The Isle of Skye is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations. However, 99% of those tourists will visit during the summer when the island benefits from long (and in theory, sunny days). Visiting the Isle of Skye in winter is something that not many are brave enough to do but those who take the leap are sure to be rewarded.
The benefits of visiting the magical Isle of Skye in the winter months are many, however, there are certain practicalities that you need to consider before you hop in your car and make the long road trip up to the Misty Isle.
As someone who has lived on Skye, I’ve been able to truly immerse myself in island life year-round. To help you plan for your winter Isle of Skye trip, I’ve put together this guide of everything you need to know, from dealing with the unpredictable and ever-changing weather to winter hiking conditions and what you’ll need to pack for your adventure.
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What to Expect from Visiting the Isle of Skye in Winter
Exploring the Isle of Skye in winter will provide you with a completely different experience to visiting in the summer. Everything from driving, parking, hiking and camping all require a different rulebook and a more savvy outlook, so make sure you get clued up before you head north.
Isle of Skye Winter Weather
It would be fair to say that the weather on the Isle of Skye can be more than a little unpredictable. Even the summer months don’t guarantee sunshine and much like the rest of Scotland, rain is common year-round.
As you would expect from an island nicknamed the Misty Isle, Skye is famous for its foggy and rainy days. From my experience on Skye in the winter, it rains more often than not and dry good weather days can be hard to come by.
The lack of man-made drainage on the island means that the terrain soaks up all the rain. Although this is a factor year-round, it’s much worse in winter and you should be prepared for very boggy conditions outside of the towns.
Considering Skye is further north than most of inhabited Canada, its winters are warmer than you might expect. That’s not to say they’re not bloody cold, (it will regularly dip well below freezing for days on end) but you probably won’t be needing a full-on snowsuit to explore. Despite this, the wind can get really wild and gusts over 50mph occur frequently!
The Isle of Skye does sometimes get snow but this mostly falls on the hills. However, icy roads are still something that visitors to the island will have to be prepared for.
Owing to Skye’s proximity to the jet stream, the weather is harder to predict (so never trust the forecast) and conditions on the island can change rapidly. Sometimes, you will experience all four seasons in just one day!
Isle of Skye Winter Daylight Hours
As the Isle of Skye is located so far north, daylight hours vary dramatically across seasons. In the height of summer, although it gets dark, it’s rarely dark enough to properly see the stars. On the day of the Summer Solstice 2020, the sun rose in Portree at 4.26 AM and set at 10.26 PM. That’s a whopping 18 hours of daylight!
However, during winter on Skye, you may get as few as six hours of daylight which could be less depending on where you are based – there are many days where the sun never fully rises above the mountains!
This is an important consideration for those visiting the Isle of Skye because it means that, unlike in summer, you will have less time in the day to get out and explore the island. While this can seem a big disadvantage on the surface, there are still plenty of great reasons to visit Skye in the winter.
One huge advantage of the shortened daylight hours will be a massive draw to photographers. As the sun rarely rises high in the sky, it massively opens the window of opportunity to snap photos during the famed ‘golden hour’ and truly showcases the island’s most magical attractions.
Driving on Skye in Winter
The Isle of Skye is known for its epic driving and plenty come to the island just to road trip the Trotternish Loop. Although these single track roads can be challenging for international visitors year-round, winter on Skye presents new obstacles.
Due to the sheer amount of rain during the winter, there is often a lot of water on the roads. In cold temperatures, this freezes, leaving the roads icy. Although most of the main roads will be gritted in bad weather, other more rural routes won’t be so you will need to be confident driving in winter conditions.
Grit will often be left alongside rural roads in case of bad weather but this is not guaranteed. Furthermore, you will need to hope that the grit has not already been used during a previous cold snap.
Even if you are not planning on venturing into the mountains with your car, it is worth knowing that Skye is full of steep roads which can be hard to negotiate in bad weather. Don’t assume that you will avoid these roads if you’re not planning on heading near the Cuillin mountain range.
As you would expect from anywhere often hit with cold conditions, potholes are a real issue all over the island and you will need to pay close attention to these when driving. Some of these monsters have the potential to rip off your tyres if you take them too quick. Also, be wary of any particularly deep looking puddles as these could be hiding a big pothole.
