North Coast 500 - Tips From Campervan Owners
Scotland's North Coast 500 route is scenic, rugged and a magnet for campervan and motorhome owners - so we asked Sussex Campervan owners: why is the NC500 so popular?
Scotland’s famously beautiful 516-mile North Coast 500 route is on so many campervan owners’ bucket lists - but why? Many of our Sussex Campervan family of owners have followed the route, which goes from Inverness west to Applecross, then up to Ullapool. It takes in Caithness and John o’Groats, then returns to Inverness.
Mandy and Steve live in Hampshire and spent three weeks exploring the NC500 in the Paradise Compact campervan that we built for them. The camper is based on the Renault Trafic and Mandy says, "The van performed brilliantly, allowing us down some very minor roads, where no others dared to tread. We used campsites every night, because we needed the heater on. We saw stunning scenery, day after day. We are very lucky to have all this a drive away, albeit a long one."
Manhattan campervan owners Jeff and Jane went during the autumn, so they also wrapped up warmly and were glad of their campervan heater. Despite the milder weather, the NC500 is still a beautiful scenic drive. Shrimp their whippet loved chasing rabbits in the dunes at Dunnet Bay, and they saw dolphins from their camper at Chanonry Point, near Rosemarkle C&C Club Site. This was possible due to Jeff and Jane both ensuring they had a dog friendly camper.
At Applecross they were thrilled when stags joined them, laying down for the night between the camper and the shore.
Maiden Voyage to Scotland
Suzi collected her brand new silver Manhattan campervan, with bespoke purple seats, in April 2019. Her story is as colourful as her camper, as she’s given up her job and rented out her house to become a full-time mindfulness travel blogger (www.mindfulvanlife.com) and vlogger. She drove straight to Gretna Green and the NC500 route. Since then she’s been stealth camping and made a camp fire on the shores of a loch. With each passing day this idyllic route worked its magic on her.
Suzi enjoyed wild camping whilst exploring the NC500
David and Karen also made the bold decision to head from Dover to Scotland for their Maiden Voyage
“We purchased our Sussex Campercar NV200 Petrol Automatic in December 2020 and used it sparingly during the first half of 2021, due to Covid restrictions, although it has also been my everyday vehicle for necessary journeys. We finally got to use the van in earnest at the beginning of June, when we travelled from our home town of Dover to the extreme north of Scotland.”
“The object of the journey was to complete Scotland’s North Coast 500 route. But we would be visiting friends and staying over with family in Derbyshire and Yorkshire on the way north, and then seeing more friends in Lancashire on the way south. We spent 17 days away and completed 2,367 miles, trouble-free. The campervan proved to be a comfortable abode and adequate in size for our needs. We did use an awning on occasions, for additional space, but this wasn’t essential as we mainly experienced very pleasant weather for outdoor living.”
“We did some limited wild camping but prefered to use official campsites for our stopovers, and found the Camping and Caravanning Club’s Loch Ness Shores and Scourie Campsites particularly well appointed and nicely sited. The highlights of our journey included magnificent scenery, wildlife sightings, pleasant walks, wild swimming and excellent Scottish hospitality. Now we are very much looking forward to futher adventures.”
Steve and Birgit are All-Weather Campers
Steve and Birgit’s NV200 CamperCar must be a familiar sight all along the NC500. As walkers, climbers and mountain rescuers, they’re hardy all-weather campers. We've been pretty impressed at their adventures, and the fact that the NV200 CamperCar we built them has turned out to be an extremely capable campervan in all weathers and altitudes (you can read more about that in A Van for All Seasons).
On the NC500 route, Steve found Ullapool’s campsite crowded in early May 2019, so he drove north until he ran out of road and spent the night on the western shore, disturbed only by seals and seabirds. In the morning he left only a set of footprints on the white sandy beach, freshly washed by the tide. Other highlights were spotting otters in Gairloch, staying warm in the van while snow fell on the mountains in May, enjoying a sundowner pint of beer beside the camper on the shoreline at Applecross, and stopping at Ardnamurchan to take photos of Skye’s Cullin mountains, as well as Rhum and Eigg islands.
The NC500 is perfect for photographers
Most recently, Mick has just returned from his two-week NC500 tour in his Sussex Campervan, Meg. He is a professional photographer, who runs courses to help people capture better shots of wildlife. But on this trip the landscape was the star, and Mick has shared some of his atmospheric photos with us.
