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.

Feel free to leave comments.

Friday 13 July 2012


Amongst all the talk and scribblings on mountain biking in Scotland, two destinations are discussed in almost reverential tones - Torridon and Harris. The former has been on my mind a bit recently and I'm determined to get at least one trip up there later this year. In the meantime, a family holiday to visit the in-laws in Lewis gave me the opportunity to try one of the much-praised Harris routes. 

Although much of the mainland has had its wettest summer for a very long time, the far North-west and the Western Isles are actually reporting water shortages and we had already sat amused by the TV watching the floods down south while we were having 20 degrees and sun. Setting off for Tarbert in the van, the day had started with some low clouds although I was hoping they would burn off to leave us with another dry, warm day. 

After a brief stop at a local shop for some water and a wee snack I was at the start of the trail and contemplating what to wear. Although not exactly cold, the glen I was about to pedal up had a fierce headwind coming right towards me and I knew this would likely provide a wee bit of windchill. So, the Gore Alp-X jacket went on sans sleeves.

The path starts with a bit of a descent to the loch. Rocky steps and some very new-looking water bars added a bit of fun - until I had a quick look at the handlebars and noticed that my Garmin GPS had gone AWOL. Luckily, I didn't have far to backtrack to find it, but in trying to re-attach it, I noticed that it was no longer staying in place  - as of the clamp had somehow got bent. As a result, the GPS ended up in my pocket for the remainder of the journey. 

Anyone expecting a "standard" highland singletrack will be pleasantly surprised at the condition of the track. Even allowing for the dry summer, it is very well constructed, with a good, draining gravel surface. As a result, I was to stay dry and mud-free the whole trip. Reaching the end of the loch, the path starts its ascent of the obvious col ahead and can be seen snaking up. It's all bikeable with a wee bit of effort and the cairn at the top (complete with a wee bit of deer horn and someones discarded tent poles) is a welcome sight. Crossing the hill ahead can be seen the road from Tarbert to Lewis and the path now starts its fast descent almost to sea level. 

This is a real blast. Height is quickly. lost and more rocky steps and water bars give a little bit of an edge, with the fatbike soaking it all up. I'm aware that there's a turn-off to be taken and, just in time, I see the marker post, turning East towards the little road that now makes its way to Rhenigidale. Before long, and after negotiating a couple of small gates, I'm on the road and then there is the 12% sign, marking the start of the long steep climb. 

Although this might not exactly be classic mountain biking, it's hard not to enjoy the route at this point, remembering that this road didn't exist until 1989 (and isn't on my OS map of this area!). Once the road flattens off, it's a pleasant trundle until the almost equally steep descent starts. At this point, I stopped to see the path I'd later be ascending. It looks a killer!!

Although I had intended to go all the way in to the "village", the sight of a 13% gradient sign just after the turn off for the coastal path made me think better of it and soon enough I'm negotiating the contouring track, hugging the steep shoreline. Most of this proves to be rideable although I cautiously walk some sections, mindful of the remoteness of my situation and the potential consequences of a fall. 

After a couple of rises and dips, the path makes a beeline for a small beach, crossing a little wooden bridge. Ahead is the dauntingly steep climb known as the Scriob. 

Now - this might be a good descent for those with a head for heights and technical skills to match, but it doesn't take me long to realise it's well beyond me - in both senses. As a climb, it's a question of getting off the bike and simply grinding up each step, interspersed with the occasional lift/carry over the rockier steps. Of course, at this point I'm also shielded from the wind, so it's time for the local insect population to queue up for a bite at me. I think I'm getting away with it until a cleg takes a chunk out of my elbow, then flies off before I can swat it, only to return to the same point once the blood starts flowing!! If nothing else, this spurs me on to the breezier, easier angled top section of the path where I finally take a bit of a breather at a little cairn and waymarker at a junction in the path. 

From here, the rest of the climb is ridable and I'm soon at the summit, looking over towards Tarbert and the hills beyond. What follows is one of the most fun descents I've ridden. Fast, with some rocks to negotiate and of various levels of steepness. At last, I feel I'm getting some value for my recent efforts and the only thing slowing me down is the occasional need to get some feeling into my pumped-up wrists. After what seemed like quite a long time, but was actually only some 12 minutes, I'm back at the road with a little climb back to the van and the start point.

My thoughts on the circuit? Well, it's certainly a ride on the wild side, but I didn't feel that the long climbs were suitably rewarded and I'm not convinced it would be any better in reverse. Comparing it to recent trips, the north shore of Loch Morar is by far the better ride. However, there are other routes in Harris and I'll be back!

