Bikepacking: A mini-adventure

Preparations for my first attempt at an MTB mini-adventure covering 180 miles of the Hebridean Way over 3 days. Not so mini actually... that is a major adventure for me!
Posted: Wed 27 Jul, 2016, 16:32
Having flicked through many a copy of Single Track MTB magazine through the long winter months I have been thinking more and more about planning a bike trip. After much deliberation, I have decided to ride the newly opened Hebridean Way as a bikepacking mini-adventure.

I have never been to the Outer Hebrides. Over the last few years we have been able to go camping all around Scotland but have never made it all they way to these remote islands. So with a few days available at the end of our annual summer camping trip, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally get to these unique and iconic island.

MTB is a very wide and varied sport these days with an endless variety of events and styles. My main interest has always been cross-country and over longer distance cycles. Over the Christmas holidays I read an excellent article about the Tour Divide which is the probably the ultimate long distance MTB route in the world. Closer to home however, there is also the Cairngorm Loop - which is a 186 mile offroad churn through the wilds of Scotlands mountain plateau. Whilst I would love to do this, it would probably be a bit of a stretch so I was looking out for something that was still a challenge but would be achievable. The Hebridean Way looks like the ideal route.

From what I can see, it is mostly on road - so not much of an MTB route I guess - but this will suit me pretty well. If I manage it, I will need to carry all my gear, looking after my bike, on unfamiliar terroritory, covering 70+ miles each day - that is plenty for now. To add in an offroad element would be a further challenge but actually doing this on-road would be a big achievement for me at this stage. Small steps!

Itinerary

This is the rough plan, with Sunday spare at the end in case any misfortune should befall me along my travels:

Preparation

Given the remoteness of the route and my need to camp at specific places where there may or may not be services, I will need to be 100% self sufficient which means carrying everything from stove to food to tent. I also need to keep the weight down as much as I can.

Tent or Tarp

The standard bikepacking photos from the various popular magazines and websites shows a person camping in the wilds under a tarp, using their MTB wheels to prop up the ends. This appeals greatly but for the west coast of Scotland I really think I am going to need a tent for two reasons. Firstly the weather can be properly foul at any time of the year, so I need to be prepared for sleeping an heavy, horizontal rain in single-figure temperatures. A tarp is not going to work. The other reason in the famous midge which enriches our most beautiful spots in Scotland throughout the summer months. If either of these scenarios happen (one is almost guaranteed), I am going to need some proper shelter.

Bar Ends, Big Pedals and a Rack

On recent bike rides whilst on holiday in France I started critiquing the my current setup to see what would need to change for longer ride and realised my pedals are rubbish. Having size 12 feet, I only recently realised that my feet were actually hanging off the side of the pedals - and pretty uncomfortable on longer rides. After a trip to my bike shop I came away with some Nylon light-weight BMX-style pedals that are much bigger and still very grippy. I was tempted to by the V12 Magnesium ones for 8 times the price, but I will see how I get on with these first (!).

The second thing I realised was that on flat stretches my hands naturally sit just in front of my handlebars and I often cycle with without gripping, just resting base of my palms on the grips. So this got me thinking about getting some MTB bar ends to allow for a more comfortable option along with improved "heaving" capability for the those climbs. So I now have some Ergo adjustable bar-ends that feel a lot better.

Lastly I bought a super light seat post mounted rack to carry a bit of extra gear on the back of the bike. The rack is actually supposed to be for road bike use and only takes 7kg, but this is plenty.

Kit list and packing

North to South

From what I've read, the usual way to do the Hebridean Way is South to North. Mostly this is due to the prevailing winds coming from the west (and often south) so it should be an easier ride heading north (and a bit east). This is not going to work for me however. Firstly we will be camping at Gairloch the week before so we will be up north already so it seems pointless to drive south only to travel back north again. Also the journey back to Glasgow from Oban (with a bike) is significantly easier from Oban versus coming back from Ullapool. If I am delayed for any reason I will be returning on the Sunday which will be even trickier from Ullapool, so on this basis I am going to take a chance on the winds and go south

Also I know from comparative experience on Skye, Mull and Islay that the climate and terrain becomes milder and less wild on the more southerly islands. This feels like a nice progression - working my way towards sunnier climes rather than striking north into the desolation. I obviously appreciate both landscapes, but going south seems like a better option. A guy (from Lewis) who works in my local outdoor shop said the same too, so it must be true! He also said south is downhill, north is uphill... right?

The packed bike

MTB packed

I'll write another blog afterwards, so please come back in a few weeks and see how I got on. Either my pedal will have broken on mile 8 and I had to walk back to Stornoway... or it rained solid for 4 days... or maybe, I made it!