In this blog we hear once again from Jack MacGowan. This time he shares 10 bikepacking tips after a bikepacking adventure in Skye (and he’s gone all Game of Thrones on us).
Peoples of the internet… welcome to another article from me, the two-wheeled bard from Bicycle Touring Apocalypse.com.
So what’s been happening since my last submission? Well I finally made the transition from living in a London apartment to full-time van dweller, travelled across Europe last summer, worked on projects across the UK over the Autumn and most recently returned from an expedition on the Isle of Skye in December. Its been a complete whirlwind, but the best decision I’ve ever made.
The van in question is a 4 x 4 overlanding version of the classic VW T3 campervan ( see ‘ Ancient Syncrology ’ on my site for more ) and it has been absolutely…expensive. Ok, so the last six months may have involved numerous mechanical overhauls, exterior and interior upgrades and used more fuel than Heathrow….but its been worth every penny.
The camper’s now well on its way to becoming the exploration vehicle of my dreams and provides me with limitless freedom…surely you can’t put a price on that?! Well, actually I can, but I’d rather not talk about it. Thus, with funds as low as the 1929 Wall Street Crash I decided my next two-wheeled adventure would need to be a little closer to home.
However, if you think that by doing this I was making some sort of sacrifice, you couldn’t be more wrong! Here in the UK we have some of the most incredible bikepacking routes in Europe, let me introduce you to a little ole place by the name of Scotland. This is a land of endless exploration possibilities, stunning wildlife, breath taking scenery and more Whiskey Distilleries than people.
As if mainland Scotland wasn’t enough it’s surrounded by over seven hundred islands, one of the most iconic being the Isle of Skye. I’ve wanted to explore this Scottish gem for bloomin ages and I decided to visit in December just gone… which was clever (not).
Skye is known for its extreme weather conditions and I was warned countless times by pretty much everyone that I’d probably kill myself. However, seeing as they say the same thing every time I pick up cutlery, light a match or tie my own laces… I have to take it with a pinch of salt. I have to say on this occasion I probably should’ve abstained from the seasoning and simply listened. Before I go any further however, I should probably get this article on the road, here are ten bikepacking tips for taking on Skye.
1. When’s a good time to visit?
Well not in December, that would be stupid. Jokes aside, the winter months will probably be pretty wet, windy and cold. In honesty it was nowhere near as bitter as I thought, only getting into the minuses at night ( obviously this varies year to year ).
It was incredibly windy ( I had bright red wind burn on my cheeks ) and rained pretty incessantly. That’s not to say it’s not worth visiting this time of the year as the snow peaked mountains and frosty wilderness adds a certain magic to the whole experience. The weather is not the issue and can be prepared for, but the lack of daylight is a reason to consider the warmer months.
It may come as a complete surprise when you consider how much I prep for these rides ( …cough…sarcasm ), but I completely overlooked how short the days were.
Thus, when the sun disappeared just after 3pm I looked to the sky for dragons… I figured one must be passing overhead or something. The real shock was that it was not in fact Kalesi from Game of Thrones ( …which I could’ve definitely worked with), but actually the sun setting.
The next morning I woke at 6am, ready to burst out of my tent thudding my chest like some warrior cave man ( when in the wilderness and all that… ). Instead, I was greeted with Kalesi…? No that’s not right, it was that pesky darkness again.
In truth, it didn’t rise til gone 8am, which leaves you with little more than six hours of riding time a day ( I’m used to cycling double that on most tours ). Thus, I would recommend the summer where you’ll enjoy almost 24 hour sunlight and can make the very most of your time exploring.
Conclusion, choose the summer months for better weather and longer days… or… get yourself a dragon queen. Sometimes the advice I give, I mean… can I say 11/10. I think I’m going to have to.
2. Keep the bike light!
Do you like your knees? Would you like to keep them for a few more years? If the answer’s yes, then you’re going to need to keep that bike light. If you answered no, then you’re pretty weird and should probably seek help.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is Skye is seriously hilly, the winds brutal and singletrack gets pretty knarly ( particularly in the Cuillin mountains ). If you’ve read my other articles you know I stress this point all the time, but that’s because it’s probably the single most important factor in enjoying your ride.