Friday 15 June 2012

Some fine tuning

When I started this blog, it was with the idea of recording some of my trips so that I could refer to them when folk asked for ideas on routes in Scotland. I've read a few other blogs which have become more about gear reviews and I didn't want to end up copying them. However, I have been  acquiring some new equipment recently and it seemed relevant to mention it, why I'd bought it and my experience of it.

One focus for 2012 has been to improve my bikepacking gear. Previous off-road trips on the bike entailed the use of panniers and there have been a number of occasions (like my Speyside Way experience) where these simply got in the way. With that in mind, I've been looking at packing strategies and ways to cut both weight and bulk from the load. So, here are some recent changes...

I've been casting envious looks at various folks bikepacking bags and the trend away from racks and panniers. One advantage of this is that there is less of a requirement for rack mounts - a feature dropped from most higher-end mountain bikes. Frame bags, large seat packs and handlebar mounting systems are all putting in an appearance. In looking around, it pretty soon became apparent that there were three main suppliers, of which Revelate (once Epic Designs) in Anchorage seemed to have the longest pedigree. So, I now have a Viscacha saddle bag, a Sweet Roll Handlebar bag and a Gas Tank for the top tube. I've held off on the Frame Bag pending a decision on what bike it would be best for as thee are custom fitted to each frame.

Fitted to the 9zero7, they look great and provide enough space for a decent camping trip. I've yet to work out what I want to do about carrying water, so this is currently supplemented by a small rucksack with hydration bladder.

The last set of pots and pans I bought for camping was the excellent, but rather heavy, MSR cookset so I've been on the lookout for something a bit lighter and suitable for solo travelling. I discovered that most solo sets are a bit mean on volume. I like a decent sized meal when I've been walking or riding all day and some of the pans are simply too small. I was chuffed to find the Optimus Terra Weekend cookset had a main pan just less than a litre and a lid large enough to be used as a small pan too. With a heat-exchanger bottom on it, it's a little heavier than some alternatives but I hope that weight will be repaid with less use of fuel. I've also made a pot-cosy for it, further saving fuel and making single-stove cooking a bit more flexible. 

The set I bought was on offer with an Optimus Crux stove. This is slightly lighter than the MSR Pocket Rocket I already had but also has a natty folding feature which means it stows under a standard 220-250g gas cartridge, thereby saving some space. As the stove and cartridge also fit into the large Terra pan - along with a Primus windshield I'd also bought - I have one very compact cooking system.

The wee stove is amazingly quick to boil water, though it has an annoying habit whereby the flame seems to reduce in power once lit, meaning that I have to turn it back up occasionally. The pot cosy means that I can boil water add say, pasta, then take it off the heat and let it sit for 12 minutes or so. A quick blast and it's ready to eat. In the meantime, a small titanium mug lets me heat up some soup or a hot drink or something to add to the pasta. Leaving the pot in the cosy whilst eating keeps the food warm for longer too.

I've been keen to try bivvy-ing at some point but with the risk of getting my nice down sleeping bag wet (and therefore pretty useless) I've always put it off. Searching for a bargain-priced sleeping bag for a friend, I found the Mountain Hardware Lamina 35 on sale at Go Outdoors. Never one to miss a deal, I bought one for myself. It packs up almost as small as my down bag and weighs a little more. However, it's also much more easily washed so is more suited to short overnighters when I might be sweaty and not a little muddy. 

My lightweight, solo tent has been a Macpac Microlight. It was pretty much state-of-the-art when I bought it and has proven to be robust in some pretty rough conditions. However, with new materials now available, lighter weight options have been catching my eye. Also, it has one very annoying feature which is that rainwater can drip into the inner tent when the outer is fully open. 

I had my eye on the Tartpent Scarp for a while and was pleased to be able to pick one up second-hand off the Singetrackworld classifieds. It's a lot more roomy than the Microlight and has a big bonus of two accessible alcoves and doors. It's slightly lighter too. 

In use, the tent is very large for a solo user, though it would be a very tight fit for two. The fact that all the pegging points are on the guy lines means that there are fewer problems trying to get a good pitch as you can easily avoid placing pegs where there are rocks. The double door/alcove is great for keeping gear in and allowing some cooking space. One improvement would be to have the doors such that they are "diagonally" opposite. As it stands, the tent has to be pitched such that both doors are "downwind" of the centre pole. 

The night in Glen Feshie was extremely wet with almost no breeze. As a result, the midge were in attendance and I could see them thickly between the outer and inner layers of the tent. However, I managed to cook a meal without too many getting in to the tent, with a liberal application of Smidge stopping them from annoying me directly. I'd opened up the downwind roof vent to allow some ventilation, but the wind direction changed and I found a few drops of water were able to get onto the inner tent. These ran down rather than dip inside, so no damage done.

