All you need to know about bikepacking in Scotland
May 12, 20237 min read
Bikepacking Scotland by cycling journalist and filmmaker Markus Stitz features twenty specially curated multi-day bikepacking journeys for gravel, mountain and road bikes across Scotland. The routes are suitable for beginners and experts, and accessible by bike-friendly public transport options.
The routes in Bikepacking Scotland take in a good variety of the country, from the Ayrshire Alps, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders in southern Scotland, through Perthshire’s unique drovers’ roads and the grand architecture of the Central Belt, across to Argyll’s islands on ferry-hopping adventures around Islay, a paradise for whisky connoisseurs, and Jura and Mull to spot magnificent golden eagles. And of course the Scottish Highlands, with an epic tour of the Cairngorms National Park as well as the author’s own take on the North Coast 500.
Markus rode around the world on a singlespeed bike in 2015/16 and has tested equipment in a variety of conditions, so we quizzed him about about his choices for bikepacking. You can find out more about Markus on markusstitz.com and check out the Bikepacking Scotland website at bikepackingscotland.com
What is bikepacking?
I am not a big fan of definitions, but broadly speaking bikepacking is having an overnight adventure on a bike, while carrying all you need with you. Anything that fits in this broad spectrum is bikepacking for me.
What kit do I need for bikepacking and what clothing should I wear?
In general, the best kit is the stuff you already have and the clothes that are most comfortable. What detailed kit you need, depends on the type of adventure, time of year and your personal choice. A few items of kit I can recommend after thousands of miles of bikepacking:
An Opinel knife – super lightweight, durable and if you get it personalised you have your very own knife to cut tasty cheese.
A good GPS– I prefer two types: for longer rides and races I use an old-fashioned Garmin that runs on AA batteries. You’ll find them everywhere in the world, and the battery life is superb, often more than two days. The downside is that the batteries go to the bin, so rechargeable ones are better. I also use the Lezyne Mega XL, which connects with Komoot and lets me upload rides straight away.
A good mattress – People often think about a tent and sleeping bag first, and a good mattress is an afterthought. For me this is one of the most crucial items if you are sleeping under the stars, as it ensures you have a proper rest.
For clothing, I prefer a good mix of synthetic and natural fibres. Merino wool is great, but it takes longer to dry. Synthetic stuff dries quicker, but can be very smelly after a few days. Getting good padded shorts and a saddle that fits your needs are two things that enable you to have a great adventure.
Which is the best bike for bikepacking?
Like the above, the bike you already have, and one you trust, will get you from A to B without major failures. Gravel bikes have become hugely popular in the last few years, and partly because they have such a universal appeal. There are also road bikes that can take wider tyres and be used as gravel bikes too, so the industry is definitely gearing up for more adventurous audiences.
Most of the routes in Bikepacking Scotland are designed for gravel bikes, but they will be equally as fun to tackle on a mountain bike. The same goes for the mountain bike routes in the book, with good handling ability and favourable conditions I can think of a few people that could complete them on a gravel bike. And in some pictures you’ll see me riding a 1970s Claud Butler, singlespeed with rim brakes. It made me appreciate how great an invention disc brakes are, but it was so much fun to ride. And then there are ebikes that can handle longer distances on one charge perfectly.
I would definitely recommend going on a few rides with a new bike before loading it up with luggage, and maintaining it properly. As for recommending which specific bike is best for bikepacking – the best answer I can give is that you are best placed to decide that!
Which are the best lights for bikepacking?
I am happy to recommend Exposure Lights, which I have ridden with since my very first bikepacking trips. Which lights in particular depends on your budget and use. Even though hub dynamos have come a long way, I am riding mostly with battery powered lights. My usual setup is a front light, rear light and a helmet light, plus a head torch packed into my bags as backup. The helmet light is great when you need to fix a tyre, but also to look around at night. Using a head torch that has both white and red light is recommended, as this can double up as an emergency front and rear light.
Which are the best bikepacking tyres?
This is again a personal choice. I have ridden around the world on a set of very durable, but heavy Schwalbe Marathon Mondials. Last year I used a set of Schwalbe G-One RS for circumnavigating Argyll with Jenny Graham, and really liked how light and fast they were. If you are on a budget, any race tyre is not recommended, as it’ll wear fast and cost more. In general terms, foldable tyres are recommended, and the other thing I would recommend is using a tubeless setup. All my bikes, bar one (which is a 1970s bike), are tubeless. For bikepacking in winter on icy roads studded tyres are needed, but for anything in between I would recommend finding a tyre that is durable, but not too heavy.
