Climbing Ben Nevis: What You Need to Know Before You Go
Climbing Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain is an accomplishment that will leave you craving higher peaks, more mountains or maybe you’ll hang your boots up for good. Whatever happens next you can celebrate the conquering feeling you’ll get from climbing this beast. Ben Nevis attracts thousands of people to its peak every year and not only keen hikers. First time walkers, families, family pets, trail runners and charity groups will all take the path to the summit. Many will reach the top and come back down smiling.
However, although a popular trail Ben Nevis is unforgivable and for many it can defeat them. But if you prepare, do the research and don’t underestimate this Scottish Mountain you can expect to summit and trust me, it’s the best feeling when you do! So to help you summit and feel as awesome as I did, check out this guide to climbing Ben Nevis!
A little about the mountain
Ben Nevis or as known in Gaelic, the ‘mountain of heaven’ is the UK’s highest mountain. Tempting keen hikers and walkers from all over the world to tackle and conquer. Towering above the beautiful town of Fort William and standing at 1,345m (4412.73 feet) this mighty beast is just too attractive to ignore.
Climbing Ben Nevis is incredibly popular it’s estimated that around 150,000 people climb Ben Nevis each year but this in no way means it is an easy walk. Ben Nevis although a well trodden trail still incurs several deaths a year. This is often due to lack of preparation, knowledge and accidents.
The first recorded person to summit Ben Nevis was in 1771 and the trail was constructed in 1883 along with the observatory by the well nicknamed Inclement Wragge. The observatory still remains on the top of Ben Nevis today, but only the shell, the old walls offering shelter from the cold whipping winds and perfect lunch spots.
The summit of Ben Nevis has an average temperature of Minus one (-1, one below freezing) in the summer months and can drop deep into the minuses in winter. This is what many people forget especially when the town below is sitting in the high teens or (if we’re lucky) the twenties.
Every year there is a trail running race to the top of the mountain and back down and competitors will complete this in under 2 hours! When you think the average walking time is 8 hours this is incredibly impressive! Not only do people race up this mountain, but there has been a ‘car’ driven up the mountain, a bed pushed to the top, a piano, a wheelbarrow and even all the pieces to set up a ‘travellodge’ bedroom! These weird and wonderful events are not common and are often done for publicity or for charity – or both!
Ben Nevis was once a volcano and the summit of Ben Nevis will remind you of an ancient lava field despite the cold! The summit is the collapsed top of the once incredibly active volcano and is still important to geologists today using the rock and materials to learn about the Scottish weather and ancient climate.
Best time to climb
Climbing Ben Nevis is best done in the Scottish summer which is ‘roughly’ from May – September. In the summer months there is a much less chance of snow, rain and fog that you will get in the early autumn and of course, winter months.
May, June and July are the driest months of the year but July and August will also be two of the busiest months as this is also the time for summer holidays in the UK. I would recommend climbing Ben Nevis in the month of June and August. This way you will miss much of the summer holiday crowds, you will hopefully get good weather and enjoy views from the top!
Unless you are extremely an experienced mountain climber, Alpine climber and winter mountaineer do not attempt to climb Ben Nevis in the Autumn and Winter months. This poses much greater risks and requires much more preparation, planning, equipment and knowledge.
Getting to the summit of Ben Nevis is no easy task, each track up the mountain offers its own challenges. There are several routes up the mountain, offering a track for every skill set, so it’s no surprise this mountain attracts climbers, mountaineers and adventurers throughout. But what is the best route for you to climb Ben Nevis?
The ‘The Mountain Track’: Or otherwise known as the ‘tourist trail’. This is typically the most popular route when people climb Ben Nevis. The trail is well-marked, well trodden and quite frankly, hard to miss with the numerous other people snaking their way up the mountain side. You can start the ascent from the Glen Nevis Mountain Centre or the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, both trails will eventually meet each other before continuing to snake up the mountain. This track although the most common route when climbing Ben Nevis, is not easy. The ascent is steep in places, it’s a constant incline. Even the keenest of mountaineers (including me) will find this a challenge. The condition of the trail occasionally surprises you with man-made stairs, other times underfoot it would be a slight scramble up rocks and rough under footing.
