There’s something wrong with me. I’m not referring to the extra rib I possess or my inability to recognise colours. I’m not talking about the unidentified lump on my left leg or the fact that all my finger nails are split following a childhood infection. No, what’s wrong with me is something a little less obvious and it’s the fact that I love bikepacking but I don’t love it in spite of its dark, twisted, soul destroying nature … I love it because of it.
The very fact you’re reading this might mean that you view owning an extra rib as more problematic than harbouring a love of bikepacking but your view is perhaps somewhat skewed … stand in a room full of people all wearing rubber laidahosan and sporting nipple clamps for long enough and sooner or later, it’ll begin to seem normal. Pop your head round the door expecting a WI meeting and things might appear less so. The undeniable truth is that for many people, ‘warts an’ all bikepacking’ looks about as appealing as a nipple clamp. The thought of it might arouse their interest a little but the potential hardship means they’re very unlikely to ever actually try it for themselves. This reluctance is a real shame because you and I both know that the pleasure far out ways the pain but trying to convince the skeptical is largely a lost cause that more often than not, will result in heartache for all.
There’s lots of things to dislike about bikepacking when you think about it – granted, you probably don’t think about it but I’m sure many people do. In no particular order, there’s being cold, getting wet and creepy crawlies sharing your bed. The stress of navigation, getting lost, finding food and locating water. Those who aren’t already off-road cyclists have the terrain to contend with, the issue of mechanicals and a general fear of horrific injury, crippling fatigue and violent death at the hands of vicious badgers. With a list like that at the forefront of your mind, it’s no wonder many people, even cyclists, never embrace the grubby world you call home. You know they’re missing out, I know they’re missing out but without experience to draw on, their fears and anxieties are very real … but what if you could change things? What if you could smooth the rough edges, simplify the process and remove some of the anxiety? The result is unlikely to constitute what some of us would consider to be ‘bikepacking’ but a gentler introduction might persuade your partner, kids, friends or colleagues that (a) you’re not as much of a mentalist as they thought and (b) that bikepacking is something they’d like to pursue – After reading that, I can appreciate that some of you may be a little shocked, believing that I’ve begun a journey down the path to ‘soft’. Allow me to assure you that I haven’t, nor have I changed my views on what I believe bikepacking is or isn’t. I’m simply being pragmatic with the hope that it might ultimately lead to more people discovering the joy that comes from sleeping with the slugs beneath a hedge of your choosing.
|A train ride away from London … and a world away.|
The nice people at Pinnacle had a similar idea to that outlined above and for reasons known only to themselves, decided to invite me along for the ride. Their plan was fairly simple – take six people with varying degrees of experience and a wide range of outlooks and send them on a trip together … a bit like Big Brother but with bikes. In part, it was an experiment to discover how easy (or hard) it would be for someone who doesn’t have the wilder parts of Britain on their doorstep, to have a memorable yet enjoyable few days travelling by bike. There was never any pretense that this was a ‘bikepacking’ trip but in many respects, it came fairly close. Perhaps close enough that something similar could provide the spark to ignite a future bikepacking flame within someone. By removing some of the common causes of ‘bikepacking anxiety’, it was hoped that although uncertain, the outcome would prove to be a positive one.
|We had gravel bikes … we needed sand bikes.|
Travel … While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a trip that leads directly from your front door and nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with the south east, neither are generally considered to be exciting. I know there’s the whole #microadventure trend but that now largely seems to be the preserve of people for whom the word adventure has lost all meaning and context. Anyway, wouldn’t you rather have a #properadventure? We have a good selection of suitable venues in this country for such endeavours and the Scottish Highlands is one of the best, but it’s a long way from the south east isn’t it? Surprisingly the Highlands is actually one of the easier destinations to reach from the bottom right-hand side of the UK … or it is, if you enlist the aid of the Caledonian sleeper train. It might take fourteen hours to trundle its way between London and Fort William but that doesn’t matter because you’ll be asleep (or at least trying to be) for much of it.
It’s a pleasant journey and one which deposits you right outside Morrisons just in time for a quick breakfast and a lively game of Supermarket Sweep. Twenty minutes after any last minute faffing / adjustments, you can find yourself off-road, without any real need to see tarmac again for a considerable time … sound appealing?
|Not a Travel Lodge.|
Navigation … Some of us love maps, we like exploring and we don’t mind too much if we become a little ‘displaced’. However, spare a thought for those who aren’t blessed with a sense of direction and who believe that getting lost represents something much more serious than an enjoyable detour. Employing the services of a guide may seem like a step too far but remember – we’re trying to smooth the sharp edges, reduce the anxiety and make things easier. A good guide can do all those things but so can a mediocre guide, the difference is, a good guide can do it without detracting from the experience and they can also make it look easy.
Our guide, Emma made a potentially difficult job look easy. As a long time member of the guiding community, I know how hard it can be to hold a group together as everyone experiences their own personal cycle of ‘ups and downs’. You learn to spot the little signs that indicate the need for a new course of action or subtle change of plan. You carry the groups expectations and you do it all with good humour and a smile … oh and should something go wrong, you sort it out.
I’ve never been on the receiving end of a guide before but after a moments trepidation, it transpires that I quite like it – a bit like when someone bought me a fish pedicure one Christmas. The upshot, is that you get good riding that suits your requirements without the need to navigate or the potential for getting lost.
|It’s unlikely we’d have found ourselves here without a guide.|
Accommodation … What could be better than squatting down in the bracken for a ‘wild one’ before crawling inside your bivvy bag at the end of a long day? A little damp, covered in shite and that tell-tale ‘I’m starting to get cold’ shiver running across your shoulders. For around 80% of the population, a warm shower followed by a change of clothes, a hot meal and a warm bed would be their preferred choice. Who’d have thought that lots of people would choose comfort and certainty over potential suffering and guesswork?
It turns out that using paid for accommodation somewhere like the Highlands, isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. You don’t have to re-enter civilisation in order to obtain the aforementioned shower and bed. Some of the available options retain an air of remoteness, while others do much more than simply retain an air of remoteness … they are remote and they can also be spectacular, interesting and inspiring. From my perspective, staying in hostel / bunkhouse accommodation was only a few quid away from staying in a bothy, albeit a posh bothy. The thing that I found hardest to cope with, was knowing you had to be somewhere within a certain time frame. To me, bikepacking is the embodiment of freedom – but what price freedom? A desire for minimal restraint will usually involve accepting maximum uncertainty and that isn’t something everyone’s happy to embrace. On the contrary, I’m sure many people would find the idea of a designated ‘end point’ to the day reassuring rather than stressful.
|It might have been a room but it was a room with a view.|
By reducing travel logistics to a single train journey, employing a guide and staying in pre-booked accommodation, we probably made this trip as ‘easy’ or ‘safe’ as it could be while still keeping a worthwhile element of adventure intact. Obviously, you could pick and choose which aspects to keep and which to discard. It’s a personal choice dictated by priority. Done well, it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment for even the most hardened bikepacker but it should hold the door open to those who are unsure, less experienced or simply don’t like sleeping with slugs … no matter how much fun you tell them they’ll have.
|Multi-day off-road virgin … the smile says it all (no, not him).|
I’d like to thank Pinnacle for inviting me … a brave move I feel. I’d also like to thank Emma at West Coast Biking for allowing me to view things from the outside looking in.