How to Turn Bikepacking First-Timers into Lifelong Converts
This summer, our Creative Content Lead, Chris, took his girlfriend, Laura, on her first-ever bikepacking trip. As an accomplished triathlete, Laura was comfortable with the cycling, but having only gone overnight wild camping for the first time the year before, the jury was out on whether she’d enjoy a full week of bikepacking. Read on to find out what Laura thought of bikepacking and how you can help ensure that any first-timers you take on your next trip become lifelong converts.
My holidays are generally spent racing self-supported bikepacking events or touring. I’ve got no patience for sunbathing and city breaks get old fast. For Laura, holidays are generally a bit more relaxing and don’t revolve around 16 hour days on the bike. For most of our relationship, we’ve compromised on cycling holidays based in a single location and with shorter rides. But this year, with no triathlons to train for, Laura was finally keen to try some bikepacking.
I knew I had to make the most of the opportunity – there would only be one chance to sell her on the perks of going a little bit feral and embracing the bikepacking lifestyle. I took her wild camping in the Lake District last year to lay some foundations, but it’s fair to say she still had doubts and I had my work cut out for me.
With few destinations available to us this year, we settled on the Scottish Highlands and I went to work creating a route that would challenge us both, without putting Laura off. We were both keen to ride a mix of gravel and roads, but I knew I had to be careful about how much gravel there was, how remote we would be and how much ‘type 2 fun’ was involved. Using the North Coast 500, Highland Trail 550 and Great North Trail guaranteed that we were riding well-established routes, but also meant we were getting a more tailored experience than simply following a single trail.
We talked a great deal about expectations and how we could include things we both wanted. I knew Laura was worried about hike-a-bike and wild camping, so I snuck those in early to get them out of the way while she was still fresh and had a sense of humour… which was lucky when the hike-a-bike turned out to be a bit more ‘type 2’ than I expected. We also agreed on how far we wanted to cover each day and set expectations around how long we’d be riding and where we’d be eating (making sure there were enough cake stops to make up for all the rehydrated meals!).
It’s easy to get a warped perspective of distance, climbing and how much discomfort is bearable (dare I even say, enjoyable) when you’re used to extremely long rides and pushing as hard as you can, so this expectation setting was absolutely essential. It meant we carried a few more luxuries than I would for a solo trip, but that meant extra weight to slow me down and a more comfortable experience for Laura.
By keeping things comfortably within those boundaries, we were able to be flexible, getting an early hotel when a storm blew through and riding farther the following day to reach a beautiful camping spot. I only booked two hotels in advance – one for the third day (as a treat after the hike-a-bike) and one for the final night to guarantee we got cleaned up ahead of the journey home. Beyond that, all we knew for sure was we wanted to reach the lighthouse at Cape Wrath and the route we ended up riding was quite different to what we’d originally planned!
Now fully recovered from the experience, I asked Laura to share her thoughts and some tips for other first-timers taking the plunge with friends or loved ones:
Before the trip, I was worried about camping. I trusted that Chris knew what he was doing, so ultimately we would be OK, but I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to find places. I was also worried about camping in bad weather.
The first night of wild camping wasn’t the most pleasant, with millions of midges, but we also spent a beautiful, clear, midge-less night on a beach a couple of nights later, which was amazing. It turns out that camping in remote places is actually very cool and pretty chilled (unless you’re being eaten by midges!).
I’ve never ridden with as much additional weight on my bike, so I was concerned about the distance and the terrain. Chris is used to ultra-distance bikepacking races, so I worried he might overestimate how far we could ride together. It’s important to be specific about what you want to do and what you’re comfortable with. We discussed total daily distances and agreed 100km/day off-road or 140-160km on-road (so around 6-7 hours of riding) was about right for us. For me, it meant that it was still a challenge, but we never felt pressured to have early starts and could stop for lunch or to enjoy the view whenever we wanted.
Getting a good night’s sleep was important for me, so we agreed to mix camping with hotels and B&Bs. This really took the stress out of finding places and I would have loved to try a bothy for an in-between option too. I was really grateful for Chris’ approach of having a plan but also going with the flow. It meant we were able to be flexible, particularly when the weather was bad, and could adjust the route and not worry about deadlines. It’s a holiday, so there’s no need to be a hero – if the weather is bad, get a hotel!
I loved the simplicity of just carrying everything you need on the bike and getting from a to b, stopping on the way whenever you see something good or fancy some food. I would really recommend bikepacking to anyone who loves to ride a bike. It’s a beautiful, simple way to explore a place and we saw things we wouldn’t in other modes of transport. I was lucky to go with someone who knows what they’re doing and who I trusted would look after me if I was struggling. I would recommend going with someone experienced if possible for anything longer/more remote, but if not, make sure you research first. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had; being in nature and keeping things simple. Eating a rehydrated meal by a beautiful river in the middle of nowhere was epic!
And Laura’s top tips for surviving your first bikepacking trip?
- Ride at your own pace. Everyone has good and bad days and I appreciated Chris being patient with me and reassuring me that he was enjoying it, but it was important that I stuck to my own pace.
- Plan fuel stops and resupply opportunities in remote places. We would have really struggled without this.
- Good kit is key – I was lucky to have access to Apidura kit and I was super impressed with how it all functioned, especially the waterproofing – wet kit is not an option!
- Take clean clothes for the trip home. It was really nice to get out of padded shorts!
- Travel as light as you can and embrace being a bit stinky!