This route is relatively safe. The trail is so well-marked and so regularly used, you can’t take a wrong turn – you’re pretty much with people the whole time anyway – if that wasn’t enough, when you begin to approach the summit giant cairns come into view. These cairns are incredibly useful – especially when the fog moves in – to keep you on the track, away from steep cliff drops not too far away from the trail.
Time to Expect: 7 – 9 hours
Trail Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Distance Walking: 17km / 10.75 miles
Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete: Looking to take on, not just Britain’s biggest mountain but bag a few more Monroe’s while you’re at it? If you’re an experienced mountain climber, hill walker and have knowledge of map reading and compass navigation and a passion for adventure this may be for you. Away from the hoards of tourist reading this route option sounds ideal, especially when you’re used to hiking mountains with no one else around and enjoying nature’s silence. This route to the summit of Ben Nevis is a mixture of well trodden trail, burn (small river) crossings, pathless sections and some simple scrambling.
Starting from the North Face car park near Torlundy the track begins gentle before it begins to rise up towards Carn Mor Dearg. Once reaching the top of Carn Mor Dearg you’ll have incredible views of the cliffs which are not be overshadowed by the mighty Ben Nevis ahead. Scrambling along the top of the cliffs, this is an involved traverse which is not to be underestimated. Walking along the ridge you’ll begin to descend before ascending again towards the mighty Ben Nevis summit. Heading back down you can either go back the way you came or head back down the tourist track, which is recommended. For more information and route notes for this way to climb Ben Nevis check out Walkhighlands.
Note: This is an advanced trail and only those experienced in Scottish hill climbing should tackle this route and it is NOT recommended to take on this trail alone.
Time to Expect: 10 – 12 hours
Trail Difficulty: Tough – Expert
Distance Walking: 11 Miles/ 17.5km
Tower Ridge Climbing: This is not a route to take if you are faint hearted, to be tackled alone or the inexperienced. But for adventurers, experienced climbers and mountaineers this is an awesome way up to the Summit of Ben Nevis. ‘Tower Ridge’ is a majority Grade 3 climb with a level of scrambling involved. It’s a climb you’ll be roped for pretty much the whole way – with steep drops and sharp cliffs, i’d want to be! – and expect difficult climbing in places.
Climbing Ben Nevis via the Tower Bridge has nice bite-sized chunks making for a tough but good climb. Before reaching the summit you will appear back on the typical trail with the crowds to the summit but returning you could opt to go back the Ledge route, or if still after a challenge, why not go back via Carn Mor Dearg?
If you fancy climbing Ben Nevis differently and tackling it with some rock climbing and scrambling, make sure you take an experienced group with you. Or at least someone who has done it before. There are guided tours which will take those with little experience up this route, i would recommend checking out Steve Fallon. His trips are reasonably priced and you’ll have a wicked time!
Note: Do not attempt this if you are inexperienced, ill-equipped or going solo. There is a very real danger present with this route. Only attempt this if you’re in a group of experienced climbers or those on a guided trip.
Time to Expect: 7 – 9 hours
Trail Difficulty: Rock Climbing: Difficult – Experienced
Distance Covered: 14km+/ 9 Miles
What to Expect from the Weather
Have you ever heard the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ well that pretty much sums it up the weather forecast for Scotland on any given day.
“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter.” Billy Connolly, Gullible’s Travels (1982)
Scotland is (unfortunately) not favored when it comes to predictable weather, this is even more important to remember when it comes to taking on Scottish mountains.
Ben Nevis has it’s own weather pattern – well, not quite but kind of – the weather down on sea level at Fort William will not be the same when climbing Ben Nevis. Expect the weather to change quickly, often for the worst. So make sure you check before you climb Ben Nevis.
