The North Coast 500 is, without doubt, the road trip everyone wants to do right now. And it isn't really that much of a surprise why - the route offers unparalleled Highland landscapes, a unique driving experience and a fantastic perspective on what makes Scotland great. We travelled a lot in Europe last summer and our nine days on the NC500 will forever be the highlight.
So, if you're heading there this spring or summer, you're in for a real treat. However, you may like to know what to pack and some essentials to bring in the car with you to ensure you have a stress-free and unforgettable Scottish road trip. Here are our suggestions for your North Coast 500 packing list.
Midge Spray / Repellent
The scourge of Scottish summers, the dreaded midge can ruin that romantic sunset stroll by the loch or picnic on a munro. Some people (Andrew) are lucky and don't really get many bites, others (Emily) seem to act as a walking buffet for the wee things.
Bringing a bottle or two of repellent is therefore highly recommended. Deet-free and 100% natural Incognito and Smidge are the two most popular options, whilst a number of people swear by Avon Skin So Soft.
A handy thing to have in your glove box to soothe any bites you do happen to get is Tiger Balm.
As great as it is to stop off and support some of the great independent cafes, restaurants and coffee shops around the route (which you definitely should be doing), there's no doubt that one of the benefits of doing a road trip is that you have the freedom to pull over in the middle of nowhere for spontaneous coffee or tea breaks with your own private view of the Highlands.
And for this, you need a reliable thermos flask to keep your hot drinks...hot!
B&Bs and hotels along the route will be happy for you to fill up your own flask before you set off - the perfect companion to a tablet of fudge or cheeky fly with shortbread at the roadside with a stunning view. If you want to be a bit more fashionable and hipster, then you can opt for a Hydro Flask which keep liquids hot for up to six hours or cold for twenty-four (unfortunately not at the same time!), or one by MiiR.
Just in case, like us, you get that fantastic weather which makes the beach look like this....
refillable water bottle
A big part of our travel philosophy is to try and cut down how much unnecessary plastic we both use on the road - one of the easiest (and cost-effective) ways to do that is to focus on refilling rather than buying lots of plastic bottles of water.
Our tried-and-tested product now is a glass, rather than plastic or metal, refillable container. It's protected by a silicon sleeve so you can drop it and it won't smash (or at least ours hasn't yet!) and the good thing about it being glass rather than plastic is that it's much easier to clean and doesn't get that nasty fooshty smell which we simply couldn't get rid of in our old plastic Bobble bottles.
And, as you're in the Highlands, that stuff straight out of the tap will taste better than most bottled water anywhere else! We recommend this and this, whilst this one is a good option with a flip-top for only a tenner.
We all depend on our mobile phones these days. On road trips in especially, we use it as our main map source and GPS, compass, torch, music player, back-up camera and, sometimes, even to make calls (although the signal is very patchy up here!)
Unfortunately, with dependence on your smartphone for such a myriad of activities, the battery is always guaranteed to run out of juice pretty quickly. Every day we were driving on the North Coast 500, we would have full battery leaving at 8 a.m., only for it to be down to 10% by about 3 p.m (not ideal when you're not sure where you hotel is exactly) - it's really our own fault for blasting out The Proclaimers every hour. So, having a battery pack with you is essential to keep your gear charged on the go.
There are loads available in the £10-15 range - like the Amazon Basics and the lipstick-sized PowerCore+ mini. However, if you want to spend a bit more, the Anker PowerCore is a beast which can charge two devices at the same time and has enough juice to charge an iPhone seven times, whilst staying portable and lightweight - it also comes with an 18-month guarantee.
If you're a heavy phone user and active traveller, and it doubles up as your main camera, then it might be worth opting for a Lifeproof phone case. It's waterproof, dustproof and dropproof, whilst also providing your phone with one full charge as a battery pack (unfortunately it won't make the dinner for you or clean the house). Check it out here.
Mobile Phone Holder
If you're renting a car, then you may have GPS included - we did in ours but, as outlined in our '11 things to know before driving the North Coast 500' article we actually found the GPS a hindrance given that we wanted to take the long way round, and it persisted on trying to send us on the A835 up to Ullapool! Instead, we ended up using the route we had pre-programmed into our phones on Google Maps and the GPS within that if we had specific places to visit along the way or at the end of the day.