I woke up a couple of times through the night to the sound of heavy rain and it wasn't until after 6am that I woke up, found it was getting light and the rain had stopped. Applying a wee bit more Smidge, I opened up both the inner and outer tent and dozed on and off watching the shadow on the opposite side of the valley slowly creeping down as the sun got higher. 

Packing everything away after breakfast was simple enough. That's always a wee concern as it's never quite as simple as packing it all in the dry and comfort of your house. One mistake I later noticed was that I'd put the cooking kit in the saddle bag a different way and, as a result, I was getting some rubbing off the rear tyre when going over larger bumps. I'll keep my eye on this and might consider strengthening this lower part of the bag if it looks to be an ongoing problem.

So far, I'm pleased with the changes I've made. I just need to use them a bit more, get used to packing them away efficiently and make changes for additional days out. 

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. 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Sometimes, you don't have to go far....

When I've been out on journeys with my bike and tent, I thought it was just off-road touring. Now, we have a whole new word for it..."Bikepacking". I have to admit, that sounds way more cool and exciting. The magazines and forums seem to be developing a taste for it and we are also seeing the emergence of new gear - particularly for load-carrying. Having thrown a few fits struggling with panniers through waste-deep heather, or those stupid stiles on the Speyside Way, it's good to see that someone is getting to grips with the problem.

One of the advantages of this kit is that many more bikes are suitable. No longer is load-carrying demanding rack mounts and a rigid bike. With this in mind, Mark has been getting his gear together and we decided it would be a good idea to do a "dry-run" somewhere local to see how it all works out. For me, I also wanted to try the Fatbike with a bit of weight on the bars and see how my new sleeping bag, mattress and stove/pan set all worked out.

Being typically 2012, we watched the planned date approaching under grey, leaden skies calculating just how wet we'd get on the way to our planned bivvy spot in the Pentlands. As it didn't seem to be drying out any, we had a last-minute change of plan, opting for what would likely be drier terrain out in East Lothian.

Saturday dawned and, miracle of miracles, it wasn't actually raining. In fact, it looked like May had decided to put in an appearance after all. I headed down to the shop to pick up Mark and discuss packing/carrying arrangements. While his Mojo certainly looked "awkward", we couldn't find a technical fault with what he'd achieved. Knowing here was no hurry, we set off and stopped at Aberlady for a drop of liquid refreshment. That was a rather pleasant start to a Saturday evening which then led on to a couple of photos and the start of what would be a very short ride round some of the coastline.  

We certainly got lucky with the weather. Beautiful blue skies and a lovely quiet bit of coastline made it feel like we were a long way from home.

It got cool as the sun set

This felt like a long way from home

I'd been all "Blue Peter" the day before, making a pot cosy. After boiling up some water, I added the pasta, did a quick re-boil and took the pot off the stove. 12 minutes later, the pasta was ready. That adds up to quite a saving in fuel cost and weight. The cosy also kept the pot warm as I was eating out of it.

Mark eating while I wait for my pasta to cook
Food consumer, the evening was spent chatting and drinking malt whisky - just for the warming effect you understand.

A lovely morning
I had a very comfy night. The Pacific Outdoor Elite sleeping mat was warm and comfy and I wasn't slipping off it, though I've bought some seam sealant to add some grip "dots". 

It was about 6.30 when the sun started warming the tent up and it got too warm for me to lie there in the sleeping bag. Mark snoozed on while I cooked and ate my breakfast. The poor soul hardly gets a lie-in these days, so it seemed such a shame to wake him :-)

It didn't take us long to re-pack everything and we set off for Falko in Gullane, the Fatbike tyres coping admirably with the sand, Mark having to push both up-and down-hill on occasion. It was a rather forlorn Mark and Colin though when we found Falko to be still closed. Not to be thwarted, we headed instead for Dobbies 2 for 1 breakfast. £6.00 for two full breakfasts, toast and tea/coffee. Now that's what adventure biking is all about!

Monday 28 May 2012

A weekend out West


The generally poor weather this year has really cut back on my longer trips away. The combination of cold, wet, windy and generally unpredictable weather has resulted in a few last-minute call-offs and a general reluctance on my part. It was therefore useful to have the incentive of agreeing to go with some other riders and not wanting to call off. The plans for the weekend had been fairly fluid, but the main event was to be a ride alongside Loch Morar on a route which has been very highly recommended.


