Bikepacking Scotland - Five of the Best Routes

© Markus Stitz

Bikepacking is one of the purest ways to discover Scotland off the beaten track, leaving no other trace than a few tyre marks. All the bikepacking adventures I have had here have created lasting memories, even though at times it was a steep learning experience. Scotland isn't an easy country to cycle in when it throws its weather at you. You will fondly remember the first time you sink your feet into its famous bog, or the first time a cloud of midges surrounds you. But you will also be blown away by the wonderful scenery, no matter where you go.

Scotland is hard to beat on two wheels  © Markus Stitz
Scotland is hard to beat on two wheels
© Markus Stitz

Apart from a few other countries our access to the countryside is unrivalled, and it is exactly this that makes Scotland one of the best countries in the world to bikepack - if not THE best. We don't have the smoothest roads in the world, the steepest downhills or a world-beating infrastructure, but we have the freedom to roam where we like, with only a few exceptions.

Weather's getting moody, and it's a long way to the hostel...  © Markus Stitz
Weather's getting moody, and it's a long way to the hostel...
© Markus Stitz

One thing I found bemusing when I moved to Britain was the talk about the weather. But while we often moan about it, the lack of any big extremes, whether this be hot or cold, is another great factor explaining why I think Scotland is ideal for bikepacking.

And last but not least, I am yet to find any other country that has such a vast array of historic paths and routes. And even better, having all of those routes listed on a website - ScotWays Heritage Paths - has proven to be an inspiration for endless adventures.

Empty tracks and wide open spaces are the norm   © Markus Stitz
Empty tracks and wide open spaces are the norm
© Markus Stitz

It was hard to narrow down, but here are five routes from my new book Bikepacking Scotland to inspire your adventures. 

From Coast to Barrel

The name sort of gives it away. This route, which starts and finishes in Inverness, takes you through Moray Speyside to the coast, and from there into the heart of the Cairngorms. There is an abundance of history crammed into this route, and as you might expect from the name, no shortage of distilleries to visit. The cycling is spectacular and includes the Burma Road from Aviemore, a long and continuous climb, a section on Wade's Military Road, as well as parts of the Speyside Way and Moray Coast Trail. 

It takes you from the Moray coast...  © Markus Stitz
It takes you from the Moray coast...
© Markus Stitz

The most memorable section of the route will possibly be crossing the River Brown, not once or twice, but eight times in a row, while it silently meanders through a beautiful valley. If wet feet are not your thing, the Snow Roads scenic route is a good alternative, but with less fun and steeper climbs.

...up into the hills  © Markus Stitz
...up into the hills
© Markus Stitz

This route is best ridden on a mountain bike, but at a push will also be suitable for gravel bikes. If you want to enjoy this adventure and don't have your own bike, hire services are available in Inverness.

Cairngorms National Park Loop

Follow old military and drovers roads through the UK's largest area of high ground, regarded as climatically, geomorphologically and biologically the most extensive 'Arctic' area in the UK. While the Cairngorms are home to five of the six highest mountains in Scotland, there are no really extreme climbs and descents on this route, and parts of it can make for great day trips as well. But expect some sections where pushing is needed - this route isn't 100% bog-free [and that's how we like it - Ed].

A lot of great gravel riding...  © Markus Stitz
A lot of great gravel riding...
© Markus Stitz

This route includes some of the finest gravel riding you can find in Scotland, in particular the track from Braenaloin near Gairnshiel Bridge along the River Gairn to Loch Builg, from where the Cairngorms Loop (another great bikepacking route) is followed through the rugged landscape of Glen Builg and Glen Avon to the highest village in the Highlands, Tomintoul.

...And some lovely wooded sections  © Markus Stitz
...And some lovely wooded sections
© Markus Stitz

Apart from the superb riding there are also two cafes worth the trip. First is the Old Post Office Cafe Gallery in Kincraig, right on the Speyside Way. The other amazing stop, which is a short detour, is KJ's Bothy Bakery, at a good location as the route flattens out from here and the Speyside Way and Sustrans Route 7 are followed to Nethy Bridge and on to Aviemore. If you are after a much longer adventure, this route can be combined with From Coast to Barrel.