If you're doing a similar thing and don't have someone in the passenger seat who is happy to hold the phone and navigate, then a sturdy mobile phone holder is essential. We all know the dangers presented by people trying to fiddle with their phones whilst driving (and it's bloody illegal!), so having a holder in your line of vision which holds the phone firmly in place whilst you're driving is really important for you and other road users.
Want to know a secret? One day on the North Coast 500, we had such perfect weather that we couldn't resist a spontaneous picnic on one of the perfect beaches along the very northernmost points. However, it was quite a windy day, so Andrew set off to find a slightly more sheltered spot in the sand....only to find a lady sunbathing topless! Nothing wrong with that at all, but it wasn't exactly a sight he was expecting to come across in Scotland in June!
Nevertheless, we had a lovely picnic with a great little wicker picnic hamper - you know the sort, the one that includes all your plates, cutlery, napkins etc. If you can keep those midges at bay, it's the essential ingredient to a romantic meal al fresco.
Rug / blanket
This foldable tartan one is a good option for chucking in the back of a car - the PVC base means that it won't take all the sand or grass back into the boot of the car when you're done! The Matador Pocket Blanket is a great compact option for a blanket which you can keep in your rucksack or daypack when you're out on your hike - it's lightweight and folds down to almost nothing.
Cool Box / Bag
Can you believe that we were lucky enough to have 7/9 sunny days when we were touring the North Coast 500? It was actually hot (or 'taps aff weather' to us Scots). We did a big shop in the supermarket in Inverness before hitting the start of the North Coast 500, and our little cool box meant we could...um...keep everything cool (or at least help perishable goods last a little longer). It's a good idea to have some ice blocks as well to keep everything extra chilled.
If you're an old school road-tripper, then you might want to pick up the OS Road Map for North Scotland, Orkney & Shetland to keep in the glove compartment.
There isn't a North Coast 500 guidebook yet, meaning you'll just have to check out our free guide here. However, you may want to read this new 'Exploring the NC500' book before leaving to get you in the mood and provide some inspiration. We haven't read it so let us know in the comments what you think!
If the North Coast 500 is forming part of your wider Scottish adventure, then the Lonely Planet has a great guide covering the entire country, as well as one focussing purely on the Highlands and the magical islands.
A Scottish Playlist
We played purely Scottish music when navigating the North Coast 500 (Andrew insisted). Although this included some questionable tunes, there's nothing like driving Scotland's most famous 500 miles with Scotland's most famous 500 mile song (although Scottish music has so so much more to offer than just The Proclaimers).
In the days of Spotify and off-line playlists, we know that CDs are old hat. A bunch of friends recommended some of their favourite Scottish music to help us craft our own playlist, but if you don't know where to start or actually like having a physical CD on a roadtrip (again, think of that mobile phone battery life!) then 'Made in Scotland' is a decent option for a mix of classics and a fair bit of cheese.
If you'd prefer an audiobook to accompany you on the journey around the Highlands, then you can sign up for a free trial here and download a book of your choice on Audible here.
We swear by packing cubes these days - they're great for short and long-term trips to organise your luggage (and our camera cables) so that you can quickly and easily unpack and repack in your B&B or hotel.
We use and recommend these ones by PRO Packing Cubes.
A good book
Any holiday isn't complete with a book to accompany you in the evening or on the days where you're not ticking off the miles in the car. We've included below some suggestions and recommendations for books which will be most appropriate for the North Coast 500 scenery:
- At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig: Based around a journey to Lochinver (part of the NC500) to meet an old poet friend, Greig's critically-accalimed book is part travel journal, part history of the area and part beautiful tribute to the "ruinous, transcendent heartland of the North-West Highlands".
- Findings by Kathleen Jamie: Jamie has an eye and an ease with the nature and landscapes of Scotland as well as an incisive sense of its domestic realities. In Findings she draws together these themes to describe travels in the country like no other contemporary writer.
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Outrageously popular fiction series, which is now a successful TV series. A 20th century nurse time travels to 18th century Scotland and, of course, finds love, romance and adventure with a handsome Highland warrior.
- Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson: The book is an absolute classic, set in Scotland just after the Jacobite Rebellions. However, aside from that link, Louise Stevenson's uncle actually designed the Noss Head Lighthouse in Caithness which is part of the NC500 route.
