BEFORE you travel the NC500 in Winter!
Have you travelled the North Coast 500 during winter before?
We’ve collected some hints and tips from our team members, businesses along the way, and visitors travelling the route, to put together the ultimate guide to completing the NC500 during winter.
Some of the information below will be particularly relevant depending on how severe the winter weather is. Conditions vary a great deal along the route, so please do remember to always check an up-to-date weather forecast before you set off.
1. Plan ahead
First things first, planning is key. We’d advise this regardless of the time of year you choose to visit the North Highlands, but during winter it’s particularly important. From October on wards, the weather along the North Coast 500 can be pretty unpredictable. Plan your journey in advance if the weather is likely to be poor, and make sure you have accommodation booked in advance each night. Just because it’s a quieter time of year won’t necessarily mean there are rooms available!
The North Coast 500 is varied; some of the higher, exposed ground can succumb to heavy snow fall. Snow gates may also be closed, in particular the Bealach na Ba – which can be impassible in the winter months. If you find this to be the case during your trip, you can still access Applecross via the coastal road – see our blog for more details (please note, some businesses will be closed during the winter months).
Remember the shortage in daylight hours too when planning your activities, and don’t forget to refuel when you can – this will ensure your vehicle is best prepared for any delays or diversions that could lengthen your journey. When checking the weather forecast, don’t just look ahead to your destination – check the forecast for the entirety of your route. Likewise, it’s sensible to make sure you are travelling with a fully-charged mobile phone, and that you have stored the numbers of your vehicle recovery company, insurance company and/or car hire contact centre.
2. Know your vehicle
Your car should already be prepared for the season ahead. However, if you are not used to winter weather, check out local car hire company, Highland Supercars and check out their guide on preparing your car for Winter. They will ensure you have a warm blanket, a few snacks and water for your journey, when you hire a car from them.
RAC’s quick winter driving checks offer some great tips that will make sure your car is North Coast 500 winter ready! If you’ve hired a car, spend at least 10 minutes getting to know the vehicle. You may also want to consider our general top tips when booking and hiring a car for your trip.
Make sure your car is well stocked in case of a winter breakdown, especially if you are hiring a vehicle for your NC500 trip. You’ll want to ensure you have easy access to spare warm clothes, blankets, a torch, shovel, sturdy boots, high visibility jacket, food, water, a hot flask and de-icer. For more information, read through the the RAC website’s checklist.
3. Drive to the conditions
It’s vital to assess your own driving abilities before setting out on a journey. Drive to the road conditions, and watch out for black ice and snow on the higher ground. We don’t feel you need a 4×4 to do the route, however you might want winter tyres – it is personal preference! If you plan on staying in a remote country lodge or estate you may want one (get in touch with the estate for advice). However, you may wish to hire a 4×4 to enhance your authentic winter experience in the north Highlands! For more information, visit the RAC guide on safe driving in the snow.
During the winter season, allow extra time for your journey, pay extra attention to information boards by the side of the road and, if snow or ice is forecast or already lying, try to stick to main roads wherever possible, as there is a greater chance that these routes will have been gritted, or cleared of snow wherever possible.
If your winter trip along the North Coast 500 is your first time driving in rural Scotland, please be aware that roads in the North Highlands are often narrow and winding, sometimes single track with passing places, and you may even find farm animals or wildlife wandering on the roads – for example, deer numbers at this time of year are particularly high! Always refer to our road safety guide before setting out on your journey.
4. Booking your accommodation
Before the North Coast 500 grew in popularity, winter was traditionally a quieter time of year to book your accommodation in the North Highlands. While many hotels and B&Bs used to close or operate reduced hours during the winter months, more and more businesses are remaining open year-round to accommodate an increase in visitors – so it’s always best to book your accommodation in advance. The shoulder season has extended in recent years, and winter travel in Scotland has never been so popular.
There are so many reasons to visit the North Highlands in winter; it’s a little quieter, the landscape is striking, you can enjoy cosy nights by a roaring fire with a dram of whisky, take photography trips, watch wildlife – and you might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights!
As with the other months, you may wish to stay for longer than one night and explore a particular area from a base. You might like to think about booking your accommodation a couple months before winter sets in – more and more businesses could potentially stay open if they know that visitors are definitely interested in visiting in the winter months. We will soon have a winter itinerary on our website, so watch this space.
5. Keep warm
Wear plenty of layers and keep your feet dry – it can get pretty cold in the north Highlands. High altitudes, long stretches of coastline and winter months mean that warm clothing is crucial! To help prepare for your trip, why not purchase our North Coast 500 beanie, hoodie, sweatshirt or jacket from our online shop?
While much of the charm and appeal of the North Coast 500 is in the spectacular scenery along the route, there’s plenty to do indoors if the weather is poor. For inspiration, check out our guide on reasons to visit the North Coast 500 in winter or embark on our Whisky Heritage Discovery Tour (just remember to allocate a designated driver).
6. Check opening times
As mentioned, some attractions along the North Coast 500 which are open throughout the summer months may close in winter, or operate reduced hours. Many museums, heritage centres and castles may close, while some of the gardens, such as those at Dunrobin Castle, will stay open.
During the winter months, you’ll also have a chance to take part in certain activities which are seasonal. Liquid Footprints, for example, offer to run a winter skills course, where you can learn everything from winter mountaineering skills to avalanche awareness. Alternatively, you may wish to opt for their winter palace experience! Game stalking trips also run regularly from a number of estates along the route. For more information about experiences you can enjoy along the North Coast 500 during winter, see our winter itinerary (coming soon).
7. Stock up on food
In some of the more rural areas along the North Coast 500, eateries often close or reduce their hours for the winter months. Our winter itinerary will help you find out which places will be open for your visit. If you are staying in self-catering providers around the route you may wish to stock up at local farm shops and village shops around the route. At the start of your trip, visit the The Storehouse – their farm shop stocks everything you could need for a NC500 adventure! From game, fish, bread and home baking, to cheeses, preserves and local ready-made meals, if you can name it, they’ll have it.
Why not hold your very own Burns Night? You can collect all your supplies from here too! Make time to also sample the culinary delights in the larger towns around the route, from Ullapool and Gairloch on the west coast to Wick and Thurso on the north coast, or venture over to Dornoch, Tain, Alness or Invergordon and discover the villages of Golspie and Brora, on the east coast.
8. Remember your camera
The winter light is a photographer’s paradise! The winter conditions offer constantly changing glows, throwing the striking North Highland landscapes into a whole new light. Find out how you can capture the Northern Lights here.