The ultimate guide to the NC500
'Cause I would drive 500 miles, and I would drive 500 more...
Scotland's North Coast 500 driving route has had something of a meteoric rise to fame since it was launched in 2015. Bringing together a route of stunning coastal scenery, white sandy beaches, rugged mountains, remote fishing villages, hidden gems, and a wealth of unforgettable experiences, the North Coast 500 is one of the world’s most beautiful road trips.
If you're thinking of taking on the epic 516 mile route, then the following tips have been put together by campervanners who've done the route already.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Allow at least 7 days to drive the NC500. This is a route that shouldn't be rushed. You don't want to spend the entire time driving, and it only takes one bit of bad weather or a road closure to knock your schedule out. If you try to do it all in a week, you'll just be driving during the day, and moving on again without getting to really enjoy the best bits. Two weeks is probably about right.
TAKE TRAVEL TIME WITH A PINCH OF SALT
Ignore googlemaps travel time - it could easily be messed up by one traffic jam, or more likely, the number of times you'll want to stop to take a photo of a highland cow.
PLEASE, USE CAMPSITES
In practice, 'wild camping' isn't all it's cracked up to be. I go into a bit more depth about it here, but if you want to have a comfortable holiday without upsetting the locals or having to deal with a portable toilet, then a campsite is the way forward.
IF YOU ARE 'WILD' CAMPING...
Leave no trace - no rubbish, no chemicals, no human waste, no fires, no damaged grass.
Look out for any parking restriction signs and don't park on farm land or in gateways.
Don't park too close to houses or block their view.
Check out the guidelines on visitscotland but remember that most wild camping guidance is aimed at tents, not campervans.
Read this article so you know what you're letting yourself in for.
BOOK CAMPSITES IN ADVANCE
The NC500 is a very popular route. Whilst you might like the idea of flexibility, if you're travelling in peak season it will be busy, so it's better to have at least some fixed points sorted. Try these campsites on our map or check out this article for the best campsite finder websites. You don't want to be driving around in the dark desperately trying to find somewhere that has space at the end of a long day of driving!
STAY A BIT LONGER
Stop more than one night in a few places. Go to the pubs, use the shops, do a big hike, or take a day or two to just relax! You'll see way more if you have two full days in one spot than if you just pitch up in the afternoon and then leave again in the morning.
When driving on single track roads, pull in and let people go past you. Some people live here and need to get to work! Don't feel you have to keep to their speed, just pull in, let them past, then carry on at your own pace.
Okay, so maybe unusual advice for 'doing' the NC500, but the route has had some bad press in recent years. Due to increasing popularity and also the pandemic increasing Scotland's tourist numbers, there are plenty of people who would say to give it a miss, at least for now. If you're restricted to travelling during peak season, and you're worried that the NC500 might be a bit too busy when you're planning your trip, then check out this article with some suggestions for alternative driving routes to the NC500.
SIZE IS EVERYTHING
Take a small VW Camper, or a car and tent, not a big motorhome. Whilst many of the roads are fine, some others are really not suited to bigger motorhomes. Particularly if you decide you need to do a three point turn, or find you need to reverse 100 metres to the last passing point. If you're not that confident with the van, then avoid the Bealach Na Ba part of the NC500 - it is steep, with sharp bends. If you're not sure, it's better to use the A896 than be 'that person' who gets stuck and causes gridlock! If you are driving a large motorhome, then avoid the B869 from Lochinver to Kylesku too.
Practise reversing your campervan - you might need to reverse a few hundred yards on one of the single track roads we've just mentioned. If the nearest passing point is on your side of the road, it's on you to back up. There's more great advice here.
GOOD AWNING, CAMPERS
Unless you have the luxury of a couple of nights at each stop, just take a sun canopy, not a full awning. This awning chooser will guide you through the pros and cons of the different awnings we have available. The sun canopy can be put up in a couple of minutes and doesn't take up much space when packed away. Putting a full driveaway awning up and down at each stop will quickly get boring! If you are planning to 'wild camp' then you shouldn't use any kind of awning at all.
AVOID THE PEAK SEASON
Many say the best months to visit Scotland's NC500 route are from May to September to catch the best weather - but Scottish weather is changeable and the route can be enjoyed throughout the year. However, May to September is also midge season. If you can, aim for April or October - it'll still be reasonable weather, it'll be quieter, and the colours of the highlands in Autumn and Spring are worth sacrificing a couple of degrees celsius.
Be prepared for ALL the weather - The north of Scotland can get some great weather, but it's probably more famous for the opposite. You're likely to get some rain while you're away, even in summer, so waterproofs are essential. However, you'll also want your sunglasses and shorts, and layers for the cooler evenings. There's a list of things you should pack here.
GET IN THE SEA!
Pack your swimming kit. (Unless you're VERY brave AND you've found a quiet spot!)
You can't just drive around the coast and look at all that water without getting in it. (Safely, of course.) If you ask me, you've only completed the NC500 if you've ben in the sea at least once ;)
BE PREPARED FOR MIDGES
Midges are common in Scotland from May to September, especially in the West, at dusk and dawn, so remember to pack your insect repellent. Avon Skin-So-Soft is infamous for preventing the midges although some say that Smidge which was created by Edinburgh Uni is even better. If you're really worried, get yourself one of these!
REMEMBER YOUR BOOTS
Take walking boots and an OS map so you can explore the beautiful coast and mountains. The ground can still be very wet in places at any time of year, and if you're getting up into the hills on foot, conditions can be wildly different on the hills than the valleys. Some Scottish mountains still have snow on the tops in July, so those flip flops just won't cut it!
STOP FOR A DRAM
There are plenty of independent distilleries in Scotland, so plan a distillery tour close to where you're staying one night Remember, Scotland has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drink-driving, so finding a campsite and distillery that are close together is a great plan.
TAKE THE BIKES
If you like cycling, add a bike rack to your van. There are some great cycling routes, and you'll be able to get down the tracks that vehicles can't. They're also very handy for travelling short distances when you're all set up at the campsite and the nearest shop is just a bit far to walk.
I probably don't need to tell you this, but take plenty of photos! Your friends back in Manchester will definitely want proof that there are beaches to rival Barbados (and that you went in the sea). Also, during the summer I have to live vicariously through whoever's away in the vans, so sharing the pictures on Instagram (#manchestercamperhire!) makes being stuck in Ardwick a bit more bearable!
LEAVE NO TRACE
Another one that hopefully doesn't need to be said, but please, wherever you go in Scotland, leave it as you find it! That means no emptying toilets onto the grass, taking your rubbish home, enjoying the wildlife from a safe distance, and not starting fires on the ground. Here are a few more tips on how to make your trip as clean and green as possible.
As someone who loves campervans and everything they allow you to do, this might surprise you, but... treat yourself to a hotel or B&B in Inverness at the end of your trip. Inverness has some great hotels, bars and restaurants, so have a night that's a contrast to the rest of the trip. And if you can keep it a surprise and pull it out of the bag at the last minute, you'll be a hero!
DON'T FORGET YOUR TOOTHBRUSH
Check out this Packing List for everything you'll need. It's definitely better not to take too much, but there are some things that will be really useful. Don't expect to be able to get anything you've forgotten from the Co-op in Thurso!
I hope this list has been helpful if you're thinking of heading to north-west Scotland. If you've done the NC500 or other road trips and you think I've missed something out, then feel free to get in touch.
Thanks for reading!
Nick 😊 🚌