with Fife.

      Most of the road is coastal so you will be close to water often.

      Hope that helps! ~ Gemma

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