Although livestock roams freely on the Misty Isle year-round, the wilder of these ventures closer to the roads in winter. This is because the island is so much quieter. Sheep may sometimes run out in front of you and there is also an increased risk of hitting a deer in the winter months. Be aware that in bad weather, the animals may not always see or hear you coming and always drive sensibly to avoid accidents.
Every year, a huge amount of tourists visit the Isle of Skye so the local authorities have had to introduce additional car parks to cater for the demand. Many of these are still in construction but help to manage the traffic flow along single-track roads.
These larger car parks close to the major attractions such as The Quiraing and The Old Man of Storr, all come with a charge. The cost is £3 for up to three hours and £5 for up to 6 hours. The Fairy Pool car park costs £5 per visit and there is currently a car park under construction close to the Fairy Glen.
All of the money generated through car park fees is put back into maintaining local facilities (for example toilets at the Fairy Pools and Old Man of Storr car parks) and the hiking trails themselves.
Winter Hiking Conditions on the Isle of Skye
When it comes to non-technical hikes around the Isle of Skye, most of these are easily achievable in winter conditions. I have walked many of the most popular trails during the winter months and had no issues.
The main differences between winter and summer hiking on the island are the need to be prepared for boggy and wet conditions. You will also need to dress for the changing weather. There is a recommended packing list at the bottom of this article in case you are looking for specific information regarding gear and clothing.
If you are looking to get up into the hills, this is possible during winter. Three of the Munros in the Cuillin are classed as non-technical, Bruch na Frithe, Sgurr na Banachdich and Bla Bheinn. However, these should only be attempted by experienced mountain hikers on clear days with good weather. Mountain Rescue doesn’t want to have to trudge into the mountains because hikers are unprepared for the changing conditions!
Other parts of the ridge are accessible but they require technical hiking skills and should only be attempted alongside a guide. Personally, I would seek a guide for any of the Cuillin peaks during winter as the mountain weather can be severe and diminishing daylight hours means that there is little room for error.
Always keep hike safety in mind when you are exploring Skye and remember to adequately plan your days to ensure you don’t get caught out by the weather.
The best thing about any kind of hike on Skye in winter is that the trails are practically empty. Just before Christmas, I did the entirety of the Quiraing loop walk and met just a handful of other people. This is a world apart from the bustling crowds you can expect to see in the summer!
Things to do on Skye in Winter
You’ll be pleased to hear that most of what you can do in the summer on Skye, you can also do during the winter. All of the most popular hikes are generally accessible (unless there is very heavy snowfall or treacherous icy conditions). For some inspiration for your trip, check out the following posts:
- Exploring Spar Cave: The Isle of Skye’s Best Kept Secret
- Dunscaith Castle: Skye’s Forgotten Fortress
- Hiking to Coire Lagan, Isle of Skye
- Brothers’ Point: A Must-Do Hike on the Isle of Skye
- Incredible Waterfalls in Scotland You Must See
Most of the tours on Skye don’t run during winter. This includes the boat trips to neighbouring islands and also the Skyebus which loops the main attractions. If you plan to do lots of things like this on your trip, you may want to reconsider the timing. Talisker Distillery, nearby Eilean Donan Castle and Portree’s Aros Centre are open year-round.
Many shops and cafes open seasonally, (traditionally from April to October) so be aware of this. Owing to the short daylight hours and the comparative lack of tourists during the winter, many of the locals go into hibernation, meaning the island is a lot quieter.
During the winter months, accommodation options are fewer, with many hostels, hotels and self-catering guesthouses choosing to close until the tourist season rolls around again. I’ve included a few recommended accommodation providers who open year-round later in the article.
Driving to the Isle of Skye in Winter
You’ll note that this section is not called ‘getting to the Isle of Skye’. This is because, during the winter, the only way you can really experience the Isle of Skye is to drive. You might be able to get a bus from Glasgow to the island, however, local public transport is infrequent at best and doesn’t venture as far as many of the main sights.
If you are driving to the island, you can either take the bridge or catch the ferry.
The ferry from Mallaig to Armadale does run throughout winter, however, it does so on a limited timetable. The ferry has capacity for a small number of vehicles and should be booked in advance.