It's a fair trek out to the Morar area so the plan was to break the journey up with a couple of circuits of the Laggan Wolftrax trails. This is probably my favourite trail centre as the Red routes are around the limit of my comfort zone and just that bit more challenging than the likes of Glentress. I'd been round Glentress on my Fatbike a few days previously and, having really enjoyed it, I thought I'd try the same at Laggan. 

Well, it was different. The rather rockier nature of both the upper and lower red loops didn't really suit the lack of suspension and the undamped rebound from the tyres was in danger of making the whole thing uncontrollable. It was much better on the smoother sections , like the zig-zags on the upper red and the bottom "jump" section on the lower where the tyre volume and grip could really be appreciated.

After a wee snack break, I decided to go round again on the Blur. I'd had it round here previously and really enjoyed it, so I set off up the hill with a big grin and with great expectations. 

Unfortunately, it all went to pot. The bike seemed uncontrollable; I was finding it hard to get the correct amount of steering input and to keep it pointing where I wanted to go. The slower I went to counter this, the more the bike seemed determined to fight against me. Eventually, I had to get off and walk a few sections. I was mortified. I'd never had to do this at Wolftrax before but I just couldn't seem to ride it. My first thought was that there was something wrong with the bike. something loose or incorrectly adjusted. However, a good check seemed to indicate that the bike was just fine. That meant it was pilot error. I can only assume that having ridden the Fatbike for so long, I was just failing to adjust myself to the different steering and handling. 

Either way, I was really despondent when I left Laggan headed for Morar.

Choosing a camp-site around Arisaig isn't simple. There are quite a few and they all have lovely views. Having tried a couple previously, I noticed that the site at Camusdarach was closest to Mallaig where I'd be meeting the others for food and drinks, so that got the vote. It's a lovely site, even though it's a little walk to the beach. However, the beach is probably the most famous in Scotland....



In an uncharacteristic break in the prevailing 2012 weather pattern, Saturday dawned fair and even fairly warm. That was great as it meant less spare layers to carry. Meeting at Morar meant I got to cycle to the start, so I was already warmed up when we set off. The route starts on the "old" road through Morar before cutting off onto the dead-end road along the north bank of the loch. This had a fairly big hill near the start, which had us all huffing and puffing a bit, but also gave a great view along the loch and a nice easy descent almost to the end of the tarmac. leaving the road here and carrying on along the good track was great - a real sense of heading into the wilderness.

The track itself is mostly rideable. There are a few steep, rocky climbs heading East and one section which is made up of boulders under a cliff which involved a short carry. It's all fun though - mainly dry, rock or gravel with oodles of grip and enough ups and downs to maintain interest and provide a variety of views along and across Loch Morar. 

P1040088 Reaching Swordland - all two houses - was almost like arriving in civilisation and after a short climb up the landrover track, we could see the cairn marking the top of the pass and the descent down to Tarbert. 

There's not much at Tarbert. A couple of farm buildings and a church  - now converted into a bunkhouse - are all you'll find. The view north to Knoydart and Skye is rather curtailed by the narrow bay, which does at least have the advantage of being a nice shelter, although the cold breeze we'd been shielded from all day had us donning jackets as we sat around, ate and generally chilled.


When the cold started to feel too much, we headed back up the hill we'd not long descended and were soon at Swordland again. Almost immediately, it was time to remove the jackets and we enjoyed another lovely ride along the singletrack, descending the bits we'd struggled or pushed up on the way out and trying to remember what line choices we'd picked out. 

Louise HAD to go for a wee swim - brave lassie, so we stopped for a few minutes at the lochside before the end of the track and then set off up the tarmac road. Stopping briefly at the top, we set off on a gravity race - no pedalling allowed, see who gets the furthest. I'm sure I would have won if I hadn't been knocked into the verge :-)

Upon arriving back at Morar, all that was left was to enjoy a pint in the sun, taking in the general ambience and reflecting on what must be one of the best bike rides in the Highlands.


I had eschewed all attempts to get me riding at Fort William in favour of a little exploring round Camusdarach beach. While the morning wasn't quite as warm as Saturday not helped by a cool on-shore breeze, it was fabulous to be riding no "Bens Beach", made famous by Local Hero. This is a fantastic little movie which regularly ranks amongst the professionals favourites. Witty, charming and still very relevant. I guess that any remake would feature wind-farms rather than oil facilities, but the conflicting messages are still there; protect the landscape - hoping that it has its own value plus that of tourism, or allow development, bringing jobs and relative prosperity. 


So, from being rather despondent by my performance on Friday, through an excellent evening and ride on Saturday, to the fulfilment of a dream I've had since I acquired the Fatbike, my mood was much better when it came to pack up and head home, dreaming of more good days out!