The North Coast 500. As iconic as the Wild Atlantic Way or Route 66, it is Scotland’s famous coastal route showcasing some of the most breath-taking countryside and coastal scenery stretching 500 miles around the coast of the country.
Whether it be by bike, van, car or other means of transportation, the North Coast 500 is one of the best ways that you can discover and explore some of Scotland’s most gorgeous natural wonders.
Plenty of articles exist listing places that you can visit along the route: eateries, camp sites, parking places and activities. But what we’re really lacking is advice from the ‘experts’ themselves – people who live on route and who have completed the NC500 before. Surely, when planning any trip, you want the best and most comprehensive advice you can get.
So, I took the liberty of making this easy for you. I reached out to the experts to learn about their experiences, gain advice and wisdom, and offer this to you in a digestible piece – what the experts want you to know about the NC500.
Choose the time of year wisely
Some experts advise travelling along the NC500 out of season, which may help you avoid busier stretches and disappointment when it comes to getting spaces in campsites or designated parking areas, however, others have had no difficulty going in summer and peak times of year. Going in November to February, which are off-peak seasons, would be a recommendation, but just prepare for the less pleasant weather!
However, if you want to maximise your time en route, maybe consider going towards the end of April or May as you’ll experience longer days, and much better weather. But be prepared that you may be encountering more tourists and travellers en route.
Or, if you’re not a fan of midgies, maybe try and avoid the midgie season. Which leads me on to the next piece of advice…
Prepare for the midgies!
July to October is when you’ll find these little critters out and about trying to ruin your travels. Remember to pack midgie spray or a midgie / mosquito net if you want to ward them off so you can enjoy your trip without worry.
Think about your direction
Advice generally pointed to completing the NC500 in the typical direction – anticlockwise – starting in Inverness and working your way up the East coast first. However, you should equally consider travelling clockwise when you take your trip – as Scotland drives on the left hand side of the road, you won’t have vehicles disrupting your view when you’re travelling along coastal and country roads.
Maybe figure out what route fits in with your itinerary best, it may be that you want to prioritise certain areas of Scotland and aspects of the NC500.
Remember to plan your journey well in advance. The general consensus was to allocate a minimum of eight to ten days for your trip and that investing in Charles Tait’s North Coast 500 book is a must; this is the best guide for planning your NC500 trip and studying up on the areas and sites to see along the route. Also, get yourself an official NC500 map and map of Scotland. This will help you to plan your routes and day trips, especially if you’re considering venturing a little off the usual beaten NC500 track – which again, is a recommendation!
It is also worth looking at other people’s experiences when planning in advance. NC500 help groups on social media are a useful resource for this – where experts share their experiences, advice, must-dos and don’ts from their travels.
The NC500 is not only a route used by tourists. You have to bear in mind that there are a lot of locals and residents you’ll encounter en route, so it’s important to remember to be respectful for this very reason. Making a habit of things such as taking your rubbish with you until you find a bin or to not park in disrespectful places, including graveyards – regardless of how convenient a location they may be in. These are two things you should be doing to respect the communities around the route.
And it’s not just locals that you should be respectful of, but other travellers on route. Think of the NC500 like your Gran: when you visit her, you are polite, courteous and considerate. The way you should treat the NC500, or more importantly the people on it, is exactly the same as the way you’d treat her (well, sort of!)
And every once in a while, engage with the locals. They’ve been kind enough to welcome you into their communities as a traveller, so the least you can do is be respectful and engage with them. A lot of them also make a living off of passing trade and travellers such as yourself, so remember to support local where you can, and give back to independent businesses.
Take your time
A top contender as one of the best pieces of advice would be to take your time. Experts mentioned that you don’t need to rush around en route, if you see something worth stopping for, stop and take it in because the likelihood is you won’t be seeing it again for a while, if ever. A lot of people, in retrospect, wished that they’d had more time on the route, so maybe factor this in when planning your trip – leave a couple of days spare to ensure you can factor in anything that you have not planned or anticipated prior to setting out on your NC500 adventure, so you can truly experience all that it has to offer.
Others recommended finding a base and travelling around the places you want to visit in day trips, allowing you to explore the route and also let you discover more about the interior areas of the region that are usually ignored along the traditional NC500 route.
There is no way that the route can be done in a couple of days. The main purpose of the route is for you to properly experience the most of the Scottish countryside and coast, and you can’t be making the most of this if you’re having to rush from one place to the next.
Arguably the most important piece of advice – enjoy your journey. Find the time amongst the driving on narrow rural roads (which i’d find very stressful!) and travelling to your next destination to really enjoy your time on the road, without any stress or worry. Take in the surrounding scenery and reflect on the wonderful places you’re visiting en route. Suggestions even included doing a guided tour, arguably letting you enjoy the journey by eliminating some of the stress of navigating and planning the route yourself.
Experts stated that it’s worth getting off the beaten track. There are loads of beautiful places that Scotland has to offer beyond the main NC500 route that travellers would often ignore or not consider. Leading me onto the next point…
You do you
I know this means diverting from the typical tourist route and that you won’t have ticked off the ‘official’ NC500 route, but experts consider that to be the beauty of travelling in Scotland; there’s so much that it has to offer that sometimes you have to learn from and thrive off going your own way every once in a while.
You may find that your priorities lie in certain parts of Scotland and you may prefer to spend more of your time en route in the West or the East, or even in the centre of the country. Plan your route to suit you, your interests and what you most want to see, and learn to follow your gut and explore every once in a while, after all, you are in Scotland.
