Read on for my ultimate guide to touring Scotland’s North Coast 500 by campervan.
At the tail end of summer 2020, three friends and I decided to head off on a jaunt around the Scottish Highlands and drive the North Coast 500. It was STUNNING. We went as the leaves were turning for autumn and it was astonishingly beautiful. I found myself weeping over the beauty of leaves on more than one occasion. Younger me had no interest in the beauty of a leaf, I’m sure this is another marker of the ageing process.
Prior to said jaunt, none of us had ever driven a campervan before so it was a steep learning curve. I am a generous gal, so I’m here to share some of these learnings with you to put you one step ahead of the rest of the campervan rookies scattered around the Highlands.
The most important pieces of the puzzle and my top tips you won’t find in guide books.
Keep scrolling to read all about the North Coast 500 by campervan. Or, jump straight to:
North Coast 500 by campervan: The vehicle
Arguably the most important part of a campervan holiday is the campervan itself. We opted to go for a campervan rather than renting a car and staying in various holiday lets and B&Bs along the way. Both have their charms of course – there are some cracking properties up in the Highlands – but campervan won this time.
The reasons we chose to travel by campervan:
- Affordability – our transport and accommodation were rolled up into one price.
- Adventure – it was our first time behind the wheel of a campervan.
- Freedom – when your bed has wheels you can go anywhere, be anywhere.
- Practicality – urgh my least favourite word. However, having cooking facilities on board was very practical as it meant we were in control of our food and didn’t have to rely on eating at restaurants every day.
We rented our campervan from Bunk Campers and picked it up in Edinburgh. The website is easy to use and it’s packed full of relevant info. There are loads of extras included in the price of the hire so you don’t need to be worrying about whether you’ve got the right insurance or whether there’ll be all the equipment you need on board. Easy is the name of the game, and Bunk made it super easy.
We hired a Vista – it was the ideal size for four adults, without much extra wiggle room. We had two double beds and a table that four could sit around which is all the space we needed. If you plan to salsa dance on board your vehicle, I’d suggest you upgrade to a bigger size. (Bear in mind that travelling the North Coast 500 by campervan means navigating a lot of single-track roads so don’t go too wild with the size if you’re a nervy driver).
Naming your campervan should be top priority on day one. Ours was Eileen.
North Coast 500 by campervan: The route
Nights spent in each stop: 1 night Aviemore / 1 night Dornoch / 1 night Thurso / 2 nights Durness / 1 night Clachtoll / 2 nights Ullapool / 1 night Gairloch
Some notes about our route that you just can’t gauge from a map:
- Nine nights would be the minimum I would recommend for this route. Whilst possible, fewer nights wouldn’t make for a relaxing journey.
- The North Coast 500 route officially starts and ends in Inverness, however we had limited time and limited interest in Inverness so bypassed it entirely in both directions.
- If you are worrying about whether to go clockwise or anti-clockwise, don’t. It is going to have little impact on your overall enjoyment. We chose to go anti-clockwise because the scenery is the most beautiful on the West coast so we thought we’d end on a high.
- The stops are closer together than they look on a map so no need to stop in every ‘town of interest’ you pass along the way. I am confidently saying that the distances we covered between stops was perfect. We saw all the sights along the way each day as we meandered towards our next stop.
- John O’Groats is not actually the most Northerly point of the UK mainland, it just has a good PR team behind it. Dunnet Head is the actual most Northerly point – see photographic evidence below of how a good sign can change your whole reputation. It’s fun to visit John O’Groats for a photo but I’m glad we didn’t stay the night there. Other than the sign itself, there is very little else going on.
- We stayed for two nights in Durness to give ourselves a break from driving and also because there’s a lot of stuff to see and do in the area. We ended up spending a full afternoon relaxing on the beach and reading books in the sunshine. It was probably the highlight of the whole trip and I would not underestimate the value of allowing for a chill day on a road trip.
- You will notice that we didn’t go to Applecross on our trip. If you are driving a campervan, you won’t go to Applecross either. The road there is narrow and windy so they don’t allow vans to drive it. Sorry to be the bearer of sad news.
North Coast 500 by campervan: The campsites
There are camp sites dotted all along the North Coast 500, however only one or two options in each place. If you are planning to go at the height of the summer season I would recommend getting these booked in well in advance. Electrical pitches mean you can plug your van in, non-electrical pitches mean you can park but you’ll be using your battery stores for power.
Here’s where we stayed:
Dalraddy Holiday Park, Aviemore (opens in a new tab)
We stayed here on night one because we didn’t pick up the van until late afternoon and wanted to break up the journey from Edinburgh. It’s lucky we did because it took us longer than expected to set off from Edinburgh, get our van and groceries, and finally hit the A1. We didn’t get to Aviemore until about 9pm so I’d recommend adding a stop in on the first night unless you’re a fan of a midnight drive.
Dornoch Caravan and Camping Park, Dornoch (opens in a new tab)
On night two we swanned up the coast to Dornoch and stayed here. There was an electrical issue in that there was no electricity in the socket we were hooked up to. The staff on site were helpful though and got us an extension lead to attach to a socket approx 465 metres away and we were good to go.
Windhaven, Thurso (opens in a new tab)
This campsite had some wow factor for location. It’s on top of a cliff overlooking the sea, so the views are gorge.