Oh don’t worry, this is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way, you’re listening to a guy that used to deem a frickin metal stove top espresso maker an indispensable piece of kit. Consequently, my knees and Achilles tendons still complain about how selfish I am. I want to prevent the rest of you making the same mistakes… not that’ll you make that particular one, I mean you really have to be an ameba to do that.
However, keeping your steel framed companion light is super important. It’s crucial to do your research and make sure you’re aiming for the lightest version of any given item i.e. sleeping bag, roll mat, cook set, tent , tools, etc. Moreover, make the most of wasted space on the bike and distribute weight evenly ( see Wildcat Gear, Car Sick Designs, J Paks & ATM Handmade Goods ). The lighter you make your rig the more you’ll enjoy the ride. Simple.
3. Wear a suit & tie:
Don’t do that, wear Berghaus. Oh I know shameless advertising, grab the pitchforks and burn me at the stake… for the espresso maker alone I deserve it. The truth is I wasn’t asked to add this section but I’ve worn Berghaus gear on almost every expedition I’ve ever done and its never let me down, Skye was no exception. I guess for me, Berghaus’ range of products ticks all the boxes and the general point I’m making is specialist gear is well worth the investment. This is what I wore:
– Bicycle Touring Apocalypse t-shirt
– Berghaus Mens thermal long sleeved zip neck baselayer
– Berghaus Extrem Smoulder Alpine Hoody Jacket
– Berghaus Extrem Pravitale 2.0 Men’s hooded Jacket
– Berghaus Extrem Men’s Micro Down Jacket
– Berghaus thermal leggings
– Berghaus Mens Ortler Pant
– Berghaus VapourLight Hypersmock 2.0 Hyrdroshell Waterproof jacket
– Berghaus Mens Paclite Gore-tex Pant
– SealSkinz Thick Waterproof Trekking Socks
– Berghaus Men’s Explorer Active GTX Shoes
– Sealskinz Waterproof All Weather Cycling gloves
– Berghaus Mens Beanie
– Berghaus Mountainmaster Socks
The gear listed is relatively light, extremely warm, packs down easily and is supremely comfortable. Oh and makes you feel like a proper explorer… I mean… forget Skye, just wear this stuff to the shops and look like a don. In fairness, I do actually wear this gear almost every day for adventures, keeping fit and walking the dog. One of the locals on Skye showed off the Berghaus jacket he’d been wearing almost every day for the past 20+ years!
In conclusion: Look for specialist kit. Invest in the best and look for light gear that packs down well while still offering you a good level of warmth and comfort.
4. Get some decent maps:
As many of you will already know I don’t really plan any of my rides and enjoy not knowing what’s round the next corner. However, to make the very most of Skye’s network of trails I’d recommend purchasing a few maps, I opted for the following:
– AA Northern Skye Leisure Map 1:50 000 scale
– AA Southern Skye & The Cuillins Leisure Map 1:50 000 scale
– Harvey: Skye Trail Map
After returning I subscribed to the Ordnance Survey maps online, which are superb. I’m hoping to return to Skye in the autumn and I’ll definitely be using the OS app. Technology has a habit of letting me down in the field so I’d still take a physical map, but it’s awesome having such detailed OS maps in the palm of your hand.
5. Take a camera:
How else are you going to document how damn good you look in that suit and tie?!
Photography is a great way to take time out of the saddle and fully appreciate the epic landscapes. Moreover, as a photographer, I can’t imagine not at least trying to capture some cool shots when offered so many stunning views.
…spot my bikepacking rig in the picture:
The incessant rainfall actually proved too much for my DSLR ( which is why I didn’t film this particular trip ), but this unfortunate event meant I shot almost entirely using 35mm which was awesome. Consequently, you’ll notice most of the photography accompanying this article is shot on film. Whether, you fancy trying some analogue or digital photography, Skye offers some of the best photo opportunities in Europe.
6. Food & Water:
If like me you’re pretty socially unacceptable and wish to remain off the beaten track then make sure you’ve packed plenty of food & water.
In the winter absolutely everywhere is closed and it’s actually pretty tricky to stock up on supplies. I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s never going to be life threatening, but it’s a massive inconvenience to have to leave a particular trail to try and find a shop. Thus, pack plenty of snacks ( my staple is Bounce Balls & Cliff Bars ) and proper meals ( Blacks Outdoors sent me some delicious Wayfayrer meal packs, which were exceptionally good ).
