Written by Jenny Tough, a cycling and adventure enthusiast. You can see her talk at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. Pictured: Bikepacking in Montenegro
I’m a firm believer that we all need adventure in our lives. Adventures encourage us to explore, dream, discover, and, most importantly (IMO), push out the limits of our comfort zones. The word adventure itself can mean many different things to different people – it could be the traditional idea such as an expedition to the arctic, but it could also be starting a business or relationship, learning a new skill, or heading out for your routine Sunday bike ride. It’s all about the attitude you take to it that turns it into an adventure. The reason why I illustrate this point is because you don’t have to be a rugged explorer living without worldly ties to have adventures – even those of us with limited spare time and firm roots to a home and family can enjoy a life filled with adventures, and (again, IMO) the humble bicycle is the best companion.
I discovered the magic of the bikepacking microadventure only a couple of years ago, when, feeling antsy that I hadn’t been on a “big adventure” for a while and with little spare time to dedicate, I landed on the idea that I would mountain bike the 151km West Highland Way. I had never done the trail, and didn’t have the time (nor the patience, to be honest) to walk it like most sane people do, so the bike was a natural answer to exploring the famous route to the Highlands. On top of this, I decided I would do the whole thing in one long effort, hoping to finish in under 24 hours, never stopping to sleep. The time limit gave it a sense of challenge and truly filled me with a sense of excitement and fear: I had never tried something like this before, and I had no idea if I had the stamina or skill to ride a bike over increasingly rugged terrain without sleep for 24 hours.
The day that I had managed to keep free in my calendar came, and after a short and painless train journey to Milngavie, I was already at the start of an adventure. The Way begins with fairly gentle tracks before hitting the shores of Loch Lomond, which I arrived at, as planned, just as the sun completely disappeared and the forest closed in complete blackness around me. This section is filled with treacherous ladders and obstacles that meant I would be pushing/carrying the bike through the night, until emerging to clear trail once more just as the sun rose the next day. A herd of red deer greeted me in the morning, a sign that I had arrived in the Highlands, and I found myself enjoying a rare peaceful moment in some of Scotland’s finest landscape. The clock now had nearly twelve hours on it, but I had already found that familiar and cherished inner peace and wildness that so many bigger adventures had brought me in the past.
The next half of the adventure brought endless trials through rain, snow, hypothermia, exhaustion, confusion, the Devil’s Staircase, and the pure pain that accompanies riding a bike that isn’t even yours (thanks again, Callum) for more than a day without relief. By the time I reached Kinlochleven, I’m not even sure I could have spelled my own name. I was well and truly far outside of my comfort zone – in fact, I couldn’t even remember what comfort felt like. Two days earlier I had been at my desk in Edinburgh, working away like a regular human, a lifetime apart from how I felt in that moment. When I finally reached the official finish line in Fort William, just minutes within my arbitrary deadline of 24 hours, I didn’t know whether to rejoice or cry. It was genuinely one of the hardest things I had ever done, and still is.
The next day I returned home, cleaned off the bike, did my laundry, and, while stiff and bruised, returned to my desk and my busy schedule. I hadn’t even been gone long enough for anyone to notice, and yet everything had changed: I had had an adventure. I had explored places in our own backyard in a new way, and I had pushed myself in a new (and cruel) way. It had only been 24 hours, but it had been filled with all of the highs, lows, discovery, excitement, and challenge that I had previously been familiar with through month-long adventures far, far from home. It was immensely satisfying.
Nothing like a bit of snow in Bosnia to get the blood pumping.
To me, the magic of the microadventure is twofold: one, fulfilling my basic human need for adventure within my time and budget constraints; and two, an incentive to explore the regions around where I live. This month I celebrate my five year Scotversary (the day I made the excellent life choice to come live in weatherly-challenged Scotland), and I still have so many trails, towns, isles, and climbs to discover. Setting microadventure challenges encourages me to grab my bike, tent, rain gear, and go explore my doorstep.
Bikepacking is loosely defined, but the way I see it, it involves somehow strapping whatever you need for an adventure to the frame of whatever bike you’re taking. It’s a simple concept, and leads to simply incredible days spent outside. Over the years I’ve amassed some great kit to make these adventures run a little smoother, but don’t let investment in equipment stop you: it’s all about working with what you’ve got. That said, frame-fit bikepacking bags are an excellent investment, especially when you want to hit more technical trails, as the extra weight of your gear will be spread evenly over the frame of the bike, you won’t lose your panniers if you hit a bump too hard, and the ‘girth’ problem of full touring panniers goes away, vital for narrow and twisting trails. I use the same bags on both my road and mountain bike, justifying the spend. Purists will opt to sleep in a bivvy, but I’ve managed to fit my small tent in my large Apidura saddle bag, for added comfort and midge-proofing at night (essential).
Bikepacking is all about going minimalist, but here’s what I consider my essential packing list:
- Bike tools
- Sleep system (bivy, tent, sleeping bag, or credit card for hotels)
- Navigation system (GPS, waterproof maps, or the Sun?)
- Weather-appropriate attire
- Basic First Aid kit, including Smidge and sunscreen
- Approximately half of your wits
For bikepacking microadventure inspiration, check out Sustrans for on-road adventures, or the UK’s endless bounty of long-distance walks for off-road excitement. My personal favourite would be to pick an isle, especially Skye or Mull, and spend a weekend exploring.
There are no rules in the world of bikepacking microadventures. Just grab your bike, and go find an adventure!