Solo Touring Through Scotland
Words and photos by Brenda Croell
Brenda Croell planned her own 551-mile bikepacking route through Scotland on a fat bike. Even with planning tips from locals and meticulous attention to essential touring details, she learned how to adapt on the fly once the realities of the route she planned from afar set in. See Brenda’s route here.
Planning to bring fantasy to life
Scotland has always been on my radar and for no reason other than it looks like it is straight out of a fantasy novel. Green hills shrouded in mist, clear roaring rivers winding through glens, and eerie castles dotted the countryside. I wanted to visit this enchanting place ever since I started pedaling a bicycle. This solo bikepacking vacation quickly turned into a quest of major triumphs and defeats.
Planning this trip began right after I booked tickets to Glasgow in December 2018. That gave me about five months to create a route. I had originally planned on following the Highland 550, but after messaging a few folks on Instagram who live in Scotland, I was steered away from this trail. I don’t doubt that this route is beautiful in its own way, but I did not want a sufferfest for a vacation. Those same folks who live in Scotland emailed me with a few locations that would be worth biking to, as well as must-have gear. Even though it was slightly awkward sliding into DMs to get bikepacking information, I found their tips and recommendations helpful in my route creation.
I signed up for RidewithGPS as I found this easier to use than Gaia (this was my own preference and I say go with whatever makes sense to your brain). The map overlay options were easy to switch between and I liked that I could add points of interest including notes. I played around on this website for a few weeks before I started making my official route. The only difficulty I experienced with this website was trying to understanding the different colored lines and symbols. The internet did not provide a key and I ended up on relying on others who have used the site before to assist me in decoding. Once I was able to distinguish between forest roads, highways, hiking trails and more, I began connecting the dots.
The Cairngorms, Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides, and Cape Wrath were the must-see locations. Luckily there were some established off-road routes through the Cairngorms and near my starting location of Lower Tyndrum. Reinventing the bike route wheel was not something I wanted to do, so for the first part of my trip, I was only routing the connections between these paths others had created. I tried my absolute best to keep off of paved roads, but it was sometimes unavoidable. Hiking paths were a gamble, but at the time I figured I would prefer those to a concrete road. I alternated between the satellite and Google Map settings to get a general feel for the layout of the land.
I also used topo maps to check for elevation gain, steep cliffs, and descents. I used the “Point of Interest” feature on RidewithGPS to mark grocery stores, waterfalls, castles, post offices, bike shops, and cafes. When all was said and done, I had created a 550-mile route from the Lower Tyndrum up through the Cairngorms National Park, then north towards Cape Wrath, followed by biking down the west coast of Scotland to catch a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, and lastly a loop around the Isle of Skye.
Spoiler alert: my bike route went to shit. Three days in and I was crossing waist-deep rivers in the Cairngorm National Park, crying loudly when the trail turned to bog or a rock field, and soaking wet from the constant rain. Turns out hiking trails were not rideable, at least for my skill level. Sections of my route through the Cairngorms were beautiful dirt singletrack that wove between pine trees, but with the heavy rain, a lot of those trails had turned to small rivers full of mud. I pushed my bike for around 20 miles, and by the time I reached the next town, my feet were bloody and swollen. Sitting outside of a closed cafe surrounded by chickens, I called my partner crying feeling absolutely defeated.
Rerouting seemed to be my only option unless I wanted to sacrifice my sanity and safety for the sake of my ego. I took a zero day and scratched the rest of my route, which was around 400 miles. I was devastated thinking about all the time and energy I put into creating that route, but I couldn’t stop in Aviemore. Two more weeks of pedaling were before me and I had to be realistic, which meant no more hiking trails and river crossings.
“Follow the sun.”
This was the best advice I received while talking with locals about having to scrap my plans. So I did just that and discovered that the west coast was warm and sunny for at least part of the days ahead. I left Aviemore and pedaled 46 miles on a perfect paved bike path up and over hills in the pouring rain to Inverness to catch a train. The train ride from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh was unreal. I will never be able to describe it adequately, but The Lord of the Rings soundtrack was the only acceptable music to listen to if that gives you any idea.
Over the next two weeks I learned how important it was to be flexible. I cycled up the east coast of the Isle of Skye and took in all of the sights which included the Old Man of Storr, Quiraing, Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. Because of Scotland’s Right to Roam law, I was able to camp virtually anywhere. Most nights, I set up camp near a beach and fell asleep to crashing waves. It was pure bliss.
Although I wanted to stay on the Isle of Skye, I was tired of biking on the paved road. It was quite busy with traffic, which included huge tourist buses and semis that roared by within inches of my handlebars. After a small argument with myself, I booked a ferry ride (about $8!) to Uist Island. This was never apart of my original plan, but again I was trying to follow the sun and get away from the rain and trucks.
Detouring into new challenges
Uist Island was windy and flat, which was a stark difference from the mainland. Instead of giant hill climbs, I found myself battling 30 to 40 mph winds. Finding places to set up camp became a treasure hunt of sorts. I needed to be out of the wind and whipping sand in order to fall asleep, and hills were few and far between. One evening, I naively thought a dug-out in a dune would be a perfect hiding spot from the elements, but it soon became a wind tunnel that my tent could only withstand if I put rocks over the stakes.
Despite the wind, Uist was full of wildlife which included curious seals, otters, fuzzy highland cows, and empty white sand beaches that were perfect for a fat bike. I rode easy 20 mile days and stopped at coops and cafes to snack on cakes and candy. My bike trip which was once a sufferfest was now a “Treat Myself” fest. Being alone gave me the freedom to stop when I wanted, eat where I wanted, and sleep where I wanted. It was empowering and terrifying.
When it was all said and done, I cycled 350 miles with 21,000 feet of elevation gain. There was still a pang of guilt for not completing my original 550 miles, but for my first solo bike tour, I was incredibly proud of myself.
Major takeaways from a solo bike tour:
Be Flexible. Your route will go to shit at some point. You will get lost.
Have a group of friends/family you can contact for emotional support and kind words through the tough stuff.
Let go of your pride/ego. Zero days are amazing. Staying in a hotel isn’t cheating.
Define bikepacking in your own way. Don’t let the internet fool you. Everything and anything is rad.
Brenda’s Gear List
Bags plus what went inside each one!
Clothes which included a rain jacket, long sleeve wool, 2 pairs of leggings, one pair of shorts, a puffy jacket, gloves, and a racoon hat
Sierra Designs Lightweight Down Quilt
Big Agnes 2-person Tent (not sure of the model)
For snacks duh!
Spare plastic bags
Brenda lives in Arizona, where she tackles quicksand instead of bogged-down river crossings and pouring rain on her fat bike tours. You can follow her on Instagram here.