Which are the best bikepacking handlebar bags and saddle bags?
Bags that are durable and fit your bike well. I am also very conscious about my environmental impact, so I prefer to buy stuff that is more expensive, but also lasts longer. I would recommend buying from a manufacturer that offers repairs. I know that Apidura and Ortlieb fix bags that are broken. That said, I have not managed to break any of the bags I have been riding with, even on a 34,000km trip around the world.
I would suggest that waterproof bags are great for most uses. But I often use a waterproof liner inside anyway, as they are brilliant if you don’t want to mess up your tent or hotel room after a day riding in the mud. Liners come in very lightweight variations these days, so the extra weight added is tiny.
Which is the best tent for bikepacking?
This depends again on personal preference. I use a super lightweight one-person tent, but as the room inside is limited, there is condensation inside. I have tried various manufacturers, and can recommend the tents I had from Nordisk and Vango. If a bit more comfort is needed and you want to pitch your tent freestanding, I would recommend a dome tent. They can often be used in hotter climates to simply keep the bugs etc off, and they provide great protection in rougher conditions. And while bivvy bags are great, if I compare the weight of my one-person tent (500g) with my bivvy bag (350g), I would always choose the tent, as it protects much better from midges.
What do I need to know about wild camping in Scotland?
It is a bit of a coincidence that Scotland celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the right of responsible access – The Scottish Outdoor Access Code – in the year that Bikepacking Scotland is published. While there are a few exceptions, broadly speaking you can ride your bike and camp everywhere in Scotland – as long as you do so responsibly. Stay away from people (e.g. homes, farms etc.), and take all your litter etc home.
While staying at one place for up to three nights is acceptable, for me wild camping is about arriving late and leaving early. Generally speaking, making sure that no one recognises I was there. All other exemptions etc. are in the SOAC. I generally don’t recommend places to wild camp, as the beauty of wild camping for me is that I can experience nature away from the masses. In the book I give recommendations on accommodation providers – the best spot to wild camp is the one you discover and keep for yourself.
What food should I pack?
I would recommend two types of food. The one that is needed to keep you fuelled, and the one that keeps you motivated – may that be chocolate, or some carrot cake etc. I love oatcakes and a block of cheese, some peanut butter and nice oat bars. Wherever possible I eat locally. This avoids producing loads of rubbish along the way. And while highly nutritious sports drinks and food have a place, I don’t use any of this myself. Bikepacking bags often only offer limited space for food, so stocking up locally on longer trips is needed, and smaller shops often have a more basic supply.
If I camp I often have a nice meal in a local pub, and then ride a few more miles to find a nice camp spot. On Scotland’s West Coast there is loads of fresh seafood available.
How do I pack light?
For me this is a process of making three piles. The first pile is all the stuff you can think of taking. Then there’s pile two: that’s pile one reduced to the stuff that is actually necessary to take, with maybe one or two ‘luxury’ items. And then I look at pile two and look for synergies. To give an example – a long sleeve layer and a short sleeve layer could be replaced by just taking a short sleeve layer and a set of arm warmers. Or while it is tempting to think that two sets of bibs are needed, if your trip involves hostels or B&Bs, then they’ll have facilities to wash stuff.
So the pile of stuff I actually pack is much smaller than the original pile. Packing also depends on the countries you visit. In Scotland you can find good outdoor and bike shops, so if something is missing, it's not a huge deal.
Which are the best bikepacking routes in Scotland?
I could say the ones in the book, but I won’t :) Scotland has such a vibrant network of people who develop bikepacking routes, so my book is only a snapshot of what is actually out there. It's very much a personal choice, and will also depend on the time of year. In winter there are routes that involve higher sections in the hills/mountains, which could be out of bounds. In summer there are routes that pass popular places or attractions, so finding accommodation can be an issue. Doing your own research and joining the dots is a hugely satisfying exercise, and I often find the preparation as valuable and satisfying as the trip itself. But if you don’t have time, I would suggest that Bikepacking Scotland is a good starting point.