Mick's view of Sango Sands - Durness, from the campsite at the top of the cliff
After six days of his trip in June this year, Mick said, “I’m now part way around the NC500 and Meg is settled for the night at John O’Groats.” The campsite is near “the last house in Scotland” and from the campervan pitches you can enjoy panoramic views of Pentland Firth - the turbulent stretch of sea between Scotland and the Orkney islands. While you’re gazing out to sea, grey seals may be gazing back, curiously, from the water just off the beach. You might also spot puffins, who return to their burrows in the cliffs to breed from April to July. The rest of the time these iconic birds will be flying and swimming expertly underwater, catching fish and invertebrates in the North Atlantic Ocean."
On the 12th day, Mick said, “I’m nearing my NC500 journeys end now. I’ve seen some spectacular views and beaches and I will leave with some happy memories. I would recommend to my fellow campervan travellers to do this trip - you won’t regret it.”
He added, “It’s a brilliant trip and it didn’t disappoint. The campervan is the ideal vehicle to do it in as it gives you the freedom to explore off the beaten track a bit whilst still heading in the direction of your overnight stopover. I would recommend doing the route going East to West as there are more points of interest to see in the east, but the scenery in the West is superb. There are plenty of places that you can wild camp if you wish to and also plenty of little campsites that you can just turn up on the day also; some of the bigger ones do require pre-booking though as they can get busy especially during holiday times. Sussex Campervanners need not fear taking on the Bealach-na-Ba pass in their vans as the vans will easily climb up the pass and there are plenty of passing places along the way. However the driver and passenger do need a good head for heights and the two hairpin bends near the top make things interesting.”
The call of the wild is strong in us - and it’s the perfect antidote to modern life. Is it time you discovered Scotland’s beautiful NC500 route, too?
12 Top tips for your NC500 coastal drive
- Allow at least 5-7 days to drive the NC500.
- Book campsites ahead - it's a popular route.
- Take walking boots so you can explore the beautiful coast and mountains.
- Take bicycles if you enjoy cycling - they're perfect for exploring the smaller tracks.
- Most of the NC500 is suitable for experienced drivers of campervans and even motorhomes.
- Avoid the Bealach Na Ba part of the NC500 - it is steep, with sharp bends. If you're nervous or driving a large motorhome it's safer to use the A896. However all Sussex Campervans owners who have driven this part have done so with ease.
- Avoid the B869 from Lochinver to Kylesku if you're driving a large motorhome.
- Practise reversing your campervan - you might need to reverse a few hundred yards on one of the single track roads we've just mentioned.
- The best months to visit Scotland's NC500 route are from May to September - but Scottish weather is changeable and the route can be enjoyed throughout the year.
- Midges are common in Scotland from May to September, especially in the West, at dusk and dawn. Remember to pack your insect repellent.
- Sleeping beside the road in your campervan overnight ('stealth camping' or 'wild camping') is legal in some places in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, but there are some common sense guidelines.
- Be kind to the environment.
- Remove all rubbish.
- Save the chemical loo waste until you can stay on a proper campsite with a chemical toilet disposal point.
- Look out for any parking restriction signs.
- Don't park on farm land or in gateways, unless you've asked the land owner for permission.
- Don't park too close to houses or block their view.
- Check out the guidelines on visitscotland.com (campsites and wild camping rules). Apparently permission for wild camping in Scotland is based on backpackers with tents, so many of the locals would prefer campervans and motorhomes to use campsites.
- Where possible, it's wise to eat in pubs or buy food supplies locally, to give these isolated communities a small boost.
- Don't forget to take plenty of photos!
NORTH COAST 500 ROUTE CAMPSITES
- Fortrose Bay Campsite, Wester Greengates, Fortrose, Scotland IV10 8RX. 01381 621 927.
- Wick Caravan and Camping Site, Riverside Drive, Wick, Caithness, Scotland KW1 5SP. 01955 605 420.
- Dunnet Bay Caravan and Motorhome Club Site. A836, Dunnet, Thurso, Highlands, Scotland KW14 8XD. 01847 821319.
- Sango Sands Oasis Campsite, Durness, Sutherland, Scotland IV27 4PZ.
- Clachtoll Beach Campsite, 134, Clachtoll, Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland IV27 4JD. 01571 855 377.
- Sands Caravan & Camping, Gairloch, Scotland IV21 2DL. 01445 712 152.
- Applecross Campsite, Applecross, Strathcarron, Ross-Shire, Scotland IV54 8ND. 01520 744 268.
- John O'Groats Caravan and Camping Site, County Road, John o’ Groats, KW1 4YR. 01955 611329.
Find more campsites on our Sussex Campervan owners' recommended campsites map.