Crucially, ensure you have plenty of water, I was caught out one evening and spent the first half of the next day slogging up hills dehydrated which sucked.
7. Pretend you’re in Lord of the Rings:
Obviously this is absolutely essential.
I began my ride on the North East tip of the Isle and made my way south along the west coast towards a dark ominous looking set of mountains ( the Cuillins ). So yeah, Lord of the Rings.
However, whilst most of you won’t choose to dress like Gandalf ( shame on you ), there’s an important point to make. Skye is epic and if you choose to take on this ride you’ll be enjoying a proper two-wheeled adventure. Thus, ensure you make time to visit some of the epic castles, dinosaur remains, haunted villages, magical sites and famous landmarks.
It pains me a little when I read about cyclists who race round the world in record times. Obviously, it’s absolutely incredible and I have a huge amount of respect for the riders, but to rush seeing any country/culture seems sacrilege to me! We live in such a wonderfully diverse world, full of amazing places, people and cultures.
In my personal opinion, making time to experience these things is a quintessential prerequisite of exploration. Also…standing on top of the Faery Glen Castle Ewen shouting ‘ fly you fools!’ is far more satisfying than on the A87 to Portree.
8. Don’t wheelie on mountain ridges:
A quick word of warning, some of the singeltrack during the winter months will be incredibly muddy and at some points dangerous. I don’t want to blow this out of proportion as generally it’s very manageable, but do be careful in the mountains as you’ll often be without signal if you were to hurt yourself.
I may come across as a reckless maniac who plans nothing and eats weeta-risk for breakfast, but sometimes you do have to be a little cautious. I climbed the Old Man of Storr with my bike in the pouring rain and there was a moment where I had to put my machismo aside and accept I was being a bit reckless. Thus, I laid down the bike and continued up the slippery rock by foot to the summit.
Like I said, Skye is for the most part absolutely fine, but I think it’s important to be careful when exploring an Isle notorious for having no mobile coverage. Wear a helmet, take additional supplies and ensure you have extra layers.
9. Star Gaze:
I may have moaned earlier in the article about how short the days are on Skye during the winter, but every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, there may be no clouds at all… On a clear night the stars on Skye are absolutely phenomenal and offer a show that Hollywood could only ever dream of.
Whether, you’re with a partner or friend this is a great opportunity to lay back, perhaps with a beer, and engage in some deep meaningful conversations. Alternatively, if like me you often ride solo it’s also perfect for contemplating where it all went wrong and why you have no friends.
Either way, get yourself a hot/cold beverage, sit back and enjoy the show. If you enjoy shooting long exposures then you’ll be in heaven… or may be able to see it.
10. Challenge yourself:
In this day and age it’s all too easy to become a victim of convenience.
Our lives, for the most part, are made up of familiar routines that do not challenge us. I think it’s so important on any ride to step outside of your comfort zone and tackle routes that really encourage you to dig deep. It’s the difficult moments, when you shout out loud with frustration that you’ll look back on and smile.
One of my fondest memories from the trip was dragging the bike 300+ metres up the incredibly rocky ascent to the Old Man of Storr in the pouring rain. I must have stacked it ten times and cursed at least double that on the way up, but the view from the summit will stay with me forever.
I truly believe that it’s in the wilderness, when faced with such adversity, that we grow as individuals.
It’s interesting that the most ancient wild landscapes remain one of the best environments to develop the essential skills to succeed in modern life. Patience, problem solving, courage, mental discipline, time management, determination and pretty much every other quintessential skill for the workplace…except maybe Excel…the mountains have no time for that!
Thus, my last tip for Skye is to take on the impassable, question the impossible and unlock your true potential.
Skye is one of the most exciting bikepacking destinations in the United Kingdom and I completely fell in love with the Isle. The amalgamation of phenomenal beauty and formidable ruggedness makes the island an explorer’s paradise.
I would recommend visiting in the lighter months, not because it was unpleasant in December, but because Skye is so beautiful you’re going to want as much time to explore as possible.
If this has whet your appetite for a bikepacking or Skye adventure and you’d like to know more about my expedition on Skye please see my website www.bicycletouringapocalypse.com.
Until the next time,