Experts mean this in every sense, so I’ll simply be breaking it down for you:
As you’ll be travelling on less frequently used roads around Scotland it’s necessary that you do your homework when it comes to knowing how to drive on single track roads with passing places. Conveniently, you can find this in the highway code, and – given it’s not something a lot of us will be used to – for the safety of you and others on the road, it is a must before you embark on your NC500 adventure.
Advice from NC500 cyclists was to be prepared for the different road conditions you’ll find along the route. Invest in some suitable equipment: bib shorts and a comfortable and padded saddle. An interesting piece of advice I found was to invest in Chamois cream – as most cyclists might imagine, long journeys on rough terrain might start to take its toll!
Equally, don’t underestimate the inclines! You may find you need to prep with some more training before you go to make sure you can tackle the steep stretches with ease. But also, pack a puncture kit! The already mentioned rough road conditions may take a toll on your bike as well and leave you stranded on route. And ensure you’ve checked you have enough tread before you embark on your travels.
Supplies and essentials
It’s advised that you know where the food stores and supermarkets are along the NC500. I don’t mean every single food store or supermarket along the entire route, but maybe do a little bit of research before larger stretches to ensure you can stock up on supplies in advance should you need them. It is also important to bear in mind that not a lot of them stay open late – so unlike the last-minute late-night snack runs to your local corner store that you may be used to, you may have to consider those cravings in advance.
Similarly, you should know where petrol stations are en route. Before you know it you might find that you don’t come across another one for a while, and who wants to be waiting for hours on a rural road for breakdown recovery to come to your rescue? You may also find that some more remote stations have caps on fuel, so this is something to bear in mind. Maybe a rule of thumb: keep your fuel tank topped up at all times – you never know what might happen.
You should pack clothes for all seasons. Natives in the UK and Scotland know that you can experience every season in one day, and unfortunately this is all too common! Pack for all eventualities – rain or shine – because you’ll regret it if you don’t!
If on a motorbike, it seems the general consensus was to avoid a backpack at all costs! A lot of those who have already conquered the NC500 on two wheels have experienced major chaffing from backpacks, and thus, would advise everyone else to avoid it. Instead, load up your bike for the journey.
Pack for your activities
It may be worth packing gear for any and all activities you may be expecting or hoping to do along the route. For example, pack hiking gear so you can do any hikes as and when you come across them en route, or pack some wild camping gear just in case you find a prime pitching spot.
Book in advance
If you want to make sure you’re guaranteed a place to park and stay overnight, booking campsites and accommodation in advance is a must. This will help you avoid disappointment and will also help you get cheaper prices on your holiday.
In case of emergency
You can never be too careful, or prepared. It is worth writing down all emergency numbers in a notebook or somewhere easily accessible in case the situation calls for it. Fingers crossed this isn’t the case!
Also download the app ‘What 3 Words’ – a useful mobile app that can pinpoint you location with three unique words, helping those who need to find you in emergency circumstances.
And finally, invest in good insurance with breakdown cover for your trip. If you are to break down or find yourself in an accident, you need sufficient insurance to cover any casualties.
When driving on narrow country lanes, single track road etiquette and knowing how to appropriately use passing places is a must. You may be keen to get to your next destination, but everyone’s in the same boat. If you’re in the position to let someone pass, then do so.
Combine this with your consideration for locals. Remember a lot of people on your routes will live in and around the area, and will be going about their day-to-day lives, going to appointments, work or school. Let them pass and respect the places they live by practising basic road etiquette, and treat all those on the road courteously, as you would want to be treated.
And please, don’t treat the road as a race track. You’ll find practically all of the roads where you’ll be heading are far from the vast stretching ‘A’ and ‘M’ roads you may be used to, so adjust your speed accordingly.
Park with consideration
Remember to use campsites or designated parking areas. Remember that something that appears to be a convenient spot to you may actually be terribly inconvenient to other people, such as if you block access points and farm gates, or park in disrespectful places like graveyards as we mentioned previously.
For campers, bear in mind that the wildlife camping under the Scottish outdoor access codes does not apply to any motor vehicles, so continue to do some research about Scottish outdoor access codes and laws before you set out on your trip.
For cyclists and motorcyclists
Avoid riding in large groups, it makes it very difficult for drivers to pass you, especially on narrower roads. However, if this is unavoidable, remember to keep to a single file when you have vehicles behind you. We all know that you want to continue that chat with your mates but being considerate of other road users is just as important as you finishing that conversation.
Reading the road
Especially down winding narrow country lanes, it is worth keeping track of passing points along your journey. Try to keep 2 passing point markers behind you so you know just in case you need to back up.
Useful apps and sites
A few experts recommended ‘Search for sites’, an easy website you can use to find motorhome stop sites and campsites for your vehicle whilst you’re en route. They also include pricing, whether it’s off-site parking, stopovers or certificated sites, and details of availability and facilities.
A further recommendation was the ‘Park 4 night’ app, which helps you find spots to stop and park up for the night, whether they be free stopovers or paying car parks and vehicle areas. Or, if you just want a place to relax, it will also show you picnic areas or rest areas near you or further afield so you can plan ahead for your trip.
A big thank you to the experts themselves. Without their advice and sharing of experiences this guide would not exist. Is there something else you feel this article has neglected to mention? Comment below to let us know what you think future NC500 travellers need to know before they embark on their adventures.