The Isle of Skye is joined to the mainland by a bridge which is free to cross. It links Kyleakin on Skye with Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland. The bridge is open year-round, though it may close in exceptional circumstances. This is generally when the weather is uncharacteristically bad and a safety risk is posed to drivers.
Those driving to the Isle of Skye in winter should make sure that they have adequate breakdown cover (I had to use mine once on the way to the island), plenty of de-icer, a scraper and new tyres. These don’t need to be brand new but will need to have a bit of life in them to cope with the rough island roads.
Where to stay on the Isle of Skye
Assuming you are not going to brave the winter weather in a tent, the following accommodation options are open year-round.
This traditional hotel is located close to one of Skye’s best castles, Dunvegan! The decor is cosy and there is a real log fire for those wintry nights. Breakfast is included in the room rate and there is also an on-site restaurant.
Situated with one of the best views of Portree, Cuillin Hills Hotel is conveniently located out of the hustle whilst still being close to the amenities. The on-site View Restaurant is said to boast some of the best Scottish mussels on Skye!
An Clamhan £££
For a taste of high-end luxury on the Isle of Skye, look no further than An Clamhan. This beautiful holiday home is of modern design with all the mod-cons. You’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere with better mountain views than this.
Isle of Skye Winter Camping
If you’re considering camping on the Isle of Skye in winter then you’re a braver person than me! Howling winds, lashing rain and biting cold make this a less than comfortable plan and one I definitely wouldn’t advise without the right kit.
It is worth noting that all of Skye’s official campsites close for the season in September so if you do choose to bring a tent, wild camping is your only option. As stated, boggy conditions from excessive rainfall make camping logistically difficult as many of the popular wild camping spots are a washout. This includes areas close to the Sligachan Bridge and spots alongside the road leading to Portree.
Those travelling to the Isle of Skye in a camper van or motorhome should not have issues if they are planning to sleep in their vehicles. In Portree’s main car park, there are electric hookups for campers.
What to Pack for the Isle of Skye in Winter
When it comes to packing for a winter trip to the Isle of Skye, you can’t go far wrong by remembering wise words of Scottish comedian Billy Connolly: “There is no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes.”
Although packing lists will vary from person to person, these are the essentials I advise for a cold trip to the Misty Isle.
- Waterproof jacket
I like teaming up a packable waterproof/windproof jacket with a fleece instead of going for a big coat. Layers are key when dealing with the quickly changing weather on the Isle of Skye.
- Gore-tex hiking boots
Waterproof boots help you keep your feet dry and withstand the rocky terrain.
- Sweat-wicking leggings or waterproof trousers
I swear by Lucy Locket Loves leggings as they are squat proof, comfortable and also pretty jazzy. Waterproof trousers can be useful if you’re headed off on a super boggy hike.
- Hiking poles
Great for helping you stay upright on slippery terrain or going downhill.
Try to get something quite tight-fitting so it doesn’t blow off!
More necessary than you would expect, especially if you’re using hiking poles.
Can be used to keep your neck warm or as a headband. I always do this because I get very bad wind headaches.
- Waterproof socks
Waterproof socks, are they even real? Sealskinz are the absolute pros when it comes to waterproof socks and although expensive, they really are worth it!
The wild Skye weather can leave your skin feeling battered and dry.
When you see the landscape, you’ll understand why you need a camera!
- Hand sanitiser
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that you shouldn’t go anywhere without a little bottle of the good stuff. There are very few public facilities along longer trails which may require al fresco toileting. Come prepared with hand sanitiser.
Is it Worth Visiting the Isle of Skye in Winter?
The short answer to this question is definitely. Although daylight hours are fewer and the weather can be wild, visiting Skye during the winter months offers a unique and magical experience. The lack of crowds means you can fully enjoy the mesmerising landscapes and attractions, without constantly battling for somewhere to park or a space on the trail.
Although the cold requires extra layers, it also means that the Scottish midges are in hibernation, providing a welcome relief from the bloodsuckers that can make summer miserable! Snow-capped mountains provide world-class scenery and dark nights showcase the incredible starry sky and even offer the chance to catch the Northern Lights.
You might have to be prepared to be a bit flexible but if you’re happy to change your plans on a whim (or just get wet), visiting the Isle of Skye in winter might well be the best trip you take!