On average Ben Nevis will have a clear day on the summit ever 1 in 10 days and the average temperature on the summit in summer is minus 1. It will be cold at the top and although you may feel boiling when climbing, you’ll cool down fast.
I would not attempt to climb Ben Nevis in bad weather, this will put you at greater risk of accidents. On a beautiful day, get up early, beat the crowds and keep your fingers crossed for epic views at the top!
The best site by far to check the weather for Ben Nevis is The Met Office. They give a great five-day forecast but also hourly on the day. Updating you on the cloud pattern, temperature, chance of rain, visibility and so much more. Check this the night before and the morning before setting off for the summit.
What to wear vs what not to wear
So you’ve found yourself in Fort William and you’ve made the decision to tackle Britain’s highest mountain because, it’s a pretty epic story and accomplishment. But you take on the mountain in cheap trainers from Tesco, a cotton t-shirt, shorts and a small backpack that can only really hold a tiny bottle of water and a few snacks. You might feel ready but feeling and actually being ready are two completely different things.
While clothing may seem like the least of your worries when planning to climb Ben Nevis. Having the right gear is pretty much one of the most important things you need to think about when taking on Ben Nevis. I don’t want to preach and rant, so instead here is a rundown of what gear to wear when climbing Ben Nevis.
- Comfortable Hiking Pants (Not Jeans) – You want trousers that are breathable, comfortable and fast drying. Jeans are not fast drying and will make you incredibly cold if the rain sets in when you’re half way up Ben Nevis.
- A Warm Base Layer – Base layers can go under other tops or packed into your backpack for later. Take one with you, they are lifesavers when you stop for a break and cool down, get hit by a bitter wind or keep you warm when at the summit.
- Hiking Shoes or Boots – Personally, I hike in Solomon Walking Shoes and they have seen me up some massive mountains. Make sure your shoes or boots are well-worn in and you’re wearing the correct socks. Blisters Suck. Wearing proper shoes will save your feet/ankles on the climb on the uneven ground.
- Light Fleece – An essential for any Scottish adventure. It is never that warm up a Scottish Mountain! This can be packed away into your backpack for later but trust me, you will definitely thank me for this at some point on the mountain. Remember the average temperature on the summit is minus one!
- Comfortable T-shirt – I’m not going to preach and say you need special hiking t-shirts (although they are the best!) a standard t-shirt will suffice as long as you have the gear to keep you warm/dry on top.
- Waterproof/Windproof Jacket – If you ignore my advice about everything else, do not ignore this. It’s incredibly likely to rain in Scotland, especially high in the mountains. Even if it doesn’t rain the wind chill is relentless and your jacket will keep you warm if you have no other layers to put on. I hike in my Berghaus Gortex Jacket, it is brilliant and always out on adventures with me.
- A Backpack – Seriously, don’t carry plastic bags up the mountain, handbags or fashion bags. It’s a mountain! Take a backpack with comfy straps that can hold extra layers, snacks and water. My little Osprey Daypack has travelled with me through several countries and up numerous mountains. It’s the perfect size to hold snacks and extra clothes, as well as my camera gear!
What to Pack in your Backpack
The best advice I have ever been given was ‘pack enough snacks to turn a day into a weekend’. I can’t remember who said this now but they are so right and I never run out of food on an adventure! Trust me when I say, there’s nothing worse than running out of food.
Here are my top five snacks to pack for hiking:
- Apples & Bananas
- Trek Bars
- Salad and Cream Cheese Sandwich
- Trail Mix
Surprisingly I don’t normally finish all my snacks on my hike, I have enough to keep me going. The big breakfast you’ll have before hiking will pretty much set you up for the day… and you are having breakfast before you hike, right? Make sure you don’t just pack chocolate, have a good mixture of sweet, savory and energy boosting foods. But it’s not only snacks that should be in your backpack, there are a few more essentials needed to climb Ben Nevis.
