BikePacking – What is it?
There are many market-based buzz-words for it, from bikepacking to micro-adventure, S24O (Sub-24 Hour Overnight!) to off-road touring. Join Wilderness guide, Chris Mackie as he ventures into the wilds of Sutherland in Northern Scotland with his bike and camping gear and learn from him about BikePacking – How to bike and camp in the wild.
‘He wanted to go away on his own, to meet people here and there by chance, to take adventure as it came and look out for wonder. Not a conscious piece of research, not the kind of thing he had to do in his academic researches, but something quite different in the sense that it would happen to him. All he would have to do was to wait for it. He would have to forget himself, as he had done up there on the hill; forget his ‘importance’, his notion of being ‘somebody’.’
Neil M. Gunn, The Well at the World’s End 1951.
Reading this passage on the train rolling towards Lairg I knew I had chosen my reading material and landscape well. Gunn’s wanderer had longer than me to explore the backcountry of Sutherland, the hills were far less populous now and I had a mountain bike loaded with camping gear, but the desire for the unknown in a journey was contiguous across the years and the hills to the northwest left plenty of room for the mind to wander.
By jumping on the train at my local station and heading for the hills I was following in the tyre tracks of cyclists going right back to the early 1900s. It needn’t be any more complicated than this, but with reliable equipment and a little bit of experience it is increasingly easy to push the boundaries of where our bikes can take us. The rising profile of off-road bicycle touring has inspired me and many others to begin exploring the plethora of old drove roads, forestry and estate tracks and mixed single-track that span the Highlands of Scotland in a fine tracery of dotted lines linking map sheets across great distances.
On this trip from Lairg across to the west coast of Assynt I found myself on empty tarmac roads running alongside idyllic salmon fishing rivers up quiet glens, slogging up graded access roads for hydro-electric schemes and windfarms, cresting over bealachs (passes) that have been droving routes for centuries and pushing up stalking paths often rutted by 6×6 Argo-cats. If you’re looking for a summary of Scottish cultural geography for the last few hundred years, then look no further.
If this kind of self-supported backcountry trip inspires you, then read on for some pointers to make the most of bike-packing in Scotland. If you would rather that we did some of the hard work for you, why not take a look at one of our supported mountain bike holidays like the Hebridean Trail or the classic challenge of the Coast to Coast. Hotel accommodation and luggage transfers allow you to concentrate on enjoying the ride!
BikePacking – How to to bike and camp in the wild
1. KEEP IT SIMPLE
For remote, committing overnight rides simplicity really makes sense, and this is a useful mantra to keep in mind when it comes to all aspects of your bike-packing experience. This spans bike choice (full-suspension bikes have far more components that can go wrong and are much harder to fix on the hill than a rigid hard-tail), how you pack your camping kit and food (soft bags strapped to your frame can cope with hours of repeated bumping, whereas a rack and panniers are prone to break when the going gets tough) and cutting down your gear to a safe minimum in order to travel as lightly as possible. It’s also very useful to remember how lucky we are to have the option of complexity – one of the world’s most inspirational cycle tourists, Dervla Murphy, is most famous for her book Full Tilt: Ireland to India by Bicycle, which details her 1963 journey through Eastern Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on a 3-speed ladies touring bike during full winter conditions across terrain that would make many modern mountain biker’s eyes water! Don’t rush out and spend lots of money on specialised equipment – just strap a couple of waterproof bags to your bike and give it a shot first.
2. LEARN TO COMPROMISE
Before you head out for an extended ride think about what your priority for the trip is and evaluate your gear and mindset accordingly. If you are looking to ride technical single-track with just one night out, then the less gear you take, the more fun you will have, whereas if you are heading out for a longer ride and might want to walk up a couple of hills along the way, the flexibility of wearing a pair of light trail shoes, using flat pedals and carrying a small backpack might be worth the compromise in efficiency on the bike. This applies equally to bike set-up, where all-day comfort and ease of repair is going to take a much higher priority than performance. Honing these small decisions is necessarily done by trial and error, which is the fun part of the whole process!
3. BE AS SELF-SUFFICIENT AS POSSIBLE
In addition to ensuring that you have enough (and some extra) clothing and food for your ride, you should know your plan and equipment really well before heading out. When going through the planning stages make sure that you factor in contingency time for mechanical issues and unexpected pushing sections, and leave a route card with someone who knows your planned time of return and what they should do if you are late back. Two of the key things to consider when poring over your maps with highlighter pens are the contours, which will indicate your climbs and descents, and the terrain which any trail that you are following passes through: on an Ordnance Survey map a single dotted line can mean anything from compacted accessible forest path to 6 inch wide animal track cutting across a steep hillside, so make sure you consider the context.
Perhaps the most important aspect of biking in a self-sufficient manner is being able to repair basic mechanical issues which are bound to occur. This might mean starting from scratch and making sure that you are able to change a punctured inner tube, but it gives you a lot more confidence to get off the beaten track if you know that you have the flexibility to bodge together a solution to the bigger problems you might encounter. For Scotland, a midge net definitely helps in these situations!
4. FOLLOW THE OLD WAYS
It is easy for us to forget that until very recently the hills of Scotland were part of a landscape which was truly inhabited and engaged with as part of every day life, but when we take the time to look a little closer the signs are still there in the form of old rights of way, place names and folklore. As mountain bikers we can tap into these old routes as lines of least resistance through the hills, allowing access deep into the uplands where single-track trails of all heritages have formed over the years, away from the homogeneity of wheeled chassis.
SOME OF THE BEST AREAS FOR OVERNIGHT MOUNTAIN BIKE ADVENTURES IN SCOTLAND
The Cairngorms National Park
The National park, accessed from the Aviemore side, offers some of the most accessible, varied and beautiful biking in Scotland. You could quite easily plan a multi-day off-road trip through the lower forests and foothills of the Cairngorms which was suitable for beginner mountain bikers. The Thieves’ Road skirts the mountains from Nethy-bridge through to Glenfeshie, following one of the discreet route cattle reivers would have taken South, and there are countless trail networks which branch off from the valley.
Alternatively the three great passes of the Cairngorms, the Lairig an Laoigh (Pass of the Calves), the Lairig Ghru and Glen Feshie offer very challenging and committed long distance routes from West to East, which can be linked up to create circular trips. Remarkably, all of these rugged passes were used for droving cattle to market over staggering distances, and the paths would have been kept clear of boulders by locals up until the mid nineteenth century.
This area would make for a lovely introduction to camping with your mountain bike, with a mix of forest and estate tracks and the option to extend your trip out into the adjacent Glen Cannich or Glen Strathfarrer. Glen Affric has some of the best examples of ancient Caledonian pine forest, and there’s even an off-grid youth hostel halfway through if you don’t fancy camping.
Sutherland and Assynt
A fantastically empty and quiet landscape, the high moors and distinct geology of this area of northwest Scotland lend themselves well to bike-packing of the remote and steep kind. There are remarkably good links between open, remote hillside and quiet roads, which allow you to cover plenty of ground and link up estate paths with lots of potential exit points. For a real challenge you could incorporate part of the committing Arkle Loop, which gives great views of Foinaven to the North.
As discussed above, you should only venture into areas like these when you are confident in your ability to look after yourself and your group in the hills, regardless of the weather. It’s also worth remembering that many of the estate tracks and hill areas will be used during the stalking season, so make sure you have read the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and are sensitive to estate activities where appropriate.