Know Before You Go: Packing for Scotland

by Keith Savage · 22 comments


A packing list for Scotland

Once upon a time I wrote a post about what I packed for five weeks in Argentina. As you will see over the course of this post, while individual items have changed, my overarching philosophy has remained the same: Travel light and check no bags. It might seem like this can be tricky when Scotland, which has a much cooler climate than Argentina, is the destination, but I’ve done it for the past five years and soon you will too.

First, let’s talk about Scotland’s weather. You’ve probably heard it rains everyday — sometimes with sleet that pelts down from low clouds — and that the wind will blow a car clean off the cliff tops if you anger the old gods. This is rubbish. Well, all but the old gods part.

Scotland’s climate is cool oceanic and influenced by the North Atlantic Drift — a warm sea current from the Caribbean that keeps the coasts from being ice-locked in the winter. Mercifully, Scotland is (usually) free from extreme weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, but its weather pattern means day-to-day weather can vary enormously and unpredictably. This complicates packing for summer trips most because it can be cold and rainy and warm and breezy in the same day. In general, Scotland’s temperatures are in the 40s, 50s, and 60s Fahrenheit, and it usually feels colder than that with the wind and damp.

This leads us to a handy couplet of packing rules:

  1. Plan to dress in layers, and
  2. Bring wind- and waterproof outerwear.

Outerwear

The jacket below, The North Face Apex, is my shield. You’ve probably seen me wearing it in just about every photo taken in Scotland. The shell is waterproof and largely windproof with a detachable hood and zippered vents under the arms. The liner is fleece-like and can be detached via zippers and buttoned clasps so I can wear just the liner or just the shell as weather dictates. The hood on the jacket is crucial because umbrellas don’t work in Scotland — it’s just too windy. I bring a simple knit hat for when the weather is really cold, and I bring it even on trips in the “summer.”

When it comes to footwear, I bring one primary pair of shoes that I wear most days and one secondary pair for special events (pictured further below). My main shoes are The North Face Ultra 109. Technically, these are trail-running shoes, but I’ve found this shoe and others like it (e.g., The North Face’s Hedgehog) are just good all around shoes for hiking and walking wherever you go in Scotland. They are waterproof and comfortable. My secondary pair of shoes is a lightweight, low-profile pair of Vans I can feel comfortable wearing out to finer dinners.

Carry-on Bag

I bought a pair of Tom Bihn bags six years ago with the express purpose of using them as carry-on bags. In all my travels, only once was my main bag, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut, required to be gate-checked, and this was on a tiny flight to Florence. Tom Bihn’s products are made in America of the finest and most durable materials. I love their philosophy, and the bags have withstood the rigors of travel remarkably well. I’m still using them.

The Aeronaut (in black below) is a 45-liter bag that holds all of my clothes, toiletries, and odds and ends. I can carry it like a duffel bag or on my shoulder with a strap (sold separately). The Aeronaut also has tuck-away backpack straps, though I’ve never used these. I use a series of Eagle Creek packing cubes to organize my clothing and toiletries. The brand doesn’t matter as much as simply having this organizational system. I find that I can fit a lot more in the bag with these cubes.

I bring a week’s worth of clothing no matter the length of my trip. This is how I get away with carry-on only. Since I’m often gone for 3+ weeks, this means I need to plan around doing laundry at strategic points. It also means I need to carefully consider the type of clothing I bring. As I mentioned above, it’s all about layers so I lean toward lightweight, easy-to-clean tech t-shirts, underwear, and socks that take up little room and dry quickly. The pants and over-shirts don’t need to be made of fancy materials since I wash them less frequently. A sample list looks like this:

  • 7 pairs of Ex-Officio boxers
  • 5 pairs of Wigwam ankle socks
  • 2 pairs of Chaps dress socks
  • 3 short-sleeve base-layer tees
  • 2 long-sleeve base-layer tees
  • 2 short-sleeve printed tees
  • 1 heavy zip-up Patagonia fleece
  • 2 long-sleeve button-up shirts (one flannel)
  • 2 long-sleeve pullover shirts
  • 1 pair of Banana Republic travel jeans
  • 2 pairs of prAna travel pants

Not pictured but packed into the Aeronaut are my toiletry bag (sized for TSA requirements), medicine bag with things like Sudafed, band-aids, neosporin, aspirin, etc., laundry bag with sink stopper, clothes line, detergent, febreze, and a mesh dirty-clothes bag.

Backpack

My personal item is a Tom Bihn Smart Alec backpack with a Brain Cell padded holder for my Macbook Pro. This bag holds all of my personal electronics, from the aforementioned laptop to my camera equipment to all of the cords, adapters, and necessary accoutrements. I like the Smart Alec because it’s comfortable despite the considerable weight it often holds, and it’s an unassuming pack, which might help it escape the notice of opportunistic thieves. I often take this pack with me on day hikes by removing the Brain Cell and other components. Also pictured here is my document organizer, which I use to keep track of receipts, brochures, and other documents. Note: It doesn’t fit in the Smart Alec. I keep it in the Aeronaut.

