Meet Anna, who has worked with Edinburgh Bicycle Coop since October 2022 and has written about her experiences and lessons while on a Scottish bikepacking cycling adventure. Without further ado, over to the expert.
When I told people about my solo Scottish bike-packing trip last summer, I was frequently asked the same two questions: ‘is it safe?’ and ‘aren’t you lonely?’ The former most often posed by men and followed by ‘- to wild camp alone as a woman.’
As young girls, we quickly learn that our bodies aren’t safe in certain environments. This lack of control over our safety can be internalised to form a deep uneasy feeling - that there’s something inherently unsafe about our bodies in the dark; in open spaces; our bodies alone. Fears instilled by very real threats easily bleed into all settings when, in fact, the safest place for a woman to be is probably in the outdoors. Nature’s dangers don’t discriminate..
Bagh A’Deas, Vatersay. Day 20.
Like many others, I had picked up cycling during lockdown and found the freedom to fly through the London suburbs a welcome respite from my city life. By September 2021, I had a year of cycling and a two-week stint of bikepacking in the Trossachs with friends under my belt. But I predominantly cycled with others and, returning to Edinburgh, I found my anxiety towards cycling alone completely overwhelming. My bike lay unused for months as I consistently talked myself out of day rides and weekend trips, in fear of my inability to cope if something went wrong.
During a break in my studies, I decided to rip off the band-aid and solo cycle-camp my way from Dunoon to Orkney. I had two months to fill, so I planned to wind my way up the west coast, morphing the Wild about Argyle gravel trail with local routes pulled from Ride with GPS, finishing with the Badger Divide trail back from Inverness to Glasgow.
Monica at the bottom of a steep descent, Badger Divide Trail. Day 29.
I left Glasgow in a monstrous rain cloud, watching water whip the train windows. I nervously faffed with the straps of my bike bags. A stranger on the ferry offered me a lift to my first camp spot, eyeing my loaded bike and spindly legs with suspicion. Dwarfed in the wake of the first of many magnificent alpine style climbs to come, with a 35 mph gust headwind, I began to regret saying no. But swooping down the rain-slick descents of Tighnabruaich at hair raising speeds, my spirits soared, and the old sense of adventure kicked in. As I hung my sodden kit in the ferry port toilets and pitched my tent at Portavadie bay later that evening, I felt the first hit of serotonin trickle in. The sense of accomplishment, of self-sufficiency, even whilst drying my wrinkly trench-feet under an electric hand dryer, remains unmatched.
My soggy kit drying in the ferry terminal at Portavadie bay. Day 1.
Heavy rain and soul-dragging winds would become constant companions for the first two weeks of my trip. The trails were too water-logged to ride efficiently with the weight of my bags. Instead, I dipped my head and began slogging up the coastal B roads of the Kintyre peninsula. Stopping for a cup of tea at the Argyll Beaver Centre, I had to accept that my waterproofs were as overwhelmed as I was. The owners of the centre caught me shakily wringing out my socks over their doorstep and graciously invited me to their home to fill me with fajitas, offering a hot bath, a real bed for the night, and – to my great joy - freshly Nik-waxed waterproofs. It seemed that everyone I encountered was a current, former, or friend of a cyclist, taking my bike as a token of good character. I rarely camped alone, finding friends on beaches; fellow cyclists on the roads; or chatty locals on my rest stops, who were always armed with snacks and steaming flasks of tea to share.
Calgary Bay, Isle of Mull. Day 15.
Almost a month later, with stronger legs, a smattering of road rash, and a much, much smellier tent, I watched a herd of cows unfold under the sunset along the white sands of Bagh A’Deas. Wisps of steam curled into my view of the horizon, rising from a hot pan of couscous shared with a Hong-Kong diplomat and a honey-mooning French couple. The rain came and went. There were of course good days and slow. Some days, I rode just 10km to the next beach and read a book under the sun. Others, I ate up 120km of fierce highland climbs, feeling the rush of pushing my body to a comfortable exhaustion and finding faith in my legs once more. I learnt to be kind to myself and my bike. I learnt to fuel myself as my body needed it, never leaving town without a fresh jar of peanut butter in my bottle cage. My tent became a familiar cocoon. On the rare nights that a stranger put me up in a house, I craved the sound of midnight rain spattering the canvas and the creeping heat of a sunrise on my sleeping bag.
On my bike I found confidence in my ability to adventure alone. In the cycling community, I found a global network of people that would always have my back. I left Glasgow feeling scared and unprepared. Over 350 miles later, I returned with confirmation that I am resourceful and strong enough to adapt and manage all the mini-crises and mistakes that would come my way - that there is safety in my knowledge and experience. Climbing legend Yvonne Chouiniard once said, ‘it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.’, a maxim I swear by. Everyone has their own adventure. For me, it’s relinquishing control of my environment and feeling the thrill of my own adaptability. It’s knowing a sense of safety in myself that I can only truly feel in the outdoors.
En route to Oban. Day 4
Anna's top safety tips:
1. Know where you are - getting lost is often part of the process but I always carry my Garmin, OS maps and Whatthreewords on my phone.
2. Camp away from roads.
3. I always sleep with my head torch within arm's reach
4. Sharing where you are - tell friends/family/trusted locals your planned route and Whatthreewords reference of your camp spots where possible. Be wary of telling your plans to strangers.