A Scottish Hostelling Adventure

Cycling and hostelling is a wonderful combination that has proven successful and enjoyable for many generations. Scouted on a restored 1970s Claud Butler, this route is a homage to the Rough Stuff Fellowship – the women and men who first took their bikes off-road in the mid-1950s and often stayed in hostels overnight.

Wild cross-country riding, but no need to carry camping gear - best of both worlds?   © Markus Stitz
Wild cross-country riding, but no need to carry camping gear - best of both worlds?
© Markus Stitz

Running from the east coast at Inverness to the west coast at Glasgow, and with an abundance of nice hostels along the way for those who want to take less stuff, this itinerary can be used as an alternative to the popular Badger Divide, or as a return journey.

There is a short section, from Spean Bridge to Corrour, which is more fun by train. The West Highland Line to Fort William has recently been upgraded with the new adventure carriages by Scotrail, so getting your bike on trains should be easier than in other parts of Scotland. 

Highlights along this route are the stunning Plodda Falls, cycling along a section of the Caledonian Canal known as Laggan Avenue (connecting Loch Oich and Loch Loch) and the ride on the Road to the Isles from Corrour to Rannoch.

Borders Three Abbeys Loop

Watch out for the pig playing the bagpipes while you pass Melrose Abbey, the stunning bridges that take you over the Tweed at Dryburgh Abbey and Monteviot House, and follow in the footsteps of the infamous reivers that raided the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century.

There's a lot to be said for bikepacking in the Borders  © Markus Stitz
There's a lot to be said for bikepacking in the Borders
© Markus Stitz

This is one of the shorter routes in the book, but it can be extended by using the Reiver Raid, details of which are on the Bikepacking Scotland website. The massive Waterloo Monument on the grassy hill of Peniel Heugh and three iconic abbeys are further highlights of this route.

This is a late spring/summer/early autumn route, as some of the tracks can be muddy in the colder months. The abbeys are fabulous for visiting and exploring the history of the borderlands of Scotland, while the section of Dere Street which is followed is one of the off-road sections of the former Roman Road that hasn't disappeared under tarmac.

As most of the routes in Bikepacking Scotland, this route is easily accessible by public transport, either by using the Borders Railway to Tweedbank Station or the X62 bus service, which carries two bikes on most buses.

An Alternative North Coast 500

Considering the obvious time constraints that make it difficult for people to cycle the whole 500-mile NC500 (whilst doing battle with convoys of motorbikes and camper vans), this shorter itinerary can be ridden in less time and with less traffic, while still featuring iconic places along the NC500 route such as Bealach na Bà, the third highest  - and most spectacular - road in Scotland.

Even the tarmac sections are hugely spectacular  © Markus Stitz
Even the tarmac sections are hugely spectacular
© Markus Stitz

There is a good mix of tarmac and gravel on this route, which also incorporates one of the best off-road coast-to-coast routes from Ullapool to Ardgay. Another highlight is where the line parallels the driving route shortly after Upper Loch Torridon. At Balgy you join a gravel track along the shore and through a nice woodland with Scots pines, before the route rejoins the NC500 route at Torridon Hotel and continues on the road through Glen Torridon.

This route is fully accessible by public transport, but should all bike spaces be booked up then a shuttle service can be hired in Inverness. The best time to ride is April to late autumn, but this will also make a great winter ride for the more adventurous, as you will pass some of Scotland's finest mountains.

About Bikepacking Scotland

Bikepacking Scotland  © Vertebrate Publishing

Bikepacking Scotland features 20 bikepacking routes of different lengths, from Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders 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, Jura and Mull, and finally to Scotland's North.

Most of the routes are easily accessible by public transport, and each includes all the information you need to help you plan your ride, with points of interest along the route, food recommendations and accommodation options, in addition to photography and overview mapping. Downloadable GPX files of the routes are also available. Alongside further information on access, seasons and what to pack, and valuable insight from Scottish cycling personalities including Mark Beaumont and Jenny Graham, this book is full of practical tips and advice for both experienced bikepackers and those who want to try it out for the first time.

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Markus Stitz

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