Taking nothing but photographs and leaving only tyre tracks, Alan Brown bikepacked his way off-road across Scotland. It’s the best way to explore the country, the author says
Everyone loves the idea of cruising through Scotland’s incredible and varied landscapes just like in the adverts for 4x4 vehicles. But there’s a snag. Unlike in that swooping aerial footage you can’t just dive off the road onto a gravel track in a car in Scotland.
And while everyone loves the idea of waking up in total solitude beside a mirror-smooth lochan or looking out from their tent over a mist-draped pinewood, not everyone fancies shouldering the camping kit for the walk in.
There’s a simple enough solution to what appears to be an intractable problem: sling the tent, sleeping gear and rations on a rugged bicycle and take off along the many and varied byways that braid our straths, glens and uplands. Land access legislation in Scotland means that you can go on most open land and water under your own steam as and when you please as long as you do that respectfully and reasonably. So, unlike the poor folks marooned on the road by their expensive ‘off-road’ vehicle, the humble cyclist can indeed veer off the Tarmac and into the glorious scenery. And just keep going as long as she fancies or her legs allow, so long as she takes care of the land she’s crossing. It’s important to cherish and protect our rights to access our moors and forests, so most of us try to behave even more than reasonably, adhering to the mantra ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but tyre tracks’.
There’s a bit of a fad at the moment called ‘bikepacking’. It’s pretty much the practice that I just described – putting camping gear on a bicycle and taking off into the wilds – but there’s an element to it that’s beginning to rip my knitting a wee bit. We live in a consumer society so of course there’s a multitude of people ready to convince us that we can’t do this bikepacking thing without a thousand pounds-worth of titanium and gossamer camping kit and two thousand pounds worth of bicycle. But to put it bluntly, that is just not true. To make the point I rode the same bike I’ve ridden to work for 15 years clear across Scotland off-road from south-west to north east. Any half-decent hybrid or mountain bike will do the job, especially if you treat it to a pair of chunky tyres. The ones I use cost £12 each – so this really doesn’t have to be an expensive business.
All you need to do is load up your panniers or rucksack and head off. The choice of destinations in our country is almost embarrassing and the vast majority of it is open to you any time you fancy. There are great bits of wild land near all of our cities. The ones I know best are Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen. From Edinburgh the whole East Lothian coastline is waiting for you, as is the Borders drove road if you’re a bit more willing to climb into the hills. From Aberdeen the Deeside railway line my grandfather used to drive a train on is now a cycle path out into the glories of Deeside, even if it has been cut in two by the unfortunate new bypass. The jewel in the crown of Deeside is Glen Tanar, with miles of tracks through shortbread-tin scenery. From Inverness Old Edinburgh Road leads south out of suburban housing and within a mile the historic Wade road runs through glorious stands of Scots pine and further on the joys of Strathnairn and hidden gems like Glen Kyllachy. There are bound to be options on Glasgow and Dundee’s doorsteps and anyone in the Highlands and Islands has an embarrassment of riches just waiting.
My own favourite destination, and one I took some friends to in the glorious weather of last summer, is the magnificent northern slopes of the Cairngorms where they run down to the Spey. Abernethy, Rothiemurcus, Inschriach, Glenfeshie and Glen Tromie make up a band of territory that’s criss-crossed with trails of all kinds and positively welcoming to visitors in a way that not all Scottish estates are. There are stands of old-growth timber as well as views to the mountains and the entries to the mountain passes like the Lairig an Laoigh which can be a test even for hardy riders. It’s in territory like this that the full joy of riding a bike with a tent and only a vague plan comes into its own. You can poke about and backtrack without wearing yourself out. The weight of your kit is on your wheels, not your shoulders and feet and that means you can go much further and arrive a lot fresher. Instead of dumping your stuff and having a lie down as I certainly tend to do after a day of lugging overnight kit in a rucksack you have the energy to explore further, or even do a bit more exercise. Last summer I actually packed a wetsuit and swam in two pools on the Feshie, something I’d never have done if I was hiking.
And you don’t have to go far to have a profound experience. There’s an idea that you have to cycle round the world at Tour de France speeds for what you’re doing to be valid, but you know what? Leave those tough-nuts to it. Some mountain bikers seem to think a ride’s no good unless you’re either scared or ‘battling the elements’. There’s a place for both but why not leave them to it as well? If it’s going to be tipping it down or blowing a hoolie discretion can be the better part of valour and we can always just postpone the ride to another day.
You’ll need some kit of course. Tents that are fine for most Scottish summers are, sadly, pretty much disposable items now. People buy them for festivals and just leave them behind, and unless the weather gets really hairy those tents are adequate protection at the lower altitudes accessible by bike. The same goes for sleeping bags – you don’t need an expedition-grade one. The one at the back of your wardrobe will be just fine.
If you do need a bike the best thing to do is to tap into the circular economy – there are hundreds of thousands of bikes in Scotland already and we don’t need to import any more from the factories in the Far East. If you live in Edinburgh, Perth or Dundee you’ll have the option to buy from The Bike Station – Scotland’s foremost charity dedicated to the sale of guaranteed quality refurbished bikes – but there are a host of other trustworthy second-hand sellers across the country.
It’s a magnificent way to engage with landscape and to gain that inner peace that only comes with physical effort in wild places. Travelling by car just cuts you off from society but on the trails there’s the possibility of real meaningful conversation with the people you meet. As the weather begins to perk up, what little snow remains melts and the trees come into leaf let’s get the maps out, get our bikes serviced and get out there. Let’s go, yes?
Overlander: Bikepacking coast to coast across the heart of the Highlands by Alan Brown is published by Saraband, at £9.99.