Personal Electronics

I carry all of my camera equipment in a small black case that fits snugly in the bottom of my Smart Alec. These days I use a Sony NEX-6 with the stock zoom lens, a wide-angle lens with extra-wide-angle attachment, and a telephoto lens. This configuration covers 99% of my shooting requirements. In the case I’ve got cleaning tools, several filters, extra batteries, and extra memory cards. I’ll often just take this case out with me on drives and leave everything else behind at my accommodation.

The rest of the Smart Alec is filled with my laptop, external hard drive, iPad, iPhone, charging cords, UK outlet adapters, Mophie external battery to charge devices on long-haul travel days, and headphones. I stuff all the cords, adapters, and little things in that black case — a Tom Bihn Snake Charmer.

Odds & Ends

There are lots of little things not pictured above that accompany me: Eyeglasses, passport, travel snacks, a Moleskine with pens and pencils, my business cards. These get stuffed in wherever there’s room, and there’s lots of room with this setup. Things you won’t find me bringing: Shorts, umbrellas, baseball caps, fanny packs, and white shoes. I also don’t usually bring a money belt, but this is a personal choice. Do what makes you most comfortable.

Well, there you have it. A look at what I usually bring to Scotland no matter the trip length. I leave for another trip this Sunday, though there will be a few more items in my pack since I’m heading to the south of France first.

I hope you found this useful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.


BobNo Gravatar March 25, 2017 at 11:59 AM

What’s your opinion on taking rain pants to wear over jeans?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 26, 2017 at 7:38 PM

I don’t usually bring jeans because they absorb so much water. Instead I stick to tech materials that wick off water or dry very quickly. If you’re set on bringing jeans and the rain pants fold up really small I’d consider it, but most times they won’t be necessary.

EleanorNo Gravatar February 6, 2017 at 12:04 PM

traveling to Scotland and Ireland this coming August.
Great trips. i like tot ravel light whenever possible so I appreciate the tips form an experienced traveler.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 6, 2017 at 12:11 PM

You’re welcome!

JillNo Gravatar January 21, 2017 at 6:27 PM

Great tips….thanks.

michael schachterNo Gravatar December 18, 2016 at 6:40 AM

What do you recommend against the midge problem?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 19, 2016 at 8:37 AM

Hi Michael. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about midges too much. They are hard to anticipate and really only present a problem when the weather is still, and that is pretty rare in Scotland.

VickiNo Gravatar September 18, 2016 at 1:05 PM

Very helpful! I am going on an 11 day “Celtic Saints” tour with my 80 year old mother in late June/July 2017. I am a chronic over packer and I fully intend to do this with just a carry on and backpack!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 20, 2016 at 8:38 AM

Good idea!

Cecille DanielNo Gravatar August 9, 2016 at 8:54 PM

Yes I would like to know how your wife travels- does she manage it all in a carry on? Thanks

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 10, 2016 at 7:15 AM

Not usually, Cecille, but on our last trip she did!

DouglasNo Gravatar July 25, 2016 at 7:00 AM

Hey Keith, love the prana pants for travel(I have the Zion), but what make is the blue plaid shirt you show; and is it a merino wool???
Thanks,
Douglas

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Hi Douglas. The shirt is just a cheap flannel I bought at Kohl’s. 100% cotton by Sonoma.

HeidiNo Gravatar June 12, 2016 at 6:50 AM

Great tips, particularly re the weather. We depart for Scotland in just under 2 weeks. Thanks for all the travel advice. Enjoy your trip.

Joanie MurrayNo Gravatar June 9, 2016 at 10:04 AM

Hi Keith,

Any insights as to how/what Sarah packs for two weeks? I would like to hear how she does it 🙂

MeganNo Gravatar June 1, 2016 at 8:38 PM

Have you ever had a problem with the size of your backpack and the airline not wanting to consider it a “personal item” ? I can’t find size guidelines for that as easily as I can for the carry on dimensions! (what ARE the dimensions of the backpack you take?)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2016 at 8:23 AM

Nope, never had that problem. The backpack dimensions are 18.5″ x 11.75″ x 7.75″.

LisaNo Gravatar May 31, 2016 at 9:50 AM

Love your site! Possibly traveling Sept/Oct. Still working on not checking a bag!

Jim StuhtNo Gravatar May 18, 2016 at 1:28 PM

This Saturday we head out for a week-long cruise in France followed by 2 weeks in Scotland. This time we’re hitting the Borders plus our usual stop on Islay. Let’s hope we all have great weather – it’s been a bit chilly in Scotland this Spring (Just like here in Madison!)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 18, 2016 at 2:48 PM

Safe travels Jim!

AilsaNo Gravatar May 18, 2016 at 11:37 AM

Wonderful and complete information! Our trip to Skye (and east coast of Scotland) is coming up in June, and this will be most helpful with our planning. Thanks!

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