Offroad Across Scotland by Bike: A Practical Guide

, July 29, 2011

This is one of a series of articles related to an X-Scotland Coast-to-Coast mountain bike journey that fellow Magnetic Junction blogger Jack Richards and I completed with a small team at the beginning of July. This piece is concerned with the practicalities of such a journey and is not designed to be a report of the ensuing adventure.

1.  In the Beginning…

I like taking part in some sort of big challenge event about three times a year, and as Jack and I had previously hiked across Scotland, from Kyle of Lochalsh to Beauly, an idea developed between us to complete a similar X-Scotland journey – but this time riding off-road on mountain bikes. The standard route for such a crossing is well established and several companies such as Wilderness Scotland offer supported and guided 7-day trips that follow a route well described, outlined and mapped in Phil McKane’s book ‘Scotland: The Wild Trails’. While our team followed sections of this route we also included the infamous ‘Sligachan Loop’ on Skye as a warm-up day and added a series of other departures to whet our particular interests in exploration and extreme challenge!

2. The Team

Before you plan your route in detail it is handy to know your team’s abilities. The participants involved in this trip all cycled frequently and most had raced mountain bikes competitively in enduro events, and therefore had a high level of fitness.

Even though we were not all equal in cycling ability we were a well matched group in terms of experience, determination, tolerance of squalor and ability to suffer! In fact my original route was rejected as being ‘too easy’ by a certain MJ blogger! Whatever your selected route, do be realistic about your team’s abilities and factor in a contingency time for repairs, sickness, gradual exhaustion and other eventualities

X Scotland MTB Team
The Team starting X-Scotland at Adventure Aberdeen

that may slow you down. Our team was a group of five and we now feel on reflection that six may have been a better number for sharing trailer hauling and carrying. One factor to consider when selecting team size is that once a group gets bigger than two, logistically it becomes much more difficult. As a group of five we were often surprised by how much extra time was taken up by communal activities such as eating, washing, packing and loading, events which on solo trips are despatched quickly and easily. The plus sides to a large group were that the various logistics outlined below were shared and dealt with more easily. And the team camaraderie was very useful in our several low moments!

3. The Route

The itinerary we decided upon is outlined below along with the hard reality of what actually occurred! We rough-camped along the way and it would not be fair or ethical to post the grid references for these campsites, therefore if you want to follow our route you’ll have to find them yourselves – but that is all part of the fun.

Day 1: Travel to start location at Torrin, Skye.

Day 2: Sligachan Loop, road transit to Armadale for the Mallaig ferry, Mallaig to Tarbet along Loch Morrar.

Day 3: Tarbet to Corrieyarrick Pass. We did not complete this section and instead only made it to near Loch Arkaig.

Day 4: Corrieyarrick Pass to Ryvoan Bothy. We did not complete this section and instead only made it to the Corrieyarrick Pass at mid-afternoon and camped instead near Kingussie after a very long day.

Day 5: Ryvoan Bothy to Ballater. We surpassed this and caught up with ourselves over much easier terrain. Three of the team then cycled to Stonehaven on the East Coast overnight, arriving at 0330hrs on Day 6!

Day 6: Ballater to Stonehaven. See above.

4. Logistics

We had several tasks to complete before the ride and these were divided amongst the team. If you are planning a similar route we recommend you pay particular attention to the following logistics:

Money – we operated a float where everyone contributed an equal amount and submitted receipts for items they had purchased for the trip to our nominated ‘group finance director’. It sounds a bit stern but having a kitty really helped make it fair and equal. We all took credit/debit cards in case of body or bike expenses that may have resulted in non-group expenditure.

Food – we only took food for two days; to have carried more would have been prohibitively heavy and vastly reduced the enjoyment of the trip. The exact nature of our food for the trip is discussed in detail in Jack Richard’s blog on nutrition but it is worth spending a good amount of time making sure you have enough food and that it is acceptable to everyone in the group. I made the assumption that everyone liked spicy food and every main meal was heavily chillied. Our fellow MJ blogger was not a fan and on a longer trip this could have been a big morale problem. Lesson: know your team.

