Matt and I paused from our exertions at exactly the same moment. We looked at each other, our surroundings, then back at each other and began giggling at the absurdity of our predicament. We were somewhere in the Cairngorms, pushing our mountain bikes, laden with winter equipment through calf-deep snowy bog with the same consistency as a slush puppy. Cold, wet and tired, we had stopped noticing the lumps of ice in our shoes because our feet were so numb.
Fat, wet snowflakes once again began to fall as we found a marginally less wet section of bog and got the map out. Some twenty-five kilometres of high ground in full winter conditions and zero visibility lay between us and our intended bothy for that night. Despite doing our best to convince ourselves otherwise, with the light fading fast and no decent shelter, it quickly became very apparent that a retreat to the bothy we had ridden past that morning was the only sane option. We pieced together a hasty cross-country route, sticking to lower terrain and set off in the same direction we had come. This trip was not quite working out as planned. Winter in the Cairngorms had sent us packing.
With glimpses of a huge full moon through clouds scudding rapidly overhead, our tyres crunched over the last few metres of ice and snow and we bowled into the deserted bothy. Warmed by hot food, whisky and a roaring wood burner we later reflected on our resounding defeat, discovering that neither of us was disheartened or really that bothered. It had been an amazing, if somewhat character-building ride. We concluded that even when it’s bad, bikepacking is still very good fun.
Bikepacking through harsh conditions in the Cairngorms
A fusion of cycle touring and mountain biking, many people mistakenly regard bikepacking as a recent development. In reality, off-road cycle touring has been around for as long as bikes have. As early as 1886, the US military began experimenting with the use of bikes as transportation for lightly armed infantry across mixed terrain. It was found to be highly effective, even more so than horses. Their attention was soon diverted however by the advent of the automobile.
In more recent times, the wider availability of ultralightweight camping equipment and specialised bike luggage has revolutionised off-road touring and it has seen an explosion in popularity. With the right equipment and bike choice, it is now possible to carry everything needed to live comfortably without the burden of racks and weighty panniers. A lighter, better-balanced setup means riding technical lines is still fun, as opposed to bouncing down trails barely in control, wondering what is going to break first.
Cycling through the spectacular landscape in the Lake District
The rolling fells of The Lake District, blessed with amazing places to wild camp and crisscrossed with ancient bridleways, are a stunning proving ground for any aspiring bikepacker. Routes can be found that are suitable for all abilities, from easily accessible gravel tracks to wild and remote traverses of the high fells. It is possible to start off with no specialised equipment apart from a mountain bike, rucksack and lightweight camping gear. Bikepacking luggage in conjunction with a minimalist approach and compact, ultralight equipment will certainly make things a lot easier as journeys become more ambitious though.
Over the years I’ve made many mistakes. Here are a few camping equipment hints and tips so hopefully you don’t have to!
A clean and constant supply of water is essential for keeping hydrated. Unfortunately, water is also very heavy to carry; 1kg per litre. Using water from becks and streams saves carrying too much, but always filter or boil it just in case there happens to be a dead animal or other contamination upstream. Mountain bikers normally carry water in a small rucksack using a reservoir. This is great for convenience. If you are planning on steep committing routes which involve carrying your bike it also keeps weight close to your back and off the bike. The only disadvantages of a reservoir are that it can be tricky to judge how much you are drinking, and the tube can freeze up in very cold temperatures. For multiday trips in sub-zero conditions I’d always favour an insulated wide mouth flask or bottle. If you don’t intend to be doing any ‘hike a bike’ and are riding less technical routes, then it is always best to let the bike carry the weight. Bottle cages can be attached to the forks or down tube if you are using a frame bag. • Camelbak Crux 2-litre reservoir • MSR Trailshot micro water filter
Many bikepackers opt for superlight solo shelters and tarps. In my experience these are often not up to the job when the weather turns really nasty. A reliable shelter can make or break a trip and for remote and committing expeditions carrying a few extra grammes here can a lifesaver. If riding with others I’ll always go for a stronger, shared tent split between the group. It’s also far more sociable. Extra porch space is really handy for wet waterproofs, luggage and cooking in.
Like water, food is heavy and bulky but essential. Dehydrated meals are great for lightening the load and with careful packing it’s possible to carry a week’s worth of meals. In recent years the taste and texture of these have improved immeasurably! It is very worthwhile to look at calorie to weight ratio, with chorizo, oatcakes and squeezy cheese being a regular staple of mine. Trail mix and energy bars carried somewhere accessible are great for snacking.
The debate of down versus synthetic sleeping bags is an old one. In summary, use synthetic if there’s any chance of getting damp. If you’ve got a reliable and weatherproof shelter, this is where you can save a few grammes by using an ultralight down bag. I use my summer-weight bag in all but the coldest conditions, increasing its insulation value using a silk sleeping bag liner, and insulated jackets as necessary. Sleeping mats also have a huge bearing on how warm you will be. I tailor these to the season more than my sleeping bag. I found the Thermarest NeoAir range to be fantastic, though there are excellent mats on offer these days from several manufacturers. Make sure to take a repair kit!
Footwear for bikepacking can be a really tricky one to get right. Often it’s important to have a shoe or boot that performs as well off the pedal as it does on it. While they may be good for ‘hike a bike’, avoid anything with a really aggressive sole as these rarely have adequate grip when riding. Compromise is the name of the game. Many people will go for ‘SPDs’ or clip-in shoes and pedals, but for me the practicality of a standard approach shoe or boot and flat pedal is hard to beat. It really is worthwhile getting footwear properly fitted, and George Fisher’s fitting service is second to none.
Bikepacking is immensely rewarding. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained in travelling efficiently through remote places, along technical trails while still carrying everything required to live comfortably. Just as important as the correct kit is the correct attitude. The reason we failed on our intended route in the Cairngorms is that our experience had made us over-confident in estimating the distance we could travel in the conditions. An ultra-light approach is not always the right choice and a reliable shelter could have made all the difference. Start off with modest expectations, pack the right kit and always have a plan B should conditions change. See you out there!
Words and Photos: Tom Mcnally