Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Thursday 31 May 2012

I have seen the future - and it floats....

Having walked pretty extensively in my beloved Scottish Highlands, I have developed a sort of instinct for route planning. This has helped me out when considering taking the bike too. So many lovely tracks disappear into bogs, end unexpectedly or meet an unpassable body of water, so routes often take circuitous detours or are avoided altogether. It was therefore with some interest that I chanced upon Packrafting. The theory is quite simple; carry a lightweight raft, inflation device, paddle and Personal Floatation Device (PFD) and then use it, where necessary, to cross lochs and/or follow rivers. There is also a natural affinity with Fatbiking - a sense of "go anywhere". Youtube is now awash with videos showing these rafts in action - many linked to bike journeys in a whole new niche called Bikerafting.

It's typical of these new toys that they are invented and developed in North America, where they seem to have enough folk ready to buy and build them for exploring remote parts. Imagine my delight then at finding out we have our own small Bikerafting community here in Scotland, with the guys at Back Country Biking, based in Aviemore.

Through a series of contacts, I found out that they were going to run an Introductory course, so I found myself heading up the A9 to Aviemore in some blazing sunshine, bike in van and all prepared for a new challenge. Andy from BCB met us all outside the Old Bridge Inn and went over the itinerary for the weekend, but he'd also brought one of the rafts with him. Frankly, I was rather taken aback. Packed onto a padded rucksack harness, the complete set of kit weighed a lot less than I'd imagined and was very compact, both factors influencing how much one would actually be able to travel with it.

Saturday morning was very warm, even at the 9:00 start time. After a bit of kit juggling, me strapping some additional gear onto the Jones handlebars, we set off in convoy up to Loch Morlich where we were taught how to inflate the raft. The technique (involving a large nylon bag) was pretty effective, even in the still air, and it didn't take much topping up with the blow tube to get the raft ready. 

For our first efforts, we paddled around the loch-side unladen. This was useful for getting a feel for the boat, practising paddle strokes and getting back into the raft on the open water. I was also able to try out the different models of raft. The small one I'd been allocated was an older, less pointed model whereas the newer, slightly larger and re-shaped version seemed easier to paddle in a straight line. 

After a short break on-shore, we were taught how to load the bikes onto the raft. It all looked very unstable, especially with all of the weight concentrated onto the bow. However, once afloat, it all made more sense. The weight of the bike seemed to help tracking as it offset my weight in the stern. 

Another "transformation" saw us folding and re-packing the raft ready for a ride, proving that the initial compact size wasn't a fluke and could be achieved by the relatively unskilled. A short ride round Loch Morlich took us to the Allt Ban where we all transformed again, ready to get some feel for the raft on moving water. Paddling out onto the loch and then round to the beach cafe, we all chilled out (as much as was possible) with a drink and an ice cream, fielding questions on the raft and bikes from many of the sun-worshippers.

Paddling back across the loch to the start point, we packed up and had a relaxed ride down to Aviemore again. We'd not covered a massive distance in the day, but we'd certainly learnt a lot and I was already feeling there might be a place for a packraft in my life.

Sundays itinerary was to be a little different. Again, we'd not be going far, but with a ride up the Spey valley and then a paddle down, it would have the flavour of a true expedition. Andy and Rob took us round some fascinating sections of singletrack, mostly in the woods, of which I'd often seen an end of and wondered how and where they went. That kept us busy all morning until it was time to visit the nursery and cake shop at Inshriach. 

After cake, coffee and lunch (in that order), it was but another short ride down to the riverside and a small shingle beach where we once again set up the rafts and packed on the bikes. 
Having previously travelled through this section on a kayak, I knew that there was the potential for a couple of obstacles, so I was pleased when Andy and Rob took us through observation and avoidance techniques, highlighting just how dangerous this could be. Once we'd all made ourselves ready, our small floatilla headed down the Spey. At times, it was possible to just drift along, watching what the leaders were doing and positioning the rafts for a good sight-line. On a couple of occasions, we stopped to investigate obstacles and discuss how best to bypass or avoid them. Having a big bike strapped to the front of the raft certainly encourages no risk-taking!!

After what seemed like no time at all, we passed under the road bridge outside Aviemore and arrived at the wee beach beside the Old Bridge Inn. That MUST qualify as one of the best ways ever to arrive at a pub!!

In summary, a fantastic weekend. Even though it was their first attempt at running this course, Andy and Rob got it spot on. Everyone was full of smiles, we all seemed relaxed, if suitably aware of the inherent dangers in water sports. The days were about the right amount of education and enjoyment and their obvious enthusiasm for Bikerafting was somewhat contagious. 

As an activity, I'm convinced it has its place for my type of travel. A brief look at a map of Scotland shows lots of linear water features and I can already think of some great routes - some walking, some riding - which would be made possible or simpler with a packraft. 


  1. Looks like you had a great time Colin, how tough do the boats feel? Would they be easily punctured or do they feel pretty tough?

  2. Hi Nick,

    A bit of a compromise I guess. Alpacka do a lighter-weight raft - the Scout. That's recommended for flat/calm water only. The ones we had are a bit more robust. Quite a bit thinner than the cheap inflatables you get at the beach, but nowhere near as heavy. We used a layer of a thicker material over the bow when carrying bikes in case something sharp caused a puncture and we had to be a bit careful when travelling as a group not to crash into each other with pedals and the likes. Other than that, it's just a question of looking out for sharp stones and glass when on the shore.