Critical Note: this campsite wouldn’t allow us to drop off our grey/black water here and told us a campsite 10 minutes down the road would. When we arrived at said other campsite it was clear that they certainly would not allow that and that they were kinda sick of the first campsite’s shit. Pun very much intended.
Somewhat Important Note: There is only one bathroom here and so if another camper is having a shower then you can’t brush your teeth or have a wee. You could do these things in your own van unless you had run out of water which is the predicament we faced. They also did not provide water to fill up.
Definitely our sassiest campsite experience. Lovely views though.
Sango Sands Oasis, Durness (opens in a new tab)
What a gem of a place. We were all hashtag obsessed with this campsite and had a wonderful time here. We parked in a glorious spot right on top of the cliff with stunning views over the beach and the bay.
During the day time this was magnificent. At night this became a verifiable amusement park ride where our van was jolted about with the strong winds. This was particularly scary for the two sleeping in the upper bed as they knew they had no chance of survival if our van went diving head first over the cliff. I thought there may have been hope for me as I slept by the back door. (In the Hollywood movie version of this event I would definitely have the upper body strength to free myself.) On night two we moved our van backwards away from the cliff edge to avoid said nose dive. We noticed all the seasoned campervanners had already done so the night before. I learnt this the hard way so that you don’t have to.
An unfortunate tale: We spent our evenings hanging out inside our van with the shutters drawn for privacy. We didn’t question that this was the best decision until one fateful night in Durness. We walked back to our van and noticed what we now know is a ‘moonbow’. A rainbow at night. “Lovely” we all said as we got back into the van and drew the shutters close. The next morning we woke to the news that the Northern Lights had been spectacular across Durness the night before. “Incredible rare phenomenon of seeing a moonbow and the Northern Lights at once!!” The article proclaimed. There were tears.
Clachtoll Beach Campsite (opens in a new tab)
What a pretty wee place this was. As the name suggests, the campsite is positioned right next to the beach. The water in this part of the World is unbelievably clear and so any beachside setting is bound to be beaut. There is a cafe called Flossies nearby which provides an “Instagrammable moment” in their novelty North Coast 500 boat seat (they clearly took the same course that John O’Groats did) and, more importantly, hot breakfast sandwiches. (No gluten free bread if you’re that way inclined, but Flossie kindly gave me bacon and haggis in a box to put on a GF roll back in the van.)
Ardmair Point Holiday Park, Ullapool (opens in a new tab)
Our original plan was to spend a night at Achmelvich after Clachtoll but we decided to skip this stay and head straight to Ullapool instead. We visited Achmelvich beach, of course, we weren’t complete rookies. Once we had seen the beach and climbed the rocks and had a coffee we felt we were done in the area (the weather wasn’t great) so we unanimously voted to move on.
We had been due to spend the next night at Ardmair Point so we rolled up a day early and they managed to squeeze us in. This did mean that we had to accept the last remaining site (Pitch 1) which was next to a totally bogged out Pitch 0 and also on an angle. This meant that we had to hold on to our plates to eat dinner because the table had become somewhat of a ski slope. Great ab workout trying to keep yourself upright in a forward slanting van though. On night two we moved to another pitch and our plates and abs got a rest.
It’s worth noting that this campsite is not within walking distance to Ullapool town itself. We had to take the van to get into the centre. This wasn’t an issue for us but if you were wanting a boozy pub sesh in town then it would pose problems.
Sands Caravan and Camping Park, Gairloch (opens in a new tab)
This campsite had the best bathroom of them all. It was absolutely ginormous. These things become important when you’re living the campsite life. They do a kind of ‘free roaming’ parking thing where you just rock up and park where you want rather than having a designated pitch.
I decided to have a takeaway dinner from the on site restaurant whilst here. I was shooketh to find that gluten free pizzas were offered, and even more so that it was good. Given this, I would guess that their other food is also yummy. All in all, a successful stay.
The food and the snacks
I know I said the campervan was the most important part of the trip, but we all know it’s really the snacks. It’s key to ensure that you have a dedicated snack drawer or snack cupboard that is within easy reach at all times, including when driving. The sound track to our trip was the noise of someone sliding the snack drawer open and having a rustle around to see what they could find.
I am not going to go so far as to tell you what snacks to stock – you do you, boo. However, I will advise that you will need twice as many as you think you will need. Put the snacks you think you need in your trolley and then double them.
When it came to meal times, we went the self-catered route for the vast majority of the time. This limited us to:
a) What we could cook on a tiny hob. This essentially meant pasta. Pasta with pesto and cheese, pasta with some pre-cooked chicken, pasta with some sort of pasta sauce. We made porridge for breakfast. Or;
b) What required no cooking at all. This is where cheese and charcuterie platters came in. We had a lot of these platters. Let’s put it this way, I didn’t eat cheese again for a full month after the trip was over. I would put travel sized cheeseboard and knives set at the top of your packing list.
We had a collaborative playlist that we could all add songs to in the lead up to the trip. I’d recommend this approach for any road trip because it means that you end up with an eclectic mix of different tastes and genres and the surprise of what song might come next. In our case there was too much ABBA and not enough country music, but you live and you learn.
Much like the snacks, your playlist is not as long as you think it is. Bearing in mind that you will be spending a lot of time in your van – driving and relaxing – you’re going to need a lot of songs. Make your playlist and then, you guessed it, DOUBLE IT.
If you are planning a North Coast 500 or campervan road trip and have any questions feel free to get in touch or leave a comment – happy to impart wisdom where I can.
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