- A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Based in the north-east of Scotland, rather than the Highlands, but this trilogy was voted Scotland's Favourite Book in 2016 so has to make the list!
- Rob Roy by Walter Scott: You may know about Braveheart and you may have seen Rob Roy the film, but Scott's classic about the tale of a Highland outlaw turned folk hero in the midst ofthe Jacobite Rebellion.
- The Highland Clearances by John Prebble: The Highland Clearances form one of the saddest chapters in Scotland's history. Prebble's book is the best place to start trying to understand its causes and effects on the nation and to make you realise why the landscapes on the North Coast 500 are so empty.
- Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding: If you've been reading the above list and scratching your head at every mention of Jacobites, then this one's for you. Only released in 2016, this is a captivating and in-depth account of Bonnie Prince Charlie's attempts to gain the throne. Who needs Jon Snow?
Or, if you fancy something less-historical and more of an entertaining page-turner based in Scotland, then anything by the Scottish quartet of Christopher Brookmyre, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid or Trainspotting creator Irvine Welsh, will definitely fit the bill.
THE RIGHT CLOTHES
As Scotland's weather, even in June and July, can never be 100% depended upon, NC500 roadtrippers really do have to pack for all occasions and seasons. It can be beautiful clear skies one day and then blowing a gale with rain and haar the next, so don't just think 'it's July, I'll only need summer clothes with me'.
Aside from your usual garb, essentials to bring with you, even in summer, are:
- A Lightweight, waterproof windbreaker
- A hat
- A fleece / hoody for chillier evenings
- An umbrella
- A good pair of waterproof walking shoes - the Merrel Moab range is Gore-tex, waterproof, durable and affordable, and has served us both well doing various multi-day hikes in Latin America and Europe over the last three years. If you don't like a full hiking boot, they also come in a more trainer-like 'low rise' style for men and women.
Mountain Warehouse is a good on-line option to pick up some great pieces of affordable outdoors clothing, as well as camping or other road trip equipment - they do free delivery within the UK on orders over £50.
A kilt is, of course, is wholly optional!
Swiss Army Knife
If you're wild camping along the route or undertaking some proper hiking, then you'll know that a proper Swiss Army Knife is an essential piece of kit. In our two years travelling in Latin America, it got us out of many a jam and it's something which continues to solve a myriad of problems which we don't even think of or anticipate when we're on a road trip - we use and recommend the Victorinox Huntsman.
Travel first aid pack
Given that this is a remote area for large stretches of your roads trip, bringing your own small first aid kit with the essentials is always a good idea. Be sure to check out our post on first aid kit essentials.
If you're just a couple like us, then any car will have enough space for all your stuff (including bags of camera equipment). However, if you're a large family or group travelling together, you might find space at a premium. A roof box can more than double your car's capacity and, if you're camping or outdoorsy, it can keep that equipment nice and separate when it's mucky. The 280 litre Thule Ranger is foldable for easy transport and storage and doesn't require any tools to snap onto your roof bars, and the Green Valley Sherpack offers a slightly cheaper version.
A decent camera
We know that lots of people are happy to use their phone (and the cursed selfie-stick) but, if you'd like to know what camera equipment we took on the North Coast 500 and all our travels across the world, read this post. If you're planning on spending a lot of time out on the water searching for dolphins or exploring in a kayak, or you're cyclist who wants to record your journey around the route, then a GoPro HERO really is the best option.
And our little gift to you....
As we've written in our North Coast 500 accommodation post, there are a great number of Airbnb options you can stay at along the NC500. If you've never used Airbnb before for a place to stay whilst you're travelling, then we can't recommend it enough - check out our beginner's guide to Airbnb or sign up for free here and receive £30 off your first booking.
Lastly, if you're in a rush to get some of the above items, then why not sign up for a 30-day free trial for Amazon Prime? Not only will you receive free one-day shipping on most items, but it also gives you access to a bunch of TV shows, movies and Kindle books - sign up for your free trial here. And, whilst you're at it, why not order a little pack of the best gin being made on the North Coast 500 to get you in the mood for the best road trip EVER!
START PLANNING FOR THE NORTH COAST 500!