Equipment – it is not necessary to purchase all your own equipment for this trip. We borrowed our bike trailers from Hazelhead Academy for a small fee and other equipment from Adventure Aberdeen. There are many community, Scout, Guide, Duke of Edinburgh and private hillwalking and cycling clubs that will lend or loan equipment to those attempting adventurous journeys. Be absolutely meticulous in your packing as at times, especially in the Knoydart area, we were totally committed and a long way from assistance. We double-checked all our group equipment such as stoves, first aid and bike spares. We also double-waterproofed everything in strong canoe sacks. This proved to be absolutely necessary as in the heavy downpours and frequent river crossings we experienced the trailer ‘dry’ bags leaked considerably.

Mapping – our mapping was printed from Memory Map and Anquet mapping loaded onto a standard PC. We took a double copy of our entire route and carefully marked up the grid numbers and map sheet prefix letters that are often missing from such print outs. Adding such grid numbers and detail is essential should you need to call in help and their absence is one weakness of computer mapping. We operated a system of one map set ‘live’ on the bike handlebars and one set tucked away safely in a trailer. Preparing the mapping took a considerable time along with route planning and should not be underestimated.

Transport – we were determined to be as responsible as possible and therefore used the train to get to our start point. This was almost our undoing as the rules and regulations for bicycle carriage on Scotrail are not straightforward. It took the intervention of a bike enthusiast Scotrail staff member to get us onto a busy train with an authoritarian ticket conductor who was not pleased to see five bikes and three trailers.

Waiting for the Aberdeen to Inverness Train

Our willingness at this point to do anything we could to help the Scotrail staff went a long way to diffusing any hostility, and we quickly dismantled bikes and trailers to make them as small as possible. A smile and the notion to be flexible goes a long way in these situations. Our advice is to plan such rail transport very carefully, especially in large groups as it seems that officially Scotrail trains are only supposed to carry four bikes maximum. Any extras are at the discretion of the Scotrail staff. Ferry travel via Caledonian Macbrayne was, by contrast, very smooth and welcoming. As two of our team live on the North-East Scottish coast we rode back to our own homes from the finish. The other three made transport arrangements with enough flexibility to account for delays. Never make travel arrangements too tight at the other end of such trips especially if you are pushing the boundaries of your fitness as this may result in missed connections if you have an unforeseen situation.

5. Life on the open road (trail!)

Days began with breaking camp and two people normally cooked while the others stowed equipment on the trailers and prepared water and food for riding. We operated a system of three trailers between five riders. One trailer contained all the group food and cooking equipment, safety items as well as one group member’s equipment. The other two trailers contained two peoples worth of equipment each. This was about right for space but you need to pack light and small otherwise you will need a trailer each. We had planned to swap the trailers at regular timed intervals but in reality the group members just took a trailer when they were feeling strong, or when someone was exhausted, and a natural rhythm established itself.

We regularly stopped for food and water and during these breaks made sure everyone knew where they were on the map in case of separation or accident.

Team Map Check!

Group members carried their own day food and there was no ‘lunch’ as such. Along the route we periodically stopped to replenish our food stocks and take on treats that only civilisation can offer such as coffee and cake. We used no commercial campsites and completed most of our daily ablutions butt naked in lochs and rivers using Lifesystems eco-friendly soap from a group communal washbag. On this note we also made considerable efforts to bury all human waste, carry out every scrap of litter and only ride on trails that can take the impact of bikes.

We rode most days until exhaustion or daylight forced a halt. After that we were happy to crash after a quick wash and food.

The above notes are a good guide to a frugal and simple few days away which with the right friends can make a perfect formula for a challenging and adventurous journey through some of Scotland’s best wild land.