Here are five essentials you need to put in your backpack when hiking Ben Nevis:
- First Aid Kit – at least a basic one with some blister plasters.
- Suncream – Yep, i’m not joking.
- Extra Layers (Warm Clothes)
- Waterproof/Windproof Jacket
- LOTS of water! – Take at least 2 litres of water with you!!
I carry all of this in my little day pack with me, not only when I climbed Ben Nevis, but also up bigger mountains all over the world. I took all of this and even had room for DSLR camera as well. You might think this is a lot to pack in a backpack for a day hike, but trust me, it’s worth it. You’ll quickly forget about the weight once hiking and you’ll be thankful when you get cold and hungry later on.
Everything in this guide to climbing Ben Nevis is designed to keep you safe. As I have mentioned, Ben Nevis is an incredibly busy mountain, especially in the ‘summer months’. It is not one to be taken lightly. Several deaths occur every year for numerous reasons but many can be avoided. By simply knowing your limits, doing research and being prepared for all scenarios. Ben Nevis is a relatively safe mountain hike so long you stick to the trail and prepare for the cold at the summit.
Here are the basic safety tips rounded up to remember before you climb Ben Nevis:
- Waterproof jacket and trousers
- Down-filled outer layer for when temperatures drop
- Good Hiking boots or shoes
- Compass and map – do not rely on your cellphone as reception can disappear at high levels and in remote locations
- Know you have the ability to navigate accurately in mist and cloud under difficult conditions.
- Check weather reports and conditions the night before and morning of the hike.
- Let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be expected back.
Climbing Ben Nevis is a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be missed if you end up in Fort William on a good day. The views go on for miles! While many people will summit with success and without any problems or injuries others will struggle and may not summit. Safety is important, regardless of how popular the mountain hike is.
Respect the Mountain
The Scottish scenery is beautiful regardless of the weather. The green sweeping hills, sharp mountains, lush forests and wilderness landscapes attract people from all over the world. Getting into the wilderness is becoming an attractive holiday escape. But as tourism grows, more people arrive and so does the rubbish.
Ben Nevis is a beautiful mountain. Surrounded by gorgeous colours from the plants growing on the mountain side, the lush greens of the mountain grass and bogs. The mountain does not need extra colours of while, bold reds and oranges of wrappers and plastic bags. No where needs those added extras.
If you are bringing wrapped snacks up the mountain, take all that back down with you. Don’t drop orange peels and banana skins. These harm the local wildlife and due to the climate, take a long time to decompose into the ground. When climbing Ben Nevis I only brought a handful of rubbish – mainly plastic bags – back down with me. If you love mountains, countryside and the beauty of hiking trails, don’t leave your own trail behind. Pick it up and take it down.
Let’s talk about poop. Sometimes nature does call on the trail and not always in the nicest of ways. There are of course, no toilets on the mountain so what do you do? Don’t poop on – or just off – the track.
There’s nothing worse than walking along the trail to get a nice view-point and have to dodge human poo. Even more so when wet wipes have been left scattered around the area. It’s frankly, disgusting.
If you need to go, get way off the track. Head for an area where it’s unlikely people venture. If you are carrying wet wipes in preparation, take a plastic bag with you too. Take those used wet wipes back down the mountain, these do not decompose into the ground. Try to cover your poop with stones – or anything natural really – incase someone does wander in the direction of your chosen toilet.
Climbing Ben Nevis is an incredible achievement, one of my favourite mountains and is surrounded by beautiful landscape. Let’s keep it that way and keep Scotland beautiful by respecting the mountain.
I hope this blog post has helped you prepare to climb Ben Nevis. I promise once you reach the top the hard work is all worth it! I personally love hiking, but I am by no means an expert, check out Walk Highlands for more info. I use this page all the time before my hikes. You can even sign up and tick off the mountains you’ve climbed!
Have you ever climbed Ben Nevis? How did you find the hike up to the summit?
I want to hear your stories!